Myanmar – The Land of Splendid Golden Stupas

Overview

Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is an archaeological wonder with its thousands of bell shaped glittering gold leaf Buddhist shrines called stupas, terracotta temples and rustic teak wood monasteries visually dominating the landscape. The languid Irrawaddy River supports the agricultural heartland, where simple fishing villages on stilts and “floating farms” are juxtaposed with an occasional 5 star hotel resort.|

StupasGold leafed Buddhist shrines called “Stupas” dot the country’s landscape

Aung San Suu

Aung San Suu Kyi, the popular new leader, brings hope of liberalization.

An emerging liberty has cautiously spurred a Myanmar Spring among the people, bringing renewed religious freedom, a rebirth of traditional practices and a return to Buddhist tranquility. There is guarded excitement and energy over the 2016 election victory of Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy party. This allows her to handpick the next President from her loyalist circles. There are pictures of her everywhere, even in the remotest villages. She is known as ‘The Lady,”


Ethnicity, Industry and Economic Conditions

Myanmar is bordered by Bangladesh to the west, India and China to the north, and Laos and Thailand to the east. Most of the 45 million population and agricultural lands are found along the Irrawaddy River. The other regions are characterized by mountains, high valleys and plateaus. Ethnically, the Burmese account for about 70% of the population. Other major ethnic groups include the Shan, Karen, Rakhine, Chin, Wa and Mon.

For most of its 50+ years since disengaging from British colonial rule, Myanmar has been bogged down in turbulent strife among its myriad ethnic groups in one of the world’s longest running civil wars. Recently the conflicts have abated along with the iron fisted military control.

Harvesting apples on a floating garden

Agriculture accounts for 60% of the country’s GDP, with rice as the main product. Although the country has substantial gem, oil, and natural gas reserves, extraction and processing capabilities are limited. Myanmar is the world’s second largest supplier of illegal opium and heroin, and a growing exporter of amphetamines. Money from the illegal narcotics trade plays a crucial role in the national economy, and keeps the military regime solvent.

In stark contrast to the abundance of glittering golden Buddhist stupas, colonial mansions and luxury cars, one-third of the population is living below the poverty line. In Yangon, the poor erect bamboo squatter huts on available grounds while rubbish and garbage litter the streets. But the people are resilient, gentle, humorous, engaging, and considerate.

Tourism
There is a small tourism industry, concentrated in a few areas dominated by travelers from the UK, Germany, Japan and France.

The primary attractions for visitors are the sheer architectural wonders of the countryside coupled with the agricultural and artisan ingenuity of its beautiful people.  In addition, it is still relatively untouched by Western ways.

With travel restrictions recently lifted, Americans are beginning to travel to Myanmar, but there are still snafus. The best way to reach Myanmar is to hire a local tourist agency to help you with the bureaucratic hurdles. The Visa application asks the name of your tour agency as well as the locations and hotels where you intend to stay. My Myanmar visa was checked three times before I was allowed to board the first leg of the international flight. My credit card company refused to accept charges from Myanmar locations (a “restricted country”) although earlier they had cleared me for travel charges there. In-county air travel, services and native goods are relatively inexpensive.

“Benevolent Bird People” are an example of the country’s unusual cultural and artistic inhabitants.

Climate
Myanmar has what can be described as a tropical monsoon climate characterized by lots of sun and rain and high humidity. The temperature in February was routinely in the 90’s and swelter- ing. Touring holy temples was part of the daily routine, and all are required to wear respectable clothing which covered the knees and shoulders, plus shoes and socks must be removed in order to enter. My pants were too warm, so I spent $8 to purchase a native outfit of beautiful paisley “silk” made from lotus threads. Comfortable sandals are a must. Women wear lightweight, versatile sarongs, and paint their cheeks with a creamy base made by rubbing a moistened porous stone into sandalwood, which serves as an inexpensive sunblock. The food is a mix of Indian, Thai and Chinese cuisines, with lots of curries with fish or chicken, pickled tea leaf or starch salads and rice, but nothing remarkable. If you like me have a sweet tooth, Asians do not typically do desserts well, at least to western standards. Beware, we all got traveller’s diarrhea, so take along a remedy for that possibility.

