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.|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A 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!
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
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