Buddhist Burma 2015
On January 16 the twelve brave souls on the maiden trip organised by the Shang Shung Institute UK, met up at Yangon international airport. For the next ten days we visited ancient royal palaces, temples and pagodas, dusty modern downtowns, caves filled with statues, idyllic Lake Inley and the magnificent Irrawady river, experiencing the country in all its glory. We travelled by plane, bus, river boat, ox cart and electronic bicycle. People from the UK, Thailand, Greece and Italy answered the call to adventure. We chose Burma, also known as Myanmar, as the destination for the institute’s first tour for a number of reasons. For years, many of us had reservations about supporting a notorious military regime, but as Bertil Lintner, Burma expert and author of Outrage, on the student risings in 1988, pointed out, tourism can be a positive force for the Burmese people if one avoids using the government owned facilities. With the number of visitors still relatively low, it is still possible to enjoy the sites without the crowds and the hustle found at Angkor Wat, for example. A visit to Yangon’s Shwedagon pagoda, where we saw our first Burmese twilight, confirmed that Burma remains a living Buddhist culture, where young couples prefer to spend a date watching the sun set at a temple to the movies. Buddhism has been present in Burma for more than two thousand years and the government is careful to preserve the country’s traditions in the face of globalization and to defend against the proselytizing of other faiths, sometimes even a little over zealously.
Our hotel was in the centre of Yangon and we began our tour by walking around the colonial sights of the city known to the British as Rangoon, renowned for its well-planned streets and splendid architecture. What were the administrative offices of the Empire are now reduced to charming but often derelict pastel reminders, now the object of a passionate campaign to preserve them from the developers. We visited the elegantly restored Strand Hotel on the waterfront, where Orwell and Kipling are said to have stayed. After lunch in a bustling Chinese restaurant by the riverside we headed for the glorious Shwedagon Pagoda, the beating heart of the city, where thousands converge every evening to offer their prayers to the multitude of Buddha statues found there. It was also the stage of those first political rallies in 1988, which marked the beginning of a dark period of political repression and the road to imprisonment of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. At the time of our visit the whole pagoda was being re-layered with gold leaf, with very precarious bamboo scaffoldings going all the way to the top of the 105 meter high pagoda. The golden dome reflected the sun’s setting sun rays on to the devotees below as they lit candles and offered water, flowers, mantras and incense to lord Buddha’s statues.
Early the next morning we flew to the ancient city of Pagan. On the way to the hotel we stopped at a charming market where we tasted local noodles and drank fresh coconut juice. In the semi tropical heat we often sipped on this or fresh fruit juices for refreshment. We also had the chance to purchase all sorts of craft work, paintings, lacquerware, sculptures, and jewellery. In Pagan we visited more temples and pagodas than can be listed here. With their tales of regicide, betrayal, and demented ruinous extravagance, together they make up this extraordinary city. At the height of its glory, between the 11th and 13th century over 10,000 pagodas, temples and monasteries were constructed there. Over two thousand still stand today. In Burma, the construction of a pagoda is believed to bring great merit, (or indeed riches and self- advancement as Orwell showed in his character U Po Kyin in Burmese Days).
As a result, examples of every type and degree of splendor abound on roadsides, riverbanks and hill tops. After a delicious evening meal, we had our talented musician Joe entertain us with songs late into the night. Aided by the local gin we sang along, somewhat less melodiously. The next day we rented electric bicycles and had great fun temple hopping, taking pictures and shopping for local crafts, getting suitably ripped off! After the long exertions of the day, we experienced a glorious sunset on the Irrawaddy, contemplating the flow of water and time from the top of an 12th century pagoda. The next morning we left for Mount Popa, and its famed shrines dedicated to animist spirits, a mélange of Chinese, Indian and Burmese folk beliefs predating Buddhism. The temple there is perched on top of the hillside and small monkeys run up and down the steps beside the many devotees and tourists. We continued our long road trip to Pagan and stopped at a palm sugar workshop, where we tasted palm sweets, wine and cookies.
In Mandalay, we spent three nights. We visited the royal palace and took day trips from the city, travelling on ox drawn carts and a ferry boat. We visited one striking temple made from enormous teak logs, where child monks ran around dressed in dark red robes. At the monastery in nearby Amarapura, for a short time the capital itself, we also saw hundreds of monks in the hall eating their daily meal, always served before noon, in absolute silence. We then left Mandalay and headed to the vast Inley lake, stopping en route to visit the Pindaya caves, a labyrinth of natural caves filled with over 8000 Buddhist statues. Outside the caves, the traditional aphrodisiacs on sale included fried ants. We arrived at Inley Lake in the evening, greeted at our stunning hotel on the lake side by a mind blowing sunset on the water and traditional Burmese musicians welcoming us while waiters served warm tea. Our sleeping quarters were on stilts and the night chill of the lake meant we needed blankets.
The next day we visited silversmiths, and looms where silk and lotus roots are worked into scarves and blouses, and admired fishermen, rowing with an oar tied to the leg, to leave their hands free to handle the nets. We were all enamoured with the lake and its particular culture. Even the local school is built on stilts. Saddened to leave, weheaded back to Yangon, where the next day we were all to return to our homes. I think I speak for all of us in saying these were wonderful days, filled with beauty, laughter and perhaps a little learning.
This was the first but certainly will not be the last of the tours organised by the Shang Shung institute UK. Our intention is to offer tours to interesting destinations in Asia, focusing on art, history, literary and popular culture, with expert guides, efficient services and comfortable accommodation – at an affordable cost. Any profit made goes to the institute, whose primary aim remains the preservation and dissemination of Tibetan culture.