by Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
I am surprised by the fact it is in only a two-hour flight from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, to Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon), Myanmar, the third leg of the Global Scavenger Hunt, a 23-day around-the-world mystery tour, arriving at our five-star hotel, the Sule Shangri-la, around noon. We will have our meeting at 2:30 pm when we will get our booklets, spelling out the challenge we will face.
After 60 years closed to the world, Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, was only reopened to the outside world in 2011, so I am most intrigued to see it for myself. The country has also received horrible press over the persecution of the Rohingya people, which raises controversy for Bill Chalmers, who meticulously organizes the Global Scavenger Hunt. But it encapsulates his philosophy, bordering on religion, that appreciates travel as a way of forging understanding, bringing people together and yes, fostering progress and change.
Throughout this Global Scavenger Hunt, “A Blind Date With the World” – where we don’t know where we are going next until we are told when to go to the airport or get ourselves there, and along the way, complete scavenges and challenges – we are encouraged, even forced, to “rely on the kindness of strangers,” to interact with local people even when we can’t understand each other’s language. (Towards this end, using cell phones or computers to research, access maps or GPS is not allowed.)
Though it is a conceit to think we can parachute into places and understand the nuances of complex issues, travel is about seeing for yourself, but also gaining an understanding of one another, disabusing stereotypes or caricatures, and most significantly, not seeing others as “other”, which works both ways.
“I don’t like the idea of a boycott. Travelers are serving as ambassadors, doing fact-finding. This country is emerging from decades of isolation – there are problems, humanitarian problems on a large scale. It is a troubled country with great suffering.
“Bear witness for yourself. Enjoy the rich culture, the people, play journalist, bea reporter, have conversations, learn and gain perspective. Parachuting in can’t give you full expertise. All acquire more accurate idea, local perception. Talk with locals, see for yourself.
“The issue with not coming is you paint a broad picture about everyone. When we travel, a lot of people disagree with our government but don’t take it out against us as individuals. We practice diplomacy of engagement. Not coming won’t change minds but possibly, coming can help change minds.”
“Myanmar is breathtakingly beautiful,” Bill tells us. “Say yes to things. There are extraordinary sights.” But he isn’t naïve – anticipating the problems, frustrations we will have, the Global Scavenger Hunt, he gives us a list of to-do’s and don’ts (buy food and water before getting on a train, ferry or bus; Myanmar roads are among the most dangerous; have a safe word between teammates that is code for “danger.” Travel, he says, is about “conquering fears, heat, holidays.” Indeed, the fact it is Myanmar’s New Year’s Day and many services are closed becomes a major factor for me.
The Global Scavenger Hunt is also about teamwork, and one of the rules is that you can’t separate from your teammate (Chalmers actually feels very guilty about the possible friction the competition can foment in couples). So I go along with my teammate, Margo, who wants to travel to Mandalay instead of Inle Lake, which I became extremely excited about, after Bagan.
We learn that the Myanmar leg is designated a Par 5 (very tough, the highest is Park 6). The challenge we are given is to spend the next two nights on our own, that we have to go to two of the three cities (Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake), but can only take two flights (necessitating ground transportation between two cities of the triangle), and have to be back to The Sule Shangri-la in Yangon by 6 pm on Saturday. Chalmers spends much of the time spelling out the special rules for this leg of the contest, the winning team of which is designated “World’s Greatest Travelers”.
We spend the next 3 1//2 hours organizing where and how we will travel to Bagan, Mandalay and back to Yangon.
By the time we finish, I only have time to walk down a modern boulevard to the Sule Pagoda, which sits at the center of the city as well as the city’s political and economic life.
According to legend, the stupa was built even before the more famous Shwedagon Pagoda during the time of the Buddha, which would make it more than 2,600 years old. The Sule Pagoda served as a rallying point in both the 1988 uprisings and the 2007 Saffron Revolution.
