Myanmar: 8-day itinerary from Mandalay to Yangoon
I’ve always been fascinated by eastern Countries and the buddhist culture.
My first trip to Asia was in Bali, an island I fell in love with at first sight and always wished to come back to (which I did, read more about Unconventional Bali).
Thailand also is a destination I enjoyed visiting twice, soaking up its history and culture, discovering off-the-beaten path highlights and even experiencing a friend’s wedding! (read more about Authentic Thailand).
So when my father told me he was planning to book a group itinerary in Myanmar by Viaggi Avventure nel Mondo during the Christmas holidays, I promptly proposed myself and Miles to join.
It turned out to be one of the best trips we have ever had thanks to the perfect combination of the incredible beauty of this Country and a crazy group to share the experience with.
Unusual for a Viaggi Avventure tour, the whole itinerary in Myanmar was planned and booked since the period was pretty busy and we also had a local Italian-speaking guide – Titti, a knowledgable and funny guide who made our trip even more memorable.
The itinerary was only 8 days but we managed to cover so much travelling and exploring each day from dawn (actually even much earlier) to dusk, that it felt like a month!
In 2013, Burma was a Country that had opened its frontiers only a couple of years earlier, after a four-decade-militar dictatorship that had kept Myanmar (so called during this period) under the tourist radar. The unfortunate political history of Burma actually helped to preserve its local culture and landscape offering unforgettable sites like the Valley of the Temples in Bagan or the Inle Lake but, most of all, genuine welcoming people.
Unfortunately, tourism brings along not only economic growth and job opportunities but also negative consequences. When we visited lots of new hotels were under construction especially in the Bagan and Inle Lake areas and prices were starting to boom, hopefully the Country has not been affected too much by tourism as it still helds a special place in my heart.
History wise and for its lovely people, Burma is without doubts our favourite Country in the South-East of Asia.
Only downside, the food! We are big fans of Asian food in general so we were disappointed to find out that Burmese cuisine has nothing to do with the spicy and mourish Indian or Thai food. We are not picky people but on this trip we had hard time to enjoy our meals.
Myanmar: the Country of temples, pagodas and stupas
Besides the world-popular Valley of the Temples in Bagan, Burma boasts countless temples, pagodas and stupas everywhere! There are so many that you can spend days visiting them. After a week, our group had seen plenty of examples, all different and very beautiful, so each time our local guide Titti tried to stop to visit a new we joked and said we had enough, gaining the nickname of the “gruppo no piace pagoda” (literally translated from Titti’s Italian “group no like pagodas” 🙂
Which is the difference between a stupa, a temple, a pagoda and a monastery?
- Stupas are dome-shaped buildings where usually relics of Buddha are kept and sometimes also sacred books. You cannot enter them but can walk around them (clockwise only!).
- Temples are enclosed buildings (often with a square base) where devotees can gather for meditation or chanting and usually contain an altar and image of the Buddha.
- Pagodas are usually multi-storey towers or pyramidic buildings. This term is often used to describe a stupa, but more generally refers to a complex of stupas and temples.
- Monasteries are meditation and Buddhist education centres where monks and nuns live. In Buddhist cultures everybody can spend a limited period of his/her life as a novice monk/nun to learn Buddha’s teachings. Especially in the past, poor people used to send their kids to monasteries in order to receive an education.
Basic rules to visit a sacred place like a temple or pagoda
When you visit a Country with different religion and cultural traditions, it is recommended to know a few basic rules in order to be a responsible and respectful traveller.
In Burma, but generally in all buddhist Countries, it’s recommended to follow some rules to respect the local culture and religious sites:
- You are required to take off your shoes, including socks (no cheating)
- Both men and female must wear long trousers or longyi and have the shoulders covered
- Always walk clockwise keeping the temple on your right side
- Be respectful when taking pictures
- Never touch a monk
- You are welcome to give offerings such as food, flowers, incense or even money
Attractions in Mandalay: Stupas, temples, monasteries and a football match with the monks
Known as the “biggest book in the world”, is a complex of stupas and shrines containing 729 marble slabs engraved with the buddhist teachings. It is said that when the teachings were transcripted into paper in 1900, 38 books of 400 pages each were required!
