Keeping Ancient Traditions Alive

Spending the New Year abroad is always a treat, no matter what. Some more interesting than the others, I admit. This trip to Myanmar fell right smack on New Year— in Bagan sans the usual fireworks.

new-year-dinner

It was celebrated via a cultural program, which began with a puppet show during dinner.

puppet-show

It was similar but, in my opinion, better than the Mandalay performance.

guests-playing-with-puppets

Since the 15th century, puppet shows were used to entertain the Burmese royalties. Skillfully carved puppets that look like human substitutes were made to move and dance gracefully on stage thanks to the skills of the puppeteer.

The night progressed to a few more exhibits before the countdown. No fireworks, just good old fashion fun.

Chin-Lone

We were asked to move to the garden to watch a group of men kicking a rattan ball – demonstrating what I know as Sepak Takraw.

Chine-Lone-2.jpg

It is known in Myanmar as “Chin Lone” and is considered more of an art (although it is the country’s national sport), as there aren’t any opposing teams but they rather play as one team. Men, women, and children often play together.

elephant.jpg

 

Followed by an elephant dance. Similar to that of the Chinese’s Lion dance, two men together dance in rhythm.   And the most bizarre show I’ve witnessed so far — a snake dance that involved an adult and a kid, which had me worried all throughout. I mean, he is just a kid after all.

snake-dance.jpg

 

 

Yes, it was a unique “end of the year” celebration, so to speak.  But we had fun.

A belated Chinese New Year greetings to all. Here’s to the Year of the Dog.

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Temple Hopping on E-Bikes

With thousands of age-old temples, Bagan’s Archeological Zone is Myanmar’s Must-See. Although it is not yet recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to poor management strategies and legal frameworks, it still is a sight to behold and not to be missed.

hot-air-balloon

To explore, one can choose to go by horse carriage, car, balloon, bike or an electric bike. We chose the latter (for a change).  It’s like riding a motorbike, except that the battery is charged by electricity and a fully charged battery will last for 8 hours (more than enough to get you by for the day). It can go up to 40km/h making your way to the destination quicker than riding a bike. And besides, foreigners are not allowed to drive motorbikes or scooters in Myanmar making e-bikes the popular choice.

E-bike

So at 9AM, right after breakfast, our guide talked Anton through the mechanics of operating the bike, which is basically like driving a scooter. And then we discussed the day’s itinerary and requested that we start the route from the end – our way of avoiding the usual crowds. That was how we found ourselves (alone) in the midst of temples and stupas sprawled across the Bagan plain.

temples-spreadout

guideOur guide

Lying on the bend of the Ayeyarwaddy River, spanning 26 square miles, Bagan was once an ancient city that was the capital of the prosperous Bagan empire that dates back to the Christian era. At the height of the empire’s power, more than 10,000 temples and pagodas were built. Over 2,200 temples and pagodas still exist today.

Starbeam-Bistro

In between pagodas, we had a delightful lunch at the Starbeam Bistro, and we likewise managed to visit a market (my all-time favorite activity).

market

pya-tha-da

Our first stop and closest to New Bagan, where we were staying, Pya Tha Da had a fantastic panoramic view of the area and is said to have one of the best sunset spots around.

view-from-the-pya-tha-da

We didn’t get to see it, but we luxuriated in the sight all by ourselves.

Thatbyinnyu-Phaya

Thatbyinnyu Phaya, our next stop after lunch, is one of the highest monuments.

Thatbyinnyu-Phaya-up-close

It towers above other temples nearby and can be seen from much of the Bagan plains.

Thatbinnyu-from-PyathadarThatbyinnyu Phaya from Pya Tha Da

Ananda-Temple

Adjacent to it is the Ananda Temple. Considered to be one of the best surviving masterpiece of the Mon Architecture and one of the 4 surviving temples of Bagan.

Ananda-Temple-door-detail

Ananda-Temple-details

Well preserved and most revered, the impressive temple has been called the “Westminster Abbey of Burma.” This is my favorite.

