Itinerary: Yangon – Mandalay – Bagan – Taung Kalat – Kalaw – Pindaya – Inle Lake – Yangon
It is the largest country in south-east Asia (slightly larger than France), but also the least visited country. Many people know it as Burma, but the country has been officially called the Republic of the Union of Myanmar since 1989. Myanmar has more than 51 million inhabitants, 90% of whom are Buddhists. A majority of 68% is ethnic Burmese.
Like most other countries in south-east Asia, Myanmar has a long history of changing kingdoms and dynasties, migration of ethnic groups from China and Thailand and invasions by the Mongols, among others. From the late nineteenth century, the country was part of British India. It became independent in 1948, but that didn’t last very long. In 1962 a military coup took place, companies were nationalized and opposition was banned. The military junta cut off Burma from the outside world and the country quickly became underdeveloped.
Despite some large-scale protests against the military rule, with Aung San Suu Kyi as a symbol of the democratization movement, the military junta has managed to retain power for more than half a century. Reforms have only been implemented slowly since 2010 and Myanmar has had a civilian government again since 2015. The country is slowly developing into a democracy, but power is still largely in the hands of a small elite of soldiers, politicians and wealthy businessmen with close ties to each other.
Due to half a century of seclusion, Myanmar is much less developed and ‘westernized’ than its neighboring countries. You won’t find any McDonalds and Starbucks her – although that’s probably just a matter of time. Myanmar is now developing rapidly and tourism is on the rise. Although some of the money from tourists ends up in the pockets of corrupt politicians and businessmen, tourism also contributes to Myanmar’s economic growth and also benefits local entrepreneurs and people working in tourism.
I leave on Sunday afternoon from Amsterdam Airport with an Emirates A380 towards Dubai, and then fly on to Yangon. Yangon is located in southern Myanmar, at the mouth of the Ayeyarwady River. Until 1989, the city was called Rangoon and it was the capital of first British Burma and later independent Myanmar. In 2005, the city lost its position as capital to the newly founded Naypyitaw, which is more centrally located. It is a quarter past eleven local time on Monday morning when we land in Yangon. I am met at the airport by tour guide Myo, who will accompany me and four fellow travelers for the next two weeks. The first afternoon I take it easy, tired from the long flight.
After a good night’s sleep and a breakfast with noodles and coffee, we take a local (and packed) bus to the old center of Yangon the next day. In the center, most sights are within walking distance of each other. Yangon turns out to be a busy city with a lot of traffic. The streets can’t handle that, so traffic is almost permanently stuck. The official horn ban is completely ignored; honking sounds everywhere. Even the narrow sidewalks are crowded, but the people are very polite and friendly – and that makes you respond the same way. Crossing the street means risking your life between the cars, that’s how they are used to it here and you better adapt to that.
We visit the Theingyi Zei Market, a local market for vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, herbs and spices. Everything is open and exposed on the street, unrefrigerated – while it is 36 degrees, one of the reasons why as a Westerner you can’t just eat everything. We pay a short visit to the Sri Kali, a small temple where the Hindu inhabitants of Yangon come to worship their gods. Next, we arrive at the Mahabandoola Garden, an open park centered on the unmissable Independence Monument: a large obelisk commemorating independence from the British in 1948. The park is also home to Sule Pagoda, a large, gilded pagoda that glitters in the sun. Dating back to the tenth century, the 43-metre-high pagoda is the focal point of the old town, but today it stands in the middle of a busy roundabout.
Along Pansodan Street are several beautiful colonial buildings. Many of them are in poor condition, but some have been or are being restored. Hopefully those old buildings will be preserved; the Myanmar people associate the buildings with the old colonial regime, but they give the city a nice look and they are important for attracting tourists. We then take a taxi to Kandawgyi Lake, an artificial lake (the name literally means ‘great royal lake’) with a park around it. Maybe it’s because it’s a weekday, but the park is completely deserted. In the lake is the Karaweik Palace, a floating palace that is younger (1974) than the design suggests. Tastes differ, but I find it a rather disfigured thing.
After lunch we walk to the Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda, with a gigantic reclining Buddha with a total length of no less than 68 meters. The Buddha’s eyebrows alone are three meters long. The statue was made between 1959 and 1974. It is an impressive statue in an otherwise very ugly hall. This also applies to the Nga Htat Gyi Pagoda, diagonally opposite the Chauk Htat Gyi. Here too a large Buddha statue – but this one is – in an ugly hall. Speaking of ugly: for one reason or another Myanmar people think it is beautiful to provide their Buddha statues with flickering LED lights in all kinds of colors. Quite kitschy if you ask me.
