Myanmar moments

Myanmar has a wealth of natural resources, gold, gas, rubies and teak. As Burma it was the second richest country in the whole of South East Asia with the best educated population. Now it is the poorest and least developed following the departure of the British in 1948 and subsequent internal political and ethic strife culminating in the military coup of 1962 which lead to the country being closed to the rest of the world.

Myanmar is one of the largest producers of teak. This resource was plundered under the British (we apologised) and more recently by the Chinese. Teak was used extensively in building the royal palaces. Unfortunately fire has ravaged most of the wooden structures and only a couple of buildings remain. These were given over to monasteries following the deposing of the king but now are open to tourists. In their heyday both the inside and the outside were completely covered with gold but now only some of the interior pillars remain as an indication of the former glory. The intricate carvings on the roof and doors are testament to the craftsmanship of the country.

One palace is a functioning monastery and in what was formerly the King’s room a monastic school takes place. A far cry from the UK or Thailand.

Teak is a very slow-growing but hard wearing wood and was used to build a bridge crossing the Amarpura Lake in Mandalay. With over 1000 pillars this is the world’s longest teak bridge.


it was a hot walk across but the views it afforded were stunning, This was the rural south east Asia of our imaginings. This is how people have lived and worked for thousands of years.



and just to prove that we WERE there…

img_1679I was fascinated to hear that we were going to be taken to visit the world’s largest book as defined by the Guinness Book of Records. The librarian in me was intrigued… This turned out to be Buddhist scriptures, the tipitaka, inscribed on slabs with writing on each side.


There are 730 of these tablets at the Kuthodaw Pagoda and each one has its own little house. The site is vast. If these ‘pages’ were placed on top of each other then it would be as high as a 26 storey skyscraper!!! This has got to be the ‘anti-kindle’!


When the tablets were unveiled in 1868 each line of writing had been filled with gold ink and the slabs were decorated with rubies and diamonds. unfortunately in the mid 1880s the British looted the temple and stripped the stones of their precious gems (shame) but the British soldiers left the texts behind as they did not understand the cultural value (fortunately). The writing has been re-filled with black ink so the opulent glory may have disappeared but the message remains.


As you can probably gather gold is extremely prevalent in this country. 85% of the gold mined here is used for religious purposes. This picture here shows a statue which you can add a gold leaf to (for a sum), well only men can! Adding some gold earns you merit so many people do it and the statue is getting fatter and fatter..


The gold is beaten by hand in a long and laborious process which involves several stages, one of which has 5 hours of constant beating!


The women put the gold between sheets of bamboo for each stage. You can see here that one woman has yellow on her cheeks. This was quite common and is a form of sun block. It is a tree root which they grind to a powder then mix with water to form a paste.


Women only were allowed the job of polishing the Buddha statues by hand as their touch is more delicate to get a smooth finish


Puppets are popular in South East Asia as a way of re-telling the traditional tales. The craftsmanship which goes into the making of them was remarkable and the puppeteers were highly skilled. I don’t think that I have seen a marionette style show since I watched Andy Pandy but we enjoyed the performance whilst we ate our evening meal.

No blog about Myanmar would be complete without a brief comment on the Rohingya issue. We spoke to several people about this and overwhelmingly the perception on the ground is that it is radical Islamic fundamentalists who have been stirring up trouble. The Rohingya are Bengali immigrants from Bangladesh who began arriving in the neighbouring Rakhine state 1940s but many of them are in the country  illegally. The local Rakhines have accepted and tolerated them but recently tensions have grown. There have been incidences of Buddhist women being raped, temples and shrines being burned and other provocations by the Rohinynga towards the local indigenous population. It is widely believed that ISIS are attempting to establishing a 4th Caliphate in the region which is why the army have reacted to forcefully in expelling the troublemakers but also the illegal immigrants. This side of the story is perhaps not so well portrayed in the media. We were perfectly safe as the area where the troubles are is remote (which is why ISIS wanted to use it I suspect) and foreigners would not be allowed to travel anywhere near there, which is a shame as I understand that there is a beautiful beach there.

This country was an unexpected delight. A hidden gem and I would encourage as many people as possible to visit before it gets over run with commercialism. It is a cultural, historical and architectural delight. And if anyone is interested in visiting I have the details of a tour guide who can arrange everything at a reasonable price. We had a car and an English speaking tour guide for each day. The tour guide cost $40 per day and was worth every penny. We were looked after, taken to every location and learned so much from our conversations. If you are not in a large group then that is the best way to see the country.

To finish here are some of our memories…

Myanmar’s monastic life

Siddhartha Gautama gained enlightenment whilst sitting under a bodhi tree in northern India 2500 years ago. This tree in Yangon is allegedly a cutting from that original tree. I am slightly skeptical although there are 2000 year old trees in the garden of getheseme so maybe…

Buddha gained enlightenment the Middle Way and chose to return to his body in order to teach that path to others. He formed sangha or groups of disciples and this monastic class continues to be revered today. Monks are not allowed to have any possessions except their robes, sandals, a cup and an alms bowl.

