Tag Archives: Culture

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon Mahamuni Buddha, Mandalay

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

Burma’s jungles hide fabulous reserves of precious stones. Mines around the town of Mogok in Mandalay Division produce much prized “pigeon’s blood” rubies and beautiful sapphires. In Kachin State, Hpakant’s vast open-pit mines – visible on Google Earth – produce the world’s finest jadeite. And yet, rather than “Land of Rubies” or “Land of Jade”, Burma is known as the “Land of Gold”.

One reason, at least, is obvious from a casual walk around any Burmese town or village. Keep your eyes open, and the chances are that within a couple of minutes you’ll either spot the burnished gold of a pagoda at street-level, or see one glinting from a nearby hilltop.

Burma’s paya – a word usually translated as “pagoda”, although the majority resembles stupas more than Chinese-style pagodas – are almost universally covered with gold leaf or gold paint. Coating and recoating religious buildings with gold is one of the best ways for the building’s sponsors to earn religious merit.


Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon Mahamuni Buddha, Mandalay

Mahamuni Buddha, Mandalay

Elsewhere, the gold covering is more of a collective effort, with worshippers queuing to buy tiny squares of delicate gold leaf sandwiched between sheets of tissue. Mandalay’s Mahamuni Buddha is a good example; the lower part of this revered Buddha statue, believed to be one of a handful cast during Buddha’s lifetime, has slowly been obscured by layers of gold leaf applied by male devotees (women must watch the action on a television screen outside). The gold is now estimated to be between 20–30cm or almost 12 inches thick!

One of the most fascinating places I visited on my research trip to Burma was one of Mandalay’s gold leaf workshops. Considered a sacred craft, the leaves are handmade by a process that has changed little for centuries. First, an ounce of gold is placed in a bamboo paper wrapper and pounded with a heavy hammer for 30 minutes before being cut into six smaller pieces. These pieces are then stacked and the process is repeated again and again until the sheet reaches the requisite thinness, as you can see in the following video:

Crafting gold leaves is hard, but it pays well and, according to Buddhist tradition, buys good karma. Only men are allowed to do the hammering, taking up the job at the age of 16 and retiring in their mid-forties when their bodies can no longer endure the work. Women work at cutting the gold leaves, a less respected role than the men’s. Both men and women work in stuffy, wind- and draught-proof rooms to cut the feathery sheets of gold leaf into smaller pieces.

Mandalay Gold Leaf Workshop

Gold Leaf Workshop, Mandalay

Inle - Phaung Taw Oo Pagoda

Phaung Taw Oo Pagoda, Inle

The second and less immediately obvious reason behind Burma’s golden nickname is that both the Burmese and the Mon believe that a region of Lower Burma was once the site of Suvarnabhumi, a “Golden Land” mentioned in early Buddhist texts.

The town of Thaton in Mon State is supposed to have sat at Suvarnabhumi’s heart. Once the capital of a wealthy Mon kingdom, today Thaton is a sleepy little market town, where the only signs of a “golden land” are the pagodas that glint from the ridge behind the town, and the large Shwe Saryan pagoda complex next to the bus station.

As you can see, both of the reasons why Burma is known as the “Land of Gold” are intimately connected to its people’s strong Buddhist faith. Another story I was told during my trip attests to this strong link: many Burmese families do not have savings accounts, not because they don’t have any money to save, but rather because any surplus each month is spent on gold leaf and stuck on temple statues – savings for the next life, rather than this one, as it were…


Please click this link to our A Burmese Journey – From the Golden Triangle to the Bay of Bengal, that features a visit to a gold leaf workshop in Mandalay.

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Push StartMost of my travel this year has been restricted to the armchair variety – reading about others’ journeys and reliving my own. My mind returns again and again to certain trips; a cycling tour of New Zealand and a very bumpy journey across Myanmar on public transport last year, and a meandering trip to Kashgar the year before. Eventually, I realised that my fondest memories were of the journeys where I felt that I made a connection with the place and the people I travelled amongst, journeys where I’d lingered rather than rushed.

With everyday life often feeling like a hectic, headlong dash between home, work and social engagements, many of us wish to do nothing more on vacation than lie on a beach with a book. Others may prefer the other end of the spectrum and strive to fit as much as possible into a few precious days off, tearing across a continent on a breathless five-countries-in-four-days tour. Either option seems a reasonable reaction to the “time poverty” that we increasingly experience; however, another more meaningful way of seeing the world has recently gained popularity – Slow Travel.

LakeSlow Travel is an offshoot of the Slow Food movement, founded in Italy in the 1980s in protest against the opening of a McDonald’s outlet in Rome. The Slow Food philosophy, which celebrates regional cuisine and traditional farming methods, has since burgeoned into a movement that emphasises the connection between people, places and life in general.