Shwezigon

Last but not the least is the Shwezigon Pagoda, a Buddhist temple in Nyaung-U, a town just outside of Bagan. A prototype of Burmese stupas, it’s circular stupa is gilded in gold leaf. Among the 4 important temples of Bagan, Shwezigon is the most essential reliquary shrine of Bagan.

Other temples seen only from afar:

DhammayazyiDhammayangyi Temple
Gawdawpalin-templeGawdawpalin Temple

The Cruise to Bagan

Myanmar’s lifeline, the Irrawaddy River flows from the snow-capped mountains of the Himalayas cutting across the country from north to south before emptying into the Andaman Sea. The river is used for commercial transport and is Myanmar’s largest river, about 2,170 kilometers long.

It is a pleasant way to travel between Mandalay and Bagan, two essential cities to be when visiting Myanmar. The former is the country’s most significant and historically most important of all cities, and the latter is its mecca of temples.

A visit to Myanmar was seen as relatively remarkable. Significant changes recently to the political regime has caught the attention of the traveling world, and cruise lines have started to offer multi-day cruises as part of their itinerary.

We flew into Yangon via AirAsia, which had a long layover in Kuala Lumpur. We decided to stay the night so we could have our favorite char siu at Oversea Restaurant in Jalan Imbi. Due to flight delays too, we only spent a night in Yangon.

It was a few days of airports and planes; the day cruise was a pleasant respite – to take it easy, go with the flow (literally), and visit with locals.

The RV Panorama Cruise ship runs between Mandalay and Bagan from October to March. It leaves at dawn at the Gawein Jetty in Mandalay and arrives in Bagan at the Nyaung U Jetty late afternoon just around sunset.

The cruise comes with breakfast, lunch and afternoon snacks with a side trip to a town by the river.

The town visit was a nice break from an otherwise uneventful journey. For the most part, we kept ourselves entertained relaxing on the upper deck by the bar.

It is, in my opinion, an excellent way to slow down after a few days of catching flights in different airports. Here’s sharing with you some of the highlights of the day cruise.

Breakfast at dawn
The RV Panoarama docked at a town by the river.
The crew teaching how to wear a longyi.
Traditional house
Curious local folks

 

Mandalay Appreciation

Mandalay-Day-2Credits: Jessica Sprague Dig in Deeper Course Materials

The day didn’t start out promising. Our first stop was the King Galon Gold Leaf Workshop, which (as the workshop’s name suggest) highlighted gold leaf making—an element strewn throughout Myanmar and quite significant to the country.

gold-leaf-workshop

Not exactly my cup of tea but I get why it is an integral part of our guide’s itinerary. Step inside a temple, and you will find locals rubbing a piece of gold leaf on the Buddha as an offering. At the workshop, you will see gold leaf affixed on lacquered boxes, trays, and accessories. Gold leaf is even made into traditional medicines when added with other ingredients. Some also apply it on their faces as a form of cosmetic. So you can say that Myanmar is known as a country of gold leaf and it has become an indispensable part of Myanmar culture.

Mahamuni-Buddha-Tempe
Mahamuni Buddha Temple (also known as Mahamuni Pagoda) is one of the best examples of a temple detailed with gold leaf.

Buddhist-worshippers

At its center is the Mahamuni Buddha image covered in gold foil donated as tributes by worshippers and pilgrims.

Temple and Monasteries, if you haven’t noticed, are a significant part of Myanmar life. Half a million males, thereabouts, are either vocational or novice monks and around 50,000 women become nuns.

monks

Essentially every Buddhist Burmese boy between the age of 7 and 13 go through monkhood once in their life.

novice-monks

They are expected to enter the monastery as a novice monk for a period of a few weeks to several months. They live in one of the many monasteries and nunneries that revolve around prayers and religious study, utterly dependent on daily alms for their needs.

alms

At around10:30 every morning, monks line up at the Magandayon Monastery in Amapura, just outside Mandalay.

alms-2

Monks with their empty bowls on their way to collect their daily alms.

It is a prominent Monastic College that accommodates thousands of monks in the country. For the Buddhists, it is their duty and honor to serve the monastery by giving alms.

