A Travellerspoint blog

February 2013

Beautiful Bagan

sunny 36 °C

The ancient country of Burma straddles the winding Irrawaddy river for more than two thousand kilometers and is sandwiched between India, Bangladesh, China and Thailand. Like its neighbours, Burma has suffered over the centuries through religious and internecine squabbling. However, in the mid 9th century King Anawratha unified the country under Theravada Buddhism and built some 13,000 temples and stupas at Bagan on the central plain. Here are a few of them…
Oh … and here’s some more…
And what about these…
They just go on and on and on…
There are still more than two thousand of these amazing religious structures scattered around the sandy landscape of Bagan despite all attempts by the ruthless Mongol warrior, Kublai Khan, (grandson of Ghengis Khan), to destroy them in 1387. When the great Venetian explorer and trader Marco Polo visited Bagan just before the marauding Mongols arrived he wrote that "it is a gilded city alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sounds of monks' robes". The monks are still here and some of the stupas and temples have been re-gilded today…
...along with many of the enormous Buddhas...
…but when the Mongol hordes sacked the city they stole all the gold, left the temples in ruins and decimated the population, leaving only a handful of peasants scratching a living on the dusty riverbanks…
Some of the peasant farmers remain, living in flimsy stilt-houses amongst the ruins of great temples…
But most of the area has now been cleared so that we can appreciate the spectacular beauty of this incredible place…
The ancient temples and stupas of Bagan are every bit as impressive as Angkor Wat, Borobudur and the Acropolis. It is truly one of the wonders of the world. Tourists from around the globe are beginning to flock here, so come soon if you can, before this magical historic landscape becomes a parking lot for a thousand tourist buses…

Posted by Hawkson 20:05 Archived in Myanmar Comments (4)

An Irrawaddy Valentine

A Poem of Love from Bagan

sunny 36 °C

We are spending our Valentine's Day on the banks of the Irrawaddy River in Bagan, Burma, and just couldn't resist getting poetic about this romantic river.

We love you, sweet waters of the Irrawaddy – jewel of Burma.
And with the lifting of night’s dark veil,
We see your translucent face turn misty pink in the rays of dawn...

We love you, nourishing waters of the Irrawaddy – giver of life.
We stare in wonderment as exotic birds take their morning dip,
And sing us awake with your praises...

We love you, gentle waters of the Irrawaddy – bringer of tranquility.
And we are humbled by the warmth and kindness of the beautiful people,
Who live upon your sandy shores…

We love you, meandering waters of the Irrawaddy – carrier of treasures.
As we watch the riches of Burma,
Drift southward on your watery highway to the Bay of Bengal…

We love you, bounteous waters of the Irrawaddy – provider of gifts.
As we watch the fishermen and boatmen,
Harvesting your aqueous fields…

We love you, generous waters of the Irrawaddy – bringer of happiness.
As we listen to a peanut picker singing sweet songs,
As she gathers her sand-grown crop...
We love you, beautiful waters of the Irrawaddy – pearl of southeast Asia.
And as the sun sets on yet another glorious day,
We feel the warmth of your love for us…

Happy Valentine…

Posted by Hawkson 03:19 Archived in Myanmar Comments (6)

Rangoon Days

sunny 37 °C

Although many men still wear the traditional sarong-like longyi in Burma, western dress is catching on in the cities. However, many women still paint their faces, and their kids’ faces, with thanakha – an inexpensive yellow cold cream made from the pounded fibres of a local tree…
The seemingly random splodges of yellow make-up, coupled with the red-stained teeth and gums of betel chewers, gives many of the locals an oddly wild appearance. But there’s nothing wild about Rangoon. Despite vestiges of medieval life, and some dirt-poor back streets, Rangoon is quite a modern city. There are plenty of late model cars, (split 50/50 between left and right hand drive), and there are some contemporary office towers and shopping malls. Our 4 star apartment hotel has a cosmopolitan restaurant and well stocked international bar, and the English-speaking Burmese staff are irrepressibly helpful and kind. Nothing is too much trouble - for instance when we pointed the waiter at these unusual wall hangings…
… he thought hard for a few seconds before his face lit up knowingly. “It is a dartboard, Sir,” he said, and when we finally got him looking in the right direction he went off to consult with his colleagues. After a few minutes he returned with a sagacious grin and gravely declared, “We have no idea what they are, Sir. But there are lots more of them over there”. We eventually discovered that they are the Burmese equivalent of a family crest and denote which of the ethnic groups the family belongs.
The Burmese are made up of seven distinct tribes and have differing religious and political affiliations. While Buddhism is the dominant religion there is no shortage of Anglican, Methodist and Catholic churches in Rangoon. However, Buddhist monks in their flowing maroon robes can be seen begging alms everywhere, and the centre of Rangoon is dominated by an extensive Buddhist temple complex atop an enormous hill...
The Shwe Dagon golden stupa can be seen from every corner of the city and, despite a nationwide shortage of electricity, it is brighter than the Eiffel Tower at night. But it is not just the stupa itself which is illuminated. Most of the hundreds of Buddha statues housed in the complex are garishly haloed by pulsating discs of lights which gives the whole thing a touch of Disney…
Once we had taken off our shoes and climbed aboard the high speed elevator we were on a glittering journey through a theme park featuring eight centuries of Buddhism.