Anyone can join a monastery and be a monk at any time in their lives and in fact it is expected that you will do this at least once for 11 days. Young boys may stay for a couple of years learning Buddha’s teaching before returning to civilian life and jobs. These are called temporary monks.

Monks are responsible for washing their own robes – seen here in the monastery in Mandaly hanging out to dry but monks are not allowed to cook anything and rely on donations for their food.

Monks rise at 5am and pray/chant together for an hour before having a simple breakfast. Then they take their alms bowls put into the community. Giving to a monk or to the monastery is one of the deeds which can gain you the highest merit. The monks return for lunch at 10.30 am. They are then not allowed to eat anything at all after mid day.

In this monastery there are 1000 monks and they line up to process into lunch. Tourists are allowed to watch (as long as we stayed on the kerb and didn’t touch them)

The donors of the meal are publicised and they are permitted into the compound.

Novices wear white robes and seemed very young to me!

After lunch the monks study Buddhist scriptures which are in the ancient Pali language (a bit like Latin to us) monks have to sit exams to qualify to become a permanent monk.

In Myanmar society there is equality between the genders except In religion. Buddhist philosophy says that only men can gain enlightenment and enlightenment only comes to Buddhist monks. So as a woman you can be a good Buddhist and hope that in the next life you will be born a Buddhist man! The women accept this world view as it does not stop them from achieving in other spheres of life.


To be perfectly honest Myanmar hasn’t been top of my ‘must visit’ bucket list and if truth be told I hadn’t even heard of Bagan. My impressions of this country to date have been shaped by the media and so I viewed it as a fairly oppressive, closed country and I made very few links to the jewel that was Burma from history and literature. In fact when Kevin said that we were to visit Manderley my first reaction was ‘du Maurier’s Rebecca’! I hadn’t realised that Manderley was in Myanmar!!!!

How blissfully wrong I was though. This is a green and pleasant land (certainly at this time of year) and although it was hot it was noticeably a few degrees cooler than Bangkok which made a welcome respite for us.

We discovered in Myanmar a country that has culture, character and charm by the bucketloads. The people we met we overwhelmingly friendly and delighted to see us. This country is unspoiled to the extent that this is the only place I have visited which doesn’t have a Macdonalds or a Starbucks. Global corporatism has not yet invaded (which makes a refreshing change) having said that, KFC has recently opened one branch in Yangon so I suspect that this may change. You need to visit now before it becomes too developed.

In Yangon we saw splendid colonial-style buildings and many run down sections of the city which if restored could rival the French Quarter in New Orleans for style. We saw the beautifully reconstructed Royal barge which is used as a restaurant & theatre but which gives a glimpse into the splendour that was once the prerogative of the Burmese royalty.

After that we commenced our ‘pagoda pilgrimage’. We started at Shwe Dagon, the biggest and most splendid of all the temples. In Buddhism there are two types of temple, the stupa which is a solid dome- like structure sometimes containing a relic and in this case the Shwe Dogon purportedly has 8 hairs from the Buddha. A stupa is surrounded by 8 points, one for each day of the week (Wednesday is divided into two as the observant amongst you will notice that there arent 8 days in a week). Each day is represented by an animal.  You make offerings and say prayers on the corner for the day of your birth. We visited on a Tuesday so the Tuesday corner was busy with all the people born on a Tuesday. I was born on a Sunday which is a mythical bird. Kevin was a Friday which is (sniggers) a guinea pig. But that is better than Thursday, which is a rat (sorry Inigo)

Monday is a tiger (that’s you Oliver)

Tuesday is a lion

Wednesday morning is a tusked elephant

Wednesday evening is a tuskless elephant

Thursday is rat

Friday is guinea pig

Saturday is dragon

Sunday is a mythical bird

Buddhists gain ‘merit’ by doing good deeds but the highest merit is gained by making donations of either food, flowers or money to the statues of the Buddha in a temple. Merit means that you can influence your next reincarnation to be a favourable one. Wealthy families will donate a whole statue or a mediation pavilion. While we were there the marble floors were being replaced courtesy of a donor. These pictures show the multiple donated statues in different styles. Members of that family may place offerings there or by the main statues.

Wherever you turn there is gold, glittering jewels or polished jade. Apparently mant jewels encrust the weather vane at the very top and the thinking is that if the structure is damaged by an earthquake then there is sufficient funding there to build a replacement temple (forward planning)

We learned a great deal from our guide who had formerly been on the temple board (a bit like a PCC from what I could gather). I did ask & the food offerings remain before the statue for at least half an hour before being taken away & eaten by the monks or distributed to the poor which is good because I’m not sure that any god needs this much gold!

