Yangon is a sea of Asian humanity, a sweaty hot place that is home to people who migrated from China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Relatively speaking, they live expressing religious and economic harmony with the Bamar, the people of Burma. We chanced to be in this international metropolis on Valentine’s Day which is locally known as Lover’s Day and found it adorable that the modern ethnic Burmese couples not only held hands but dressed in identical matching clothes; one could find them on trishaws (3 wheeled pedaled vehicle), in shopping malls, in parks, on overpasses and in restaurants including those that cater to gays and lesbians.
To protect their delicate skin from sunburn, Burmese couples of all ages decorate their faces with a paste made from powdering the bark of Thanaka wood. The yellowish white ornamental design made from Thanaka paste on the face of your immigration officer as you leave the airport could be your first introduction to the country’s obsession with everything that appears golden.
Right in the middle of a traffic standstill, that is inconceivable to us in America, is the Sule Paya, a 46 meter high golden temple that has stood there for two millennia and to date is an alluring sight in the evenings. A Paya is the same as a Pagoda, Stupa or Zedi; it has an octagonal base and is built in layers becoming narrower as you go up each layer. You cannot go walk inside a Stupa as they are solid; the Botataung Paya along the Yangon riverfront is an exception—it is hollow, and it was changed when it was rebuilt after the damage it suffered during the Second World War. Inside the Botataung, you can walk through a maze that houses a vast collection of gold leaf plated ornamental Buddhist carvings.
The history of independence from colonial rule of countries in the Indian subcontinent is intertwined and it was at the colonial villa of Mr. Dina Nath, Chairman of the Indian Independence Army of Burma that Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose had hidden to discuss strategies with the Burmese National hero General Aung San. Today his villa houses the “House of Memories” restaurant and piano bar, where a room representing General Aung San’s office is still preserved, and serves as a good diversion from seeing gilded temples.
Speaking of gilded temples, the crown jewel of Yangon is the Shwedagon Paya that towers just a meter shy of 100; Shwe means “Gold” in Burmese, and Shwedagon means “Gold in the City” and estimates are that it contains anywhere from a billion to 8 billion dollars worth of gold if you calculate using today’s prices. The Paya possesses the characteristic octagonal base and a dome at the top that is bell shaped; the temple complex surrounding it houses 64 smaller pagodas. There is a webcam that will let you view over 5,000 diamonds and over 2,000 rubies that are inlaid at the top of the tower! This estimated 27 tons of gold sits on a hill 50 meters high and approaching it from one of the four covered walkways with shops selling statues of the Buddha, various souvenirs and ceremonial paraphernalia, is an experience in itself.
Although the gilded city of Yangon is fascinating, the real reason you make the trip to Myanmar is to visit the UNESCO World Heritage site of Bagan, on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River (a.k.a. Irrawaddy River), one hour away by flight from Yangon, and home to Shwedagon’s colleague Shwezigone Pagoda whose moniker connotes “Gold on the River” which in reality is no comparison in terms of expanse, beauty or gold tonnage to the one in the city. Nevertheless, do not despair, as after the turn of the first millennium AD, monarchs of Bagan built over 4,000 temples over a period of two centuries, and half of these are still standing or have been restored, making every minute of your visit worthwhile.
You can visit the sprawling Bagan either by horse driven cart, e-bike, taxi or hot air balloon depending on where your budget falls in the $4 to $400 range per day. A stone’s throw from the Shwezigone is the Kyan Sithar Umin which technically is a library and not a temple. Here the wall’s original frescoes depict the life of Gautama Buddha, known in Myanmar as the Buddha from India, the princely proponent of the Middle Path, who achieved enlightenment under a Bodhi tree. There were 27 Buddhas prior to him but no one has achieved Nirvana since and the Buddhist world awaits the appearance of Maitreya, the 29th, similar to Christians awaiting the return of Jesus Christ or Muslims awaiting that of Imam Mahdi or Hindus of the Kalki Avatar who will finally bring eternal peace to our unjust wicked world.
