A Travellerspoint blog


Myanmar South: Gold, Decay & More Buddhas

sunny 25 °C

Back to Yangon again, and then the next morning we started to head south. Most of the southern strip of Myanmar dissolves into a beautiful archipelago of blue waters, white sand and stunning coral that is unfortunately almost completely off limits to foreigners. We only make it less than 200km out of Yangon but that's pushing up against the outer limits of as far as we can go.

Our first stop is Kyaitiko, also known (for reasons that will become painfully clear) as Golden Rock. This is one of the holiest sites in Myanmar; correspondingly getting there does feel like a bit of a pilgrimage at times. First step is the early bus out of Yangon, taking us a few hours south to Kinpun town, a bit of a nothing place. Next step is to get in the back of a huge pickup lorry, luxuriously fitted out with arse-chewing wooden slats with about 13 inches of leg room inbetween them. Just for fun, look down and estimate how long the span from the back of your bum to the front of your knee is. More than 13 inches? Yes, us too. We have to concertina into this torture contraption while willowy Burmese are shovelled in around us, bending in some arcane way that means they actually seem quite comfortable as our blood pools in novel and painful places. The truck was then held on until 48 people were in the back:


Once we were loaded beyond the point of suspension of disbelief, it was a bone-crunching 45 minute ride, up steep gradients and down scary troughs like a rollercoaster, to the top. The ride was further improved as the two girls in front of us vomited continuously into small plastic bags which they lobbed over the side, and finally as the old lady next to me started to eat the stinkiest durian fruit sweets ever (more on the King of Fruits, the durian another time).

At the top we hobbled off and started walking. It was another 45 minutes up steep paths before we got to the top. Luckily, most of the way is lined with stalls selling refreshing coconut juice & sugar cane, as well as huge bamboo swords and machineguns, stinky dried stuff and oil that had been infused with the essence of animal skulls and huge millipedes (really). Once there we had the privilege of staying in the single most overpriced hotel room in the country at the Mountain Top Hotel (the hotel can basically charge what it wants as it's the only hotel at the top; if you don't stay there then you don't get to see the Rock at sunset or sunrise.

Summary: once we got to the top we were tired, sore and poor. Then we saw the Golden Rock and it all went away in a heartbeat.

Kyaitiko is one of those sights that you really couldn't get anywhere else, and once you see them you wonder why everyone isn't there. Take one huge rock, perilously balanced atop another (to the extent that you can see daylight underneath it). Plant one medium-sized pagoda on top of said rock. Cover the whole thing in gold. Sounds very simple but the whole thing is stunningly beautiful, and takes on a really intense atmosphere at dusk as the pilgrims pour in and start doing their chant-offs.


One of the best things about Buddhist holy sites is that Buddhists are always (in our experience) some of the most laid-back people you could encounter and are always happy for you to poke around their sites & participate in their rituals. Hence, I got to put on a few more layers of gold leaf! It's only men on the platform as women aren't allowed there - so I also got to put on some leaves for a female Japanese tourist who accosted me. Our path to nirvana is assured. Well, maybe not, but we should have avoided some of the nastier lower reincarnations, like a lichen or a worm in a dog's stomach.


Posted by pendleton 20:13 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

6 million temples beats 4 million temples (just)

sunny 30 °C

From Yangon we fly north to Bagan. Bagan is a dry central plainsland which had a spectacular fit of temple-building once the then-king converted to Buddhism, building of the order of 4000 temples in a couple of hundred years. Many of the temples stand derelict now (apparently because the religious leaders have decided that renovating a temple accrues no religious merit, however building a new one does. Not very reduce, reuse, recycle...) but this only adds to the atmosphere.

We are staying in a small, very low-key backpacker town called Nyaung U which is probably one of the quietest places we have yet been to. There are about as many horse-drawn carts as there are motorcycles, and significantly more bicycles than either. The entire town feels moribund by about 8:30 at night. The main draw is to spend one's days bicycling (or, for the slightly ill and slightly lazy like us, horse-drawn-carting) around the central plain, poking around different temples, trying to remember which one you were just poking at and playing spot-the-difference.