Mandalay and Surroundings
After the sightseeing in Yangon I have some time to take a shower. At half past six we leave for the bus station, from where we will take the night bus to Mandalay. Mandalay is Myanmar’s second largest city and was founded in 1857, twenty years before the British conquered the city. The journey takes about nine hours and we stop three times along the way, once in the middle of the night at a place where several buses stop and dozens of people not only go to the toilet, but also eat (at midnight…).
Despite the fact that we travel with a neat, comfortable bus, I hardly sleep on the way. We arrive in Mandalay at half past six in the morning. Fortunately, our hotel rooms are already available and breakfast is also ready. Well settled. Then I go to bed for a while to try to get some sleep (which I don’t). At noon we leave by boat for Mingun, a small town north of Mandalay. It’s an hour’s boat ride on the Ayeyarwady River, time we spend with a cup of coffee lounging in bamboo chairs on the top deck of the slowly moving boat. A wonderfully relaxed trip, thanks to which the night bus feels a long time ago.
The first thing you see when you get to Mingun is a huge mound of reddish brown bricks. This is the never-finished Mingun Pagoda. The structure, which began construction in 1790, is fifty meters high, but the original plan was to turn it into a 150 meter high pagoda. Two earthquakes have left huge cracks in the pagoda built by slaves and prisoners of war. You wonder what all that work has been for…
In Mingun we walk past the Settaya Paya, a small pagoda with a so-called footprint of Buddha, and past the Mingun Bell, a ninety-ton bell with a diameter of five meters, said to be the largest working bell in the world (although I believe that more countries claim to have the largest bell). The highlight of Mingun is the Hsinbyume Paya, a large, white-painted complex consisting of a central dome (representing Mount Sumeru, the center of the Buddhist cosmos) surrounded by seven undulating plateaus. At the top you have a panoramic view of the surroundings. It is an impressive building, which somehow also reminds a bit of a huge white cream cake…
At the end of the afternoon we sail back to Mandalay and after that we have Thai food at a restaurant with a view of the river and the sunset. The next morning we get up very early, to be able to watch the sun rise at the U Bein bridge. Built in 1859, U Bein Bridge spans Taungthaman Lake and is the longest teak pedestrian bridge in the world at 1,200 meters in length. In the dry season (now) you walk high above the water, in the rainy season the water rises to just below the planks of the bridge deck. The sunrise, together with the bridge, makes for beautiful photos.
The U Bein Bridge is located in Amarapura, a small village just outside Mandalay. After having coffee at a roadside spot, we visit the Shwe Kyat Yat, a pagoda overlooking the Ayeyarwady River and the large arch bridge between Amarapura and Saigang. Saigang is on the other side of the river. From Saigang Hill you have a beautiful view of the area. You see stupas everywhere. On the hill itself is the U Min Thone Ze Pagoda, a bended building with a gallery of dozens of Buddha images inside. Also on top of the hill is of course a temple: the Soon Oo Pon Nya Shin Paya.
Many of the sights we visit are also for the people of Myanmar themselves. It is currently holiday season in Myanmar and so there are also many people traveling in their own country. We Westerners are just as much of an attraction to them as their country is to us. We are constantly being looked at and smiled at and people regularly want to have their picture taken with us. We end up in a lot of Myanmar photo albums!
The Mahamuni Paya is the main temple in Mandalay, with a four meter high golden Buddha. Male visitors buy small pieces of gold leaf and stick it on the Buddha (women are not allowed to enter the inner part of the temple where the statue is located). After a short stop at Shwenandaw Kyaung, a nineteenth century teak monastery building, we head to Kuthodaw Pagoda. This complex consists of 729 stone stupas and in each of them is a stone engraved with part of the Triptaka (Buddhist stories). The Kuthodaw Pagoda is therefore also called the ‘largest book in the world’. Its construction began in 1857 and took over ten years. Next to the Kuthodaw Pagoda is the Sandamuni Pagoda. This pagoda also has a large number of ornate white stupas, no fewer than 1774 pieces, around a central golden dome. These stupas contain stones with commentaries on the Triptaka. In my opinion the Sandamuni is the nicer of the two.
