It had been four decades since I last stepped on the soil of the Burma (now commonly referred to as Myanmar), the country where I was born. My two-week trip back there at the end of November would be unlike any other vacation I’ve taken in my life. This is the country that had just released Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from a two-decade-old house arrest in 2010, and the country that had been under scrutiny for human rights abuse by most of the rest of the world for as long as I can remember. But recently, the world witnessed a slew of positive changes in the country, with Burma president Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi together visiting the States back in September, and culminating with our president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton returning the visit just a week before I had arrived. Something like this would have been unimaginable just a year earlier.
As the plane landed, emotions set in seeing the airport that I remember leaving as a child, and as I rode around Rangoon, trying to understand all the changes that had taken place in Burma while I had grown up, graduated from college, worked at various hi-tech firms, bought a home, gotten married, and formed a family, thousands of miles away. My aunt was still there, wanting to take me to so may different places, including the house where I grew up with my family, aunts, and grandparents, the elementary school across the street where I attended for a couple of years, and a countless number of pagodas that we frequented when I was a kid. The timing felt right as I wanted to see the country before it surely will go through massive changes in the next few years. Besides, two cousins were touring SE Asia for three months and we figured we’d meet up in Burma and experience the country without a tour guide.
The photographer in me that wanted to capture it all as we embarked from Rangoon to Kyatio, Mandalay, Mingun, Sagaing, Bagan, and Inle Lake, most of the places that I honestly didn’t even know about until right before the trip, and places certainly unknown to the rest of the world. It was purely a photographer’s dream, as you’ll see — I ended the trip with thousands of photos and hours of video. Needless to say, I’m still going through them a month after my return during my free time, but I hope you’ll enjoy a small snippet of them, some of which I had posted previously on my facebook page.
This is Shwe Dagon Pagoda. Paris has the Eiffel Tower, Rangoon has the Shwe Dagon Pagoda. You can see the pagoda from just about anywhere in the city. On this particular morning, around 5:30am, thousands crowded around the pagoda to worship in celebration of the full moon festival. About 99.99% of Burmese are Buddhists, so religion plays a big part in this society, and Shwe Dagon Pagoda being the most famous pagoda in Burma, traffic on the way was standstill even so early in the morning. We ended up ditching the taxi and walked with others who were making their pilgrimage there.
This figure of Buddha is enormous in size — 216 feet long, 58 feet high, and resides in one of the famous temples in Rangoon.
The next morning, we hired a driver and took a 4-hour drive to Mt. Kyaiktiyo, where the magical Golden Rock pagoda resides. This pagoda is at the top of a gigantic rock that just seems to balance at the edge of a cliff on top of Mt. Kyaiktiyo. The ride up to the pagoda was quite exciting where most about 40 people squeezed into the back of an open-air truck holding for dear life as the truck traversed uphill along cliffs. It was all worthwhile as the scene, especially at night was breathtaking. The gold on the rock are from worshippers who would paste “gold leaves” that you can purchase at the base of the pagoda.
After awhile, we ditched the Lonely Planet recommendations for restaurants and ate with the locals. This one dish is Mohinga, a popular noodle soup that is pure deliciousness.
This little kid was quite persistent in trying to sell me his little kite as I was about to board a boat to Mingun. Really cute, so I gave him a lollipop instead and he immediately told his older brother and sister. So I gave them one each as well. Then they all went and told their friends, and suddenly I was the pied piper with a bunch of kids surrounding me. So I had to tell them all, “look, I’m out, but you all should be working the other foreigners over there.” 🙂
It took us about an hour by boat to get to this little village called Mingun. Several prominent ruins were there, including this one, Mingun Pahtodawgyi, which was started by a king in the 1700’s and would have been the largest stupa in the world, but it was never completed because the king was warned by an astrologer that once completed, the king would die. About 50 years later, a big earthquake caused huge cracks in the stupa. If you take a look closely, you’ll see my cousin Ric at the entrance to the large structure.
Quite a tall Buddha figure inside another temple. It may look somewhat small, but consider that the ceiling is probably about 30 ft high and I used an ultra wide angle lens to fit everything in the picture.
Hsinphyumae Pagoda (don’t worry, I can’t pronounce it either), a beautiful white temple that’s a quick walking distance from the giant stupa above.
Mingun Taxi. No kidding 🙂
Our next stop was the Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda at the top of Sagaing Hill. Our mode of transportation from Mandalay was scooters. We rode through the crowded Mandalay city (not recommended for the faint of heart) and into a more tranquil Sagaing before climbing the Sagaing Hill to reach the temple. Sagaing is one of the world’s most prominent center for Buddhism as it is home to over 600 Buddhist monestries and 6000 monks.
Once you climb up some flights of stairs, you reach the temple which is semi-circle in shape and overlooks the city of Sagaing.
Inside the temple are quite a number of Buddha figures.
Only a few people besides us were at the top. A resident monk at the temple took us around for a tour. Here you see a female monk, dressed in pink, studying her scriptures.
The next day we left Mandalay early in the morning for Bagan. We met quite a number of Europeans onboard, especially from Belgium and Norway. The boat ride along Irrawaddy River to Bagan was 9 1/2 hours as the boat repeatedly traversed left and right along the shallow river to avoid getting grounded in sand. We were doing fine for the first 7 hours or so. It took about 20 minutes for the crew to free the boat by pushing on long bamboo sticks.
We decided to see Bagan by hot-air balloon. Bagan is home to over two thousand temples — many of them are ancient ruins.
Climbing a stupa and photographing the sunset was a popular activity for tourists in Bagan. To get to the vantage point towards the top of the stupa, you climb barefooted up a steep 40 feet of steps that are about the width of a brick with no railings whatsoever, and traverse around a fence with sharp pointy arrows meant to keep tourists out. But once you got to the top, the sunset is simply magnificent.
Shwezigon Pagoda in Nyaung-U, a town next to Bagan where we stayed. While we were there, a month-long festival was going on where there were nightly shows and celebrations around the pagoda, along with street food vendors serving the local foods. Once we got brave enough to try to food, we kept going back. 🙂
Here we are hanging at the back of the local bus. Taxi costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $8 (US) whereas the local bus was less than a buck for all three of us.
Imagine a whole village built on a lake. All the homes, shopping, and hotels at Inle Lake are on stilts! Highways are waterways where long boats putt putt along, and farm crop is grown over water on top of seaweed. The view below is typical of a residential neighborhood.
Cigars being hand-rolled with corn husks by the local girls on Inle Lake. I’m not a smoker, but my cousin tried one of the samples and thought it was very “smooth” and actually liked it quite a bit.
Burmese umbrellas are handmade by the locals as well. At this particular shop, the locals show how the umbrellas are made using paper pulp and if you notice the flower designs on the paper — they’re actually real flowers from the lake.
A sunset view from our over-water bungalow at the lake. The water beyond the fence is the local water highway where boats would putt putt by often with seagulls following when locals throw food at them.
This is the graffiti wall created by the locals to commemorate President Obama’s visit in November. This was the first time a US president had ever visited Burma.