The Myanmar Manifesto: Double Wednesdays and other stories
Myanmar. The golden land, India’s immediate neighbour, is still off the radar for mainstream tourists, but since it is fast emerging on the travel map, I decided to visit it asap, before chain food outlets and budget hotels changed the face of the country.
I wanted to go basically because, located as it is between India, China and Southeast Asia, Myanmar is a place made magical by the overlap and intermingling of cultures and cuisines. Though I got just four days there, which I divided equally between the capital city Yangon (once known as Rangoon) and Bagan, I had the time of my life, as you will see.
The moment I stepped out of Yangon International Airport, muscling through an army of lungi-clad taxi drivers, I felt a powerful wave of déjà vu. The largely empty streets framed by British colonial architecture made me feel as though I were watching an old black-and-white movie set in Calcutta or Rangoon.
Let us pray
Since I was on a tight schedule, I spent my first day exploring all the golden pagodas in Yangon, learning their history and gathering anecdotes. The culture in many ways is very similar to India. When you step into a religious place, you are supposed to take off your shoes. However, I noticed that visits to the pagodas were occasions for family picnics too.
The pagodas should ideally be visited early in the morning or in the evening because walking barefoot on the marble paths of the complexes in the afternoon heat would be unbearable. Even socks are not allowed! And shorts and tank tops are strictly banned – at the pagodas, wear modest clothing only.
One of the most fascinating things I learned during the day is that the traditional Myanmar week lasts eight days, not seven. Since the world follows the seven-day week now, Myanmar solves this problem by dividing Wednesday into two days: Am and pm.
I learned this when I discovered that each pagoda hosts eight deities, one for each day of the week. When you make your obeisance, you should pour water on the deity named for the day of the week you were born. Pour from the ladle for as many years as you have been alive.
The Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon’s most famous and biggest pagoda, looked like New York’s Times Square in the evening, packed with tourists and locals both. In the midst of this noise and bustle, a Buddhist monk sat meditating at the foot of one of the small pagodas, not at all distracted by the tourists taking his photograph with loud clicks of their cameras.
Like everyone else, I was waiting for sunset, the well-known highlight of any visit to this pagoda. When it finally arrived, it was spectacular. Hues of pink, yellow, and orange coloured the sky, lighting up the Golden Pagodas beautifully.
Day 2 started even before the crack of dawn – at 3am, since I had ambitiously planned to cover two major, but distant attractions, in one day. At 6.30am, we reached Kyaiktiyo, home of The Golden Rock. This 600-ton gravity-defying rock sits on the edge of a mountain, most of its weight hanging in the air without support. Locals believe it is perched on a strand of Buddha hair.
A visit to Golden Rock will remind you of a trip to Vaishno Devi. After reaching the base camp of the mountain, we shifted to an open-air truck for a 45-minute long, bumpy roller coaster ride minus any safety locks on the doors of the truck. The journey ends with a one mile barefoot walk to the rock.
Not only was I looking at a wonder of the world – albeit not one that many people know about – but I was close enough to ensure that nothing man-made was holding up the rock. There are clear gaps between the base of the rock and the ground it rests on: locals say that even a needle or small coin passes through the rock base and the ground, thus proving that there is nothing between the two.
The next stop in this 15-hour-long day was Bago, an ancient capital city with some beautiful tall Buddha statues and the biggest pagoda in Myanmar. It should have been an exhausting day, but such was the beauty and wonders that I was surrounded by, I was energetic through it all.
Balloons in Bagan
The next morning I was in Bagan, an ancient city of 3,000 pagodas, stupas, and temples, which takes one back to the 11th century. The city is packed with bus-loads of tourists, backpackers on e-bikes and local devotees, but unless you spend a year there or more, you will not be able to see every single one of the structures. Most visitors go to only a few big ones and they are worth the time. Beware of snakes though, while you walk around barefoot. After admiring these ancient pagodas, some of which are very well-kept or being restored, I headed back to my hotel to rest for the highlight of my trip the following day: a balloon ride!
This was my first ever balloon ride and the 45-minute trip over the pagodas at sunrise made it just as magical as it was exciting. The ballooning field at 5am had 22 balloons being prepared for flight, each one able to take 16 passengers and a captain in charge of safety.
As balloon after balloon started taking to the skies, I couldn’t wait for my turn, and when we took off, it was a sight like no other that I have seen before. Balloons all around, early morning mist over the ground, sun trying to come out, sky turning orange, and trees and pagodas trying to stay above the mist. As we took off, I noticed a wedding taking place with the balloons as back drop. That couple was very creative in selecting the venue!
The highlight of the ride was the flight over the biggest pagoda in Bagan. With its golden tower and red bricks flaring in the first sunlight, it really did look like the residence of a god. But the sight of farmers in the fields between the pagodas, the sound of music wafting up from houses we flew over… this was literally a bird’s eye view of life in Bagan.
After a bumpy landing (brace your head while landing), we were served Champagne. It was only 7.30am, but the ride was worth celebrating.
Climb to the end
My final visit on this trip was to Mount Popa, a pagoda atop a dead volcano. I left the hotel at 10am for the 1.5 hours ride, stopping on the way at a local farm for a taste of the local tea leaves salad (a must try) and toddy (yes, another round of celebrations for the morning).
About an hour into the ride, I noticed villagers standing on both sides of the road like trees. These are people without any means of living, who mostly survive on the money that people fling at them from passing vehicles on the pilgrimage to Mount Popa. They were so desperate that they’d dash out on the road without caring for the traffic – it was a humbling sight indeed.
At the base of Mount Popa I went to a temple that had almost 20 gods standing in front of you, including Ganesh, Durga, Laxmi, and Saraswati. One of the gods in this line-up gets whisky and toddy as offerings from devotees. I also noticed that devotees offer crisp notes to the gods, but rather than putting the money in a box, they slip it into the idols’ hands.
There were many monkeys at the entrance of Mount Popa, waiting for offerings of their own – bananas. They catch better than any professional cricket fielder, and if you are slow to throw the bananas, they have no compunction in stealing your bag of the fruit from you.
It’s best to get rid of the fruit right away though, because the climb to the hilltop pagoda is 777 steps, half of which must be done barefoot. Once on top, with panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and the town below, I relaxed. This was a lovely way to end my trip.
(The author is a finance professional based in New York. He is enthusiastic about travel and has visited 60 countries and seven continents thus far. Follow him on Instagram at @travel.arvin )
From HT Brunch, December 30, 2018
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