Myanmar’s Astonishing Sights

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Reclining Buddha

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 blog3.25numerous 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.blog3.26

Buddha’s enormous feet were another mystery, each with 108 squares. Each square represents Buddha’s past life before he became Buddha.

Schwedagon Pagoda

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.blog3.3

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.blog3.1

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.

Golden Rock

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 blog3.24for 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 blog3.4adventure.  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.

Baganblog3.5

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.  blog3.15According 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.blog3.8

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.blog3.9

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.blog3.22

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.blog3.10

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?

Pindaya Cavesblog3.18

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.blog3.19

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.

Inle Lakesights.2a

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 sights.1acourse.   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!

blog3.20We 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.blog3.21

Military gov't built ugly tower in Bagan, closed temples with rooftop views and charged admission to the tower.Temples have been reopened
Military gov’t built ugly tower in Bagan, closed temples with rooftop views and charged admission to the tower. Temples have been reopened


Off to Myanmar

We took off our shoes at least 565 times.  We climbed 6,899 steps.  We admired 22,576 Buddhas.

I made up the numbers, but they may not be far off.  A trip to Myanmar, a fascinating land in the throes of long overdue changes, is much about about temples (you cannot enter wearing shoes), all adorned with countless statues of Buddha.    And, many of those temples are accessed only by long climbs up steep steps.blog.lede

“This is Burma.  It is quite unlike any place you know about,” wrote poet and novelist Rudyard Kipling after a visit to the county more than a century ago. Today the country is known as Myanmar, but his words still echo true.blog.3

During our travels we were overwhelmed with mind boggling sights: a cave with 8,700 Buddha statues, a giant golden rock miraculously clinging to the edge of a chasm . . .

blog.2. . . parades of monks draped in burgundy colored robes lined up to receive food offerings, women whose faces appeared to be smeared with mud….  We visited big, chaotic cities (Yangon and Mandalay).Women smear their faces with a paste made from logs.  It acts as a sun block and moisturizer.

Women smear their faces with a paste made from logs. It acts as a sun block and moisturizer.

During drives through the countryside we witnessed the simple, primitive way of life of farmers, and often suffered bouncing over rutted roads.   We chilled out at a perfect beach resort, not yet spoiled by hordes of tourists.  I loved the colorful markets, the tasty food, and learning about the people and their staunch devotion to Buddha.  More about all will follow in several blogs.

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First, a word about the shaky start of this incredible voyage.  Facebook Friends have seen posts on what follows, but many Tales and Travel readers are not on FB.

Crisis Number One: Before landing in Frankfurt where we boarded the plane for the long flight to Singapore, I asked BB (husband Bicycle Bob and long suffering travel companion) if he had the credit card.  We had agreed that only one of us needed to take a card.  “No, you have it,” he said. “No, you are supposed to have it,” I answered.  Major misunderstanding. Bottom line:  No credit card and not an auspicious beginning to a five-week long trip.  Panic.  Stress.  Anger. We only had a brief layover in Frankfurt, but we had plenty of time between planes in Singapore before flying on to Yangon.  We made numerous calls back to our friends and house sitters, Dee and Allan, in France.  They researched methods of getting a credit card to us.  French Chronopost came to the rescue.  Other services, such as DHL, would not deliver to Myanmar.   That was on Friday.  Monday afternoon in Yangon we had the card. A miracle!  Cost for this amazing service, just 58 euros.blog.7

We were fine at the onset of the trip without the card.  Cash, new US dollars (issued after 2006) and not folded, is currently the recommended currency for travelers in Myanmar.  Some places do take credit cards, but charge a hefty fee.  We had an ample supply of dollars ordered from our bank, so even without the plastic, we could enjoy meals without washing dishes.  But, we would need the card before the end of the trip. We were saved by Dee and Allan and Chronopost.