Most of the stupas, pagodas and temples date back to the 12th century – and most are covered in real gold leaf - and each of the buildings houses numerous statues of Buddha…
However, this is not a temple. It is an ultra-modern reverse-osmosis water purifier in religious disguise...
These flambouyant VIP worshippers were each shaded by their own parasol carriers, while their offerings and their gold-encrusted children were lugged around by a retinue of servants...
These worshippers had to carry their own offerings...

While Burma may have been left behind technologically during the past couple of decades, there is nothing old fashioned about the Shwe Dagon golden pagado in Rangoon. This place is just about the 'hippiest' eclesiastical monument we've ever seen. Buddhism rocks!

Posted by Hawkson 06:03 Archived in Myanmar Comments (5)

Burmese Surprise

Gong Xi Fa Cai from Rangoon

sunny 38 °C

It’s not surprising that Chinese New Year is big in Burma, after all, China is just north of the border. Burma has a large Chinese population so the food and entertainment was authentic at our hotel’s elaborately decorated poolside restaurant…
And a fluffy Chinese dragon delivered golden gifts to every table while enthusiastic drummers battered our ears..
Until recently, Burma was considered an international pariah, but since Barack O popped in for a visit and gave it the green light the few hotels considered passable by international standards have been crammed with tourists and business-types hoping to get in on the ground floor. We booked everything last August and still had difficulty finding what we wanted without breaking the bank. Don’t even think of coming here without cast iron reservations and a wallet stuffed with pristine American bills.
Rudyard Kipling wrote that, “Burma is quite unlike any place you know about.” We’ve only been here a few days but we fully agree with the old boy scout. We see shades of India without the filth and stray animals; Thailand without the pollution; Malaysia without the strictures of Islam. It’s a land of beautiful people who welcome us with betel-stained smiles wherever we go and want us to know how much they love their country and, especially, how much they love Aung San Suu Kyi, and it is a land of temples and monks...
Burma is full of surprises: the first being that Rangoon (Yangon) is not the capital. We had wondered why there were so many sadly neglected Colonial government buildings like this …
… until we discovered that the capital was moved north to Nay Pyi Daw sometime ago. However, Rangoon is certainly the commercial hub of the country and foreign companies are flooding in to take advantage of the new found openness.
Rangoon is a surprisingly green city with numerous parks, gardens and lakes, and the wide colonial style boulevards are lined with shade trees without a motorbike in sight…
The government banished all motorbikes from the city a number of years ago, and the supposed reasons are legion. Some say that terrorists used them for hit and run assassinations of government officials while others claim criminals rode them to commit grab ’n go thefts. We’ve also heard that a senior politician’s son was killed by one. However, our hotel’s chauffeur offered the most plausible reason, (considering what we know of Asian bikers); that riders simply ignored red lights and laws of the road and caused so much chaos and pollution that the government gave them the chop – What a wonderful idea… Bali take note.
Now we’re off to visit the highlight of Rangoon – the magnificent Shwe Dagon golden temple – before the thermometer blows off steam at midday.
In the meantime, here's the war memorial in Rangoon's city centre...

Posted by Hawkson 16:08 Archived in Myanmar Comments (0)

Rangoon at a Glance

sunny 37 °C

This is one of the most iconic buildings in Southeast Asia – if not the entire world – and it’s a fair bet that you’ve no idea what it is. Had we taken this photograph a few years ago we would now be uploading this blog from the dungeons of a Burmese prison, because this is the building in which President Aung San and six of his ministers were assassinated in July 1947. Following the assassination the government locked the gates and threw away the keys. The entire Minister’s Secretariat complex, built by the British in the late 1800s when Rangoon was one of the greatest colonial cities of the Empire, has been abandoned ever since and until recently the military junta took a dim view of anyone photographing it.
Here is the entrance to another iconic building – the house of Aung San's daughter, Suu Kyi. The Nobel Peace Prize winner needs absolutely no introduction, but here is Sheila standing at the gates in the forlorn hope of getting one...

There is a reason that Noel Coward wrote, “Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun,” while travelling in this part of the world and, to quote a popular1970’s BBC Tv series set in Burma and India, “It Ain’t Half Hot Mum”. It may be the height of the cool season but it’s still a baking 37 degrees in the shade - and the Burmese certainly know how to find shade…
It is only a few years since the military rulers released Suu Kyi from house arrest and began welcoming the world to her doorstep but, we are told, the changes have been dramatic. We were authoritatively, though quite erroneously, informed that we wouldn’t see western TV, we would have difficulty using the internet and that cellphones and ATMs were just a future dream. Well, the future’s here…
Although many people already have their own cellphones, young ladies on every corner will happily rent you time on theirs…
If you are reading this you know that the internet works without censorship, (if you can’t read this then please phone the British/Canadian embassies and report our mysterious disappearance). And, when it comes to television – just how many satellite dishes do you need to bring the world to your doorstep?
Tonight – Chinese New Year, Burmese style. See you tomorrow, (hopefully).

Posted by Hawkson 07:14 Archived in Myanmar Comments (7)

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