Finally on this hot day we go to Mandalay Hill. On top of this hill, on the north side of Mandalay, is the Sutaungpyi Paya. Here too glitter and decoration of mosaic, mirrors and lots of gold of course. The complex has a spacious terrace all around, from where you look out over the surroundings. It is a popular place to watch the sun go down. For now I have seen enough pagodas and Buddha statues. And Bagan has yet to come…
On Friday morning we drive in a midsize bus filled with other tourists in just under five hours to Nyaung U. There we first take the time for a late lunch, before visiting the Shwezigon Pagoda. This is the main pagoda of Nyaung U and a popular pilgrimage site for Myanmar Buddhists. A large gilded stupa (currently wrapped up for renovation) surrounded by numerous smaller shrines. The pagoda is one of the oldest in the Bagan region, built in the eleventh century. The complex also contains other shrines, including a large standing Buddha and a ‘dead Buddha’ (recognizable by the fact that he lies with his feet parallel to each other). Beautiful buildings and all in all an impressive pagoda.
Then we drive with a minibus to (New) Bagan. There, we take a dip in the hotel pool, the rest of the evening it’s time to relax. We have two full days to explore Bagan and Saturday will be the first. We do this by electric scooters, which are perfect because Bagan’s temples and pagodas are spread over a large area and it is too hot to cycle. Bagan is in fact a seventy square kilometer open-air museum, a vast plain dotted with over 2,000 ancient temples and pagodas, all built between the mid-eleventh and late thirteenth centuries. If you are at a higher point, you can see the stupas rising above the vegetation all around you.
The temples and pagodas we visit today are all in and around Old Bagan. First we go to the Shwesandaw Pagoda. Shwesandaw was built around 1057, making it one of the first major structures in Bagan. The structure has several terraces, reached by steep stairs, surrounding a bell-shaped stupa (currently wrapped up for renovation). At the top you have a fantastic view of the surroundings.
Next we go to the Ananda Paya, built in 1090, and one of the largest and therefore also one of the most impressive of the temples in Bagan. The top is no less than 52 meters high. The temple has an entrance on all four sides, with high teak doors and each guarded by two ‘nats’ (guardian spirits). The surrounding corridors have numerous niches with small Buddha statues and in the inner part of the building are four huge standing Buddhas. Very nice!
After lunch we go to the Htilominlo Paya. Such an impressive building, although surrounded by many souvenir stalls, with four large golden Buddha statues in the four cardinal directions. In contrast, the Upali Thein is built on a much smaller scale: a number of stupas together and a small temple building with murals. We also make a short stop along the way to visit the Minochantha, which can be distinguished by its prominent whitewashed stupas.
The Thatbyinnyu Paya, together with the Ananda Paya, is one of the largest temples in Bagan. The 66-meter-high Thatbyinnyu towers above everything and the massive-looking square structure is not to be missed. As beautiful as the temple looks from the outside, only the inside is so disappointing: bare white walls and four simple-looking Buddha statues on the four sides. The last temple we visit today is the Shwegugyi Paya. It was built in the twelfth century and you can go up via narrow stairs. From the terrace you have a beautiful view of the area and the surrounding pagodas and temples. Here we also watch the sunset in the evening.
Sunday is our second day in Bagan. On the scooter we first visit the Manuha Paya. Here you will find three Buddha statues that only just fit into the space in which they are placed. I even think that first the statues were put in place and then the space was built around it, it’s that tight. The Dhammayangyi Paya, on the other hand, is much more spacious: a complex from the twelfth century, with high corridors in which bats fly around. Here and there old wall paintings are visible and – strikingly – this is the only temple where two Buddhas sit next to each other. The last temple we visit is the Sulamani Paya, dating from the late twelfth century, with beautiful wall paintings of large reclining Buddhas.
Since I’ve really seen enough temples, pagodas and Buddhas, I don’t do much more for the rest of the afternoon than lie in the pool and then relax on a towel in the grass in the hotel garden. 39 degrees is also an perfect temperature for that.
Via Taung Kalat to Kalaw
We leave early on Monday morning. We stop at a small village along the way to get an impression of local life here. The people here live in simple thatched houses with a corrugated iron roof, with one room in which they both cook and sleep. There are some pigs and chickens around, but that’s about it. A big difference with cities like Yangon or Mandalay.