Crisis Number Two:  My tooth.  The day the credit card arrived, I woke up with a toothache.  Surely it will go away, I thought.  No such luck. It only got worse, and worse, and my cheek began to look as if I had a tennis ball in my mouth.  Our guide took me to a dentist recommended by our first rate tour blog.5company, Asian Trails.   He spoke some English, and his office appeared clean.  He wore gloves, a mask, and had many pretty and very young assistants. He said it was a wisdom tooth, gave me pain pills and antibiotics, and cautioned me to avoid the “odors of hot oils” ??  If it did not get better, I could come back and he would extract the tooth.

The medication helped for one day only. However, I had fears of letting this dentist pull my tooth, especially when the guide told me the dentist had told him it would be better to wait and have the tooth extracted when I got back to France as complications could arise.  He obviously did not want the job.  Our return to France  was five weeks down the road.  I could not live with this pain for five weeks.

As mentioned, I had posted our troubles on Facebook.  One friend wrote that the trip was “doomed.”  World travelers Dee and Allan advised not to have a tooth extracted in Myanmar where hygiene and sanitary conditions are dicey.  A young woman I met, a 21-year-old pediatric dental assistant in Connecticut traveling with a group of Jehovah Witnesses for a conference,  said I definitely needed to get rid of the tooth.  It is probably infected, she said, and the infection would only spread… and could even lead to death.  Sacre Bleu!  If a Jehovah Witness advises a medical procedure, you know action is required.

Now what?  Perhaps the trip was doomed. I was a wreck and could not enjoy the sights.   Fortunately in the middle of the night I had a bright idea:  Call the

BB waits in dentist office number 2.  Shoes must come off, but instead they covered his.  Fear of stinky feet?
BB waits in dentist office number 2. Shoes must come off, but instead they covered his. Fear of stinky feet?

American Embassy.  They recommended Dr. Aung Myint who saved the trip, and, who knows,  maybe my life. I was relieved just entering his classy office with certificates from Denmark and  Paris posted on the walls of the waiting room where  copies of Fortune, Newsweek and Reader’s Digest were offered as reading material.  His equipment was  state of the art  –far more up to date than many dentist offices I have seen in southern France.

We had been to our dentist before departing as a security check.  No problems.   Why did this tooth suddenly go bad?  Could be stress, the super dentist replied.  Aha — blame it all on the forgotten credit card.    He pulled the tooth and all was well.  X-ray, tooth extraction and stitches:  $70. We found many more bargains during our travels, but that was the winner.

As mentioned,  food in Myanmar is  good and different.  We had many versions of a delicious avocado salad. See recipe column on right for the versison made at the cooking school we attended while at the beach. 

The Cordon Bleu is was not -- our "cooking school" kitchen.  Don't be put off by appearances. Food was delicious.
The Cordon Bleu it was not — our “cooking school” kitchen.
Don’t be put off by appearances. Food was delicious.

Following,  a photo gallery of Myanmar as a preview of coming blog posts.

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Souvenir sellers on the beach where  mother of pearl items are popular.
Souvenir sellers on the beach where mother of pearl items are popular.
Inle Lake
Inle Lake
Ngapali Beach
Ngapali Beach

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At work in the fields.
At work in the fields.
Poinsettia blooming along the road.
Poinsettia blooming along the road.

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Shoes -- and socks-- must come off before entering temples.
Shoes — and socks– must come off before entering temples.
Buddha statues are often golden.
Buddha statues are often golden.
Sunset on Irrawaddy River.
Sunset on Irrawaddy River.
Nuns, seen here at market knife stand, wear pink.
Nuns, seen here at market knife stand, wear pink.
Temple in Bagan, the Angkor Wat of Myanmar.
Temple in Bagan, the Angkor Wat of Myanmar.
Temple decor
Temple decor
Too many homeless dogs in  Myanmar.  Most all look like this fellow.
Too many homeless dogs in Myanmar. Most all look like this fellow.
Cleaning a train car at Yangon station.
Cleaning the “ordinary class”  train car at Yangon station.
Monks and Buddha.
Monks and Buddha.
Temple workers take a siesta break under the watchful eyes of Buddhas.
Temple workers take a siesta break under the watchful eyes of Buddhas.
Reclining Buddha.  235feet long.
Reclining Buddha. 235 feet long.