The lost city of Bagan is quite a wonder. This area which spreads over 26 square miles has over 2000 temples, pagodas and shrines. It was green and lush and if you imagine that most important houses would have built a brick stupa outside but the house itself made of wood or bamboo perished long ago- you can get a sense of the lost city from these  fields of remains

The second main Buddhist religious structure is the pagoda which from the outside may resemble a ziggurat or a more squat style of structure than a stupa. All Buddhist buildings point upwards to direct your thoughts heavenwards whilst praying or meditating. The main difference between the structures is that you can walk inside a pagoda. The interior is a cross shape with Buddha statues placed facing north, south, east and west. The statue facing East is usually the biggest as this is the direction the Buddha was facing when he gained enlightenment.

Some statues are sitting, some reclining and some standing. Some were absolutely ginormous!

There are subtle differences between the styles from the various periods which largely escaped me!!! The one pictured above has Indian influences and therefore looks more feminine.

This was a surprising gem and I would recommend a visit- a word of warning though, you have to take your shoes off at every temple. Buddhists consider the head to be sacred but the feet to be dirty. No shoes are worn inside houses and no shoes or socks in temples which was quite a challenge to our poor delicate western soles!!!!

As we left at dawn we saw the hot air balloons raw which must be quite a trip!

More anon…

Myanmar’s markets

We love experiencing markets abroad. The ones in Myanmar have been so vibrant, bustling and full of wonderful items to buy. Everything is piled higgeldy piggeldy into a tiny space. The photos don’t really capture the atmosphere but we had a fascinating time.

I loved it that in Bagon the market sellers sit elevated along with their wares

In Bagan few locals have a fridge so the market is very busy early in the morning as people shop for their fresh produce to cook that day. Here is the fish section

We were quite the attraction being one of very few foreigners here so we had quite a few beggars following us. They are nothing if not persistent.  You can’t help feeling sorry for them though.

Of all the markets I have visited this was the one which is probably the most like markets were centuries ago (apart from the plastic chairs)

The other interesting shopping experience were the brilliantly coloured puppets which were strung

from trees all along the roadside to attract you into the stall.

Night life in Yangon

We decided to be intrepid so speaking not a word of Burmese we went out for a beer. No one in our bar spoke any English at all but through a lot of pointing we obtained 2 large bottles of local beer for £1 each (probably an inflated price as we were foreign)

We sat back to enjoy the nightlife on the streets of Yangon. Pretty soon we were approached by a beggar boy wearing a Man U t shirt. Kevin was pleased to see his team being supported out here so gave the boy a note worth about 60p. Soon after the boy’s friend appeared but as he wasn’t wearing the appropriate t shirt Kevin said no. The little chap raced off and appeared moments later wearing his friend’s t shirt and earned his 60p. A very enterprising young chap!!!

Flowers galore 

Today is the beginning of our half term break and also the week of the King’s funeral here in Thailand We are going away on Monday but decided to a bit of exploring in Bangkok today. We wanted to visit a famous temple so we got on a local ferry. (The fare is approx 30p wherever you go on the river!)

Our destination was quite a long way up river but half way there the boat terminated and the rest of the river was closed for a funeral procession practice. So we were turned off in Memorial Bridge and decided to look around. This area is not somewhere we would have chosen to go to. It’s not on the tourist map as such. But as we walked along we saw a sign which said ‘flower city’ so we went in. It was like a huge warehouse of what I think were wholesalers. There were flowers everywhere in heaps and piles and bags. Loads and loads of them. The air was beautifully perfumed and the colours so vivid. There was a preponderance of yellow flowers as these are the King’s flower and everyone is paying tribute to him using them. 

We walked through this market and on the other side we found ourselves quite by chance in the street where the floral tributes to the king were being prepared. I have never seen anything quite like it. The arrangements were street- sized and absolutely stunning. There were whole walls of the orange blossom on strings, there were carpets of lotuses in beautiful patterns and a huge wave of white flowers which gradually changed colour to become the Thai flag. The pictures don’t really do them justice but I hope that you can get an impression of the spectacle. 

The route of the funeral procession will be rammed on Thursday but we feel privileged to have seen some of the preparations. The Thai clearly valued their monarch and all that he did for them. In a couple of pictures you can see the Thai symbol for ‘respect’ once is shining metal and another in white flowers. King Bhuminbol was much loved and greatly respected by the whole nation. It is very moving and humbling to witness this event. 

A sad day…

Today is the anniversary of the King’s death. We have all been given the day off work (which is nice)

Everywhere you look the locals are wearing black out of respect and the depth of feeling from the ordinary Thai towards their monarch is astounding and quite moving. Tributes to the late King are everywhere and for this whole month there is solemn music being played on the Sky Trains.

Here you can see people laying the King’s special flower at a shrine set up outside our local supermarket. The flowers are stunning and there are many displays such as this one which I came across in the street outside a small office building.