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Next to Nirvana

There is little doubt that Myanmar, the former British colony once known as Burma, is rapidly changing. Left behind by its Southeast Asian neighbours after over two decades of military rule, Myanmar is now opening up to the world, yet the deep spirituality that remains the centre of daily life is still intact. One can’t help but feel that the longer you stay, the closer you can get to enlightenment.

Words & Photography: Abby Yao

Brought to You by CIMB. ASEAN for You.

“Candy? Candy?”

Children holding postcards and their own drawings flocked around me in the marketplace of Nyaung U, close to the ancient city of Bagan. For a moment I doubted that they meant to ask for sweets. But as they put their hands to their mouths, I wondered no more. Their sun-kissed faces appeared eager for attention. I wish I had more than just candy. 

A child poses for photographs outside a temple. Photo taken with Samsung NX200 with SMART program (f5, ISO100, exposure 1/125 sec), no flash.

     It was a busy Friday morning. Motorcycles zipped past carts unloading sacks of rice as women trade floral garlands. Beside betel leaves arranged in swirling layers, dried nuts fill shallow baskets. Some corners are deathly quiet, save for the whir of a sewing machine; others are disorienting, like the wet sections where everything is fresh and ice is non-existent. Navigating the market is both peaceful and stressful.

     As I made my way through the maze of stalls, a woman placed a round cake of thanaka in my hand. The guide had cautioned earlier against accepting “gifts”, as something is expected in return. I felt compelled to burrow into my bag for kyat, the local currency. In its own unexpected ways, karma’s cause-and-effect dynamics govern life in this predominantly Buddhist country.

     I kept the solidified thanaka paste made from water and tree bark, wondering if I should wear it the next day. Seen as a beauty mark offering protection from the sun, thanaka is commonly applied on the faces of women and children in various patterns. It seems especially beneficial in the dry, dusty central plain of Bagan dotted by temples and stupas – some a thousand years old.

Wooden puppets at Nyaung U market. Photo taken with Samsung NX200 with SMART program (f3.5, ISO200, exposure 1/80 sec), no flash.

Historic cycles

These structures are the only remnants of old Bagan, as brick and stone were reserved for religious buildings, while others were constructed with wood and similarly impermanent materials. Each pagoda has a number and no new ones can be built. However, the previous military regime’s inaccurate renovations have reportedly kept Bagan from attaining UNESCO World Heritage status.

Cycling at Thatbyinnyu, Bagan’s tallest temple. Photo taken with Samsung NX200 with aperture priority (f6.3, ISO800, exposure 1/800 sec), no flash.

Oxen are common as working animals in Bagan. Photo taken with Samsung NX200 with SMART program (f6.3, ISO100, exposure 1/250 sec), no flash.

     The best way to explore Bagan is on a bicycle – taking the dirt paths between the main roads. There is no traffic light and no traffic police to stop you, with only horse carriages and ox carts putting traffic’s pace to a slow lull. A stupa (or a few) will be in your peripheral vision at any given time. The only sign of modernity is the electric wire running through the grassy fields. At night, the pitch-black plain is punctuated only by fluorescent lamps and the illumination of the largest pagodas. It was as if, time had never touched Bagan throughout the years.

     Rich in gemstones and gold, Myanmar has never exploited its own resources until now, as investors are getting their hands on the plentiful jade and ruby. But for the most part, life is still difficult for its population of 60 million.

Cut gemstones at a Bagan store. Photo taken with Samsung NX200 with SMART program (f5.6, ISO200, exposure 1/125 sec), no flash.

Huts along the Irrawaddy River – the largest and most important waterway in Myanmar. Photo taken with Samsung NX200 with SMART program (f5.6, ISO100, exposure 1/160 sec), no flash.

Minanthu villager. Photo taken with Samsung NX200 with aperture priority (f4.5, ISO800, exposure 1/25 sec), no flash.

A village girl shows onlookers woven bags for sale. Photo taken with Samsung NX200 with SMART program (f3.5, ISO200, exposure 1/40 sec), no flash.

At the crossroads

The thatched roof houses of Minanthu do not betray the village’s centuries-old history. A lone woman carrying several litres of water on her shoulders made her way into the cluster of huts ringed by cacti and aloe vera. I managed to take her photograph, but I felt as if I was intruding into her routine. There has been very little rain this year and even the sacred reservoir is practically dry, so some villagers have to walk miles for water.

      In the heat of midday, the siesta is the logical form of (in)activity, alongside smoking stogies and listening to a monk preaching on the radio. Cheroot and betel nut are as well-loved as the nat, guardian spirits to whom water and flowers are offered for protection.