It’s the last day of the New Year celebration and place is packed with people bringing offerings, lighting candles and spilling water at their Weekday shrine. It is dusk when I arrive, and I watch the moon rise and the sky deepen in color to azure blue, the brilliant gold of the pagoda a blazing contrast. A guide comes up to me and checks his book to see exactly what day of the week I was born, so I know which is my shrine (Thursday; the mouse is my animal); he shows me a photo of President Obama striking one of the bell during his visit here.
On the way back, I walk across a bridge that spans the boulevard for a sensational photo of the pagoda.
I have yet to see the famous Shwedagon Pagoda. Fortunately, I will have more time to explore Yangon when we return.
We are up at 4 am to leave at 5 am for the airport for a 7 am flight to Bagan on Golden Airlines. The hotel has very kindly packed a to-go breakfast. It turns out several of the 10 Global Scavenger Hunt teams are taking the same flight.
This morning in clearer light, having become entranced by the description of Inle Lake, a villages built on stilts and only accessible by boat, and hearing one team discuss the overnight bus they will take from Bagan to Inle Lake, I decide to go on my own to Inle Lake instead of to Mandalay. But that depends on whether I can get seat on all-night bus, a hotel in Inle Lake and a flight from Inle Lake on Saturday morning to be back in time for the 6 pm meeting/deadline.
Bagan, City of Temples, Newly Named UNESCO World Heritage Site
We arrive at Bagan airport; before we leave the airport at Bagan we have to buy an archaeological sites ticket (15,000 Kyat or about $12).
Moments after arriving at the Bagan airport in Myanmar (and paying the mandatory ticket to the archeological zone, 15,000 Kyat, or $12), we see why Bagan only this July has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site: known as the city of Temples, Bagan has more than 2,000 Buddhist temples and pagodas within 16 square miles, its ancient ruins, some dating back almost 1000 years, rival Angkor Wat in Cambodia, though in Cambodia, the prevailing colors seem grey and green, while here, they are the red, orange and beige of sandstone. Temples here are as common as skyscrapers in Manhattan, dotting the plain.
Considering that Myanmar was shut off from the world for 60 years, only reopening since 2011, Bagan is still relatively unknown and draws fewer tourists, so you have the feeling of discovery and authenticity. Here, local worshippers vastly outnumber Western visitors and you can be immersed in the rituals.
The profusion of temples is astonishing. The stunning architecture and the fact that they are centuries old is mind-boggling. On top of that, you realize they have survived earthquakes as recent as 2016 when nearly 200 temples were damaged by a 6.8 magnitude quake.
There are so many temples, some are just out in overgrowth that makes you think of fairy tales with the castle buried by a forest. Some of the most breathtakingly beautiful architecture comes immediately as we set out. We stop the taxi to explore.
Luen, the taxi driver who picks us up at the airport, is a delightful man who speaks English very well, and expresses appreciation for us coming to visit his country. On our way to the hotel, he stops where we ask to take pictures. We hire him to take us around and make an appointment for him to come back at a certain time (had we been competing, we wouldn’t be allowed to hire a taxi for a whole day or use the driver as a guide).
The hotel, Aye Yar River View Resort in Old Bagan, inside the city walls, is absolutely lovely – walking distance to several of the places I want to visit (such as the Archeological Museum) and some of the temples, with an absolutely lovely pool (so welcome in the heat that exceeds 100 degrees), and open-air restaurant.
It takes a frustrating couple of hours to try to make my travel arrangements to Inle Lake -the bus reservation to Inle Lake (actually that was easy, on JJ Bus site), the hotel which I select from the list Bill Chalmers has provided, which I book on hotels.com, but the flight is the real problem. Because of the national holiday, I can’t get through to the airline itself, not even the hotel manager who does her best, in order to change my booking from Mandalay. Finally, I am through.
While the others are having lunch, I only have to stroll out the front gate of the hotel to come upon temples and archaeological sites. I wander over to the Shwe-gu-gyi Hpaya (temple), which the sign (in English) notes was built by King Alaungsithu in 1141. The temple is built on a high platform, topped by a sikhara, or curvilinear square-based dome and has a projected porch, or vestibule.. A stone inscription describes the merit of King Bayinnaung in 1551.
