Buddhism and animism
Burma is where I have seen the most devotion to the Buddhist faith. My guides had all spent considerable time in monasteries. They looked forward to going in with their young sons. I met men who had abstained from alcohol all their lives. What is interesting is that Burma literally spilled blood to become a largely Buddhist nation. Before the 11th century, the country was primarily animist, believing in guardian spirits known as "nats" (with just a pocket of Buddhism remaining from the Buddha’s travels over in Rakhine state in the west, isolated from the rest of the country by a mountain range). In 1057 King Anawrahta of the Pagan dynasty decided that he liked the sound of the Buddhist teachings and decided to conquer the Mon kingdom of Thaton in the south in order to bring back the Pali scriptures of Theravada Buddhism. In the temple at Indein (Inle Lake) I saw a young man chanting in Pali and learnt that it is closely related to Sanskrit. These connections absolutely fascinate me.
Belief in animism still prevails all over the country to this day, alongside Buddhism, as it does in parts of Thailand and Laos. I would learn about and see statues of the thirty seven different types of "great" nat when I went to Mount Popa near Pagan. Great nats are humans who died in violent circumstances and remained to protect an area. Lower nats are spirits of trees and elementals.
Former capital cities
The two former capitals of Rangoon and Mandalay are quite different in terms of topography and feel. Rangoon is much more hilly, with a great deal of car traffic - bikes are banned there, in fact - and a wonderfully characterful, colonial “downtown” area, with several old British department stores which may one day become hotels. It has a number of lakes and parks and generally feels quite green. This opposed to Mandalay, which seems to have a fairly small, modernish downtown area, the rest of it being very flat, a bit dusty and sprawling. There seemed to be fewer bars and restaurants in Mandalay, particularly touristic ones.
|Colonial building, Rangoon|
I really liked Mandalay though, particularly the peaceful area near the Red Canal hotel, with its red earth streets and palms at the side of the road. In the morning at breakfast I would watch young monks going to collect alms. And the excursions to the ancient cities of Ava, Amarapura and Sagaing, on the banks of the Irrawaddy in the surrounds of Mandalay, are just phenomenal. Incredibly memorable vistas.
|Fisherman at Amarapura - photo taken from U Bein's bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world|
Day trips from Rangoon - Bago
One of my most exciting experiences in Burma was when my guide asked if I wanted to see a Snake Pagoda up in Bago. Bago is a couple of hours from Rangoon – one takes a very characterful old train through the outskirts of the city and then countryside to get there. The sites of Bago had been interesting but I had specifically asked to see the things other tourists did not usually see. We had just been at "Two Duck" Pagoda, so named because a prince saw two ducks on an island when he thought of consecrating the area. I hadn't seen any live ducks there, so when I entered the snake pagoda I was fairly blasé. Then I noticed my guide was looking at me funny. And motioning towards a corner of the room. It was then I noticed the most enormous snake I have ever seen without glass between us. Thicker than my calf, it must have been at least 4m long. It was comfortably curled up in a corner with bills of Kyat thrown on it for luck and success. The monk who built the pagoda had a dream that a big snake would come and so it did, the very next day in fact. So he started building. In a moment of bravado, I asked if I could touch it – unfortunately the answer was no.
|Waiting for the train to leave Rangoon for Bago - such beautiful smiles|
|My friend the snake, in Bago|
Day trips from Rangoon - school and Twante pottery village
My visit to the delta region south of Rangoon was one of the most important excursions that I took. I did it at the end of my trip but think it should have come at the beginning. For such a generally poor and undeveloped country, there are some rather nice hotels in Burma (just not enough of them to satisfy the recent increase in demand). You could easily go the whole way through a trip without getting very close to real life. What I found interesting about this excursion was how quickly the scenery changed after crossing the river at the south of Rangoon, how quickly the landscape became rural and the houses poor. To see the stilted houses by the side of the road and the persistent evidence of flooding (this area was hit hard by cyclone Nargis). To see life close-up, that was important to me. The pottery town was amazingly industrious, everyone seemed to be working. The organic farm I visited – well, not quite so industrious at the exact moment we arrived, I don’t think anyone had told those two guys we were coming ;-) The tiny village near the school which Audley set up and have funded since soon after the cyclone. Such beautiful countryside, such happy children. A real joy – and no tourists go here.
|Organic farm that Audley supports in the delta region south of Rangoon|
|Local market in delta region|
|Sunset view at Pagan|
Pagan is the area in Burma with the huge number of temples, on an enormous lowland plain by the Iraawaddy, a must-see. I loved it, the overall impression is unique, quite different to Angkor Wat for instance, although there is still a Hindu influence in the architecture. It was so hot and humid during my visit to the main temples that I had to have a little lie down under a tree whilst my guide Aye Aye went to find me some Red Bull concentrate. You really celebrate the fact that nearly all hotels have big pools here. I was lucky enough to be invited to Aye Aye’s boss (Kyi Kyi - that's pronounced Chi Chi) 's house for dinner, where I also met my would-be next guide, Yan. One of the first things he said to me was “Snake see snake legs” - snakes don't have legs you see, so only another snake can see them - which I guess is akin to our “One fisherman sees another fisherman from afar”. It may have had something to do with how rapidly I was dispatching the Myanmar beer. I was sweating so much during the meal that I am afraid I did allow Kyi Kyi’s mother to fan me, whilst only making token protestations.
|"Cliff" Popa, as they call it|
One can visit Mount Popa on a day excursion from Pagan. It's a lovely two hour drive into the countryside. The whole of the top of Mount Popa is national parkland, it actually being a large area of gently sloping mountain. My photo of the monastery complex atop the rock pinnacle that erupts out of this area (called "Cliff" Popa by my guide) was the one that generally provoked the most extreme reaction from my friends. Not all their comments are entirely suitable for re-publishing here.