 

High on Bali

Bali Ha’i *  may call you,
Any night, any day,
In your heart, you’ll hear it call you:
“Come away…Come away.”

Bali Ha’i will whisper
On the wind of the sea:
“Here am I, your special island!
Come to me, come to me!”

Your own special hopes,
Your own special dreams,
Bloom on the hillside
And shine in the streams.
If you try, you’ll find me
Where the sky meets the sea.
“Here am I your special island
Come to me, Come to me.”

My parents loved Broadway musicals.  They often played sound track records.  South Pacific was a favorite. My favorite song: “Bali Ha’i.” (*Bali Ha’i in the above song, according to Wikipedia, was not Bali, but based on the  island of Ambae, part of what was formerly known as New Hebrides, now Vanuatu.  Never mind, for me, it was Bali.)

I was mesmerized, both by the words and the melody of this song .  I knew I had to see this “special island” someday.

It took almost a lifetime, but I made it last October. The Indonesian island  was all I had hoped – and more.  A British friend, Jenny, recommended we stay in Ubud, a town in the hills, rather than at a popular tourist beach resort.  Thank you, Jenny.

In the book and movie, “Eat, Pray and Love,” Ubud was the focus of author Elizabeth Gilbert’s quest for spirituality and healing.  Tourism is the chief industry in Bali, and Ubud, the island’s artistic hub,  has seen a surge in visitors thanks to both the book and movie.

Our home (husband Bob was with me)  for six days was the Tanah Merah resort and gallery about a 20-minute drive outside of the funky town in a verdant, tropical setting.  I found the resort on the Web.  It was reasonable, beautiful, serene, fascinating – a bit of paradise.  The fascinating part was the Danish dentist, Peter Bloch, owner and creator of this magical place which has just 14 rooms, including many individual cottages, and an incredible art and artifact galley with Peter’s extensive collection.  For more about Peter and Tanah Merah, see my next blog post.

Our night arrival at the chaotic airport in Denpasar, the capital of Bali, was a horror story, (also more about that in a future blog on Travel Mishaps).  But all turned out well thanks to a friendly Australian airline steward, Peter, whom we met on our Qantas flight to Singapore.  He recommended a friend and driver in Bali, Wayan Sukada.  He sent Wayan an email and arranged for him to meet us at the airport and take us to Ubud – about an hour and a half drive through a crazy, congested city into the peaceful countryside.

Wayan became our guide and mentor.  He drove us on an excursion to temples and sites.  He recommended restaurants.  He invited us to a ceremony at his temple.  He taught us much about Bali and its religion.

There is a pervasive spirituality in Bali is that is both intriguing and soothing. Most Balinese are Hindu, but they practice a form of the religion somewhat different than Hinduism in India.  It governs their daily life.  Every town, no matter what the size, must have three temples, Wayan told us, each dedicated to one of the three elements: air, water and fire.  All homes have a main temple, and often an additional one in each room. Ceremonies are profuse – not just the usual ones for weddings, births and cremations, but celebrations for the rice harvest, in honor of animals, to bless machinery…During our brief  Ubud visit, Wayan attended three ceremonies.  He said he must give 10 percent of his earnings to the temple.

Statues of gods, goddesses and demons are everywhere, and often draped from the head down in sarongs. The latter is to protect the spirit inside the statue. The sarongs are in various colors, but each color has significance. White, for example, is for prosperity. Trees, which also have spirits, are also sometimes covered with sarongs. Offerings to the statues are made twice each day – tiny baskets made with coconut leaves and filled with blossoms.  Every morning we watched employees at Tanah Merah put fresh offerings of flowers at the base of the numerous statues on the property.

