Magnificent Myanmar (or Burma in old money…)

Inside the Customs office at the Moreh-Tamu border crossing from India into Myanmar there was a tablet on the wall announcing the following proclamation:

“MYANMAR SPIRIT

The simple-minded Myanmars have no envy against those having fair complexions, nor hatred for the Brownishs nor differentiate with the Blackishs, nor hostile to those of different faiths. They have brethren love & affection and respect equally for all.

Irrespective of above all, if the affairs of our country, nation, land, history, culture, religion & preaching are interfered with a foxy-trick to implicate national politics, it would be dealt with severely howsoever great or small, black or white and so on with all the might but without a single word to finish to the end even if we are left by a single person with full of injuries lying in a pool of blood.”

Wow! We made a solemn pact then and there to avoid any ‘foxy-trickery’ for the next two weeks lest we have to fight the Myanmars to the last man. In our quest we would be aided and abetted by a bevy of local helpers, for Mynamar is another country where access with your own vehicle is only possible with a guide. We had signed up for a two-week tour with Osuga Myanmar Travel and were delighted to find Mister Lin (Director) and Mister Myo (Guide – pronounced ‘mew’) waiting for us at the Indian border checkout, both attired in Myanmar longyi, a wrap around sarong in fetching mini-sort-of-Black Watch tartan. We then met the similarly attired Mister Sam (Driver) and Mister Chaew (Government Official). Another Wow!! Four hosts to guide just the pair of us for the next thirteen days…

Up until 1989 Myanmar was known by its ‘old money’ name of Burma. The military dictatorship who took over in 1988 decided to change this partly to reflect a correct application of the Burmese language where Myanmar is the written, literary name of the country, while Bama (corrupted to Burma) is the spoken name of the country and hence the name applied by Europeans when they first came to the area and asked what it was called. While the Burmese are the largest ethnic people within the population, there was also a desire to use the more inclusive ‘Myanmar’ (pronounced Mee-an-mar) to reflect all of the other peoples of the country. Sadly the same dictatorship was bent on a regime of repression and terror that has only recently ended and this year sees the inauguration of a new democratically elected government. There was a feeling of great optimism amongst the people we met and the winds of change had certainly freshened the place up (yet guides remain mandatory).

Our penultimate evening in India, in Imphal, saw us dining with a couple of Indian bikers travelling the other way, on their way home having just finished a tour of SE Asia. They seemed a little disheartened… “Myanmar; what a place! We stopped for some food at a roadside halt just short of the border. Toilets were spotlessly clean. There is no litter. Everyone drives at a reasonable pace and shows courtesy on the roads. Why does a line in the sand have to make it all so different?” After our time in India these were welcome words indeed and so it was to be. Over the first few days in Myanmar we gradually unwound, feeling an incredible sense of relief at just having survived India and actually began to enjoy riding our motorcycles once again, secure in the knowledge that the craziest roads were now behind. Myanmar would prove to be one of the most beautiful lands we have ever visited. If India can go around calling itself ‘Incredible’, then Myanmar is surely entitled to the appellation ‘Magnificent’. It is a special place peopled by lovely and graceful folk who always met us with the beautiful singsong greeting of ‘min-găla-ba’. Over the next twelve nights and thirteen days we chased a trail that led us along a string of pearls bringing us to some of the most outstanding and memorable locations ever in all of our travels.

A two-day ride took us through spectacular rolling hill country and down onto the plains of the Irrawaddy to our first halt; the ruined temple fields at Bagan close to the centre of the country. From the 9th to 13th centuries, the city was the capital of Pagan, the kingdom that first consolidated the area we know today as Myanmar. In its heyday over ten thousand Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and monasteries were constructed in the plains along the river around Bagan but over time many have been destroyed, mainly by earthquakes as the area is prone to these violent dislocations. Yet today there remain over 2200 of the structures still standing and they make for a truly remarkable sight…

Riding in to Bagan we nearly fell out of the saddle at the spectacle around us. The area is parched flatland presenting vistas of stubby trees interspersed with bewildering otherworldy spires of stupas and pagodas stretching off into the horizon. Literally thousands of them, pinky-red in colour for the most but here and there flecked with sparkles of white and twinkles of gold. Some are monstrous, vast temples reaching way up into the firmament, yet others are barely the size of a humble telephone box and together their pinnacled roofs seem to form an ancient ground array to communicate with the stars. We spent a day touring the site learning that stupas are solid constructions, built to contain relics or icons, while pagodas are many tiered ‘buildings’ and all serve as places of veneration for the Buddha. Having said that the distinction is blurry as some stupas are bigger than pagodas and some sites have combinations of both arrayed in staggering symmetry.

Inside the pagodas are many representations of Buddha in every scale from the miniature to the gigantic. Most spectacular was the Shwezigon Pagoda, believed to enshrine a bone and tooth of Gautama Buddha. We entered through a gateway guarded by a pair of 20-foot tall white Leogryphs (mythical lion-griffins) and followed a dull concrete, roofed pavilion, all of this effectively shielding the visitor from the spectacle within. Then a blaze of sudden gold heralded the sight of the main stupa and our field of vision widened to take in one of the greatest ‘wows’ in all our travels. With dropped jaws we padded around this amazing place, only brought back to earth by the request from a group of young monks to have their picture taken with us.

