Since I recently wrote about my India travels, I’m going to continue with the South Asian theme and tell you about Burma, officially known as Myanmar. I visited Burma in the 1990s, when it was still largely closed off from the rest of the world. One had to secure a visa just to visit, and one had to exchange money at the official rate, just like in the old days of the Eastern Bloc. What drew me to Burma, however, was not the politics or the mere novelty of visiting an off-limits country. It was the vast temple complex in the center of the country, known as Bagan.
Before visiting Bagan, I traveled to the old royal capital Mandalay, along the banks of the Irrawaddy River (where, like the Ganges, there are freshwater dolphins). Travelling by train across central Burma is like being transported back in time. Older wooden dwellings and even mud structures still predominated. But what really stood out were the impossibly iridescent green rice paddies everywhere. I visited just prior to harvest, and there had been heavy rain, and so the rice looked ripe to bursting. Fifty years ago, Burma exported more rice than any nation on earth. Mandalay is famous for its Buddhist temples and pagodas constructed over the centuries on 230-meter high Mandalay Hill.
You encounter an abrupt change in the landscape as your drive from Mandalay to Bagan. Bagan, also situated on the Irrawaddy River, is in an arid zone of Burma, and there are more types of cactus than trees. In fact, there are very few trees in the region, and also very few hills. But there are more than 3,800 Buddhist and Hindi temples, pagodas, and monasteries scattered in an area roughly 5 x 8 miles. Most of them date from the tenth to the twelfth century A.D. Only 500 or so of these structures have any known history. And because it is a barren region, they stand as in a giant formation. When you climb to the top of one, you can glimpse hundreds of other structures nearby. One of my photos give the vantage but poor justice.
The Dhammayangi Temple is one of Bagan’s largest and dates from the 12th century. As are many of Bagan’s structures, it is made of bricks with no mortar. The individual frieze carvings in most of these structures would be the center piece of any major archeological museum in London, Paris, or New York. I could go on and on with the superlatives, but I think that this place rates with the Egyptian pyramids and Angkor Wat in Cambodia, as one of the world’s must stunning archeological sites.
40 miles southeast of Bagan is Mount Popa, the site of a monastery that sits on a lone mountain top, 6,000 feet above the Burmese Plain. As I climbed to the top, I suddenly felt as if I were again in the hills of Sri Lanka or Nepal. I lifted a photo of Mt. Popa from the internet, as many of my Burmese photos have sadly disappeared over the years (amid many moves).
Rangoon, or Yangon, sits above the Andaman Sea and is Burma’s modern capital. It is much less interesting than Mandalay or Bagan. But Burma’s enduring landmark and symbol, the Shwedagon Pagoda, is in Rangoon. It has stood on the same site in different forms for over 2,500 years, to house and protect relics from the Buddha. It is wrapped in more than 60 tons of gold leaf and is ornamented with rubies, sapphires, topaz and more than 5,000 diamonds, the largest weighing 76 karats. When you visit, you must walk around it clockwise and barefoot. A trip to this site is almost worth a trip to Burma in and of itself.