Travel to former Burma with Sophie Corness to discover its vast spiritual heritage.
This is an extract from Kindred Spirit, Angel Special May-June 2016, issue 143.
Surely nowhere in the world possesses so many thousands of beautiful sacred buildings as Burma, or a people so devout that their spiritual beliefs permeate every aspect of their lives.
For decades, under military rule, Burma (now called Myanmar) has been largely screened from the modern world and its stresses, and until only very recent times, as democracy dawns, there were few foreign visitors.
Now all that is changing, and word is beginning to spread of the country’s stunning beauties; its temples and stupas, its statues, carvings and mosaics, its thriving arts and crafts, and its wonderfully warm, gentle, welcoming people.
Wherever you go in Myanmar, there seems to be a temple or stupa on every hilltop and on the top of every mountain. Many glitter with real gold and precious gems, and often there are bells that people strike three or five times with a log, to boom out the message that they wish to share their merit or their happiness with those around them.
Giving is believed to earn more merit than receiving. Gentleness and compassion abound. Before the Buddha statues in the temples the floor is often covered with a mass of offerings of rice, food and flowers. None of it goes to waste. The monks have some of it for their lunch. The rest goes to the animals and birds.
In some temples are images of elephants, lions or horses. Rubbing a part of the statue is believed to cure an affliction on that area of your own body.
Nearly all Burmese (87 per cent) are Buddhists, but the ancient pre-Buddhist Nat, or spirit worship is also still common, especially amongst the tribal people. Buddha is for future lives, but Nats must be placated in this one.
Here and there a mosque, church or Hindu temple is witness to the complete religious tolerance in Myanmar. Five per cent of Burmese are animists, four and a half per cent Christians, four per cent Moslems, and there are quite a few Hindus.
It is possible for Westerners to study and practise insight-awareness meditation at some monasteries and meditation centres.
The people are devout, so it’s no surprise to find that the famous 2,500-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) it is generally jam-packed. Its 325ft-high stupa is covered in 27 tons of gold, the crown is topped by nearly 5,500 diamonds and nearly 2,500 rubies, plus emeralds, topaz, sapphires and other gems, and at the very top, the Diamond Bud, is a 76-carat diamond.
The most revered Buddhist temple in Myanmar, it is simply jaw-dropping in its beauty and grandeur. The central stupa is surrounded by 64 smaller stupas, many of which come with their own myths or legends.
It is worth visiting the pagoda both in the daytime, when it gleams in the sunshine, and in the evening, when it is lit up, for each gives a very different feel to the temple.
For Burmese people, the day of the week on which you are born is very important, and each day has its own small shrine in the Pagoda where people go to pour water over the Buddha (to cleanse) and light candles and incense. Saturday corner has a somewhat different meaning. It’s the place you go to do well in business or attract wealth. Understandably, this little piece of Shwedagon tends to get a little crowded at all times of the day.
Yangon itself still offers a true colonial flavour, with many distinctly British buildings, the remnants of the old empire. There are opportunities to wander the busy streets and visit Yangon’s Chinatown and the famous Scott’s Market, the best place in the city to buy handicrafts.
There are a lot of other must-see places in Myanmar, many of them long distances apart, but there are trains and frequent reasonably-priced internal flights. Because of the difficulties of road travel in mountainous, jungly terrain, the country’s main transport artery has long been the Irrawaddy River, which still has boat services. Hence the reference in Kipling’s famous poem: ‘The Road to Mandalay, where the flying fishes play’.
Mandalay offers a truly magical spiritual experience in the form of the Kuthodaw Pagoda at the foot of Mandalay Hill, which is home to the world’s largest “book”. An impressive 729 marble slabs, each covered by a stupa, contain the entire Buddhist scriptures set in relic-like caskets with a precious gem on top. The white cave-like structures glisten against the deep blue sky, set around a central golden pagoda and a 125-year old holy Banyan tree.