Slow Travel is less to do with your mode of transport (or your relative speed), but instead concerns your mindset on each journey. It means taking back roads, travelling overland rather than by air where possible, and focuses on forging a connection between traveller and destination. Instead of tackling a place armed with a list of “must-sees”, the slow traveller slips into the pace of the local culture and soaks in their new environment. It’s about not letting the anticipation of arrival undermine the pleasure of the journey.

Farm HandWhile Slow Travel is a new term, there’s nothing modish about the practice itself. Some of you will have instinctively travelled slowly before – stopping to observe local customs, interact with the people you meet en route and try local foods, preferring the quality of your experience over sheer quantity.

Through our experience of creating memorable driving journeys, we have become firm believers in the merits of Slow Travel. While crafting each of our itineraries we’re always on the lookout for what makes each of our drives and destinations special – whether it’s a spectacular view to soak up, a fantastic but out-of-the-way hotel, or even something as simple as a chance to dip your feet in a cool, clear stream on a hot day. We also enjoy searching for opportunities to bring our guests together with local people, whether that means joining a yodelling choir in the Swiss Alps or watching craftsmen at work in Lhasa’s old town. A journey is made as memorable by the people we share it with as it is by our destination, after all!

Market Day5 enjoyable ways to practice Slow Travel (even if you start at home):

  1. Linger over a drink in a locally-owned café, bar or teashop
  2. Take a back-road or try a new way to get from A to B – turn down a street you’ve never used before
  3. Hunt out regional dishes and specialties, and visit a local market.
  4. Savour the unexpected – missed connections can create new opportunities
  5. Take a breath, check your stride and remind yourself to enjoy the pleasure of the journey.

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To read more about the Slow Movement visit http://www.slowmovement.com/


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I want to write about Tibet, but I’m struggling with where to start. Should I begin by describing the raw beauty of the Himalayas? Maybe with the profound way that Buddhism permeates the Tibetans’ daily lives? Or perhaps I should start with the rigours that are inevitably involved in a journey on the Tibetan Plateau?

Miss Daisy in Tibet

Miss Daisy in Tibet

This forbidding region draws me to it in many ways, but it boils down to the following; the pursuit of adventure, a love of mountains, the challenge of overcoming adversity, and witnessing the Tibetan people’s devotion.

Above all, to me Tibet stands for adventure. In exchange for moving myself out of my comfort zone, I know that I will come home with unforgettable memories.

The photo shown here is from one of many such adventures, and taken on my 21,000km journey through China in a Caterham Super 7.

It was July 2007 and early rains had swollen a nameless river in eastern Tibet, sending it gushing across the road. Attracted by the odd sight of a yellow sportscar on this remote stretch of road, three passersby rolled up their sleeves and volunteered to help Miss Daisy (the Caterham) and I through the water. When you scream ‘push’ and three kind volunteers heave you through an icy cold river, you won’t forget it!

Beyond the thrill of adventure, there is the magnetic pull of the mountains. I grew up in the Austrian Alps and thought them magnificent – until I went to Tibet, that is. In Austria you reach sky at 2,000 metres above sea level. In Tibet there are cities with airports and golf courses at that altitude. The Tibetan highlands start where the Alps end, more or less. The plateau is, almost literally, quite out of this world.

But while Tibet’s mountains – from Mount Everest on down – lend the landscape an unparalleled drama and beauty, the region’s high altitudes also make plateau life and travel uniquely challenging. Lhasa’s iconic Potala Palace may seem an appealing place to visit on your first day in the Tibetan capital, but climbing the staircases to the entrance is best left until the end of your trip when you are properly acclimated.

Mt. Everest at dawn

Mt. Everest at dawn

Pilgrims on the way to Lhasa

Pilgrims on the way to Lhasa

Perhaps the Tibetans’ profound Buddhist faith is related to the challenges of living at such altitudes. Almost every time I find myself in the Tibetan world, sooner or later I encounter people making the arduous pilgrimage to Lhasa’s Jokhang Temple. Each pilgrim will prostrate themselves, get up, walk three steps, and prostrate again (in Chinese this is called 磕长头). This slow progress continues, not for a hundred meters, not for one kilometer, but for hundreds – if not thousands – of kilometers.

Weatherbeaten, dirty, exhausted, and yet with their broad smiles hinting at inner bliss, the pilgrims have retained a depth of faith that many of us have long since lost. I’m not a religious man, but I never fail to be moved by others’ devotion. Add to this the outer trappings of Tibetan Buddhist ritual – monks chanting by flickering lamplight, prayer flags snapping from mountain passes and timeless festivals – and this is clearly one of Tibet’s many attrations for me and many others.