But I digress. The nearby Gubyanknge and Gubyankgyi temples, despite their similar sounding names, are decidedly distinct from one another. The former can only be opened by one of the village key-holders and you will need a flashlight to admire the restored statues within, while at the latter you will be swarmed by vendors peddling handmade sand paintings for 5000 kyat (less than 4 US dollars) or you may be able to snag a pair of rattan slippers for the same price. Even temples whose names you may not find in guidebooks nor known to your guide can be quite fascinating to visit; we stumbled upon one such that boasted 550 images of Buddha, the figure representing his previous lives.
The Htilominlo is one of the larger temples boasting intricate decorations and fine carvings. It is here that you can find refreshments and toilets unless you are like the Buddha, not needing such conveniences! Vendors will approach you here and at many other temples saying, “you got my lucky money.” What they mean is that you are their first customer of the day and the money you part with is going to be the luck they have through the rest of their arduous selling day. Speaking of money, the US dollar currency notes you carry into the country better be new and crisp with no creases and absolutely no handwriting or stamps on them; otherwise they will be all but impossible to exchange even at large banks. This is somewhat of a scam as we discovered that we could pawn them off by accepting a lower conversion rate.
With 1 dollar equaling 1350 kyats, you find yourself handling wads of local cash but Bagan felt like a very safe place to do so. It is incredibly safe to even leave your expensive sneakers or sandals outside of temples; the guide at Ananda Pahto told us that in 20 years, no tourists have had their shoes stolen. Pahto is another word meaning “temple” and Ananda is well preserved, housing four 9m gold leaf covered Buddhas facing the four cardinal directions. Other temples you would not want to miss are Dharmayangi Pahto and Sulamani Pahto, both located on the way to New Bagan. The Dharmayangi is the largest temple in Bagan where you will run into images of the historical Guatama Buddha and the future Maitreya Buddha placed side by side. The Sulamani on the other hand possesses many attractive murals, fine ornamental work and very large frescoes. Unfortunately, quite a bit of the exterior of these two including the Shikhara (Sanskrit for mountain peak, in this context meaning the dome at the top) were under construction following the recent earthquake in August 2016.
Don’t miss the sunsets in Bagan. There are many locations from where you can experience this. Shwesandaw Paya, meaning the “Temple with the Golden Hair Relic” built in the style of a pyramid is ideal, making it a very popular spot. So is the monastery both of which afford panoramic views of hundreds of temples on the Bagan Plain. The monastery offers a more surreal experience as you come down dark passageways after the sun has set. A few entrepreneurial kids light the passages up with candles hoping to earn tips. You can also enjoy the sunset cruise down the Irrawaddy on a boat with a view of the Bu Paya.
Once you feel that you are “templed out,” and you will be, there are plenty of culinary choices to nosh on, at Restaurant Row. But don’t be surprised if you spy an abandoned Pagoda from your dinner table; those 2, 000 temples have to be somewhere! You may also want to head out to The Nanda one evening where dinner includes a puppet show; these guys are really talented in synchronizing the actions of 10-12 puppets at a time.
Yangon surrounds you with urban spots, while Bagan is rural with very few paved roads and it is generally poor too. As is the case with such places where people live a simple life, people are very honest and friendly. There was the lady doing laundry who immediately returned our 5000 kyat (US $3.50) bill which we had mistakenly handed her thinking it was 500 kyat, since the bills were of the same color. Then there was the girl at the airline office in downtown Bagan who spent over an hour changing our flights, something she could have asked us to hike to the airport to do.
One can only hope that the recent onslaught of tourism does not change this!
Riz Mithani is a graduate of IIT Bombay and ekes out a living in the Bay Area managing a team that peddles simple business and technology solutions to highly complex problems that provide a real return on investment. When he is not singing, dancing or traveling, he blogs occasionally at rizmit.wordpress.com