Myanmar – The Ancient Land of Pagodas and Other Buddhist Monuments

One of the most fascinating but least travelled countries in Southeast Asia is Myanmar (formerly Burma). It is one of the largest countries in this region, with its multiethnic population of 55 million and a territory of 676,227 sq km. It shares its borders with China, India, Laos and Thailand. Steeped in history, culture and boasting a varied scenic charm, it is a land of many splendours and home of incomparable Buddhist monuments and relics. It has much to offer foreign tourists. Despite being rich with abundance of natural resources and having a population with high literacy rate, it is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. What have brought this about?

The main factors are political and the rigid system of government imposed by the military junta who seized power in 1962 after a successful coup. The then democratically elected government was ousted and the coup leaders chose to advance its own brand of socialism as a way forward. It eschewed foreign economic aids and would only accept selective outside investments which the country badly needed in order to safeguard its national integrity and to strive for self-reliance as the route to national development, having suffered the indignity and exploitation as a British colony previously. This policy led to severe curtailment of basic human rights and those who opposed the excesses of the military dictatorship were arbitrarily arrested and imprisoned without a fair trial. This culminated in the decade long detention of the nationally popular Aung San Suu Kyi after she and her party won a landslide victory against candidates favoured by the ruling junta but was disallowed to take office. The military dictatorship continued to hold sway. This led to economic sanctions imposed by the United States, the European Union and Canada, which are still in force. The result was that the country’s economy has stagnated and foreign investments in government approved projects were few and far between. Tourism became an obvious victim as most Western governments discouraged their nationals from going there in protest of Myanmar’s deteriorating human rights record and continuing detention of Suu Kyi and other dissidents.

However, with the release of Aung San Suu Kyi in November last year, more foreign tourists are beginning to travel to Myanmar once again, I am confident that with significantly more tourist arrivals expected in the coming years, both domestic and foreign entrepreneurs will pour in more financial resources to enhance the tourism amenities and facilities in order to cater to an expanding international tourist market, which is an important revenue earner in both developed and developing countries. For the record, Myanmar’s current tourist arrivals number a little over half a million, which pale compared with that of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and tiny Singapore.

My wife and I first visited Yangon, Myanmar’s capital, ten years ago. We spent only three days there and did not go beyond it due to time factor. However, we managed to see all the principal sights there, including, of course, the world-famous Shedagon Pagoda, the nation’s premier pagoda and the main reason for coming to this city. In early this year, my wife and I, accompanied by our eldest son CT, spent nine days in Myanmar, primarily to see the internationally renowned Mandalay and Bagan cities. It was our son’s birthday present to his beloved mother. He did all the planning, what to see and making sure that it would be a memorable holiday that we will cherish for years to come. We stayed in good hotels, hiring a car with a guide throughout our stay and they cost less than in other Southeast Asian countries. The driver and guide were really professional and competent and they served us well. However, despite being the late winter month of February the average daily noon temperature was in the 30s celsius but became more comfortable later in the afternoon and crisp and cool at night. So we did all our sightseeing  in early morning and  in late afternoon in order to escape the heat, and resting in the cool comfort of our hotel rooms in between the day’s sightseeing. This arrangement worked out perfectly for us.

We made a return visit to Shedagon Pagoda, which has eight strands of Lord Buddha’s hairs enshrined in its treasure chamber and it is believed  to be more than two thousand years old. It glitters day and night with its layer upon layer of pure gold leafs and numerous precious gem stones that have been set onto its exterior over the centuries. The funds for these came from Burmese from all walks of life. A fresh layer of  pure gold leaf is added to this pagoda every seven years, Other prominent pagodas throughout the country, including those in Mandalay and Bagan too, have their pagodas plastered with layers of pure gold. Our guide explained that by doing merit this way to honour Buddha, by praying fervently at a pagoda or temple regularly and by living the tenets of Buddhism in everyday life, a devotee hopes that he or she will have a better next life when reincarnated. Buddhism believes a human being has multiple lives through reincarnation. What your next life will be is dependent on how you have lived your present one. This is what devotees come to Shedagon to pray for, not to have more wealth and a more comfortable life now. It was a moving spiritual experience to walk the grounds of the pagoda barefooted, witnessing how seriously and deferentially these devotees of all ages pray, many with offerings of fruits and flowers besides making cash donations. There are many pavilions and buildings around the pagoda illustrating the life of Buddha, the tenets of his teachings, meeting and exhibition rooms as well as a kind of museum which showcases Buddhist artifacts and other relics donated to Shedagon over a long period.