 

Women apply moistened sandalwood to their cheeks, which serves as an inexpensive sunblock

Religion
The Myanmar people practice Theravada Buddhism, where it is up to each individual to seek salvation and achieve Nirvana. Our guide told us that religion in Myanmar is more “theo- retical,” owing to the government putting many restrictions on religious freedom after a bloody uprising of 1988. The abundance of stupas and temples built over the centuries were funded by rich Buddhists from Myanmar and other countries to insure personal passage to Nirvana. Bronze plaques at these sites tell the story of family or state donations. Between the ages of ten and sixteen, many young men become Buddhist novices and go to live in a monastery. While most remain for only a short period before returning to the sec- ular life, some become fully ordained monks. Myanmar has more monks per capita than any other Buddhist country in Southeast Asia.

Stupas represent Buddha’s holy mind and are built to purify negative karma and to accumulate merit. They contain jewels, precious texts and holy relics such as replicas of sacred Buddha’s teeth and hair.

 

Gold leaf adorned Buddhist temples are centers for a wide variety of community religious and secular functions.

Buddhist temples are more than just places of worship. The temple serves as a religious school, a community center, a guest house, a place where the government and other agencies post information, a site for sports activities, a center for welfare services for those who are poor or ill, a morgue, and a center for music and dance. The temple also provides economic services such as making loans and renting lands and homes.

Tour Itinerary
Our starting point was Yangon, Myanmar’s largest and most commercially important city which appears both provincial and pastoral. Our tour included the downtown area, reminiscent of the city’s British past as Rangoon, where well-preserved colonial buildings are situated among ancient pagodas.

Shwedagon PagodaYangon, formerly British Rangoon, retains well-preserved architectural remnants of its colonial past.

Next we visited the revered Shwedagon Pagoda, a 2,500 year old wonder of the religious world which Kipling described as a “golden mystery.” Shwedagon’s gold-leafed dome sparkles with 4,531 diamonds – and is crowned by a single diamond of 76 carats.

It was also the site of political protest: in 1946 General Aung San addressed a mass meeting de- manding “independence now” from Britain. In 1988, his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi addressed another crowd of 500,000 Burmese demanding democracy from the military regime. This move- ment was called the “second struggle” for independence.

Shwedagon Pagoda

The Shwedagon Pagoda is a 2,500 year old wonder of the religious world with 4,531 diamonds on its dome crowned by a single 76 carat diamond

On to Bagan, which is one of the richest archaeological sites in all of Asia. Who needs a museum? Of the over 10,000 pagodas, temples, and monasteries built over the centuries on the plains bordering the Irrawaddy River, 2,200 are still standing. Bagan captures the very essence of Myanmar’s Buddhist culture. We observed the ancient art of making laquer ware, a predominant artistic heritage that entails covering objects made of bamboo or wood with a liquid made from tree sap. We watched skilled artisans craft containers, tables, screens, and carved animal figures. The process preserves, strengthens, and waterproofs objects of decorative art.

The ancient art of lacquer ware entails covering objects made of bamboo or wood with a liquid made from tree sap.

There are plenty of fun and interesting things to do in Bagan. We visited a few markets, took a short boat ride and then a horse carriage ride up to one of the more prominent temples to see the sunset.

Leaving Began, we traveled to fabled Mandalay, the former royal capital of Amarapura made famous by a Rudyard Kipling poem. It was once a center of commerce and is still a repository of ancient culture.

A famous land mark is the iconic U Bein Bridge. Built of teak posts, it is a pedestrian walkway that spans lovely Taungthaman Lake.

We visited jade and marble markets, a Mahamoni temple where 24 carat gold leaf was being pasted onto Bhudda, and a tranquil nunnery, where poor families send their daughters for housing, food, clothing and education, and to pre-empt sex trafficking.

Nunnery

A tranquil Mandalay nunnery, where poor families send their daughters for housing, food, clothing and education, and to pre-empt sex trafficking.

While touring this country, it becomes evident that there is every conceivable configuration of Buddha replicated many times over. He is represented as reclining, long ear, short ear, emaciated, sleeping, in prayer, achieving nirvana and even depictions of a “dead” Buddha. Most are truly unique and beautiful. The latest addition to showcasing Buddhas is with LED “halos” around Bhudda’s head, a juxtaposition of ancient and modern which I found rather amusing.
Reclining BuddaA reclining Buddha is one of the myriad ways in which the religious deity is depicted in public displays

After Mandalay, our next stop was picturesque Inle Lake, with its shores and islands home to 17 villages on stilts. The inhabitants are mostly native Intha people who are primarily farmers and fishermen. We visited one of the lake’s improbable floating farms. They dredge up river mud to create rows for planting and use bamboo poles to secure it. Plants such as beans, squash, cucum- bers, peas and tomatoes ‘climb up’ the poles as they grow.  Quite a gardening feat!

