A picture of Myanmar should be included in the encyclopedia explanation of resilience. Whilst today the country is known as the land of golden pagodas, endless temples and sunrises and sets so rich in colour that you wonder if you’re still on Earth. Up until 2011, Myanmar was rather the land of one of the most abusive and oppressive military regimes in the world. While the country still has many problems to fix, there is an impalpable yet rich energy of hope and possibility that lingers across the country and emanates from the beauty of it’s people and landscapes. What follows is 10 of the most beautiful places that I discovered on my Discover Myanmar trip with Geckos Adventures where you can get a taste of this inspirational energy for yourself. So move over Jordan Belfort, there’s a new motivational speaker in town and it’s Myanmar-vellous!
1. Su Taung Pyae Pagoda, Mandalay
As the sun sets at ever deepening angles, the Su Taung Pyae Pagoda that sits atop Mandalay Hill becomes a unique dialogue of cultures. Whilst the tourists are drawn by the promise of a spectacular sunset over the city and Ayeyarwaddy river, local monks and novices are drawn by the hope of practicing their English with the visitors. The result is a place that is both physically and metaphysically beautiful. Whilst we may have come for the sunset, we stayed for the conversation.
2. Kakku Pagodas, Taunggyi
On a hillside in Myanmar that was covered with vines, lives 2478 stupas in many straight lines… I could have spent all day wandering Kakku; letting each and every stupa tell me its life story. Whilst the styles of some stupas tell simple and plain stories, others tell stories of adventure adorned with deities and mythical creatures. According to local legend, the site of Kakku was first founded in the 3rd century BC by Buddhist missionaries sent by the Indian emperor Ashoka. Since that date, stupas have continued to be constructed at the site, adopting the architectural styles that were prominent during their time of construction and resulting in today’s eclectic moshpit of stupas.
3. Taung Kalat, Mount Popa
It was here sitting poolside watching the volcanic mountain of Taung Kalat seemingly float in a sea of candy floss that my love affair with Myanmar truly began. With its glistening golden stupas, it’s easy to imagine the pilgrimage site as the home of a new Burmese Disney princess. That said, the beauty of this site is best enjoyed from a distance, as up close it is not quite as charming. That is, unless you call walking up 777 steps barefoot, constantly being asked for tips by floor sweepers, all to reach a small monastery FILLED with other tourists (and cheeky monkeys) charming.
4. Hsinbyume Pagoda, Mingun
In a land of seemingly endless pagodas, the Hsinbyume Pagoda is the queen bee who is not afraid to stand out from the crowd. The unique style of the pagoda can be traced back to its origin story. This pagoda was built as a memorial to King Bagyidaw’s first wife, Queen Hsinbyume, who died after giving birth to the King’s first child. The queen’s name can be literally translated as White Elephant Queen, explaining the unique paint job on the pagoda. What’s more is that the pagoda was constructed to model Mount Meru – the center of the universe according to Buddhist cosmology. The pagoda itself is modeled after the Chulamanee pagoda that is said to sit on top of Mount Meru, whilst the circular terraces that make up the base of the pagoda are said to represent the seven mountain ranges that surround Mount Meru.
5. Shwe Indein Pagoda, Inle Lake
The beauty and resilience of Mother Nature is intertwined with the entangled stupas, trees and vines at the Shwe Indein Pagoda. Located on the western bank of Inle Lake, the site features hundreds of ancient pagodas of all different shapes, sizes and colors. Whilst some of the pagodas have been restored, most have been left in a crumbling state of ruin with overgrown trees and vines strangling them. So what are you waiting for, grab that Lara Croft outfit I know you’ve been hiding in your closet out and go realise your Tomb Raider dreams!
6. U-Bein Bridge, Mandalay
Whilst a visit to the U-Bein bridge – the longest teak bridge in the world! – is worthwhile any time of day, it truly becomes a magical experience at sunrise and sunset. As we sat lakeside watching local monks take their morning walk along the U-Bein bridge, the sky turned a colour, I am certain, has never ever existed before, and will never exist again. It has something to do with pink, red, orange and yellow and yet it is none of them. In that moment, I was enriched with a profound, mysterious sense of the beauty of the universe. In that moment, my mind palace had a new lobby.
7. Pahtodawgyi, Mingun
When a temple looks this good unfinished, you can only imagine how good it would have looked finished! Whilst the unfinished pagoda may seem gigantic enough already, rising to a height of 50 meters, the current height is actually only one third of its intended height. I’m told that if they managed to finish the construction, the Pahtodawgyi would be the biggest stupa in the world!
8. Inle Lake, Inle Lake
Watching the traditional leg rowers fish on Inle Lake is a sight more likely to trigger memories of ballet recitals than fishing trips. The lake itself is spread across 116 square kilometres and features everything from floating villages and gardens to Buddhist temples and monasteries. Stock up on those postcards because this place will definitely give you something to write home about.
9. Old Bagan, Bagan
Bagan makes morning people out of all of us. As hot air balloons float over the seemingly endless fields of temples lit by the rising sun, we are reminded of the value of seizing the day. Old Bagan is easily one of the world’s greatest archeological sites, closely rivaling Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu but, at least for now, minus the crazy crowds of tourists. The temples themselves are believed to have been built by the Bagan kings between 1057 and 1287, before earthquakes together with the invading forces of Kublai Khan destroyed the kingdom. It is said that only 2230 of the original 4450 temples survive today.
10. Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon
What do you get when you combine over 7000 diamonds, rubies, topaz and sapphires with 27 metric tons of gold leaf? This masterpiece aptly named the Golden Pagoda. The beauty of this site however transcends the pagoda itself but extends to the ambiance created by the bustling of it’s many devotees offering flowers, worshiping, and meditating at one of the hundreds of colorful temples, stupas, and statues scattered around the pagoda.