Tag Archives: Pagodas


Bagan is one of Burma’s most popular destinations.
Is it worth the hype?


Somewhere in the middle of Burma, the once-thriving kingdom of Bagan lies in ruins. Thousands of pagodas – some well-preserved, others little more than heaps of ornate bricks – cover the left bank of the Irrawaddy on the inside of a giant southward bend.

The heaps of bricks grew a little more numerous in August 2016, when a 6.8-magnitude earthquake hit Central Myanmar. 185 of Bagan’s monuments sustained major damage. However, says one architect who surveyed the site in the earthquake’s aftermath, “…the damage could have been much worse”. In many cases, the worst damaged temples were those that had been most heavily (and shoddily) reconstructed in the late 1990s, and several important pagodas – Sulamani, North Guni and That Bin Nyu – remain closed.

For all that, however, at sunrise and sunset, in the warm light of the “golden hour”, crowds are still drawn to temple terraces to see the awe-inspiring landscape below, as hot-air balloons drift lazily over the temple-littered Bagan Plain – a sight that draws many to visit Burma in the first place.

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Despite being one of Burma’s top destinations, Bagan’s size (roughly 100km2) diffuses the impact of visitor numbers. It’s possible to explore – by horse and cart, bicycle or car – and to see few other visitors, save for at the most popular pagodas and attractions. The region’s small towns and villages remain sleepy, even by Burmese standards.

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Peaceful though Bagan may be today, its history has featured plenty of drama. Bamar raiders from Yunnan founded a settlement here in the middle of the 9th century. By 1044, when the energetic King Anawrahta acceded the throne, Bagan had grown into a statelet that stretched as far as Mandalay and Magway. Anawrahta transformed his kingdom, uniting most of the territories that comprise modern Burma for the first time, establishing Buddhism as the Bagan’s foremost religion, and building the first pagodas.

Monk in corridor

Pagodas, or paya as they’re known in Burmese, are built to accrue merit, erasing sins and earning their sponsor an easier rebirth. Given the appalling behaviour of some of Bagan’s monarchs, the reason for the sheer numbers of paya here becomes clearer; a twelfth-century king, Narathu, constructed the vast Dhammayangyi Paya (pictured below) in the hope that it would improve his karma after murdering his father, brother and wife. (It seems doubtful that this worked, at least in that particular incarnation – he survived just two years on the throne before being assassinated by his angry father-in-law.)

Justin Vidamo Dhammayangyi Pahto

Eventually, in the late thirteenth century the Kublai Khan’s Mongol armies launched a series of attacks against the kingdom. Although they never reached Bagan itself, the last king, Narathihapate, fled south anyway, earning himself the soubriquet Tayok-pyay-min, “The King who ran away from the Chinese”, his empire ceasing to exist almost overnight.

Bagan’s heyday may have ended when the Mongols left Burma in 1303, but in contrast its builders’ and artisans’ legacy has endured for seven centuries, surviving earthquakes and monsoon floods. The sheer scale of the site, the significance of its history, and the beauty of its architecture and art rightfully give Bagan a place on most “must-see” lists, whether you’re a specialist in Asian art, or simply want a really unforgettable balloon ride.

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With so many monuments, it can be hard to know where to start when it comes to exploring Bagan. Our advice is to take your time – rush and you’re likely to become rapidly templed-out. Old Bagan, with the site’s densest and most diverse collection of temples, makes a logical starting point, but thereafter you might prefer to wander at will, perhaps with one of the major temples elsewhere as an end destination. Many of the less-visited temples are locked (although caretakers often magically appear to unlock the doors when needed, for a small tip – around K500), and it’s a good idea to take a torch to appreciate the murals that decorate many pagodas.

As far as sunset and sunrise go, the Myanmar government is currently building four viewing points that will reduce the wear-and-tear on Bagan’s ancient buildings. Once the last of these is completed, the viewing sites at older temples will be closed. For now, however, you can still sit atop ancient, sun-warmed walls and watch the dying rays of the sun over beautiful Bagan. Some temples may be closed or swathed in scaffolding, and it may be one of the country’s major destinations, but yes, it is very much still worth visiting.

But beyond Bagan and its temples lies the rest of Burma. The country is changing quickly, but there is little sense of this outside of Yangon and Mandalay. In the countryside, life continues unhurriedly; women still wash clothes and wriggling children in the Irrawaddy, men still drive bullock carts down dusty country roads and sip palm wine in the shade. For many visitors – myself included – it is Burmese people and countryside life that provide the most vivid memories from a journey here. When you are planning your own Burmese journey, make sure that you, too, go beyond Bagan.

Boat on Inle Lake

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Experience the best of Burma with us…

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BURMA THROUGH A LENS

Explore Burma with your camera and professional photographer, Ron Yue.

We take you to Bagan and beyond on this special photography journey, designed to showcase Burma’s most photogenic places.

