Myanmar (or Burma, as it is known in the West) endured 50 years of military-imposed isolation before opening to the outside world in 2011; since then, tourists, and their foreign currency, have been more than welcome. In fact, there was no need to change money because U.S. dollars were accepted everywhere we went. This welcome is likely to expand now that the opposition political party headed by Aung San Suu Kyi won control of Burma in the 2015 national election.
We started our Burmese journey in the traffic-choked southern city of Yangon (Rangoon), where cars drive American-style on the right side of the road, even though many of them were designed for British-style driving on the left. This oddity is the result of a decision by the ruling generals who wanted to eliminate colonial symbols by banning British-style driving. British-style vehicles, however, are still legal.
Although vehicle traffic was better, our three flights within Myanmar were a different story. All of our flights were ticketed by Air Mandalay, and not once did we actually fly with this carrier as our tickets were changed the day of each and every flight. Navigating the airports, unsurprisingly, was also chaos. There is no concept of gates, or for that matter the posting of departure information. Each experience was a game of trial and error until we inevitably annoyed, or earned the pity of, some kind agent into helping us find our way.
In Myanmar, Theravada Buddhism is the major religion, practiced by nearly 90 percent of the population. This form of Buddhism focuses on individual enlightenment through intense meditation, seeking a peaceful state of mind free from all worldly desires. Buddhists call this plane of existence nirvana.
The essence of Buddhism is contained in their Four Noble Truths - that all life involves suffering; that such suffering comes from desire or greed for things or people; that this suffering can stop if people learn to live without desire; and that this enlightenment, or detachment from worldly things, can be achieved only by following the Eight-Fold Path, or Middle Way, a philosophy that avoids extremes and emphasizes good deeds. Because doing good is thought to bring the believer closer, stage by stage, to nirvana, all Buddhists try to keep the Five Precepts, or rules of conduct - not to lie, steal, kill (even insects), take intoxicants (such as alcohol or drugs), or commit sexual misconduct.
Meditation and prayer count as good deeds, as well as alms-giving, worshipping in pagodas, shrines, or at altars, and acting generously. Giving money to build, repair, or enhance pagodas or shrines is also considered merit-earning. For these reasons, you cannot turn to the right or left without seeing some form of Buddhist image, shrine, or symbol, and some are simply stunning due to their size, materials, or architectural prowess. For example, the above Chaukhtatgyi Buddha is over 200 ft. long, adorned in all sorts of precious metals and gems, and contained in a covered, open-air shrine.
Buddhism permeates Myanmar's culture. In Myanmar, Buddhism isn't simply a religion, but a way of life. Seeing its impact is unavoidable, but so is "feeling" it. Not once did we feel unsafe, even walking back to our hotel late at night after incredible curry dinners. Buddhists believe that to reach nirvana, a person must be reborn and live many lives, each hopefully a little better, unless bad deeds are performed.
The strongest feeling, and one that never left us during our time in Myanmar, was hopelessness. Most Myanmarese are extremely poor, living on one dollar per day or less with little hope of getting ahead. They have suffered greatly under the ruling military for decades, and this suffering was most often accepted due to presumed misdeeds in a prior life. There was such a vacuum of hope for a loving, personal, merciful, and graceful God.
Yet the culture is rapidly changing. So quickly, in fact, that it is safe to say it wasn't the same country when we left as when we had arrived. We were witness, and likely inadvertently contributed, to a culture changing before our eyes. Being young, physically fit, white Americans, we were walking symbols of a culture envied by Myanmar's upcoming generation. We had numerous people asking for our pictures with them, or even their babies, as if we were celebrities. Through the awkward photos, and fun interactions, we left with some hope that the opening of their country would also allow for the opening of hope for a better life.
LAND OF A THOUSAND TEMPLES
Another sun is setting as thousands of ancient temples fade from view. I can still make out a red-brick temple nestled in a grove of palm trees. Everywhere I look are traditional Buddhist structures with fine details and elaborate entrances. Over there is a five-sided monument topped by a white and gold dome and surrounded by a high wall.
This is Bagan in central Myanmar. Here, in an area of about 16 square miles, it is estimated that more than 10,000 temples, mostly Buddhist, were constructed during a religious frenzy that lasted from the 11th to the 13th centuries. About 2,200 have survived, though many have been damaged by earthquakes, floods and invasion.
