Myanmar, “The Golden Country,” never disappoints. The country is dotted with beautiful golden pagodas, Buddha statues, and spires. The British referred to Burma, now called Myanmar, as the “Back of the Beyond” – a place off the beaten path and not spoiled by modernity, that also describes Myanmar, yet the hotels, cruises, restaurants, and hospitality rival any well-developed tourist destination.
The “Irrawaddy” is an English corruption of Ayerawaddy, which some scholars translate as “river that brings blessings to the people.” For the people of Myanmar it is a blessing. It is where they wash, what they drink, how they travel, where they fish, and the annual flooding is essential to food production. The river begins in the Himalayas and continues for 1300-miles past snow-covered mountains, jungles and dry flat land to the Andaman Sea. Reading Rudyard Kipling’s “The Road to Mandalay” and George Orwell’s “Burmese Days,” ignited my desire to explore Myanmar and travel the Ayerawaddy River; recently my husband and I cruised from Mandalay to Bagan on the RV Kindat.
The itinerary included amazing historical sites. In Mandalay I gazed in wonder at the Buddha in Mahamuni Pagoda where the statue has increased many times its original size due the addition of gold leaf tributes. Whenever possible I took advantage of the various ways of transportation to visit the sites. Near Mandalay, while others walked, my husband and I bounced along in the back of an oxcart from the river jetty to the mammoth Mingun Bell (the world’s largest uncracked bell), a mammoth unfinished stupa, and the beautiful white Myatheindan Pagoda. What fun!
One morning I gazed in wonder at 45 Buddha statues sitting in an arc at Sagaing’s Umin Thouzeh Pagoda. One afternoon a colorful horse-drawn cart took us through the countryside to the magnificent teak Bagaya Monastery. That evening was magical. We watched the ruby-red sun set behind U Bein, the world’s longest teak bridge from a rowboat. Some of the RV Kindat crew brought along and served us Sunset Cocktails. How cool is that?
In Pakokku we climbed in the back of a tuk-tuk to visit traditional market where our guide, Mr. Ko Ko, bought ingredients for Myanmar Ginger Salad. That afternoon the chef showed us how to make the traditional salad. It was just one of several cultural onboard presentations. Mr. Ko Ko also demonstrated how to make and apply “thanaka” (the pale yellow makeup commonly worn in Myanmar) and how to wear a “longyi” (the wraparound garment worn by men and women). One evening we watched a traditional puppet show and another night we enjoyed a dance presentation.
In Myanmar products are still made in the traditional way. That will change in a couple years when products will be factory made. There will be people demonstrating their crafts for tourists. In Myanmar it takes a village to make terracotta pots. One of the stops made by the Pandaw Kindat was at Yandabo, a small pottery-making village between Bagan and Mandalay. I was able to watch the entire pot-making process from taking the clay from the river to shaping it to decorating it to drying it just the way they have for generations. There is division of labor; each person has their own special expertise. The pots are mainly used for water. Water stored in the pots is refreshingly and cool welcomed in a village where the temperature can reach 90 and there is no electricity. The village is also historically famous for the signing of the Yandabo Treaty by both the Burmese and British kings at the end of the first Anglo-Burmese War. Before leaving I accepted a delicious cup of sweet, milky Burmese tea from the friendly villagers.
Walking along the street in Myat Pa Ya dull thudding sounds echoed through the streets. The gold pounders, using a sledge hammer, pound layers of gold into extremely thin gold foil that is placed on pagodas and statues of Buddha by worshippers. Two hundred pieces of gold leaf are placed between specially made bamboo paper and wrapped for pounding. At the end of five hours of pounding ladies carefully cut them into 1200 pieces of incredibly thin gold leaf. The work day is from sunrise to sunset with scheduled breaks. A half coconut with a small hole in the bottom floats in a bucket of water the coconut slowly fills with water and sinks signaling break time. I was impressed with the strength and stamina of the gold pounders. We also visited several workshops including one where young girls were weaving material on a traditional foot and hand operated loom. We also saw craftsmen making teak carvings, silver items, flip flops, and lacquer ware. I had no idea that lacquer comes from a tree similar to a rubber tree or the many steps necessary to make a piece of lacquer ware.
We saved the best for last – Bagan, the pride of Myanmar. The ancient city of Bagan built between the 11th and 13th century was the capital of the first Burmese empire. There are over 3,000 temples. Each Bagan temple is different; they are all amazing. Ananda Temple with four golden standing Buddhas is especially impressive. The highlight was watching the sun set from the top of Buledi pagoda. Bagan is still a place of worship unlike places like Angkor Wat.
I had plenty of time between tours to relax and marvel at the ever-changing scenes along as the Ayerawaddy River. From the chair outside my cabin I never tired of watching people working, doing the laundry, bathing, and going about their daily business. The River never disappoints.
If you go: Log on to www.pandaw.com to see the great trips they offer in Myanmar and elsewhere. Myanmar is a very safe, friendly country. Getting a visa is easy; go to http://evisa.moip.gov.mm. It costs $50 and is good for 28 days. Many places now take credit cards but when using US dollars keep in mind they need to be pristine.
“Everyone smiles in the same language”