Bill CarlsonComment

The Road to Mandalay (without Hope, Crosby, or Kipling)

Bill CarlsonComment
The Road to Mandalay (without Hope, Crosby, or Kipling)

Just when you thought you were getting far off the grid, it sneaks up on you, even in the privacy of the hotel restroom. In this case, it's a disco mix of traditional and popular Christmas tunes. Even in this country where 95% of the population is supposed to be Buddhist, you hear electronic versions of Christmas melodies at shopkeepers stalls, ambient versions on portable radios, but mostly disco medleys of everyone's favorite holiday hits. It's anyone's guess as to what the connection is in the minds of these people between 70's mirrored disco ballroom beats and the birth of Jesus.

We begin our trip to Myanmar, aka Burma, in the former capital of Yangon, aka Rangoon. Apparently the British didn't have much patience with listening to the pronunciation of geographical names by the natives and figured that their take on what to call different regions was good enough, something which the citizens of Burma, like the citizens of India, decided to correct here some years back. The Brits did however leave some wonderful Western-style buildings behind and many tree-lined streets that practically create an urban forest but the buildings are now crumbling and decaying from neglect and the wide boulevards are clogged with traffic jams that turn a 3 mile cross-town drive into a 45-minute exhaust-breathing crawl.

At dusk we head for the Shwedagon Pagoda, a magnificent 2,000 year old hilltop temple complex that covers over 12 acres and dominates the Yangon skyline. Everything is either covered in gold leaf or painted gold. Our guide says that when he was young, the usual destination for a family outing was a choice between going to the park or coming here. The Pagoda usually prevailed because it was less expensive than going to the park where money was spent on ice cream and sweets from the street vendors. And, that's very much the feeling one gets: people out to enjoy the sunset and to be with friends and family, but also to light candles, pray, chant, and sing. It's a peaceful, serene place and it really wouldn't be so out of place to imagine a group of wandering Christmas Carolers breaking into a rendition of "Silent Night" here as the sun goes down.

Leaving the big city of Yangon behind, we fly to Bagan, which should be a shoe-in to become a UNESCO World Heritage site (it's currently under consideration by the organization). The best word that comes to mind to describe the rural landscape dotted with the thousands of ancient pagodas and stupas of Bagan is "magical". We are here for 3 days and nights but wish we could linger here for at least a week exploring the ancient temples by riding bicycles along the hard pack dirt roads that crisscross the countryside.

Leaving the big city of Yangon behind, we fly to Bagan, which should be a shoe-in to become a UNESCO World Heritage site (it's currently under consideration by the organization). The best word that comes to mind to describe the rural landscape dotted with the thousands of ancient pagodas and stupas of Bagan is "magical". We are here for 3 days and nights but wish we could linger here for at least a week exploring the ancient temples by riding bicycles along the hard pack dirt roads that crisscross the countryside.

The story our guide tells us is that the King of the first Burmese Empire (back in the 11th century) converted to Buddhism and in his enthusiasm granted his people land and tax breaks if they wanted to build a stupa or pagoda or other monument. This tradition went on for the next couple of hundred years and, as with anyone who starts collecting things, over time you find that you have accumulated a whole lot of them; in this case thousands of shrines to Buddha in all shapes and sizes. Now one can just bicycle around the back roads of Bagan all day and explore isolated (and some very well visited) stupas, pagodas, and temples. Those shrines that can be entered have Buddha statues and alters within and many have interesting frescos on their walls, too.

The story our guide tells us is that the King of the first Burmese Empire (back in the 11th century) converted to Buddhism and in his enthusiasm granted his people land and tax breaks if they wanted to build a stupa or pagoda or other monument. This tradition went on for the next couple of hundred years and, as with anyone who starts collecting things, over time you find that you have accumulated a whole lot of them; in this case thousands of shrines to Buddha in all shapes and sizes. Now one can just bicycle around the back roads of Bagan all day and explore isolated (and some very well visited) stupas, pagodas, and temples. Those shrines that can be entered have Buddha statues and alters within and many have interesting frescos on their walls, too.

After Bagan, the city of Mandalay, the second largest city in Myanmar after Yangon, is a disappointment with little of interest to tourists here in our opinion. There are the requisite number of hillside pagodas and stupas to explore but they are underwhelming compared to what we have already seen. I would just as soon skip this city in order to grab more time in Bagan if "do overs" were possible. The jade market is interesting though. It is a rustic outdoor section of the city where jade sellers and buyers gather in the early mornings to do business. It could pass for a crude street market were it not for the thousands of dollars that are changing hands here for the semi-precious stone.

After Bagan, the city of Mandalay, the second largest city in Myanmar after Yangon, is a disappointment with little of interest to tourists here in our opinion. There are the requisite number of hillside pagodas and stupas to explore but they are underwhelming compared to what we have already seen. I would just as soon skip this city in order to grab more time in Bagan if "do overs" were possible. The jade market is interesting though. It is a rustic outdoor section of the city where jade sellers and buyers gather in the early mornings to do business. It could pass for a crude street market were it not for the thousands of dollars that are changing hands here for the semi-precious stone.

"Get we to a nunnery!" Buddhist nuns sit down for their main meal of the day, which, on this day, was supplied by a Chinese donor. Yes, it is typical for the Buddhist nuns to shave their heads just like the monks. In fact, it is often hard for us to tell them apart with no hair and robes covering all the distinguishing body parts.

"Get we to a nunnery!" Buddhist nuns sit down for their main meal of the day, which, on this day, was supplied by a Chinese donor. Yes, it is typical for the Buddhist nuns to shave their heads just like the monks. In fact, it is often hard for us to tell them apart with no hair and robes covering all the distinguishing body parts.

At a remote site located near a Shan tribe village on Inle Lake, 1068 small shrines and stupas surround a pagoda on the top of a hill. The fascinating landscape seems whimsical and reminiscent of an illustration out of a Dr. Seuss book.

At a remote site located near a Shan tribe village on Inle Lake, 1068 small shrines and stupas surround a pagoda on the top of a hill. The fascinating landscape seems whimsical and reminiscent of an illustration out of a Dr. Seuss book.

A fisherman on Inle Lake demonstrates how they use three limbs at a time to maneuver their boat while trapping fish.

A fisherman on Inle Lake demonstrates how they use three limbs at a time to maneuver their boat while trapping fish.

Relatively narrow but 12 miles long, big Inle lake is home to floating gardens, houses, and ethnic tribal villages.

Relatively narrow but 12 miles long, big Inle lake is home to floating gardens, houses, and ethnic tribal villages.