Shwenandaw Monastery is what is left of the Royal Palace of Mandalay. The complex was built in the previous royal capital of Amarapura from where it was dismantelled mid 1800s to be transferred to Mandalay.
Built completely in Myanmar teak with beautfiul carvings and fine gold decorations inside, it is the only structure that survived the II WW bombing.
1 hour boat ride to get to this rural peninsula where time seems to have stopped. Here we visited the 90 tons bell and the pagoda made of 1 milion red bricks.
Monk lunch at Mahagandayon Monastery
Located in Amarapura, the capital city before Mandalay, this monastic institute hosts more than 1000 monks, especially novices.
The monastery is known for its rigid monastic rules and since monks cannot handle money, they are offered lunch each day by hundreds of devotees who join here to serve them food. This daily routine has become a popular tourist attraction at a point that monks lining up orderly holding their bowl and looking down patiently, are assaulted by hundreds of noisy tourists surrounding them to take pictures.
We honestly find it sad to see and almost embarassing how tourism can be disrespectful of local culture and traditions like this one.
For this reason, we soon abandoned the main street where the big crowd was to wander off the back lanes and take glimpses of the daily life.
Always in Amanapura is also the longest teak bridge in the world, the 1,2 km U-Bein Bridge, a beautiful spot to stroll at sunset.
Aung Myae 00 Monastic Education School
Travelling around Mandalay by tuk tuk one day we drove past a monastery where we saw novice monks playing football in the courtyard. Being a group of Italians we couldn’t resist from stopping and organising a football match with them. That’s the beauty of travel.
Valley of the Temples in Bagan
With an area of 42 km sq dotted with more than 2200 temples, pagodas and stupas dated 10th to 14th century, Bagan is the largest Buddhist complex in the world, recently enlisted as Unesco World Heritage Site.
We got to Bagan by a 13-hour night train from Mandalay (notice it is only 200 km far!), probably the worst train ride we have ever experienced in the whole Asia, with no beds but just sort of reclining armchairs (with dump seats as they had forgot the windows open the previous rainy day!) and bumpy tracks that made us feel like on a roller coaster.
Anyway, when you are in good company, every inconvenient is an excuse to laugh so we survived the journey without getting to much annoyed by the poor service. The real issue was waiting for us when we got to Bagan at 4:30 am and our group leader Roberta hadn’t book any transfer hoping to find a taxi onsite.
The train station was completely empy with nobody at sight. We walked out and woke up a guy sleeping in his tuk tuk convincing him to board the 16 of us including luggage. We had seen how locals managed to fit numerously on these small vehicles and thought we were able to do the same… we were wrong 🙂
No matter how, we managed to fit but after a short ride we suddenly heard a noise followed by a bump of the tuk tuk that immediately stopped. We burst into a big laugh before realizing it was actually broken down and we were in the middle of nowhere.
Our driver called some friends who arrived with other tuk tuks to pick us up about an hour later. In the meantime, we sat on the stairs of a stupa and enjoyed to watch hot air balloons rising in the colors of dawn.
We spent 3 days in Bagan, one of which we cycled around the archaeological area visiting several temples and pagodas.
The most impressive temples of Bagan for us are:
• Ananda Temple: one of the four main temples in Bagan, hosting four 9-metre tall standing Buddha images, fine glazed works and mural paintings;
• Gubyaukgyi Temple: cave temple with frescoes on the inside walls andfine stucco works on the outside walls.
• Dhammayangyi Temple : the most massive temple in the area with pyramidal shape;
• Shwesandaw Pagoda : its five terraces offer one of the best sunset views over the valley of the temples. (NB after the 2016 earthquake, it is forbidden to climb due to reparation works).
During our stay in Bagan, we also travelled to Mount Popa (about 55 km), a no-longer-active volcano whose name means “mountain of the flowers” because, thanks to the volcanic ashes, the surrounding soil is very fertile.
The temple Daung Kalat on top of a 737m hill is said to house 37 nat (spirits). You can access by 777 steps that you have to walk barefoot (you are required to leave your shoes at the entrance of the temple which is at the bottom).