      Often, Myanmar is described as straddling Indian and Chinese cultures because of its location. The traditional dress, worn by men and women, and seen even in the city marries the two civilisations – Chinese collar and closures for tops and for bottoms, the sarong-like longyi influenced by Indian and Malay dress.

A Karen woman weaving, from one of the eight major ethnic groups in Myanmar. Photo taken with Samsung NX200 with SMART program (f4.5, ISO200, exposure 1/60 sec), no flash.

Mixed nuts, fermented tea and dried shrimp—popular Myanmar snacks. Photo taken with Samsung NX200 with SMART program (f3.5, ISO800, exposure 1/40 sec), no flash.

Myanmar cuisine has Chinese, Indian and Thai influences. Photo taken with Samsung NX200 with SMART program (f3.5, ISO400, exposure 1/40 sec), no flash.

     The Burmese alphabet also traces its roots from the Brahmi script, and there are Sanskrit, Chinese and Hindu loan words. The cuisine is likewise a mix of Indian, Chinese and Thai influences, but the spices are very mild and heat is kept to a minimum. Fruits such as watermelon, honeydew and papaya are the typical accompaniment to every meal.

A clay bead from a 12th century necklace. Photo taken with Samsung NX200 with SMART program (f5, ISO8100, exposure 1/125 sec), no flash.

Inward voyages

“Twelfth century,” declared the tour guide after he brushed off the dirt from a clay bead he found half-buried on the ground, washed up by the previous night’s rain. It will be the fourth in his bead collection, he said. I was instantly an archaeology student learning by the roadside ruins. In under a minute, he had put together shards of pottery and identified them as relics from the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries, distinguished by their colour and patterns.

     Bagan was a prosperous kingdom until the Mongols attacked in 1287, led by Kublai Khan. Over the years, the 13,000 structures have been reduced to the current 2,200 temples and pagodas—still a remarkable number by any worldwide standard.

Shwesandaw Pagoda – a graceful circular pagoda. Photo taken with Samsung NX200 with SMART program (f5.6, ISO100, exposure 1/200 sec), no flash.

     In the late afternoon, Shwesandaw Pagoda in the middle of the plain felt like the centre of the spiritual universe. There were only 50 steps to the top level, but the steps can be up to a foot high and the idea of coming down can be unnerving to someone with a mild fear of heights (i.e. me).

     While the clouds kept the sun from unleashing a dramatic dusk, the view was straight out of a surreal film, with stupas and temples as far as the eye can see from my high viewpoint. I clung to the metal bannisters of the pagoda, questioning the wisdom of travelling in a flowy dress while carrying an oversized bag. As I trembled on my way down, a Burmese boy stood steady on top of a plinth next to the step. He didn’t know it, but I was absorbing his confidence.

     Back on the ground, a glib young vendor showed off his world currency collection beside a tiny nondescript brick pagoda. His wares were already sold out and his happiness to talk to everyone was contagious.

A rare drizzle falls on Dhammayangyi Temple. Photo taken with Samsung NX200 with SMART program (f4, ISO200, exposure 1/200 sec), no flash.

A couple reading at Dhammayangyi Temple. Photo taken with Samsung NX200 with SMART program (f5.6, ISO1600, exposure 1/30 sec), no flash.

     There were more temples to explore the following day, among them the pyramid-like Dhammayangyi Temple - the largest most notorious one with a bloody history and mysterious walled-up niches; and Ananda Temple, said to be the finest North Indian style temple that features all 10 traditional arts, in addition to the four 9 metre high Buddhas with large diamonds on their foreheads.

The very fine and eye-catching Ananda Temple. Photo taken with Samsung NX200 with aperture priority (f8, ISO800, exposure 1/250 sec), no flash.

One of four 9-metre Buddhas at Ananda Temple. Photo taken with Samsung NX200 with SMART program (f3.5, ISO1600, exposure 1/40 sec), no flash.

Light bulbs in lieu of candles at Ananda Temple. Photo taken with Samsung NX200 with SMART program (f4.5, ISO400, exposure 1/40 sec), no flash.

     After a few stops, I got used to walking barefoot to the calming tinkle of chimes and the silence of hallowed halls. The ground was so dry that it never gets muddy despite the unusual drizzle. For all its structures pointing skywards, Myanmar’s lifeblood is still here below, on the ground. On their sandals and flip-flops, scores of people offer their labour to earn an honest living. If you want to engage them, you only need to approach. They will almost automatically ask you where you’re hailing from.

