Myanmar is a place that left a profound mark in me, especially because of its inhabitants and the way they experience religion. They’re very poor people but they invest all that they have to buy gold leaves for the Buddha statues in the temples. This is their way to thank Buddha for abundance in their lives. There are so many people who cover Buddha statues with gold leaves, that some of the statues have lost their shape because of the layers of gold covering them!
Myanmar is a very big country where one could get lost for a month. However, there are four areas that in my opinion are essential.
Yangon is worth a visit for its incredible golden pagoda. When I entered it I felt like I was entering a completely zen world, an oasis within a chaotic Asian city. The atmosphere changes a lot from day to night. In fact, I highly recommend visiting the pagoda at sunset, to admire the colours and the different shades that the gold acquires under the warm rays of the setting sun, surrounded by the prayers and songs of the locals.
And it would be a shame to travel to Myanmar without visiting Bagan: a great plain covered by thousands of pagodas that stretches out as far as the eye can see. These temples date back to the 10th to 12th centuries and they were built as a symbol of the wealth of the kingdom of Pagan. Each of the monarchs expressed their power by building pagodas, stupas and monasteries; Bagan is the result of years and years of Pagan reign. Nowadays, many of the constructions are demolished, but it’s still an impressive sight. Moreover, it’s one of the most beautiful places on the planet to observe from a hot-air balloon.
For many people, Mandalay is a must visit in Myanmar. For me, it's not only a must, it’s my favourite! On the banks of the Ayeyarwady River, Mandalay’s landscapes contrast with the drought of Bagan. There’s more movement, trading, and you can see farmers working in the vicinity.
Mandalay is famous for the U Bein bridge, made of teak wood and more than 1 km long. I recommend to walk the whole length of it, preferably at sunset, when the colours begin to change.
One of the most beautiful places in Mandalay is the white temple of Hsinbyume. I really enjoyed walking barefoot on the road leading from the entrance to the top of the pagoda, mingling among the monks, admiring the contrast between the white structure and the red robes of the monks on the blue sky. It certainly is a place unlike anything else.
You should also visit the teak monastery of Shwenandaw to admire the delicate work of craftsmanship, well preserved despite the passage of the years. Even today, the Sanskrit prayers of novice monks and more experienced ones can be heard in the monastery. I was really moved by one of the prayers I attended; surrounded by the vibration of the monks’ voices in unison, I tuned in with the chant and felt transported to another dimension. It was certainly one of the most intense spiritual experiences I’ve ever experienced.
In Mandalay I was also able to understand how little men actually need to be happy. Being there I visited a very poor village where the inhabitants were really happy and at peace. This is due to their Buddhist philosophy and lifestyle: they never cling to extreme feelings, whether happy or sad, because extreme feelings always lead to dissatisfaction. To achieve this, the Bamar seek balance to find inner peace and never show extreme emotions, except gratitude.
By letting go of the material world, they feel very happy to share what they have, like rice, for example. They welcome everyone in their community from the very beginning. Within that environment, I was able to attend a ceremony on a rainy day. The villagers brought the offerings that they had prepared throughout the week (fruits, sweets, etc.) and I followed the procession from the village to the nearest temple, where they placed their offerings at Buddha’s feet. Once the offerings were given, the celebration began and everyone danced and sang in the rain, barefoot in the mud. It was a magical moment of communion. At that moment I felt part of the community and I realised how little the rain mattered. There, water is a blessing from nature.
Last but not least, I strongly recommend a visit to Inle Lake, a very traditional and technology-free area. There, everything is handcrafted, and trade is done as they have been doing it for centuries. They still use a traditional fishing method, a very characteristic technique that consists of managing a net with their foot.
In Inle Lake life revolves around the lake: houses stand on columns above the water, children bathe and play in the river, women wash their clothes and their hair under the columns of their houses, fishermen sell fish on the floating market... And like in the rest of the country, religion is always present in the temples and pagodas around the lake. It’s also a region where lots of lotus flowers are found, and you can visit the workshops where the artisans handcraft silk scarves from lotus flowers.
Many will say that Myanmar is not an interesting destination because its main attractions are the temples. Yes, it’s true, Myanmar offers a wide variety of temples, pagodas, monks, prayers... But there are very few places in the world where you can feel such purity and mysticism.