Not a big deal if the place wouldn’t be populated with dozens of monkeys so you have to be careful where you step to avoid their poo 🙂
It is certainly an important landmark for the local devotees but honestly we didn’t find anything special about it, especially if we consider the long drive and the hike to the top.
At least we had a laugh sitting at the back of the tuk tuk testing our ability to board orderly (much better than the first day!)
We also had a sweet treat on the way back stopping at a local workshop producing caramel candies and a sort of grappa made out of palm leaves juice. Honestly, the sort of things that are good only when tasted on site 🙂
Kakku: the best-kept secret of our itinerary in Myanmar
Kakku is an under-the-radar destination of Myanmar, little promoted in travel books and websites. It is relatively close to the more popular Lake Inle, though to get there it took us 4.5 hours return of winding road by bumpy bus driving past endless garlic fields.
When we visited we were the only travellers at sight, that is often the reason why I love certain places bettern than others.
To access the Kakku area you have to be accompanied by a local guide of the Pa-O tribe. Our guide was the young student Tun Tun (we called him Tom Tom like the GPS for the whole day, poor guy!), dressed in the traditional clothes consisting in dark blue blouse and trousers and a sort of colourful turbant we were explained to symbolize in male clothing the alchimist, whereas ladies usually wears a bag representing a dragon.
The local tribe also have a different flag (though similar to the Burmese one, a part from the yellow which is replaced with blu) with three colours: green to represent agriculture, red for bravery and blu for purification.
Kakku is a complex comprising 2478 stupas set in the forest surrounded by secular bagnan trees.
The site was so quiet and peaceful to look like a fairytale world. If I close my eyes, I can still hear the sound of the thousands of little bells placed on top of the stupas dancing in the wind. Definetely one of the highlights of our itinerary in Myanmar.
The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangoon and the birthday symbology
Our 8-day itinerary Myanmar ended in Yangon (or Rangon, as the English named it). It was a shock to be back to a big city after a week immersed in such amazing historical and natural places. The main sight in Yangon is the hilltop Shwedagon Pagoda.
It is actually a complex of several stupas. The main pagoda is said to have been built 2500 years ago, which makes it the oldest in the world, and to keep 8 hair strains of the 4th Buddha, in addition to other relics.
It is 90metre tall and completely covered in gold boasting more than 7000 diamonds and precious stones and topped with a massive emerald that reflects the sunlight at sunset.
This octagonal base features 8 altars associated with the planets and days of the week (which according to the buddhist cosmology are 8).
Indeed, Burmese believe that according to the day you are born, you are related to a specific planet and animal.
Mine was Venus and the Mole (associated to people born on a Friday) whereas Miles, who was born on Sunday, was the Sun and Garuda, a sort of mythological bird.
When you visit the pagoda you have to bring flowers and pour water on the small Buddha statue in correspondence of your day/planet in order to pay respect and gain good luck.
Buddhist culture and rituals: washing of the buddha, monks chanting, golden rock
Burma is a major Buddhist Country as you can tell not only by the thousands of temples and pagodas but also by the welcoming people.
I have always been fascinated by buddhist culture, some of the best travelling souvenirs I have are in fact connected with it. I strongly believe that when you visit a Country you have the privileged opportunity to learn something new and better yourself, so when I travel I love to soak up in the local culture and traditions.
During our 8-day itinerary in Myanmar we had the fortune to live some exceptional experiences such as participating to the washing of the Buddha ceremony in Mandalay, be hosted at a monastery at Lake Inle during the morning chanting and visiting the Golden Rock during the celebration of Burma’s Independence Day!
The washing of the Buddha ceremony with the locals
Our Myanmar itinerary was a dawn-to-dusk tour, kicking off the second day at 4:30 am to attend the washing of the Buddha ceremony at the Mahamuni Pagoda in Mandalay, the most important pilgrimage site locally.
When our tour leader Roberta proposed to join this event, we were all curious to see what this unusual ceremony with a funny name was like. We showed up at 4am in the pitch dark and a short tuk tuk ride took us to the Mahamuni Pagoda where dozens of devotees were already getting ready.