Our next stop was a tour of the city area which has many colonial buildings as well as other interesting local Burmese landmarks. I noticed that the Yangon downtown had not changed much in appearance since our last visit, apart from some new office and residential structures. What has changed is the proliferation of motor vehicles, including motor scooters, with hardly any bicycles in sight. This is a sign of economic progress. However, despite traffic jams at major roads at peak hours, motorists were disciplined and hardly anyone was seen honking impatiently as is common in other Southeast Asian cities. There is a busy Chinatown and indian quarter at the fringes of the adjoining city area, which add colour and vibrancy to the city landscape.

We rounded up our 24-hour stay in Yangon by driving slowly past the much photographed Aung San Suu Kyi house in University Avenue with its instantly recognisable tall red gate with spikes. It was right behind this gate that this heroic freedom fighter would mount a stool to address her large crowds of supporters on the rare occasions permitted by her captors to do so during her detention there and again when she gained her freedom on November 13 last year. In our previous visit to Yangon, the street where her house is, was closed to traffic and guarded by policemen. Only authorised vehicles were allowed entry into that street.

We flew to Mandalay, the second largest city in Myanmar, which was a 90-minute’s flight from Yangon, with a half hour stopover in Heho to drop and pick up passengers to and from the famed resort of Inle lake. Mandalay was the old capital of Myanmar. Like Bagan, Mandalay too has numerous grand pagodas and temples and is the second most visited city after Bagan. We decided to see only the best of these there, and to sample other sights for which it takes precedence over its closest rival. I shall share with readers four of these. Our first stop was the Maha Gan Dayone Monastery, noted for its training and religious nurturing of young novice monks. A monk’s life there is spartan and demanding. The daily routine for them is to rise at dawn and then go out in small groups to beg for elms with their begging bowls. The nearby villagers would gladly serve them rice as this would gain them merit. They will then return to their monastery to eat a hearty vegetarian meal, donated by devotees and cooked by regular teams of volunteers. The food must be consumed before noon and no more food will be allowed until the next morning. The rest of the day will be devoted to religious learning, prayers and household chores that will be assigned them. When the time for ordination as a full-fledged monk nears, each novice monk must decide if such a demanding religious lifestyle will suit them for life and their ability and self-will to endure it. The guide told us that failure rates are not high but growing. Their parents will deem it a great honour if their sons succeeded in their monkhood. A short walk from the monastery into U Pein Village, where life had hardly changed in the past two hundred years, is the famous longest teak bridge of centuries old vintage. It is about 200 meters long spanning the river and rice fields on its banks. We walked on it to marvel at its fine workmanship and its superb condition after such a long usage.

A short car ride away is the unfinished Mingun Pagoda, situated on the flat bank of the renowned Ayeyarwaddy River, the life blood of Myanmar.  The 170-meter high pagoda was commissioned by King Bodawpay but he died in 1819, leaving the pagoda uncompleted. Our son climbed up the numerous steps to the top and was rewarded with a panoramic vista of the surrounding countryside and the scattered Buddhist monuments and relics. The Bell of Mingun is the biggest bronze bell in the world weighing 90 tons and would have been installed at the pagoda. To round-up our three-day adventure in ancient Mandalay, two other must-see sights are briefly mentioned. A leisurely climb up by steps to Mandalay Hill, the highest point of this city, is an exhilarating experience. The reward is a 360-degree vista of the whole city below us and some of the important landmarks are clearly visible. This is best done at sunset to watch the setting sun slowly disappearing beneath the distant horizon. On our last day there we toured Kuthodaw Pagoda to see hundreds of the Buddhist sutra elegantly and painstakingly inscribed by the monks on identical pristine white marble slabs in the form of a book. This was surely a labour of deep love and devotion and what an awesome sight to behold! It was a fitting end of our short but delightful stay in Mandalay.