Also in this immediate vicinity, walking distance from the hotel: Mahabodhia Pagoda (1215 AD); Shwe Hti Saung Pagoda (11th C), Saw Hlawhan Pagoda (598 AD), and the Lacquerware Museum.
I take note of a tourism school and a sign that says, “Warmly Welcome & Take Care of Tourists.”
Finally, we set out with our taxi driver, San Luen, to visit some of the notable temples (there are 2,000 in Bagan) – we only have a day. It’s 108 degrees (116 with heat index). We set out initially following some of the scavenges, which also tend to bring us to prime places and experiences.
Our first stop is Dhammayangyi Temple, one of the most massive structures in Bagan and one of the most popular for visitors. It was built by King Narathu (1167-70), who was also known as Kalagya Min, the ‘king killed by Indians’. Luen drives us to a side entrance so we will have a shorter distance to walk over the extremely hot ground in bare feet (not even socks are allowed in Bagan).
Luen calls it “the Temple of the Evil King. I later learn that Narathu ascended the Bagan throne by murdering his father, the king, and built this temple as penance. “It is said that Narathu oversaw the construction himself and that masons were executed if a needle could be pushed between bricks they had laid. But he never completed the construction because he was assassinated before the completion.” Apparently he was assassinated in this very temple in revenge by the father of an Indian princess who Narathu had executed because he was displeased by her performance of Hindu rituals.
I guess thanks to Narathu, the interlocking, mortarless brickwork at Dhammayangyi, is said to rank as the finest in Bagan.
We wander about what feels like a labyrinth of narrow hallways to discover the art inside. The interior floor plan has two ambulatories. Almost all the innermost passage, though, was filled with brick rubble centuries ago. Three of the four Buddha sanctums also were filled with bricks. What we see in the remaining western shrine features two original side-by-side images of Gautama and Maitreya, the historical and future Buddhas – they are magnificent.
A short distance away is another temple, Sulamani Phaya, “The Ruby of Bagan”, which dates from 1183 AD. Considered the most frequently visited temple in Bagan, the Sulamani was built by King Narapatisihu, who found a small ruby on the ground on the Bagan Plains and built a temple in its place. A description notes, “The word Sulamani means ‘small ruby’ and is a fitting name for this sand-orange and elegant ‘crowning jewel’.The temple is surrounded by a high wall; its layers of terraces and spires give the structure a mystical fairytale appearance. Inside, intricately carved stucco embellishments adorn the doors and windows.”
We drive passed the Ananda Temple, known as the “Westminster Abbey of Burma” for its elegant and symmetrical design, intending to return to visit. The golden spire on top can be seen from miles across the Bagan Plain and is lit up at night by spotlights, creating an impressive beacon in the sky. The temple is known for its four gold-leaf Buddha statues, each standing an impressive 30 feet tall. Built in 1090 AD, Ananda Temple is one of the largest and best-preserved temples in Bagan and is still very important to local people. The temple was damaged in the earthquake of 1975, but has been fully restored and is well maintained. In 1990, on the occasion of the 900th anniversary of its construction, the temple spires were gilded.
Shwesandaw Pagoda is considered one of the most impressive temples in Bagan. Standing at 328 feet high, it is visible from a great distance. You can climb to the top for a wonderful view of the plain. It also is an excellent place for interacting with locals as they come to worship. One of the first to be built with what has become a classical golden bell shape, it became the model for Myanmar’s pagodas. The pagoda has survived invasions and natural disasters but has undergone various renovations.
Thatbyinnyu Temple is distinctive because it is one of the earliest two-story Buddhist temples and, unlike many other temples in Myanmar, is not symmetrical. At over 120 feet tall, Thatbyinnyu towers above nearby monuments. The area around it is picturesque and offers a panoramic view of Bagan.