  • 10 Day-journey
  • Yangon Nay Pyi Taw Inle Lake Pindaya Mandalay Bagan
  • Travel Dates: Nov 21 – 30, 2017

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A BURMESE JOURNEY: From the Lanna Kingdom to the Bay of Bengal

This journey is a discovery of Burma’s beautiful scenery and traditions.
This spectacular itinerary will take you from Chiang Mai, Thailand, former capital of the ancient Lanna Kingdom through Burma – the “Golden Land” – to the Bay of Bengal

  • 12 or 17 Day-journey (Please note that while the full journey is 17 days, we also offer a shorter version. Please contact us for details.)
  • Chiang Mai – Mae Sot – Hpa An – Taungoo – Inle Lake – Pindaya – Mandalay – Bagan – Magwe – Pyay – Ngapali
  • Travel Dates: Nov 3 – Nov 19, 2017 /Nov 24 – Dec 10, 2017/Jan 9 – Jan 25, 2018/Feb 8 – Feb 24, 2018
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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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Burma – also known as Myanmar, offers sights and experiences to tempt even the most jaded traveller. Explore a thousand temples scattered across the Bagan plain; watch the leg-rowers and floating gardens of Inle Lake, and drift downsteam along the country’s majestic rivers – the Irrawaddy, Chindwin and Salween.

Among the biggest draws for visitors today is the chance to see a country where the 21st-century has made just the faintest inroads. Train tickets are still written out by hand, offices are filled with thick ledgers rather than computers, and bullock carts still sway down rutted country roads. All this is changing but there is still a strong sense that one has dipped back in time here, to a place where life moves a little less quickly.

On the Road has been looking to develop a journey through Burma since 2011 – the country has long seemed a natural complement to our routes in neighbouring Yunnan. While we gathered information about possible routes and destinations, the country’s evolving political situation meant that we had to bide our time until Nancy and I were able to make a three-week research trip to Burma in January. Finally, an opportunity to test our ideas out on the ground!

I shall write more about our trip in coming weeks, but suffice it to say that we’re all very excited about the new itinerary, and about adding a new country to our portfolio. For now, here is our pick of seven things that make Burma stand-out, a list of things that make this gorgeous country unique:

Friendly faces everywhere

1.There are friendly faces everywhere…

On our first day we made an impulse stop at a small village. A local family welcomed us to their house and proudly showed us their vegetable farm and betel nut harvest. They invited us for a cup of tea, but of course we were on a mission, so we had to take our leave, but not without a promise to visit again later this year, when we will pass through with our first guests.

This set the tone for all our interactions with Burmese people – we experienced extremely friendly treatment wherever we went, and enjoyed a degree of hospitality that I have seldom found elsewhere in Asia.

 

Lady with Thanaka

2.… and many of them are covered with thanaka

Women and children walk around with golden thanaka paste decorating their cheeks. Each morning, women grind a piece of fragrant sandalwood against a flat stone and add a little water to make a fine paste, which they spread on their faces in artistic designs. Besides having an astringent and cooling effect, which the photo below shows Nancy and I enjoying, thanaka shields the skin from the harsh, tropical sun.

 

 

You'll see lots of longyis

You’ll see lots of longyis

3.You’ll see lots of longyis

Burmese people of all ages and genders wear traditional Burmese dress, the longyi – a wraparound skirt. The male version, patterned with sober checks or stripes and known as a paso, is tied in a knot at the front (or occasionally looped up to make shorts for exercise), while the more decorative female version, a htamein, is pleated and tucked to one side – and hoiked up to the armpits for bathing. An all-purpose garment!

 

Excellent highways

Excellent highways

4.Byways outnumber highways

Our first impression of Burma’s roads was excellent, as we drove along the new road from the Thai border over the Dawna mountains. (The road it replaced was a single lane with an alternating one-way system. On even dates it was open from east to west and on uneven dates traffic would flow the opposite way.)

Even from the county’s few highways you’ll see bullock carts trundling along the hard shoulder and crops drying by the roadside. The vast majority of the country’s roads feel more like rural lanes than major transport arteries, which makes driving through Burma an excellent way to see local life first-hand.

It better be betel

It better be betel

5.It better be betel

Chewing betel nut or kwoon-ya is a national pastime, as the state of many Burmese men’s teeth will attest – the mild stimulant stains teeth a deep red. Small street stalls sell the heart-shaped leaves, which are daubed with slaked lime and filled with betel nut, spices and tobacco. Fold it up, pop it in your mouth, chew, spit and repeat.

 

6.There are plenty of pagodas – and monks

Of course, one cannot write about Burma without mentioning monks and pagodas, as they are probably the most common sights in the country (closely followed by oxcarts). Every village and town has their own pagoda and all villagers are very proud of them, visiting to pray for everything from high marks in exams to the success of a new business venture. The typical pagoda is shaped like a bell, covered in gold leaf and they can often be seen glinting in the sun outside a village.

....and monks

….and monks

Pagodas...

Pagodas…

7.Burmese buffets

Burmese Buffet

Burmese Buffet

The typical Burmese meal starts with a choice of curry, which is served to your table with a hot soup (lentil or rosella leaf are common), and a selection of side dishes including vegetables and dips, chutneys and condiments. These tasty sides vary enormously from place to place, season to season and indeed day to day, presumably depending upon what’s cheap and plentiful in the market. Meals are often rounded off with a chunk of “Burmese chocolate”, or jaggery – highly addictive lumps of palm sugar flavoured with tamarind or coconut. One Burmese speciality, lahpet thouq or tea-leaf salad, is a popular pick-me-up – just don’t eat it too close to your bedtime…

And that’s just a taste of what you’ll experience in Burma! More reports from our research trip coming soon…

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