For a quick change from pagodas (it's very possible to get over-pagoda'd in this country) we took a day trip out to Mount Popa, home of the nats. Burmese nats are very unique to the country; they are sort of like a cross between a patron saint and a malevolent spirit which must be placated. Some of them are the stuff of legend; some are recent historical figures; most of them seem to have come to unhappy ends (especially Drunkard Nat). While poking around the part of the nat shrine which was semi-closed for renovations we noticed a figure who looked very much the Hindu god Ganapati. Who's that, we ask our guide? Ah, Hindu nat, he replies. Fair enough.


From Bagan we fly west to Sittwe, a pretty unremarkable town close to the Bangladesh border, and then took a 5 hour cruise up the river to Mrauk U (pronounced "miaow OOo" by the locals). Now we are officially miles from anywhere. Some intensive beermat calculus reveals that we think there are approximately 40 tourists in the town at the moment. On an average day we will spot approximately 8 other foreign faces: 6 of those being from our guesthouse. Here one follows a similar program to Bagan: get up, bike around, find temples from Lonely Planet guidebook, find other random temples, climb up hills, chat to monks, go down random paths, find more temples. But the place has a really special atmosphere - much more magical than Bagan. It could be because the town is still 'properly' inhabited. It could be because there are more hills, and moisture, and hence more trees here. Not sure. Regardless, this is small-town Burma at it's best, and we have an unreasonable amount of fun peddling around under the scorching sun, with schoolchildren screaming "Hello! Bye-bye!" everywhere we go, finding interesting temples and Buddha images, and then retiring to our attached beer garden for daily post-mortems with our Canadian and Swiss co-conspirators. And hot and sour pork with rice.


In the morning it's all very 'Camelot. Camelot. Camelot!'


We also took a boat trip up the river to visit a couple of Chin villages and met some friendly old ladies with tattooed faces, and the cutest village girls in the world...


And some cheroot-smoking monks, of course.


Posted by pendleton 02:27 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

Rangoon, Queen of the East

sunny 30 °C

What to expect of a place like Burma?

Ramrod-straight lines of military police everywhere? Shuffling citizens, with broken hearts and averted eyes? Bodies still floating in the delta?

None of the above, as it turns out. The international terminal of Yangon airport is clean, modern and slightly empty-feeling. Almost startlingly so, in fact. Most of our fellow travellers on this head-spinningly early flight from Bangkok are not grizzled NGO workers or carefree globe-trotters (like us), but Chinese, Thai and some European package tourists. Blonde-haired couples tote blonde-haired children in strolleys.

Not what we expected, frankly. But then we leave the terminal and everything is a bit more reconcilable – the humid air hits us like a swampy wall, the buildings look like they have been gently fermenting in the heat since, well, 1962, and the cars on the road would be an interesting study in vintage Toyotas and Datsuns if it wasn't such a thrill ride being in these rust buckets.

Our taxi driver, Win, speaks excellent English (as do many of the people we meet over the next week – despite English no longer being taught in schools) and is well informed on the world – relentlessly grilling us over our travels. The conversation remains apolitical – as do most conversations we have had with most taxi drivers all over the world – but our minds are fizzing away, looking for a political undertone in every statement. We do later on manage to talk a little politics with a couple of people, but not just yet.

Yangon is an intriguing place – a mix of old colonial buildings, beautiful Burmese-style teak houses and general dilapidation. And so many interesting faces on the street! Burma is the major land link between China and India, as well as having borders with Bangladesh, Thailand and Laos, and it shows in the faces of passers-by – we quickly lose track of the number of different-looking peoples. We don't see much of this capital in all but name on this visit – just one temple and a bit of organising.

Ah, well, did I say just one temple? Actually we went to the Shwedagon Paya. Not heard of it? No, we hadn't either, until we bought the LP Burma on a whim. But, having been there, the fact that the entire world hasn't heard of it perplexes me whenever I think about it.

Imagine a huge, conical spaceship, about the size of a football field. Imagine it were made entirely of gold, and shone with a radiance that outshone anything your tired eyes had ever seen. Imagine it were placed in the middle of something like a square kilometre of other temples, altars, Buddha images, bells, statues, ornate umbrellas, halls and prayer rooms. And imagine that everything was covered in gold. Everything. And then outlined with flashing LEDs. And topped with a fistful of the biggest diamonds, rubies and sapphires in the world. That pretty much sums up the Shwedagon Paya. Especially at night.

I still can't really believe it's real. Just to labour the point, I haven't retouched these photos in the slightest, not even the levels.



Posted by pendleton 22:53 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

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