Another must-see site in Mandalay is the famous Mahamuni Pagoda, home to one of the country’s most famous Buddha images which is continually being covered by pilgrims with more and more gold leaf, so that the Buddha now has a somewhat “lumpy” look. Burmese people are in awe of this image, because since the Buddha was installed at the beginning of the 20th century, the face of the Buddha appears to have grown with the ever-increasing “lumpy” Buddha, even though no gold leaf has been added to the face.
A visit to the amazing Mandalay hill is an absolute must. If you want a true spiritual experience, forget going at sunset, when crowds of foreign tourists turn this beautiful site into something resembling a football crowd. Go in the morning, and climb the ornate covered stairway of over 1,200 steps to the summit in peace and quiet, to meditate, visiting numerous enormous golden Buddha images and shrines along the way.
While staying in Mandalay it is also worth visiting Sagaing Hill, which is regarded as a religious central point in the country and considered the best place to achieve peace of mind on the road to spiritual enlightenment. This region is home to more than 3,000 monks, and boasts about 100 meditation centres, making it the perfect place for tranquillity. On top of the hill sits the Umin Thounzeh (30-caves) Pagoda which has 45 Buddha images in a crescent-shaped colonnade.
The ancient city of Ava, which served as a capital from the 14th to the 18th centuries, is home to the majestic Mahagandayon Monastery where over 1,000 monks reside. The structure itself is made of dark teak wood set against a backdrop of tropical palm trees. It is a delight to walk barefoot on the warm wood while dipping into cool dark shrine-like rooms.
Later, it is impossible not to feel at peace during a walk along the breathtaking 200-year-old U Bein Bridge. This amazing structure is constructed of 984 teak posts and runs 1.2 kilometres right across a large lake, making it the world’s longest wooden bridge. We walked across the bridge in mid-afternoon, then got a small boat back just as the sun was setting, a magical experience. As at Mandalay Hill, people crowd to U Bein in the evening to watch the spectacular sunsets.
A day-long boat journey on the Irrawaddy takes you to Bagan, where thousands of stupas and temples dating from the 9th to the 13th centuries are spread out over an immense wooded plain (40 square miles) on the banks of the Irrawaddy. There were once more than 10,000 temples, and 2,200 still remain. One can explore the temples by horse cart along quiet sandy racks across the plain.
There are a number of especially picturesque temples, including Shwezigon Pagoda (little brother to Shwedagon) each with its own special treasures, such as Jakata mural paintings, fine plaster carvings or glazed sandstone decorations.
By far the most tranquil, impressive and thrilling temple is Kyauk Gu U Min on the eastern side of the river. A visit to this beautiful temple, which depicts exquisite carvings of religious figures and flowers on the door, involves a boat ride and a 15-minute walk through light jungle, but it is well worth it. It is buried in the jungle, deserted apart from a caretaker, and built on the side of a cliff, with long, deep ancient caves behind the main hall of the temple.
It’s steeped in history, and it is thought that the caves had tunnels that stretched all the way to Heho. There are lots of small niches for meditation. The caves have been a sanctuary in times of crisis, including during the Japanese invasion, and it is thought even earlier when local people hid there from the invading Mongols.
A short flight from Bagan takes you to Heho, in Shan State, and Inle Lake. The huge lake, at an altitude of nearly 3,000ft, covers 45 square miles. About 14 miles long and seven wide, it is quite shallow, and the inhabitants live on the waters of the lake in bamboo houses raised on stilts, and cultivate tomatoes and vegetables in floating gardens, working from bats.
The people there are an ethnic mix, of Shan, Pa-O, Kayah, Danaw, Bamar, Taungyo and others. Most of them are fishermen, and they are a distinctive sight in their very long, very slim boats, standing on the stern and rowing with the leg wrapped round the oar. Leg-rowing is unique to Inle.
All transport at Inle is by boat. One could happily spend several days on the lake, watching leg-rowing fishermen and their floating gardens built up from water hyacinths and mud. At the lake’s main sanctuary, Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda, there is another set of five “growing” Buddhas continually being covered in gold leaf.
There are even more magical stupas at Kakku, a two-hour drive from Inle Lake. This ancient religious site consists of 5,200 stupas in various states of restoration, many of them dating from the 11th century. Some are more than 60ft high, and there are countless Buddha images scattered throughout.