Shin-byu is a religious ceremony that all Buddhist boys are expected to undergo, and one we were extremely lucky to witness in Bagan. It is considered the highest merit-earning act for the family. During the ceremony, young would-be monks are dressed in fine clothes (and yes, given makeup and look quite feminine) to imitate the Buddha's early life as a prince. The boys are then carried, paraded on a horse, or taken in a car around the neighborhood. Their families hold elaborate feasts. The boys then enter a monastery, usually only for a few days or a week. Shin-byu monk-hood is temporary.
Shin-byu is so important in Myanmar cultural life that families without sons occasionally "adopt" nephews, male cousins, or other boys to hold the ceremony. Towns and villages sometimes hold mass ceremonies, during which up to one hundred boys are initiated. Families save for years to put their boys in the ceremony.
We were treated to a tour through a nearby village where a local woman showed us her home and way of life. It wasn't much compared to our home in the US. Almost all clothing was sewn by hand. The kitchen, if you could call it that, was small and consisted of just a few pots and an open fire. The shower was a large concrete cistern filled with water. Even the "grandma" of the village, had to roll her own cigars!
BALLOONS OVER BAGAN
Our wake-up call was well before even a glimpse of the sun's light had crossed the horizon, when Balloons Over Bagan picked us up at our hotel. We were chauffeured in an old bus with wooden bench seats, and progressed towards the field of balloons collecting fellow passengers from other hotels. Eventually, we reached a large open field where about a dozen balloons were lying flat on the ground, waiting to be inflated.
If you've never flown in a hot air balloon, the process can seem a little intimidating, and rudimentary, at first. Workers prepare the balloons and begin to fill them with cold air using large fans while others hold open the canvas and do their best not to be swept inside. During this process, further pre-flight checks are performed by walking around inside the balloon and inspecting it. Once the checks are complete, the workers switch on the gas burners and aim them into the balloons. The burners are not much different from large flamethrowers, heating the air inside a balloon big enough to lift a basket laden with 18 people. The basket had four compartments, with four people in each, and the pilot with his trainee in the middle. We managed to get into a corner of the compartment, where we thought we would have the best view.
As our pilot expertly raised the balloon, opening and closing vents to give everyone a panoramic view, we were treated to a sight few are lucky enough to see with their own eyes. Temples rise as far as the eye can see. Some rival the size of European cathedrals, while others could comfortably fit in a one car garage. You cannot help but feel like an early explorer, discovering a long-forgotten, powerful civilization.
At the height of its power in the mid-11th century, the people of the kingdom of Bagan began to build temples in honor of Buddha as an act of earning merit. Their king, Anawrahta, united this ancient kingdom, and allowed this temple building to persist for some 200 years until the Mongol invasion.
This is why there is no apparent pattern to the arrangement of the temples, people simply built them as they had the means. As we float gracefully above them, we notice a handful clustered together, then one or two alone, followed by more clusters with a larger structure among them. Nearly all of them are the red color of the earth from which their bricks were made, but some have been refurbished and sparkle with white stone and gold leaf.
The scale is made even more amazing once you recall that what is standing today represents only a fraction of the temples that once dotted this plain. Over 2,000 pagodas and monasteries are standing today, which is down significantly from the 10,000 that could once be seen here. Over the centuries, many have either been looted or fallen in one of the many earthquakes that regularly shake this region.
There are several types of temples in Bagan, and it is important to understand the difference. Stupas, or pagodas, are solid and act as monuments. Others, with large interior spaces, serve as temples or monasteries.
From our high perch, we are able to appreciate the size and power of this ancient kingdom in a more meaningful way, and imagine a rich city teaming with carpenters, artists, and leaders focused on creating lasting monuments. Yet today, far below, we see a present-day Bagan. People still farm the land among the temples, using simple means. Oxen plow the fields as well as pull the carts filled with the harvest. A family is cooking a meal, children are laughing and playing, and monks can be seen walking down the dirt roads. There is no better way to experience Bagan, or to appreciate and understand both what is was and what it is today, than to see it from the sky.