The flight from Mandalay to Bagan took only half an hour. As we were about to land we could already see many clusters of pagodas and temples scattered over a vast expanse of a rather flat landscape. To call Bagan a city is a misnomer as it has only several rather small townships, with numerous villages  under their jurisdiction. All these towns have just one unimpressive main street and some shops and provision stores and a couple of simple eating places catering to the needs of local inhabitants. The many hotels and restaurants are patronised by tourists who are there to marvel at the pagodas, temples, monasteries and other Buddhist monuments that this famed city has to offer.

Bagan City covers an area of 78 sq km and in its heyday between the 11th and 13th centuries, it was a thriving Buddhist kingdom and trading centre with a population of about 300,000 people. Led by its successive kings and nobility, and other wealthy people, more than 5000 pagodas, temples, monasteries and other religious monuments had been constructed. The devotees had these religious structures built so that they would earn merit leading, hopefully, to their escaping the cycle of reincarnations and ultimately attain nibbana, the Buddhist paradise of enlightenment. The Buddhists in Myanmar believe that erecting a pagoda is the highest manifestation of religious merit. Consequently, countless pagodas are spread around the whole country, more than in other leading Buddhist countries like China, Japan, Thailand and Cambodia. This is testimony of the deep faith and devotion of their people to their religion. In nowhere else are there more pagodas and other Buddhist monuments than in tiny Bagan, which had more than 5000 of these during its heyday. It therefore deserves to be called The Land of Golden Pagodas. Unfortunately much of these religious places were destroyed in a disastrous earthquake in 1975 and due to other causes. Nonetheless more than 2500 of them have survived the calamity to remind posterity of their glorious past and for the benefit of mankind.

As there was so much to see and so little time to do it, we instructed the guide to show us at our own leisurely pace only the best of the best that Bagan has to offer. The plan was to see up to four sites each day and no more than sixteen in all during our stay there. Our first destination was the architecturally striking Ananda Temple built by King Kyansittha in 1091. It is one of the most beautiful structures and the most famous pagoda temple in Bagan. Stupendous in size and area, its compounds have numerous pavilions on all sides, all are beautifully painted with religious themes concerning Buddha’s life and teachings. As in other large temples there it is topped by an imposingly tall golden pagoda. The interior of the cavernous main temple buildings have numerous ancient fresco paintings, Buddha statues in various manifestations in niches as well as sandstone carvings. One of these carvings depicting the nativity Scene (Queen Maya giving birth to Prince Siddatha, the future Buddha) is considered the work of art of unrivalled artistry. The most admired of all Buddha statues in this 11th century temple is a wooden statue of a standing Buddha just inside the main entrance to the temple. Measuring 9.5 metres tall and exquisitely crafted so as to show the different facial expressions of Buddha, viewed from different angles. Many devotees will automatically kneel before the statue in deep prayers throughout its opening hours.

Another temple worthy of special mention but presents a more austere appearance is Mahabodhi Pagoda, built by King Htilominlo in 1215. It is similar in architectural style to the Mahabodhi Pagoda in Bodhgaya in Bihar State, India. Its most distinctive feature is the Pyramid-shaped spire which seems to be reaching to the blue sky above it. Another unusual feature is the 450 beautifully crafted and identical sized Buddha statues which are embedded in niches on all four sides of this architectural wonder. Unlike the other well-known pagodas in Bagan, this pagoda is less attention catching as it is not plastered with pure gold in keeping with its Indian influence.

After a day of satisfying sightseeing, it was time to have a relaxing open-air poolside dinner at our hotel and to admire the small cluster of 12th century  pagodas and temples just a short distance from the hotel boundary, and their silhouette under the moonlight and starry blue sky enhanced their magical timeless beauty. The next morning our son got up very early to explore these relics. Some were so small that they could only accommodate between two and four people praying in there.

