Buddhist Temples, Pagan, Burma

Author’s Note: This is a series of selected highlights from two years (1986-88) of budget travel through 18 countries and a half-dozen US States – hosted all along the way by national and local YMCAs – from Samoa, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, and Papua New Guinea, to Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, The Philippines, Hong Kong, China, Macau,Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and back to the USA.

Source: CIA Factbook

Burma – the “Modern Raj”. Remnants of the British colonial atmosphere permeated the place. Rangoon was so green – like a garden. And not much automobile traffic, air pollution or crowded streets like in Bangkok. The former British colonial capital also has the highest number of colonial-period buildings in Southeast Asia, as well as a remarkably intact colonial-era downtown area.

Aside from the busy tourist areas, the place was fantastic – really appealing, with a very laid back atmosphere. It was like stepping into the past, and the people were some of the friendliest and most genuine I had ever met. Very helpful, kind, and gentle folks – and all English speakers! Another legacy of the British colonial rule.

My Burmese visa was good for only 7 days – so it was a whirlwind tour. Three days with YMCAs in the capital Rangoon and in the up-country city of Mandalay – Burma’s  second largest city.

I really would have preferred more time in Rangoon and Mandalay instead of racing all over the country. It was a good trip, but thoroughly exhausting with all the rushing around.

Reclining Buddha, Rangoon

Established under the British regime in 1897, Burma’s early YMCAs served mainly the British communities, and the educational programs were accessible only to those who could afford them.

Since then, the YMCAs have focused on meeting the needs of the local people, including vocational training and educational programs that seek to empower all, especially young men and women to assume increased responsibility and leadership at all levels, while working towards an equitable society.

In downtown Rangoon, I visited the 2600-year-old Sule Pagoda, an important religious, historic and political rallying site, and the Chaukhtatgyi Buddha Temple, which houses one of the most revered reclining Buddha images in the country, and at 66 meters (217 feet) long it is one of the largest in Burma.

Dominating the Rangoon skyline, the Shwedagon Pagoda — also known as the Great Dragon Pagoda or the Golden Pagoda — is the most sacred pagoda in Burma, and is believed to contain relics of the four most recent Buddhas including eight strands of hair from the head of Gautama the Buddha. 

Karaweik Palace, Rangoon  By Ralf-Andre Lettau, Wikimedia Commons

Also in Rangoon, along the shoreline of Lake Kandawgji, the impressive replica of a royal barge, the Karaweik Palace, is actually a concrete structure in the shape of two enormous golden birds from Burmese mythology, and with a Burmese style multi-tiered, ornate roof structure.

Traveling north to Mandalay, I visited the scenic hill station Maymyo, built by the British as a retreat from the soaring summer temperatures, and then boarded a river boat for a relaxing float down the Irrawaddy River to the ancient city of Pagan. A rental bicycle was perfect for touring the surrounding plains which are home to the remains of thousands of magnificent and well-preserved 11th and 12th century temples, pagodas, and monasteries.

Sarongs, lassie yogurt, horse and bull carts, ornate temples, and pretty girls with powdered cheeks exuded a distinctive South Asian feeling, reminiscent of my time in Sri Lanka.

Ox cart and pedicab

The river boat also brought us back to the days of the ‘British Raj’ – with the very disturbing protocol that seated all the ‘white’ foreigners in comfort on the upper deck – linen table clothes and all — while the local people were crowded unceremoniously into the dark and dingy lower deck. I was not even allowed to go down to say hello.

A desperately poor place, even the YMCA was forced to operate on the black market, and openly accepted my ‘street market’ currency. Indeed, I financed my entire 7-day trip with a fifth of Johnny Walker Red and a couple cartons of 555 cigarettes that I unloaded immediately upon arrival at the Rangoon airport to eager buyers for a substantial profit in the unofficial currency.

This financial windfall covered all my expenses in Rangoon, Mandalay and Maymyo, as well as passage on the river boat, my guesthouse in Pagan, the return trip to Rangoon in a hot and crowded share-taxi over rough, dusty and pothole-riddled roads, and the purchase of some of Burma’s famous lacquer ware for gifts back in Thailand.

Sunset over the Irrawaddy River, Pagan

Fresh tropical fruits were available everywhere for a mere pittance, and my favorite all-you-can-eat “Vegetarian Thali” (an assortment of delicious vegetable dishes) cost about 30 cents.

Stay tuned for Asia-Pacific Tour: The Philippines – coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.

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