After a wonderful trip, we had an expert, though tricky, landing into a small field. Our pilot needed to land at the far end of the field to make room for another balloon behind us. That balloon scraped the tops of trees before landing so close that our balloons hit, pushing so much air out that we nearly tipped over. In order to soothe us, and to celebrate a beautiful morning, we were treated to some champagne and pastries by our guides.
MYSTERIOUS WATER WORLD
Inle lake is a mysterious water world. A place where Intha fisherman row canoes with one leg, gardens float, and wooden homes stand on the water on rickety stilts. We took a few days to explore this amazing lake, and found there is even more to this place than meets the eye.
Nearly everything is made from, and on, the lake. From floating farms, to blacksmiths, to weavers and more. While silk weaving is present throughout several areas of Myanmar, Inle is also known for its lotus weaving, meticulously spun using the long stems of the lotus plant. Time consuming and work-intensive, the stems are pulled apart to expose their silken filaments and rolled into thicker and thicker threads. An unimaginable amount of time and effort is required to build a full spool, let alone weave it into a garment. For perspective, it takes over 200,000 lotus stalks to create one scarf of pure lotus fiber! We wandered through the weaving houses, several generations of weavers working as we went. Slowly whittling the fibers into thread and carefully cutting through the lotus stems to separate them out for use.
Dozens of ethnic groups, each with their own language and customs, live on or around the lake. The Padaung, or "long-neck", tribe, also called Kayan Lahwi, are one such group. The length of their neck is actually an "illusion." The space between the vertebrae may increase, however, it does not actually elongate. In fact the rings press both the collar bone and the upper ribs downward, compressing them. The elderly lady actually removed her lower rings for us to satisfy our curiosity.
Running on a 5-day schedule, markets rotate their way around the lake, allowing for each hill tribe to descend toward the waters edge for their shopping. With bright towels on their heads and colorful woven bags, the Pa-O were different than the other tribes in Myanmar, dressed in black pants and tops and all wearing khaki canvas lace-up shoes.
Boats full of Pa-O would motor up to the market each morning, parking in a chaotic inkblot of wood and paddles, requiring anyone arriving later to jump through all the boats to reach land. Getting in and out of the markets was itself a feat; lots of good-natured yelling and laughing and maneuvering to set the boats free.
The markets themselves were a feast for the eyes, and a kaleidoscope for the nose, with bright spices lining the ground leading into the main market area, piles of fresh vegetables, coconut sweets, and rows upon rows of freshly caught fish for sale. One thing is certain, the tomatoes grown on the lake, and the soup made from them, is out of this world.
On the western bank of the mysterious water world that is Inle Lake, after a short walk through the heart of Myanmar's jungle, our guide led us to a small village known as Indein. With over a thousand ancient pagodas of many shapes and sizes and in various states of ruin, we couldn't believe our eyes. Some of them have been restored by wealthy locals, but most are in a crumbling state overgrown with bushes.
The village is reached only by boat through the Inn Thein creek, a long narrow foliage-cloaked canal that winds through the dense overgrowth. The scenic 8 kilometer boat ride from Inle Lake can be made only in the rainy season and winter, and not in summer as the water becomes too shallow.
The Phaung Daw Oo pagoda is the most highly revered monastery in the Inle Lake area. At the center is an ornate shrine with a pedestal, on which the five 800-plus-year old images of the Buddha are kept.
So much gold leaf has been applied to the images that they have become unrecognizable as Buddha images and look like a solid mass of gold. Every day Buddhist devotees come to the monastery to pay their respect to the images and apply more gold leaf, which only men are allowed to do.
Near the pagoda is the boat shelter where the Karaweik boat is stored that carries the five images in procession across the lake during the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda festival. The 18 day festival is the most important festival in the Shan state, where the royal barge is towed to the villages around Inle lake, and the images stay in the main monastery for one night.
Above all of the mystery, adventure, and unique culture, we will remember the people of Myanmar the most. Their kind, generous, and welcoming hearts gave us a new perspective. The rapid influx of new ideas and culture from the west are threatening their old traditions, yet providing hope beyond their current borders: physical, mental, and spiritual. We are so lucky to visit when we did, and while we deeply desire to return, we know it will be a drastically different place when we do.