A week in Myanmar and I am in awe. As Christina eloquently put it in the last blog the country is enchanting. After a few days in Yangon, we decided to take an overnight bus to the temples of Bagan in the central region of the country.
Between the 11th and 13th century over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas, and monasteries were built here. It’s one of the most important sites in Myanmar because it was built during the region’s transition from Hinduism to Theravada Buddhism.
After its creation it became a pilgrimage point for Buddhists throughout Southeast Asia. Over 2,000 temples and pagodas have survived. Many have undergone restoration, which makes for an incredible landscape, and gives a vivid impression of the “First Burmese Empire” during its glory days.
For 3 days Christina and I biked around temples. Inside we usually found people praying in front of a large golden Buddha. Sometimes we would find people pressing small gold leafs on the body of the Buddha. It’s done to symbolize generosity and to correct one’s karma. After centuries of layering gold leaf, some statues look more like a giant gold nugget instead of a Buddha.
After a few days in Bagan we decided to keep moving northeast to Mandalay. Instead of taking a bus we decided to go by boat on the Irrawaddy River. We opted for the slow boat that would take two days to arrive in Mandalay. Taking the slow boat was a local means of transportation which involved local accommodations. And by accommodations I mean sleeping on the boat deck.
We were surprised to find the boat with only a few passengers. We were also surprised to meet three other Westerners (French and German) on board, all on long trips like us. On the upper deck, everyone spread a pad on the wooden floor that would be their domain for the next two days.
Our experience on the boat was really peaceful. The 36 hours of river coastline was virtually uninhabited besides for small villages every 5 hours or so.While underway we occasionally stopped at these villages to pick up more people. Everyone who came on seemed surprised to find westerners on board. Every move we made attracted attention. While reorganizing my bag, I would look up to find faces peering around corners. Some stared while lying on the ground with their head in their hands, almost like they were watching a movie.
That night one guy from Germany unloaded a small one-man tent to sleep in and blew up an inflatable pillow before bed. It was a huge spectacle for all on board. Everyone stared gapingly at his travel accessories, their expressions somewhere between astounded and amused.
But we were just as interested in what they were doing. Our mutual fascination with one another was really funny. There was one “cook” on board. Most people brought their own food except for us. We relied on the boat food for all our meals. The cook was a sweet older woman who turned more into a mama bear and made sure we were well fed throughout the trip.
When we arrived in Mandalay, she was so appreciative of our business she gave Christina a stone bracelet that her son had made as a gift.
Sidenotes about Myanmar:
- Myanmar is the size of Texas… But the people are slightly different.
- In the early 1900s George Orwell worked as a military policeman in Burma for the British Empire. After five years he quit his post and went back to England to write 1984, Animal Farm and Burmese Days, all of which are based on his time in British ruled Burma.
- Myanmar or Burma? a catch 22- Burma is the name commonly used during the 1800s and 1900s. In 1989 the junta renamed the country Myanmar. Many Burmese people continue to call it Burma as opposition to the junta, but Myanmar is a more inclusive name in a country which only 70% of the population is Burmese. The several nationals I talked to on the topic all told me to call it Myanmar.
- Myanmar, the United States and Liberia are the only countries that use the American system of measurement.