Besakih is the Mother Temple in Bali.  We passed hills of rice paddies and drove through poor villages, past numerous temples,  en route to the holy site, a huge complex of structures on seven levels.  Before visiting the site, we both had to “rent” sarongs to wear in respect at the temple.  A government guide led us through the complex, first up the steps on the left side, the negative side, then down on the right side, the positive side. At each level there are terraces, altars, statues, and ceremonies were underway at some.

Our excursion that day also included a stop at Klungkung Palace which was erected at the end of the 17th century, but largely destroyed during the Dutch colonial conquest in 1908. Among the remaining portions is a lovely floating pavilion which was added in the 1940s.  While visiting the palace, we heard the beat of drums and commotion in the adjacent street.  It was a funeral procession, with groups of mourners following the wrapped body.  Wayan explained that the body would be interred first, then unearthed at a future date for a cremation ceremony during which the remains of many would be burned.

As we (especially Bicycle Bob) love cycling, we signed up for an all-day bike excursion.  Unfortunately the supposedly spectacular view of Mount Batur, near where the trip originated, was hidden by clouds; it rained most of the day, and Bob had a crash in the mud on a skinny route through a rice paddy.  But, it was an enlightening trip nonetheless. Our group stopped in a village where we toured a home — several rooms, virtually no furnishings, a temple in the yard, — all very basic and poor. Bali may be the home of numerous luxurious resorts, but life for the average citizen is at the other end of the spectrum.

While he (Bob) is passionate about bicycles, food and cooking are among my hobbies.  So, we also signed up for a Balinese cooking class at the Bambu Bali restaurant. It started out with a visit to the colorful market where our teacher explained some of the indigenous produce.   The dishes we prepared, seven different ones,  were all delicious, many on the hot and spicy side. We also received a souvenir cook booklet with recipes.  Unfortunately all seem to require ingredients which I’ll never find here.

Bicycles, food – and animals.  We love them, too, and  our visit to the Monkey Forest in Ubud was enchanting.  Thousands of monkeys: mothers with babies, teenagers wrestling with one another, couples diligently picking bugs off each other’s backs… All roaming freely in a vast tropical forest complete with temples, statues and a picturesque stream strewn with rocks.

The visit to an elephant sanctuary was somewhat disappointing.  Just to view the elephants, we had to pay $15; an elephant safari ride cost an extra $45. We passed on the costly ride, but one of the guides, who agreed the charge was ridiculous, offered us a brief ride as his boss was not around.  It was fun, and his commentary on the elephants was informative.

On our last night, Wayan took us to a ceremony to inaugurate a new temple in his village.  He was a member of the all male band: drums, bamboo flutes, hammers, cymbals, and a xylophone.  The sounds, lots of clinging and clanging, all sounded much the same.  The men in the band all wear white with a bandana around their heads.  The latter, Wayan explained, is to keep them focused on god and prayer.

Villagers arrived with enormous creations of fruit, flowers and food, all placed on an altar as offerings.  The women,  wearing their finest, sat together, while the men were off in another section – some gathered in an adjacent room smoking and gambling, according to Wayan.  Children, dogs and chickens wandered freely around the festive scene.

Even if it’s not Bali Ha’i, for me Bali is indeed a “special island.”

Bali is reasonable. Wayan charged us about $28 for the transportation from the airport to Ubud; about $36 for an all-day excursion. Our spacious room with full English breakfast at Tanah Merah was $100 per night. Cycling tour with bike rental, breakfast, lunch and van transportation to and from the start of the ride, about $36 per person.  Cooking class, about $22 per person, including eating the food you prepare.

www.tanahmerahbali.com

Email: wayan_sukada70@yahoo.com  (underscore between wayan and sukada)

For a fantastic soup, see recipe in column at right for Baked Garlic and Onion Cream Soup.  Watch the slideshow below.

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