We were the only western people at sight so we felt privileged to take part to such an authentic experience.
We sat down on the floor mingling with the locals surrounded by prayers and plates full of offerings for the Buddha. I happened to be next to an old lady who was helding a big plate of rice, flowers and incences. She looked at me with a smile and didn’t seem disturbed by our presence there.
The ceremony consists literally in washing the face of the big statue (almost 4 metres tall!) of the Buddha with a sponge with careful ritual manners before proceeding to brush its teeth.
It may sounds a foolish nonsense but believe me that to watch the ceremony display sitting among all these devotees you really feel a strong energy and spiritual atmosphere.
Breakfast with the monks
During our stay at Lake Inle, to keep up with our dawn-to-dusk schedule, we decided to visit a local monastery to take part to the morning chanting of the monks.
The monastery was not a tourist site so we didn’t find any information about the opening hours. We simply showed up in front of a closed gate at 4:30 as we got the habit to do throughout our trip when we were going to visit a Buddhist site.
It was dark and we didn’t know if we could enter the monastery so we waited a little bit until we saw some monks who started to come down to the courtyard to get ready for the morning prayers.
We asked one of them if we were allowed to join and he very kindly organised some cushions for us in the main prayer room where at 5am dozens of monks gathered for the chanting.
We sat silently listening to their chanting prayers and as it usually happens to me in this occasion, I felt moved by the devotional and spiritual atmosphere I was lucky to be immersed in.
The monks insisted for us to stay with them also for breakfast while they explained us all about their daily routine.
The monastery hosted 120 monks, mainly novices 9-11 years old, and 7 teachers.
Their daily routine consists in morning prayers from 5 to 6 am. Breakfast at 6 and then again another hour of chanting. After a procession, they spend time studying and cleaning the monastery. Lunch is served at 11 am. In the afternoon the routine of praying and studying repeats until 10pm when they go to bed.
Monks have a simple life, needs to follow 227 rules and have to give up on material things. The only 8 belongings they can have are: a rice bowl, a knife, a pair of shoes, an umbrella, a sewing kit, a belt, a fan, and of course a habit (usually bordeau colour in Burma, so if you see monks dressed up in orange it means the habit has been donated from Sri Lanka).
The Golden Rock: gold is in the air
La Pagoda Kyaiktiyo, meglio conosciuta internazionalmente come “Golden Rock” (roccia dorata) è di fatti un grosso masso ricoperto di foglie d’oro adagiato quasi in bilico sulla cresta di una collina.
Si dice stia in equilibrio su un capello del Buddha, spiegando la straordinaria posizione in cui si trova.
Questo sito situato sul Monte Kyaiktiyo a 200 km da Rangon, è il secondo per importanza in Birmania.
Per giungere alla sua sommità potete percorrere un sentiero in salita per 16 km oppure più comodamente prendere un vecchio camion convertito in bus. Il trasferimento in bus però non è così semplice come sembra, per nostra esperienza potresti ritrovarti a sgomitare per garantirti un posto a sedere su quelle scomode panchette di legno, ma questo forse è stato aggravato dal fatto che siamo capitati senza saperlo il giorno prima della celebrazione della Festa dell’Indipendenza 🙂
Nell’ultimo secolo i fedeli hanno iniziato ad applicare le foglie di oro su templi e pagode sparse in giro per il Paese per mostrare il proprio rispetto a Buddha.
Dovete sapere che quando si applica una foglia d’oro esistono delle piccole regole. Per esempio se avete bisogno di chiedere al Buddha aiuto per trovare un lavoro la foglia va applicata sulla mano destra, tra gli occhi se si è in cerca di saggezza oppure sul petto per invocare pace e buona salute.
Solo gli uomini hanno accesso alla roccia per questo si è avvicinato solo Miles, mentre io dal basso osservavo meravigliata questo incredibile scintillio di foglie d’oro che volavano nell’aria brillando con le luci del tramonto, un’immagine magica che non dimenticherò mai.
Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, better known as Golden Rock as it is covered in gold leaves, is the second most important pilgrimage Buddhist site in Burma, located on Mount Kyaiktiyo 200 km from Rangon.