From here, things got a lot more interesting as we crossed the Myittha River in a local ferry to Inwa. A trip here is like going back in time.

Inwa-Stupa

Though what used to be the Kingdom of Inwa during the Second Myanmar Empire is now destroyed and abandoned after a series of major earthquakes in 1839. The ruins, fort walls, and moat, however, still have traces of its past splendor and quite a few pagodas, and monasteries remain.

horse-cart

The more comfortable way to go around the island is by horse carts. The unpaved roads can be exhausting, and this allows for one to choose only the sites that catch your attention. Here’s what caught ours:

Bagaya Monastery

Bagaya-Monastery

This magnificent teakwood monastery once served as a royal palace. The entire monastery is decorated with timbers inscribed in repeating peacock and lotus motif, an impressive example of works from the Inwa era.

Bagaya-Monastery-collage.jpg

Today, it houses and schools local children.

classroom-bagaya

Yadana Hsemee Pagoda

Yadana-Hsemee-Pagodas-2
In a runic ambiance of small stupas in ruins stands a forgotten Buddha in lush green surroundings.

Nan Myint Watch Tower

nan-myint-towerThe Nan Myint or the watchtower, a square bell tower of beautiful masonry

It is the remains of the palace building nicknamed “the leaning tower of An.”

Just before the day ended, we headed back to Amapura to catch the sunset. It was the perfect ending to an insipid start.

U-Bein-Bridge

We had a few beers in a bar overlooking the U Bein bridge, a crossing that spans the Taungthaman Lake. The 1.2-kilometer bridge, built around 1850, is believed to be the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world. It may not look very royal, but its history indeed is as the planks of teaks used were taken from the old royal palace of Inwa.

U-Bein-Sunset

sunset

Add a dramatic sunset, and the U Bein bridge becomes magical.

boatride-U-Bein

One can hire a boat to go around the lake and admire the beauty of the bridge in all angles.

little-girl-at-Mahamuni
I can imagine Mandalay to be spectacular in the past for lurking around the ordinariness of today’s Mandalay are beautiful pagodas and monasteries.

First Impressions

It started in this guesthouse, my fondness for Mandalay, where we were greeted with grace and elegance.

Big-rooms-at-Mama's

The tastefully built B&B has three floors of spacious rooms and a dining area on the roof deck.

hallway-at-Mama's

Once owned by the mama, Wyn and wife, Sue, now run the place. With her immaculate English and years of experience, mama still plays host and entertains with grace. We asked for a good referral on where to eat, and mama volunteered to prepare our first meal in Mandalay and truth be told, hers was one of the most memorable of our ten days in Myanmar.

Meal-at-Mama's

Talk about first impressions.

With half a day to explore the city, we decided to explore the area on foot. Good idea as we were able to witness every day Mandalay life unfolding walking along 62nd street.

pedestrian

street-food

The 2nd largest city and the last royal capital of Myanmar, Mandalay is not exactly pretty at first sight, but its charm grows on you as it slowly reveals itself.

planter-on-the-side-of-the-roadInnovative plantbox sighted along the roadside.

It’s a relatively new city, built in 1857 when King Mindon was trying to re-establish Burmese prestige after the country’s defeat in the 2nd Anglo-Burmese War. If you take the time to explore, there is much to be enjoyed. You’ll need at least two days.

The 62nd Street led us to the Shwenandaw Monastery.

Shwenandaw-Kyaung-2

Made entirely from teakwood with intricately carved façade, the monastery also known as Shwenandaw Kyaung provides one of the most exceptional examples of traditional 19th-century Burmese architecture.

traditional-19th-century-Burmese-architecture

This is the only surviving structure from Mandalay’s Royal Palace. King Mindon initially used the building as his personal apartment and died here in 1878.

Shwenandaw-Monastery

His son worried that his ghost still resided there dismantled the structure and transported beside the Atumashi Monastery.