Paddle rowing to net fish on Inle lake

Fishing here is unusual as well. The Intha locals row their flat bottomed boats using one leg and an oar so their hands are free to work with the cone-shaped fish nets. They lower the net to entangle and trap the fish. They also slap the water with their oars to stir up the fish to the surface for easier netting.

Inle Lake has several lotus (like cotton) weaving mills as well as boat making shops. Fishing or larger transport boats are hand made from teak wood using lacquer to seal the seams in the 


The “Jumping Cat” monastery on stilts in Inle Lake where cats used to be trained to jump through high hoops to entertain guests

We also visited the “Jumping Cat” monastery, a modest structure on stilts in Inle Lake. It used to be that if you dropped some cash in a “cat’s” donation box a monk would then have a bunch of cats jump through fairly high hoops. Today, the cats are no longer trained to jump, as they were getting exhausted by the throngs of tourists who came to gawk at them.

A Happy Ending
Our last stop was a few days at a lush all-in- clusive Ngapali beach resort on the Indian Ocean. There we enjoyed ocean swimming (no snorkeling reefs), beach lounging, Thai massage & spa, and Continental as well as Asian buffets. A relaxing end to our    Bhu- ddist immersion adventure. Thwa dau mal (goodbye) Myanmar. May peace and democracy be in your near future.

Sources:  Lonely Planet, Wikipedia, Countries and Their Cultures

Slovenia On Foot – The Jewel of the Alps

Map of Slovenia

I have traveled in over 40 countries, many of them off the beaten path – including Martinique, Bulgaria, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Crete, Elba and Montenegro. For those who want to venture beyond the guidebook shelves at the book store, there is a treasure trove of nooks and crannies around the globe for the adventurous traveler. Slovenia presents a wealth of them.

I advocate touring in a group on foot – walking, hiking, or trekking. This up close perspective is not only preferable to scenery flying by out the window of a bus or car, but the exhausting days become a catalyst for evenings of bonding, bonhomie, celebration, singing, dancing and unusually good cheer These elevated spirits in turn permeate interactions with people you encounter along the route. The locals sense a refreshingly different disposition than the people who step out of cars or off buses.

On September of 2015, I set out for Slovenia. The country is an infrequently traveled destination that rewards visitors with sublime crystal lakes, picturesque Alpine meadows, aquamarine-colored whitewater rivers, and rugged limestone mountain ranges.

On this trip, I joined up with 10 hikers from Minneapolis, Chicago, and Massachusetts to explore the countryside on foot, hiking around a series of Bed and Breakfast accommodations throughout urban and rural locations. From this up close perspective, we got an intimate sense of the country’s history, landmarks, wildlife, botanical treasures, culture, food, drink, singing and dancing.

History
Slovenia is a small country that despite its tumultuous past, has successfully come into its own since independence in 1991. It is now a flourishing economic, political and cultural hub in Central Europe.  Nestled between Croatia, Italy, Austria and Hungary the populace has been dominated by foreign rule since the Celts established the first state in the 3rd century BC.  They were ruled by the Roman Empire for centuries, then overtaken by the Franks and briefly, the Turks.  Compulsory education was established under Marie Therese’s Hapsburg reign in the 18th century. With the ensuing flowering of literature, art, political and financial clout, Slovenia began to claim equal footing in cultural circles with other European nations.

Monastery Ruins in SloveniaMonastery Ruins

World War I was devastating for Slovenia, as a 3 year battle was waged on the Austro- Hungarian side of the border formed by the Soca river.  Numerous bunkers, trenches and roads rutted from armaments still scar the countryside.  The Austro-Hungarian army conscripted several hundred thousand Slovenes, and the ensuing battles caused 30,000 deaths on native soil. Hundreds of thousands more were resettled in refugee camps in Austria and Italy.  After the war Slovenia was sliced up and absorbed into Austria and Italy.