Then we drive to Taung Kalat, also known as Mount Popa, although that is actually the name of the mountain next to it. Taung Kalat is a 737 meter high rock with a temple complex on top, reached by a staircase with 777 steps. Taung Kalat is especially popular with Myanmar people who worship ‘nats’. Nats worship predates the arrival of Buddhism in Myanmar. There are all kinds of nats and associated myths. Although nats did not originally belong to Buddhism, they have become an inseparable part of the Myanmar form of Buddhism.
Then follows a long drive to Kalaw, where we arrive at the end of the afternoon. Kalaw is located in the mountains and has a cooler climate than lower places such as Bagan and Mandalay. The next morning we leave at half past eight for a long walk in the vicinity of Kalaw. We walk on a dirt track, up and down the mountains, past banana plantations and orange groves and through two small villages. In one of them we come across a group of men who are preparing an enormous meal in large cauldrons. The women (who did the cutting) watch from a distance. The food turns out to be for a wedding that will take place the next day and where the whole village will be present.
Fortunately, it is less hot in Kalaw than in Bagan, but 27 degrees is still hot enough for walking. Around half past two we are back in Kalaw. After I shower, I walk to the Morning Star Teahouse, on the street behind the hotel. Teahouses are an integral part of Myanmar’s social life. This teahouse is a simple place, but a great place to relax for a while at a small table outside the door. You have to love the way tea is served in Myanmar: with sugar and milk. Not my cup of tea so to say…
Via Pindaya to Inle Lake
After visiting the local market in Kalaw the next morning (the market here passes through the surrounding villages on a seven-day cycle), we drive to Pindaya, known for the Shwe Oo Min cave. This cave is completely filled with more than 9,000 large and small gold and gilded Buddha statues. Very special to see.
After lunch we drive to Nyaungshwe, the base for boat trips on Inle Lake. Thursday we will spend the whole day on the water. Various ethnic groups live around the lake. They live in villages on the edges of the lake that are built on stilts. In the dry season the houses tower high above the water. The residents have to do everything by boat. On the lake, fishermen are active with traditional conical nets, which propel their boats by operating an oar with one leg. There are also floating gardens, held in place with long bamboo poles, where the inhabitants of the villages grow crops. The fertilization is done with weed that is scooped out of the lake in large quantities by men. You can also (if you find that more interesting than I do) visit weaving mills, silversmiths and their associated shops around the lake.
Back in Yangon
The next day we fly from Heho Airport, 45 minutes from Nyaungshwe, in an hour to Yangon. We are back where we started. It is now 38 degrees and noticeably more humid than a little over two weeks ago. A sign that the rainy season is coming.
At the end of the afternoon we go to the Shwedagon Pagoda. This is Myanmar’s largest Buddhist temple complex, an important shrine, as well as a symbol of national identity and the site of many demonstrations for greater freedom and democracy. The pagoda was probably built sometime between the sixth and tenth centuries, but later enlarged and expanded, only to fall prey to gold robberies and earthquakes. The current 99 meter high golden stupa dates from the 18th century. It is undeniably the largest and most impressive we have seen on this trip. Surrounding the stupa are numerous small shrines and statues, all richly decorated. The Shwedagon Pagoda is crowded, residents of Myanmar come from all over the country to visit the complex (we Westerners are a kind of extra attraction for them). Especially at sunset, the pagoda is very beautiful and very photogenic.
Saturday, my last day in Myanmar, I walk towards the old city of Yangon. Along the Bogyoke Market (where you can buy a lot of jewelry, silk, clothing and souvenirs). A little further on, construction is in full swing, a modern-looking shopping center is almost ready. Here you can see that Myanmar is modernizing rapidly. I continue on Sule Pagoda Street and Anawratha Road, past the partly dilapidated and partly restored Secretariat building to 49th Street. Here is Lucky Seven, a traditional tea house, where it is busy with locals drinking tea and eating noodles. Via the Mahabandoola Road, Pansodan Street and lunch in a small tent where you can eat good and cheap shan noodles, I come back to the Mahabandoola Garden. Here I am going to sit in the grass for a while. At the end of the afternoon I am back at the hotel. The journey is almost over. Another shower and at 10 p.m. we leave for the airport of Yangon, to fly back to the Netherlands, again with a transfer in Dubai.