Atumashi-Monastery-2.jpg

While most of Mandalay is flat, Mandalay Hill (where the city took its name after) offers a stunning bird’s eye view of the city. We planned to walk up the hill, but we were tired of walking, so we hailed a taxi instead to take us to the lift (one could scale up the 240-meter hill by taking the long stairway up to the summit).

view-from-peak

At the peak is the Su Taung Pyei Pagoda. On its terrace, people stay to wait for the sunset and take in the panoramic view of the Mandalay plains, how expansive the city is.

crowd-waiting-for-sunset

sunset-from-mandalay-hills

The pagoda itself I find gaudy with over the top mirrors that sparkle and shine at every turn and the LED lights that adorned the Buddha shrine.

Su-Taung-Pyei-Pagoda

On our way back, we passed Mandalay Royal Palace, as time prohibited us from entering the palace, we admired it from the road.

Mandalay-Royal-Palace

When the taxi driver dropped us off at the restaurant recommended by the guesthouse, he made us take a photo of his contact details. I found it amusing and very enterprising.

taxi-diver-contact

Traditional dinner and a puppet show after capped our first day in Mandalay.

tea-leaf-saladThe very traditional and iconic Tea Leaf Salad (must try!)

mandalay-beer

Traditional Burmese puppetry, called Marionettes, is an art form using wooden puppets to entertain Burma’s royalty.

puppet-show

It also served to communicate news, stories and moral lessons to its people. Today, as with many cultures, it is a dying art.

Tomorrow, we explore more of the beautiful outskirts and downtown of Mandalay.

 

 

 

 

Mingalaba

I approached the guy holding a sign with my name on it. “Mingalaba (hello),” he greeted and then led us to a Toyota Corolla. The first thing I noticed (aside from it being an old car) was the right-hand steering driving on the right-hand side of the road. Before we even reached the guesthouse, I was already helping him navigate the road (making sure the blind spot is clear of any passing cars – haha!). And that, my friends, was my introduction to the world of Burmese driving.

Burma, also known as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, where the landscape scatter with golden pagodas, and where more than 100 ethnic groups live. Under the rule of the oppressive military junta for almost five decades, exploring this nation can feel like you’ve stumbled into a bygone era as it has remained a rural country of traditional ways.

Expect to be dazzled by Myanmar as it steps out of its checkered past. With tradition deeply rooted in the philosophy of Buddhism, Myanmar shimmer with gilded temples and stupas, flourishes with emerald-green landscapes, beautiful lakes, and lush tropical forest but most memorable are the encounters with its gracious people ready with warm smiles and eagerness to introduce their country and culture.

Follow me as I cast my mind back to the beautiful ten days wandering around the different cities of Myanmar.

Of Snows and Hot Baths

In the middle of Daisetsuzan National Park, nestled in narrow scenic gorge flanked by cliffs,

abundant hot springs, powerful waterfalls,

and fantastic rock formation is a full-scale mountain resort town called Sounkyo.

It has become quite touristy because it is an excellent base for trekking and skiing around the National Park.

From late January to the end of March, the town hosts (you guessed it) the Sounkyo Ice Waterfall Festival (Sounkyo Onsen Hyoubaku Matsuri).

The highlight of this festival is the frozen waterfalls along with the man-made, multi-story high structures that have a maze like tunnels running through them, all built around the Ishikari River.

Snow domes and ice sculptures likewise scatter around the compound.

Heated quarters with warm drinks and food here.

And even if logic tells you to stay indoors due to the severe cold weather, make sure to be there at night


The Ishikari River runs through the festival.

or miss out on the spectacular lights that illuminate the whole place come sundown. On weekends, you’ll be lucky to witness fireworks too.

Us in an ice bar display

The best way to end the evening is to thaw off at one of the many hot springs found in town. At the Sounkyo Kanko Hotel, we went for the spacious outdoor bath at the back of the hotel. Crazy it may seem, but because this open-air bath is unisex, it was wonderful to be sharing this experience with the hubby. Getting ourselves to walk the short distance from the dressing room to the pool in skimpy clothes provided by the hotel was unimaginable, but once in the hot bath, it was nirvana. This being the last stretch of our Hokkaido winter holiday, it seemingly melted away all the frozen kinks in our body, accumulated over the past days.

Ahh… Always a good experience, this bathing in the snow.