Kobarid Museum – View from the Trenches WWI

In 1921 the kingdom of Yugoslavia was formed by Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, with Slovenia being the most prosperous, industrialized and westernized.  During World War II Slovenia was the only European nation to be completely annexed once again by Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Hungary. In Kobarid Slovenia, a young Ernest Hemingway collected the wounded in his ambulance and immortalized the last battle for the front in “A Farewell to Arms.” In 1945, Yugoslavian liberators created a federal communist state which Slovenia joined as a socialist republic.  Yugoslavia did enjoy broader freedoms under Josep Tito than the USSR-controlled Eastern Bloc countries.  I travelled the Adriatic coast of Yugoslavia quite freely in 1973, and  it was a marked contrast to the tight military controls exercised in Hungary and Bulgaria. Finally, in 1990, Slovenians walked out of the Serbian controlled Yugoslav Congress, effectively causing it to cease as a national party.  In 1991 Slovenia held free elections creating a multi-party democracy.  Subsequently they were welcomed into the United Nations, NATO and the EU. 

Despite past transgressions, the country remains the jewel of the alps; incredibly picturesque, accessible and not nearly as tourist-trafficked for adventurers as the French, Italian, Austrian or Swiss Alps.  I find the Slovenians quite genial and resilient, perhaps because they have successfully weathered a turbulent history.

The Adventure
Recovering from breast cancer surgery just 4 months previously, I got the news that I needed follow up surgery to remove additional tissue. I had signed up for the trip before I got the surprise diagnosis, and deliberated back and forth whether I should go. But mentally I needed this trip to fortify myself, so I got the authorizing letters from various doctors saying I was fit to do it. I struck a deal with my surgeon to take a couple of weeks off from cancer treatment to take this plunge.

I would have accompanied my husband, Foreign Service daughter and her spouse to New Zealand in early October, but I had a wedding which conflicted with their timing.  So I was able to join an REI tour to Slovenia’s Julian Alps instead. This was to  be a hiking or “trekking” tour. It had been four years since I trekked 60 km in Bhutan and a year since I solo backpacked the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. 

Ljubljana Presnerov Trg Square

Ljubljana Prešernov Trg Square

The capital city of Ljubljana was our gathering point, and I arrived a day early on to explore the Old Town, Prešernov Trg square overlooking the linden-lined terraces along the Ljubljanica River, the Modern Art Museum, and the Kastle featuring a unique puppetry exhibit. I dined at an outdoor restaurant that served traditional dishes such as kranjska klobasa (sausages), fragrant sauerkraut, štruklji (rolled dumplings), venison and rabbit among other offerings, all washed down with Lasko beer or sparkling water.

Kastle Puppetry ExhibitKastle Puppetry Exhibit

Our tour mates convened the next afternoon with native guides Alesa and Nina.  Nearly everyone in our group of 11 had met the previous year on an REI tour to Mount Blanc, France.  We had so much fun together we decided to replicate the experience in Slovenia. From Minneapolis we had a surgeon, family practice doctor duo, a dentist and dental hygienist couple, a stock market research analyst, a widowed Norwegian dad raising 3 daughters and a retired marketer (me) .There was a software developer and an event planner husband and wife from Chicago and a Massachusetts couple who were a nurse and nurse anesthetist.  In terms of professional expertise, we had all of the bases covered medically.  I appreciated having these resources at hand for bandages on blistered feet and electrolyte tablets for muscle cramps.

 REI Slovenia Tour Mates (Cindy in the shorts)

This was a group of rigorous hikers and riotous partiers!  The cookies, chocolate, chips, beer and wine came out every afternoon after we finished hiking.  Then dinner with the guides and often dancing with the Brits or the Slovenes, with singing and international toasting contests.

My companions were all in their late 40’s to early 60’s, younger than me and incredibly fit. Two couples were going biking for 3-4 days in France or the Czech Republic after Slovenia.  Several were half marathon runners.  Not me, but I am a YMCA workout fanatic.  Nonetheless at age 66 I invariably took up the rear, lagging about 5-10 minutes in summiting, but I did successfully complete all 8 days of it. A highlight was the thrill of white water rafting on the clear, emerald blue waters of the Soca River. I couldn’t see without my glasses, but it was captured on video for later enjoyment.

Day 1
The first afternoon we went for a two hour walk around pristine Lake Bled, a glacial lake fed by thermal springs.  There is a church-topped islet and a cliffside medieval castle basking in the autumnal afternoon sun.  Afterwards we enjoyed the local confection of Cream Cake and traveled to our next event, a day’s hike on the ridgeline toward Mt. Rodica.

Lake Bled in Triglav National Park

Day 2
We took a gondola and then a ski lift to the Mt. Vogel ski area.  Riding high in the cable car affords a spectacular view of the surroundings – oak and hornbeam forests at lower levels transitioning into massive beech forests with touches of larch, spruce and dwarf pines in the alpine elevations.  The mountain views are stunning from the ridge. We hiked 10 miles in 5 –6 hours with a 2000 foot elevation gain.

