It is huge, bizarre, unreal. We were flabbergasted. “Incredible,” we uttered. “You say ‘incredible’, but this is only the fifth largest Buddha in Myanmar,” our guide Min explained. This big Buddha in the city of Yangon was the first of numerous touristic sites on our 13-day tour of this fascinating country. During that tour, we saw much more that can only be described as “incredible.”
The Reclining Buddha, 235 feet long, was originally built in 1907, but destroyed by the British and Japanese during World War II. It took five years (1952-1957) to make a new Buddha. “It took two years just to make the glass eye,” Min said. I was perplexed by Buddha’s face – eye make up, lipstick? Isn’t Buddha a man? “We want Buddha to look pretty like a woman,” Min explained.
Buddha’s enormous feet were another mystery, each with 108 squares. Each square represents Buddha’s past life before he became Buddha.
Another mind-boggling spectacle, this gilded temple complex in Yangon is the county’s most–visited sight, as well as a pilgrimage site. Sixty-four lesser pagodas and numerous shrines are clustered around the golden dome (three tons of gold) which rises 322 feet above its base. According to a legend, it is 2,500 years old. Archeologists, however, think it dates to sometime between the 6th and 10th centuries, but was rebuilt numerous times in succeeding years. At the top of the dome is a diamond orb, a golden sphere studded with 4,351 diamonds. And, at the very top, a 76-carat diamond.
Min told us that eight hairs of Buddha are enshrined in the dome. During our trip, we visited many other temples which are also said to preserve sacred Buddha hairs.
I found people watching at the pagoda as interesting as the mammoth religious monument. Some kneeling in prayer at different shrines. Others pouring water on many of the countless Buddha statues. Yet others offering flowers to Buddhas. And, many just sauntering around the complex, taking photos, laughing, even sitting in groups on the floor while enjoying snacks. Definitely not a holy place of silent meditation.
This giant boulder at the edge of a cliff (Mt. Kyaiktiyo), part of its base extended over the chasm below, seems as if it could come crashing down the mountain at any minute. And, like most religious monuments in Myanmar, it is golden. We visited in time to watch the sun sink on the horizon and bathe the rock and surroundings in a pale pink glow. Just like saints, Buddha gets credit for many miracles. This one could make you a believer. According to Min, there have been many earthquakes in the area, but the rock has never moved.
Golden Rock is an important pilgrimage site for Myanmar Buddhists who burn incense, light candles, make offerings, and pray at the site. Men are permitted to approach the rock and affix gold leaf squares to its surface. Not unlike the scene at Schwedagon, the atmosphere on the surrounding terrace is more party than prayer. Many of the pilgrims have traveled a long way and come with mats to roll out for eating picnic style and sleeping at the site.
Getting to the rock on the mystical mountain is an uncomfortable, yet griping adventure. Some pilgrims may hike the seven miles from the base camp to the top, but most, as well as tourists, climb in the back of huge open trucks which have hard wooden slats for benches. Every inch of space must be filled before the trucks depart for the bumpy, bouncy ascent over a rutted dirt road at what seems are Formula I speeds around hairpin turns through the jungle terrain. Better than any roller coaster.
As mentioned in a previous post, Myanmar is marching ahead on the path of progress. Work on paving the road to the top of the Rock was underway during our visit. It was dark when we left the site and walked down a path to a hotel where we spent the night. The route is lined with souvenir stands, behind which the sellers and their families live in primitive shelters. All had electricity and television — new developments, Min said.
It has been called the Angor Wat of Myanmar, a wonder of some 3,000 temples scattered across the plains of Bagan. In every direction domes of the ancient temples dot the skyline. Most were built between the 11th and 13 centuries and have been reconstructed. Therein lies a major problem. UNESCO stepped in to assist with reconstruction after major damage during an earthquake in 1975. According to Sai, our guide in Bagan, Myanmar’s military government kicked UNESCO out in 1989 and took over temple reconstruction, using cheap material and not adhering to archeological guidelines. UNESCO called the fruit of their efforts a “Disney-style fantasy version of one of the world’s great religious and historical sites.” For this reason Bagan is not on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites.