The days that followed were also filled with excitement and anticipation as we toured several other pagodas and temples of different vintages and different architectural styles and historical developments. The most impressive of them all was the regal and majestic Shwezigon Pagoda, which was commissioned by the rich and powerful King Anawrahta and was completed by his successor, who also built the even more famous Ananda Temple in 1091, in 1077. It is the most gold embedded pagoda in this city of stupendous pagodas. It glitters day and night like a beacon on the Bagan plains. Among its many treasures and artifacts are four superbly crafted standing Buddha which enhance the four sumptuously appointed palace like pavilions surrounding this magnificent pagoda. One other more modestly built 11th century pagoda, Shwesandaw Paya, bears special mention. Surrounded by a group of other smaller pagodas and temples in a rural scenery, its chief claim to fame is  that it is said to contain holy relics of Buddha. It sits on a rectangular stone base supported by five large stone terraces which are reachable by flights of steps. It is one of the best places to take in the breathtaking view of the peaceful countryside and the graceful sight of the setting sun. Our son made the arduous climb to the top terrace to view these and his efforts were amply rewarded. It made his day.

After a tiring but delightful four days of pagoda and temple hopping and as a happy conclusion of our memorable holiday in Myanmar, it was a really welcome change to go on a 90-minute sunset cruise on the mighty Ayeyawaddy River where tourists can take a voyage from Mandalay to Yangon and even beyond. We had a comfortable Burmese style boat all to ourselves. The river was calm and the continuous breeze made the trip so much more relaxing and I could have been lulled into a sweet nap easily but resisted it. I felt at peace with the whole world as the cares and stresses of city living were cast to the winds. It was fun watching the locals, young and old, bathing in the river and waving spontaneously to us. We passed numerous Buddhist relics, including some that we had earlier visited. The lively commentary of our guide made both the river and the places we passed come to live. It suddenly dawned on me that I have already formed a close affinity to this truly fascinating and timeless land, with its wonderfully warm-hearted and hospitable inhabitants. I knew there and then that I would be back again before long.

It must be on the minds of many people everywhere why such an ancient and rare gem of a place like Bagan is not conferred a World Heritage Site status, when many lesser ones in both East and West have been included. This is a controversial question and there are always two sides to a coin. The UNESCO, the cultural and educational agency of United Nations, claims that Bagan has in fact been on its tentative list since 1996 but because of the intransigence of the military junta there in making unauthorised alterations to its Buddhist relics against the advise and guidelines of the agency, it has not been accorded that status. On the other hand, many people, both within and outside of Myanmar, believe that the exclusion is due mainly to political factors as the Myanmar regime has an unacceptable human rights record and are treated as a pariah state by many powerful Western countries. Hence, Bagan’s inclusion will alienate UNESCO to the West.

The best times to go to Myanmar are during the dry season between November and January when the daily temperatures are cooler and more comfortable for touring. A competent guide is essential and will definitely enhance your holiday there. We were lucky to have such a guide. I will confidently recommend his professional services to those interested. He is Aung Zaw, a university graduate. His email address is ZawZaw21@gmail.com and his mobile phone number is 09-49268974.

Cambodia’s Ankor temples and Myanmar’s Bagan are generally regarded as the twin repositories of Buddhist art treasures in Southeast Asia, I would like to share with readers an article that I wrote about the Angkor temples, which was published by Singapore’s Strait’s Times in 2001, and it appears immediately after this article.

Lam Pin Foo

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11 thoughts on “Myanmar – The Ancient Land of Pagodas and Other Buddhist Monuments

  1. Dear Aung Zaw,

    What a pleasant surprise to see your comments here! I tried many times to contact you by email and your mobile, but to no avail.

    We will meet again when I next visit the newly re-born and many-splendered Myanmar. I wiill write to you separately soon.

    Best regards,
    Lam Pin Foo

  2. Thank you for sharing interesting article . Very glad to read it . I just found out this article now .Notice that my contact number has changed .
    I just put here , someone wishes to contact me . Thank you again for your remarks !!!
    E.mail ; zawzaw21@gmail.com , Hand phone : +95 9 444 027 603

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