Ridge Lake Ridge Lake toward Mt. Rodica

Alpine wildflowers have made amazing adaptations to cope with harsh weather.  They entrap rapidly draining precipitation, attract rare pollinators with colorful and fragrant flowers and provide enticing food for animals.  Varieties here include edelweiss, bellflowers, orchids and gentians.

Each night except one we spent at a pleasant small hotel or pension with continental/English breakfast then often dining at a good local restaurant for dinner. We are reminded by our bus driver, Tomas (who dances a rousing polka) that if you drive anywhere in Slovenia for 1 ½ hours you hit another national border.

Joan and the Leopard Boy at the mountain hut

Day 3
We trekked from Lake Bohinj to a rustic mountain hut near Mt. Bogatin.  A series of steep switchbacks took us up out of a box canyon and into lovely alpine country.  We were on the lookout for unique local fauna such as chamois, brown bear, or alpine ibex, but no sightings other than squirrels, the occasional black grouse, or peregrine.  We stopped at a hut for lunch, joining other hiking groups, but continued upward in the afternoon.  The day’s trek was 11 miles, 5-6 hours and an elevation gain of 3,000’ feet. That night we shared the hut with a group of young Brits bent on dancing and singing with whoever in our group would join them.  There is always bonhomie among fellow hikers.

Lake Bohinj

Day 4
The weather was BAD….a torrential downpour with lightning that dropped more than 3 inches of rain in just a few hours.  We had to descend and it took about 5 hours because of slippery paths.  Unfortunately, the storm obscured what would have been a stunning view of the Gulf of Trieste, the Dolomites in Italy and the Austrian Alps which had been our plan.  We all used newspaper and hair dryers to take care of soggy boots.  Our hotel that night had a sauna and a pool which was a great relief for weary bodies.

Day 5
We visited a haunting WWI commemorative museum in the morning, reminding us of the desolate bunkers and largely unmarked cemeteries we had seen in the mountains. 

Kobarid MuseusKobarid Museum – WWI Armaments

At lunch after much teasing about his dancing skills, our guide Alessa donned an Austrian Tyrol hat and Lederhosen , brought out an accordion player and danced the polka with Joan, our party instigator.  Soon everyone joined in.

In the afternoon, most of us opted for rafting the amazingly clear, emerald blue Soca River.  Wet suits were a given, and the rapids were tough at times and unusually rough at the highest elevation due to the area rainfall.  Our Scottish guide and skipper regaled us with stories of wild rafting escapades. While our run was hair raising, there were no casualties.

We spent the evening in Koberid, scene of the 1917 Battle of Caporetto and as mentioned earlier, Hemmingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” At night we dined on seafood that was exquisite: fresh mussels from mussels farms close by, sea bass, prawns, pasta, polenta, yellow beans, roasted vegetables and sorbet for dessert.

Piran Slovenia

Piran, Slovenia

Day 6
We began to wind down, hiking the vast meadows from Livek to Mt. Matajur on the border with Italy. We had breathtaking views of Slovenia’s Krn ranges as well as the plains of Friull and the Gulf of Trieste.  Our day ended in Piran, a picturesque Adriatic fishing village.  We hiked 7 miles in 4 hours on dirt paths and through green meadows with an elevation gain of 3,000 feet.  That evening we dined on goat and wild boar, which were surprisingly tasty.

Day 7
We explored the open market in Piran, replete with WWI helmets, antique crocheted items, vases, old trunks, antlers, and all sorts of what is best described as ”junk.”  There are a number of affordable Slovenian fashion shops as well. We strolled along the beach from Piran to the Bay of Strujan where we took a look at how sea salt is produced.  We passed through a pedestrian tunnel that took us to Portoroz for further exploration Late morning we boarded a traditional fishing boat and spent the afternoon cruising the Slovene coastline.  It was too cold to swim however with air temperatures at 60 degrees.

For dinner we had mussels, black ink risotto with squid, sea bass, octopus, French fries and green salad with cabbage and tomatoes.  Then we got into a “shot” contest instigated by a table of Germans, with a few of the challengers ending up on the floor to gales of laughter.  We had a final dessert then reminisced individually about our trip over a candlelit square, with the stars overhead. We gave heartfelt thanks to our guides Alessa and Nina.

All in all, a most satisfying adventure— with exquisite scenery, rugged hikes, wonderful food and hospitality plus amiable companions— to an oft-overlooked European gem of a country.