Exploring the Temples of Myanmar
By Joie Ha
Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) is a country that not many people have explored. Consumed with ongoing civil wars and ethnic conflict until 2011, Myanmar has only recently opened its borders to the international community. Although Myanmar continues to face many problems, the culture and history of the country is rich and unique. Isolated from the world for about 50 years, Myanmar boasts a different culture than other Southeast Asian countries and houses many ancient sites that are in immaculate condition.
This past year, I was lucky enough to travel Myanmar and visit both the capital of Naypyidaw and the historic ancient city of Bagan.
One of the most fascinating sites I saw in Myanmar was the Shwedagon Pagoda in Naypyidaw. Standing at 105 meters tall and completely gilded with gold, the Shwedagon Pagoda serves as one of the most iconic architectural wonders in Myanmar. Legend says that it was built when two traveling merchants, Taphussa and Bhallika, met Buddha and were given eight holy hairs from Buddha’s head. The travelers allegedly built the pagoda 2600 years ago with the help of King Okkalapa to house these spiritual relics. Throughout the centuries, royalty and common folk alike donated to expand the pagoda and continue to layer it with gold and decorate it with jewels. Topping the impressive golden figure are several precious jewels including 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies. At the very top lies a 76-carat diamond bud. Tourists and locals enjoy Shwedagon as an absolute architectural marvel.
Beyond its religious meaning, the Shwedagon Pagoda has also served as a place for protests of political significance. It is hard to find another monument in Myanmar with such political, religious, and historic depth.
Although we arrived at Shwedagon on a rainy day, walking the whole breadth of the pagoda was still breathtaking. Shwedagon towers above its visitors and the gold gives off a shine that makes it seem constantly illuminated. Surrounding the monument are other intricate pagodas and shrines that house many deities. Circling the base of Shwedagon is a set of Buddha statues that visitors can pour water over in a ritual of cleansing and purification. Oddly, some smaller shrines and pagodas use bright and colorful flashing LED lights to outline their featured deity. These LED lights are used to add to the shine of jewels and gold, and act as a unique juxtaposition between modern and ancient worship.
Technically, you can walk across the circumference of Shwedagon in 10-15 minutes at a leisurely stroll. However, we were so transfixed by the enormity and magnificence of it all that we spent a few hours walking and sitting at various points to soak in the atmosphere. We admired the pagoda until sunset, where the golden sun illuminated Shwedagon in what one can only call a holy light.
For the second part of the trip, we spent a few days in Bagan. Bagan is an ancient city filled with Buddhist temples and shrines that rest on a backdrop of beautiful green plains. From the 9th to the 13th century, Bagan served as the capital of what is now known as Myanmar. With each king and queen, there were multiple temples, shrines, and pagodas built in order to renew and reaffirm their dedication to Buddha. Over the course of four centuries, over 10,000 Buddhist temples were built. Approximately 2,200 are still standing today. The city was a hub of commerce, philosophy, and cutting edge technology. What remains now are dusty red temples, shrines, and pagodas contrasted sharply against the green foliage and brown earth.
Although Bagan is home to many ancient architectural wonders, there are still a limited amount of tourists visiting the area. Bagan only has one or two small streets with hostels and restaurants for tourists. Upon arrival, we took a horse-drawn carriage to our quaint hostel a bumpy 20 minutes away, and then spent the rest of the day exploring in our carriage with our friendly driver. He took us to the most popular temples and provided local information.
Each stop featured a considerable amount of locals trying to sell souvenirs. They claimed that their items were unique, handmade, and rare. Although they were definitely beautiful, after a few stops we realized that most everyone sold the same things. There were temples, shrines, and pagodas of all sizes and from various different time periods. We stood in awe at the opening of enormous temples that towered above us, and we also admired the small shrines that were on the side of the dusty roads. Most of the temples allow visitors to walk in and view the magnificent wall paintings and Buddha figurines. Some paintings and figurines are as wide and tall as the temple itself. Other temples allow guests to climb up a few stories to the very top and see Bagan from a lofty view.
While Bagan has so much to see, we opted to rent an electric motorbike to explore on our own the next day. There was no tutorial or license required, so you can imagine how we fared. Long story short, we fell off the bike quite a few times. Having the freedom to roam and spend time at our favorite sites was wonderful. We spent several hours at North Guni, one of the smaller and less visited, yet well-preserved temples. We climbed to the top to admire the view and made friends with a local stray dog. An hour or two passed sitting at the peak of the temple, feeding the dog, feeling the dry breeze on our cheeks, and watching the lazy afternoon sun slowly pass over us.
Before long, a group of four children discovered us sitting there. Seeing that we were tourists, they quickly climbed up to try to sell us their wares. Having bought an exorbitant amount of souvenirs already, we had to politely decline. However, we had a deck of cards on us and we ended up playing American card games on the temple floor for another few hours. Despite the language barrier, we were able to communicate through motions, broken English, and exaggerated facial expressions. The temples alone were amazing, but being able to play games with the local kids and share snacks with a puppy made it an overall heartwarming experience. When the sun started to set, we got ready to return home. We bought a few souvenirs from the children anyways, pet the dog a few more times, and boarded our electric motorbike to make our way back. Sunrise and sunset at Bagan is one of the most beautiful things one could imagine, and although it was cloudy when we were there, we were able to glimpse a bit of the setting sun that colored the temples a fiery red during its descent.
Myanmar has some of the most beautiful historic architectural wonders I have ever seen. However, I do caution potential visitors to be respectful of the environment and culture of Myanmar. The lack of tourists has contributed to the untouched architectural wonders and it is our responsibility to keep it as preserved as possible by practicing responsible tourism. Traveling to Myanmar and experiencing the ancient temples is a once in a lifetime opportunity and comes highly recommended. It is a place that definitely belongs on a travel wish list.