To get to the summit you can walk a 16km uphill path or catch the local open-deck trucks converted into buses. However, don’t expect a “normal” bus ride as, in our experience, you will have to climb to the deck fighting for a seat on the wooden bench and fasten to the handle bar while bumping on the windy road. Not very comfortable but, believe me, a true experience 🙂
The massive rock hanging from a cliff is said to balance on a Buddha’s hair, indeed looking at its suspended position, it is hard to understand how it hasn’t fallen off yet.
Over the last century, devotees have started to apply gold leaves to temples and pagodas around Burma to pay their respect to Buddha (when you apply gold leaves to a Buddha image you have to know where to, according to what you are asking for: on the right hand if you are asking for a good job, in the middle of the eyes if you wish to reach wisdom or on the chest if you wish peace and good health).
Be aware that only men are allowed to approach the rock so Miles did while I was watching the incredible shimmering of gold leaves flying around in the warm lights of dusk, an image I will keep with me forever.
The Golden Rock is still a relatively off-the-beaten path site of Burma as most travellers choose to visit the renowned Bagan Valley of the Temples or the Inle Lake. However, the site is far from being little crowded due to the hundreds of pilgrims who flock here especially when we visited being Burma’s Indepence Day!
The guesthouses were fully booked and the square next to the boulder and complex of pagodas was covered with pilgrims cooking, praying, and sleeping on the floor. Besides the fight to secure a seat on the truck and the long queue we were stucked in for almost 2 hours on the way back, we could really experience the spiritual soul of this mystic place at its upmost.
Inle Lake: floating orchards, leg-rowing fishermen and long-neck tribes
If I have to choose my highlight in this itinerary Myanmar, I would probably go for the Inle Lake for two reasons:
1- It looked suspended in time and still authentic (at least when we visited, but hope it still is)
2- I lived simple experiences but big emotions
This serene lake in the Shan State covering an area of approximately 20 km long and 10km wide, is indeed a true beauty boasting floating gardens, stilt houses and the Inntha fishermen using the characteristic technique of leg rowing.
The lake is only 2 metres deep during dry season and 6 metres during the rainy season.
The characteristic floating orchards are made using bamboo canes to hold the garden in space, grass grows spontaneously and weeds are used to fertilize.
We spent two days in this area, one we dedicated to visit the lake area, kicking off the day with a visit to the monastery (see paragraph above “Breakfast with the monks”). Second day we travelled to Kakku, a hidden gem worth visiting if you are after under-the-radar destinations (see paragraph above).
Travelling by boat at dawn over Lake Inle tranquil waters admiring the awakening of nature and of the villagers’ life, is one of the best experiences I lived during my travels.
Throughout the day we stopped at various workshops to see the production of silver, sigars, silk made out of lotus plants, but also to visit local tribes such as the popular long-neck women and other minorities.
The Badaung women (long-neck) are indeed originally from Burma, though many of them have emigrated to Northern Thailand to make fortune with tourism.
The girls start at the age of 8 to wear these heavy collars, 2 kg of weight to start and every 4 years they add an extra layer. The collar could be taken off any time but it is not advisable because the muscles of the neck become so faible that they are no longer able to hold the head properly.
The real reason of this tradition is uncertain, some explain it to be a defensive strategy to protect the neck from the tigers, some refer to a legend according to which the women descend from the snakes, others simply relate to an aestetich reason.
Whichever the reason, each time I see long-neck women I get the impression they are unhappy and this gives me a sad feeling about their story.
If you move a bit deeper you can also visit the Shwe Indein pagoda, a complex of 1600 stupas dating back to the 8th century on, many of which unfortunately in ruins, but still offering a tranquil atmosphere of past times.
During our day we not only got moved to see dawn and sunset painting the water of the lake in warm colours, but we also ate an ant salad (read more about the 5 weirdest food I have tried on my travels), met lovely tribe women with their kids with whom we draw and sang songs, admired the fishermen standing on one leg, and use the other one to row while fishing.
It is not difficul to understand why this is one of our favourite destinations not only of our Myanmar itinerary, but in the whole of Asia.