But, it should be seen. The temples are in various states of decay and reconstruction. Many can be entered, Buddha statues admired, chambers explored. Some even have traces of ancient wall paintings. Sai took us to Schwezigon Pagoda, considered the most important of Bagan’s temples, in the early morning when the sun’s rays were still soft, workers were busy sweeping the grounds and monks arrived to worship. Few tourists to tarnish the mystical ambience.
Tourists, however, are important to the economy, especially in Bagan which thrives on visitors. Ox cart drivers offer rides through the plains past dozens of temples. Boat drivers take passengers on excursions on the Irrawaddy River. Souvenir hawkers abound.
Sai led us to a temple popular for Bagan sunset viewing, a tourist must. We climbed and climbed steps in dark, narrow, crumbling passageways to reach the crowded rooftop where all had cameras ready. A bridal couple even managed the ascent to have a professional photographer capture them with the temples and sunset in the background.
I asked Sai to take me to a temple I had read about in Lonely Planet, Dhammayangyi Pahto. He was reluctant, but agreed. The temple has mysterious, bricked up passages. Hundreds of bats cling to its ceiling. That, plus its brutal history, make a visit an eerie experience. King Narathu had the temple built in the 12th century to atone for smothering his brother and father to death and executing one of his wives. He ordered the brickwork to fit so tightly that not even a pin could pass between two bricks. Those who failed at the task had their arms chopped off. Thus, it is believed the temple has bad karma and is probably why it never underwent major restoration. And, perhaps why some guides prefer not to visit?
Thousands of golden Buddhas hidden in the inner depths of a massive limestone cavern. Definitely incredible! It was another long and arduous climb up steps to the entrance of the Shwe Oo Min Natural Cave Pagoda which shelters approximately 8,700 Buddhas, many left centuries ago by pilgrims. New statues continue to be added by worshippers. We followed a narrow path into the 460 foot long cave where Buddhas sit in crevices and crannies in the rock walls. Tiny Buddhas. Buddhas draped in cloth. Buddhas made of alabaster, teak, brick, cement. Buddhas off in dark corners. Buddhas under spotlights. We walked on and on and on through the maze of Buddha-lined passageways. Our guide for this part of the trip, Hein, showed us a hole where a monk was supposed to have entered but never returned.
I don’t suffer from claustrophobia, but it got to be too much. I needed an escape to fresh air. And, a chance to photograph the giant spider near the cave entrance. According to a legend, seven princesses took refuge in the cave during a storm. An evil spirit, a “nat” in the form of a spider, imprisoned them. Along came a prince who heard their cries, killed the spider with an arrow, and freed the lovely princesses. “Myanmar is a golden land of legends,” our guide said. We heard many throughout the trip.
This is another tourist favorite in Myanmar. We stayed at a hotel whose many buildings were all on stilts in the lake which is 13.5 miles long, seven miles wide and three meters deep. Our tourist boat, a type of motorized canoe, took us to lakeside towns where we visited a market, monastery, and — more temples of course. We saw floating gardens and stilt house villages. Hein told us that one third of the lake is comprised of these gardens, and that 80 percent of the tomatoes sold in Myanmar come from the floating gardens where rice, other vegetables and flowers thrive. Incredible gardening!
We visited the Inn Thein Pagoda complex where some 1,054 small stupas are overgrown with moss and greens. Most date from the 16th to 18th centuries and have decayed with age and encroaching vegetation. Theft has been another problem. Gold and other precious valuables are often sealed inside Buddha statues. Thieves destroy the Buddhas to recover the goods
More Myanmar to come. Don’t miss the next post, 10 blissful days at Ngapali Beach. Add your email address at top right to receive future posts. And, please add a comment. I love to learn what readers think about my posts.