In Myanmar, every Buddhist man must become a monk at least twice in his life, even if only for a few days. At Shwezigon Pagoda, Bagan’s holiest site with three Buddha relics enshrined within its golden pagoda, young novices line up to receive food offerings. This sight can be seen across the country. Photo taken with Samsung NX200 with SMART program (f5, ISO100, exposure 1/125 sec), no flash.

At sound of the lunch bell, the dogs howl and monks in their red ochre robes line up at Kha Khat Wain Monastery in Bago, two hours from Yangon. Photo taken with Samsung NX200 with aperture priority (f22, ISO800, exposure 1/13 sec), no flash.

The old and the new

Until 2006, the rainy city of Yangon, or Rangoon, was the country’s capital. Today, packed public transportations and billboards are as common as pedestrians in longyi criss-crossing the streets and children selling jasmine garlands to motorists. The mood of optimism is pervasive. No longer is it dangerous to utter the words “democracy” and “Aung San Suu Kyi”.

The magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon. Photo taken with Samsung NX200 with SMART program (f3.5, ISO1600, exposure 1/30 sec), no flash.

Worshippers at a Shwedagon Shrine Hall. Photo taken with Samsung NX200 with SMART program (f4.5, ISO1600, exposure 1/50 sec), no flash.

     Even at the country’s most important landmark Shwedagon Pagoda, with its four Buddha relics, there is a flurry of activity even at night. Despite the chanting and the constant movement of the worshippers, you will still find quiet corners for reflection. Believed to be first built 2600 years ago, the pagoda has seen additions over the years and now rises 98 metres, capped by a 76-carat diamond.

     But there is more to Yangon than a fast-changing metropolis. Sprawling lakes, gardens and colonial buildings are still intact. No restaurant can be half as impressive as Karaweik Hall, a golden barge at the edge of Kandawgyi Lake. Along the shore, young sweethearts sit together in the semi-darkness as lads sit by the jetty, singing and playing the guitar.

    A last-minute stop at Bogyoke Aung San Market reveals plentiful choices for jewellery and clothing. The neat grid layout gives way to outdoor teahouses where men congregate on low chairs amidst busy chatters. It is a long way from Bagan, famous for its lacquerware, which are still meticulously handcrafted using traditional methods of production, and craftsmen take as long as five years to earn a degree in lacquerware making. Tourists often end up with cheap lacquered cardboard instead of the long-wearing bamboo, wood or horsehair.

Bagan lacquerware is both useful and decorative. Photo taken with Samsung NX200 with shutter priority (f5.6, ISO800, exposure 1/8 sec), no flash.

     I often thought about the young woman selling souvenirs by the roadside in Bagan who attempted to engage me in a trade. “Lipstick? Mascara?” she asked, holding out her wares. She was hoping to barter her lacquerware souvenirs with makeup. I was astonished by the suggestion. Perhaps it wasn’t just karma at work here but also supply and demand.

     In a matter of days, I had just gone a thousand years and back. I know I will be back someday, though maybe in another lifetime. Until then, the memory of thousands of pagodas bathed in the warm sunshine will forever be imprinted on my mind.

Bagan as seen from Shwesandaw Pagoda. Photo taken with Samsung NX200 with SMART program (4, ISO100, exposure 1/100 sec), no flash.

GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Yangon and other Indochina destinations from Kuala Lumpur. For additional destinations, lowest airfares and flight information, go to www.airasia.com.

Fly with the world’s best low-cost airline. Book your holidays, hotels, and vacation packages today to get great deals and earn BIG Points!

For travel to Bagan and around Myanmar, contact Lovely Land Asia at www.lovelylandasia.com

  • http://www.holidayparkhols.co.uk/ Chris Courtis

    It looks amazing, I love exploring areas that have been untouched by tourism as you can really get to see the true culture of an area. Where can you stay if you come here and how do you get there?

    • http://www.airasia.com/travel360 Travel 3Sixty

      There are a number of hotels in both Bagan and Yangon. Best to go with a tour operator with Yangon who can arrange transport and accommodation as you tour Myanmar. :-)

      • http://www.holidayparkhols.co.uk/ Chris Courtis

        Thanks for the advice you cant beat the local travel operators to finding the best accommodation. Thanks again :-)

  • OOI yan LAI

    i has been travel to YANGON last month 23th -27th Oct 2013. The transport experience for KYAIKHTIYO GOLDEN ROCK, i will not forget in my life. By the way.i really enjoy for this vacation. i hope next trip to YANGON the visa is foc. Thank you.

  • ismailyaacob

    the problem cross border from thailand to myanmar the immagretion kept your passport in border

    • http://www.airasia.com/travel3sixty Travel 3Sixty

      Hi Ismail, we were not aware of that. Do share your experience with us so we can find out more about this as well and inform other readers? Thanks!