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.
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!!!!