From Bagan we rode to Mandalay, stopping off at Mount Popa along the way. Another impressive pagoda at the core of Popa Taungkalat monastery, the whole lot perched atop the lofty stub of an ancient volcano and only reachable by a long barefoot hike up a series of 777 steps. The energy (and sweat) expended on the climb was well worth it to gain the breathtaking views over the surrounding national park in every direction. Mandalay itself held further mountain top pagodas and also the beautiful lines of the Kuthodaw Paya, heralded as the largest ‘book’ in the world. There are 730 double-sided pages, each presented as a marble tablet roughly 1m wide x 1.5m tall, individually encased in a phalanx of mini-stupas. Taken together, they contain the entire text of the Tipitaka (the sacred texts of Theravada Buddhism). The 730 tablets are then arranged around another glittering golden pagoda, the whole array interspersed with mythical sounding Starflower trees and the overall effect is simply that of serene beauty.

Travelling on, more pagodas, stupas and mystical places all added to this impression of ‘Magnificent Myanmar’. Near the highland country around Inle Lake we visited a natural cave in the mountains at Pindaya crammed, in addition to its natural stalagmites and stalactites, with over 8000 Buddha statues making yet another unique spectacle unlike anything we’ve seen anywhere else on the planet. And then, saving the best until last, we entered Yangon (formerly Rangoon) the old capital city. There, the ‘Great Dragon Pagoda’ (Shwedigan Pagoda) blew away everything we’d seen up to now in just about every way be it scale, size, dimension, grandeur or just the sheer amount of gold plastered everywhere. According to tradition two merchant brothers from the city of Balkh (in modern Afghanistan) met the Lord Gautama Buddha during his lifetime and received eight of his hairs. The brothers then traveled to Burma and, with the help of the local ruler, King Okkalapa, found Singuttara Hill, the site of the present pagoda, where relics of other Buddhas preceding Gautama Buddha had been enshrined. According to legend, when the king opened the golden casket containing the hairs, incredible miracles happened:

“There was a tumult among men and spirits … rays emitted by the Hairs penetrated up to the heavens above and down to hell … the blind beheld objects … the deaf heard sounds … the dumb spoke distinctly … the earth quaked … the winds of the ocean blew … Mount Meru shook … lightning flashed … gems rained down until they were knee deep … all trees of the Himalayas, though not in season, bore blossoms and fruit.”

A pagoda has existed on this site for some 2,600 years, making the Shwedigan Pagoda the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world. The original was destroyed by earthquake and rebuilt several times and the present structure has a base made from bricks covered with gold plates and today pilgrims can paste tiny sheets of gold leaf to add to the veneer. Above the base are terraces that only monks and males can access. The structure then ascends into a bell-shaped upper part, which continues upwards to a glittering crown studded with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies, the whole lot topped by a 76-carat (15 g) diamond.

During our stay in Myanmar the thermometer was creeping steadily upwards, regularly reaching the high 30°C’s and some welcome relief was in hand in the shape of Thingyan, the Water Festival that celebrates the coming of the New Year. I suspect there is a lot of religious ceremony attached but basically it is all just an excuse for the biggest water fight in the world! Osuga again did a magnificent job organising an open-bed micro-truck for us to take part in the celebrations. Loaded up with waterpistols and beer, we set off downtown where the main drags were lined with sound stages festooned with water jets; everything from garden hoses to full blown water-cannon to drench everyone passing while having a monster rave!

Thingyan was a fitting climax to our stay in Myanmar. Boogied out yet elevated and elated by our time here we made one last stop in Kyaikhtiyoe to see a gravity-defying Golden Rock. A mandatory forty-minute, white-knuckle open-topped truck ride that was at times ‘gravity-defying’ itself, took us to the summit via a jungle track that looped through the mountains. The enormous boulder, gilded from years of gold leaf applied by adherents (if you’ll pardon the pun) of the Buddhist faith, is indeed an incredible spectacle. Somewhat squat in appearance (about 25 feet high with a circumference of 50 feet) it sits independently overhanging a natural platform by about half of its length. The contact area is miniscule and it all looks like a hefty sneeze would send it tumbling. A glimpse of the rock, which has sat precariously balanced in this area riddled with earthquakes since the beginning of time, is believed to offer enough inspiration for anyone to turn to Buddhism. While it is indeed a remarkable natural phenomenon to behold, I am glad to report that I felt no urge to convert and found any sanctity that the site may hold to be somewhat marred by the procession of tacky souvenir and fast-food stalls that line the approach.

A final drive to the border and our next country; Thailand. The Water festival runs for five days and all along that final 170-mile ride we ran the gauntlet, getting drenched by everything from waterpistols to hosepipes to buckets of water all delivered by a nation of celebrants in full party swing. Myanmar had been ‘Magnificent’ and will forever remain a highlight of our motorcycling endeavours. The only slight downer was the obligation to do it all guided. While Osuga laid on a fantastic itinerary, with some beautiful hotels and great tables, the costs involved meant a relatively speedy progress through Myanmar. Had we been travelling independently and without these constraints, we would have stayed for a very long time…

Clarification: The guide requirement for entering Mynamar is only applicable when taking your own vehicle. We met a New Zealander who had flown in to rent an XT125 Yamaha and was having a ball riding unescorted…

The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking on the following link: Magnificent Myanmar

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