Myanmar (Burma)

25 February 2017

Balloon over Bagan floating over 2200 temples and pagodas (I'm 3rd from right).

Stop whatever you are doing and book a trip to Myanmar. Seriously, go now.

In the year 2000, I visited "Burma." Aung San Suu Kyi urged us to reject the hated junta's name "Myanmar." Now at last with some democratization, "the Lady," as everyone calls her, has acquiesced to the new name.

Returning 17 years later, I wanted to retrace my steps so I went back to the classic four destinations (see map). They were all still wonderful.

BAGAN   ပုဂံ

"Up, up, and away in my beautiful balloon"

Photos from my balloon.... Over 10,000 temples and pagodas once filled the Bagan plain! The 2,200 remaining ones are still astonishing.

In the 11th-13th centuries, Bagan was the capital of an empire covering most of current Myanmar.

Htilominlo Temple rises above the throng of nearby pagodas.

Golden Dhamma Yazika Pagoda
The density and number of Bagan's temples and pagodas is amazing.

In 2000, I took the one and only hot air balloon in Bagan.
In 2017, there are now 19 balloons!
And three companies now vie for tourists.

At Sulamani Guphaya Temple with my local guide.

Top L-R: Thatbyinnyu Temple (one of the tallest);
2" Ananda Temple (one of the first grand temples)
its architects killed to ensure its uniqueness;
3: Htilominlo (start of dynasty's decline into deficit spending)
4: Mahabodhi Pagoda (more Hindu style)
5: Shwezigon Pagoda (covered with gold-leaf)
6: One of four gold-leaf Buddhas in Ananda Temple

And the cool kids arrive.

Eclipse of the balloon:
Last Bagan morning, walking to breakfast, I saw balloons had been blown my way.

My local guide agreed to take me to two traditional villages that are not on the usual tourist circuit. Nobody brought out trinkets to sell. Nice to see "real life" and to take a stupa break.
Houses and dirt yards in both villages were extremely clean.
And both villages, like about half of those in rural Myanmar, now have access to electricity.

Top: Cooking lunch; cooking sap from palm trees
B: Winnowing peanut pieces;
Using foot operated blade to chop stalks into mulch to feed oxen and cows

Women on the left were going about everyday life,
while those on the right had just attended a wedding.

The yellowish-white powder is thanaka, a paste made from ground bark.
It is widely used as a sun block, moisturizer, and intentionally conspicuous cosmetic
for women (and sometimes used on kids).

The popular anti-junta, pro-democracy party of "The Lady" (Aung San Suu Kyi) had the only sign in the village. On the left is her father, General Aung San, Myanmar's independence hero who was assassinated.

MOUNT POPA  ပုပ္ပားတောင်

About 90 minutes southeast of Bagan is Mount Popa, an extinct volcano that rises abruptly from Myingyan Plain. High on the mountain is a resort with a few rooms with spectacular views.

Next to Mount Popa is a pedestal hill Taung Kalat, an old volcanic plug, that was of course destined to be the site of a Buddhist monastery. We had a nice hike up to the top. This photo shows the view of Taung Kalat from the Mount Popa Resort.

MANDALEY  မန္တလေး

By chance, I got to see a Shinbyu procession celebrating the ordination of a boy as a novice monk. I was told that a very wealthy family must have paid for the boys riding the expensive elephant and the elaborate costumes to mark this lavish entry into Buddhist austerity.

She does not look too happy but a photo really was her idea!
It did make for a good color combo at the temple on top of Mandalay Hill.

One day included a visit to a Buddhist school for novice monks and nuns.
Seemed to be mainly a photo op (and the school gets a donation).
But it was a good photo op, as you can see.

The Mandalay area, especially Sagaing Hill, has hundreds of temples and pagodas, although not as many as Bagan. Here I am at the U Min Thonze Pagado.

Boats line up near the U Bein Bridge to watch the sunset.

In all Myanmar tourist sites, they have brilliantly monetized sunsets. Clever way to add an "event" to the pre-dinner time slot. Each area has several venues where visitors flock to watch the sun go down.

Others watch the sunset from U Bein Briedge, perhaps the world's oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world. This photo shows only a small segment of it.

Another evening, another prescribed sunset scene was to watch from boats in the Irrawaddy River.

INLE LAKE  အင်းလေးကန်

In 2000, Inle Lake was a peaceful break from the temple-saturated wonders of Bagan and Mandalay. Few hotels. Few tourists. Fishermen who rowed with one leg. Houses on stilts over the water. And a monastery with trained jumping cats.

The lake area is still a nice change of pace but now it's packed with too many tourists. I'm afraid it risks being ruined by its success. (And those cats are long gone.)

A traditional fisherman (with a motor now) preparing his net.
In the background note land being cleared for another new hotel.

But this guy found that acrobatic posing for tourists is more profitable than fishing.

This trio also abandoned actual fishing to collect tips for their pretty charade.

Villages with most houses on stilts still dot the south end of the lake.

Kids watch the steady parade of tourist boats.

I must have regularly seen four times as many tourist boats as local boats.

Bamboo poles hold the floating vegetation in place.

One morning we visited the local market before the mobs of tourists arrived. Walking back we passed this school assembly where, I could tell, the director was blasting them. Sure enough, I was told she was yelling at them for not taking school seriously, ruing their future by focusing on frivolous distractions.

One morning we had a nice ride up a river to Indien. I was satiated with stupas (so I skipped the hilltop above) but we had a beautiful walk along a creek to a small, friendly village nearby.

Walking the herd to greener pastures.

Sunflowers are sure a scenic crop.

YANGON  ရန်ကုန်,

In 2000, Yangon seemed like a sleepy, uncongested city, with lots of decaying old British colonial buildings. In 2017, it was crowded with KL/Bangkok-intensity traffic, along with more modern buildings and colonial legacy buildings under restoration. Big transformation.
British buds Dave & Denise happened to be here and crossed paths with me twice! Pictured here after lunch in Yangon. Almost as adorable as D&D are authentic Burmese cats (only a few thousand pure breds left). Dozens live in luxury at Inle's Inthar Heritage House.

At Kyaukhtatgyi Pagoda with its enormous reclining Buddha.
In Sri Lanka photos with your back to a Buddha were taboo, but OK here.


Shwedagon Pagoda is enormous and dazzling.
Not sure the photos can convey its size and impact.
Above is the view from my hotel room almost two miles away.
It is 99 meters (324 ft) high and some 432 meters (1420 ft) around the base.

Covered with gold and topped with diamonds and other jewels.

The area on top of the hill seems like roughly two football fields.
Shwedagon alone would be awesome but its impact seems multiplied by both the energy of the surrounding crowds and the packed circle of so many smaller temples and stupas that seem like acolytes to the massive master pagoda.

Sunset from the Shwedagon Pagoda complex.

Looking back at my photos from 2000, the one below is my favorite: two shoeless but stylish young women with flowers in their hair lugging water back to their houses. One smiled sweetly while her friend was more begrudging.