Gubyaukgyi Temple is known for having the oldest original paintings in Bagan, according to notes. “The interior walls and ceilings of the temple are covered with ancient murals that tell stories from the previous lives of Buddha. The murals have been well-preserved because the temple is lit with natural lighting from large perforated stone walls. Each mural is paired with a caption written in old Mon. These captions are the earliest examples of Old Mon in Myanmar making it an important site for the study of the ancient language. No photography is allowed inside the temple, in order to preserve the murals for future generations.”
The heat (over 108 degrees) has gotten to Margo who wants to go back to the hotel. After a swim in the gorgeous pool at the hotel, I set out again with Luen at 4 pm to take me to a nearby village known for crafting the lovely lacquerware. I wander around – seeing the crude living conditions (they don’t have running water but they have electricity), and am invited in to watch people as they craft. At the entrance to the village, there is a large retail shop and workshop of master artisans.
I’m on my way back from the village, about 5 pm, when I see a message on my phone from the online booking agent that the airline booking from Inle to Yangon did not go through – I basically would be stranded. The booking app gives me a California 24/7 help number to call.
That interferes with my plan to see the sun set and watch the golden light take over the dramatic landscape.
The setting of the temples on the Bagan Plain make for expansive views – one of the reasons you should look for opportunities to get to a height, preferably at sunrise, or late afternoon toward sunset, when the light and the colors are most dramatic.
For this reason, one of the popular ways to see Bagan is taking a hot-air balloon ride is an incomparable experience to see the thousands of temples scattered across the Plains of Bagan, Balloon tours normally begin at 6:30 am, just a few minutes after sunrise. They offer a bird’s-eye view of the monuments in the misty orange morning light. The picturesque spectacle of the temples at sunrise from red balloons above, has become iconic for travelers in Myanmar. Hot-air balloon flights in Bagan normally cost around $330 per person and are seasonal (from October to March; book in advance).
Another is to drive about 1 ½ hours outside of Bagan to Mount Popa, an extinct volcano, climb to the top and see down at the whole plain laid out in front and visit the sacred Popa Taungkalat monastery at the top. Several of our group did that, literally racing by taxi from the airport so not to lose valuable time for our all-too-brief stop here on our Global Scavenger Hunt.
There are also river cruises, an archaeological museum, crafts like cotton weaving and lacquerware, oil processing, palm sugar production. Almost none of it am I able to take advantage of because I have abbreviated my time here and frankly, my experience in Bagan proves a lesson in the frustration of poor planning, but a learning experience, none the less.
Many of the scavenges bring us to these important sites, but also to experiences. Among the mandatory experiences in Bagan is to try toddy juice or Black Bamboo; finding the “Rosetta stone of Myanmar” in the Bagan Archaeological Museum, where you learn the interesting origin of Burmese distinctive alphabet of circles and curleycues; rent a horse cart for half a day to compete three scavenges.
Back at the Aye Yar River View Resort, the manager again tries heroically and fruitlessly to reach the airline directly but says the office has already closed. (I highly recommend the Aye Yar River View Resort, located Near Bu Pagoda, Old Bagan, Nyaung-U, MM).
Even though Bagan is surprisingly compact and it doesn’t take long to travel from one incredible sight to another, seeing Bagan properly would require planning and sufficient time. I don’t have either but I chalk up my visit to a preview for a future visit. You should spend at least two or three days here.
I meet up with Paula and Tom who are also going to Inle Lake on the overnight bus and we go together to one of the two restaurants listed in the scavenger hunt (more points!). The first is closed; the second is a lot of fun.
Luen, the taxi driver, picks us up to go to the bus station.
As I ride on the night-bus to Inle, at 10 pm, bouncing and rolling on the roads that quickly turn into mountain passes, I text my son in New York to call the airline in California. The texts go back and forth. “There’s no ticket, no seat… We got you a seat, Yay! No seat, Drat. A seat, Yay! On the same airplane as I originally booked! Yay!).
The adventure continues as I bounce along the overnight bus on twisting, winding roads through the hills to Inle Lake.
For planning information visit Myanmar Tourism Organization, www.myanmar.travel, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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