Some places offer one of these drawcards, perhaps one destination offers mountain adventure, while another posseses a unique culture, say, but few offer such a beguiling combination as the Tibetan Plateau. It is small wonder that this special place has attracted generations of adventurers and romantics…

What is it that draws you to Tibet?





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If you agree with me about Tibet’s many and varied attractions, you might like to read more about our upcoming Tibetan journeys.

Mountain-lovers will be interested in Roads on the Roof of the World, a fantastic 8-day itinerary that runs from the Tibetan heartland to Mount Everest Base Camp. The 11-day Tibetan Highlands is an epic journey from Kunming to Lhasa overland across the beautiful and rugged eastern foothills of the Himalayas. Both will have departures in spring 2016.

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When we leave the highway behind and opt to discover the world from its back roads, curious things can happen. More often than not, those things can give us a glimpse of what makes local people tick.

A recent research trip of ours ended in Shangri-La, the main settlement in Yunnan’s ethnically Tibetan northwest. On the day of our team’s departure, we caught a taxi to the airport. Our driver was a burly Tibetan gentleman with an infectious laugh, who had somehow managed to squeeze himself into the cab’s cramped driver’s seat.

On the outskirts of Shangri-La a large white stupa stands at the centre of a roundabout – seemingly a typical piece of Chinese municipal architecture. As we joined the roundabout, the driver turned left instead of right and calmly circled the roundabout clockwise, against the usual flow of traffic.

A stupa in Tibetan China beckoning the sky for good luck

A stupa in Tibetan China beckoning the sky for good luck

Mercifully, nothing seemed to be about to crash into us. Still, we asked with some alarm, “What are you doing?! Aren’t you supposed to go the other way around?!”

“No, in the mornings we can go around it this way,” he assured us, smiling, “because the stupa is holy, isn’t it?” For Tibetans circle all holy things – roundabout stupas included – clockwise, in a show of respect.

“And what if a non-believer should come the normal way around?” Peter pursued the argument to its inevitable conclusion.

“Well, there might be a crash,” he said, his expression deadpan.

On the Road Signature

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My mind wanders terribly. While I might look as though I’m sitting at my desk or riding the subway, in my head I’m watching crowds celebrate Saga Dawa in Gyantse or cycling across New Zealand’s Southern Alps – remembering long-ago trips and planning future travels.

Spectators enthralled by...

Spectators enthralled by…

While I’ve always thought of these daydreams as being one small step away from procrastination, recent psychological research shows that by reliving fond memories and anticipating future experiences I’ve actually been enjoying one of the few ways in which money can buy happiness.

The relationship between money and happiness has long been a source of debate. Reams of psychological studies have been produced on the topic since the 1970s, when a group of Californian academics discovered the Easterlin paradox – that money does make people happier, but only up to a point. Once our basic needs have been taken care of, it seems that it’s up to how we spend any surplus that makes the biggest difference to our happiness.

Research has found that the best way to do this is to invest your money in experiences – whether that means concert tickets or cooking classes, the holiday of a lifetime or a daytrip – rather than material possessions.

Logically, buying something would seem to make more sense – a hi-tech watch or a beautiful book will be around long after an experience has ended, after all. However, this logic glosses over several facets of human nature, which combine to turn that thinking on its head.

... Saga Dawa festival

… the Saga Dawa festival

For one thing, we easily take things for granted. It’s not long before we get used to a shiny new toy and it becomes part of the background. Our levels of happiness soon return to where they were before, a process psychologists call hedonic adaptation.

While material goods deteriorate with time – getting scuffed and scratched – the memory of a pleasant experience improves with age. Even a bad experience can become a good story with enough retelling and time, and in this way fleeting experiences can become an ingrained part of our identity in a way that a possession rarely does.

Apparently even the way we anticipate experiences and purchases is different. Psychologists found more positive interactions amongst people queuing for concert tickets than among those queuing to buy smartphones, for example. Waiting to buy a new gadget tends to fill us with impatience, rather than anticipation, as I’m sure many of us have found!

Instead of giving in to the desire for impulse purchases and instant gratification, we can wring more enjoyment out of spending our hard-earned money by planning purchases far in advance. As the saying goes, “anticipation is the greater part of pleasure” – especially when it comes to experiences.

Shared experiences also bond us to others in a way that a mutual preference for a certain brand does not. While owning a 4K TV might give you something to talk about with another 4K TV-owner, it won’t make for an instant connection in the same way that, say, having climbed a mountain together would.

So, the lessons seem to be: buy experiences, not things; plan far in advance to maximise the pleasure of anticipation; enjoy recalling past pleasures – and keep daydreaming.





To read more about this topic, visit:

The Atlantic: By experiences, not things

Fastco: The Science of why you should spend your money on experiences not things


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