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 ~  Golden Myanmar A Journey Like No Other  ~     

Shwezigon Pagoda Myanmar

         

      Prior to planning my adventure all I knew of Myanmar was that it’s former name was Burma, a location that J Peterman of the tv show Seinfeld visited. 
One night I watched an Anthony Bourdain episode in which he visited the country and was astounded by the field of temples in Bagan. 
The people were so exotic looking with the Thanaka paste painted on their faces, the history was enthralling. 

     I knew I had to see it for myself!

     I arrived in Yangon not sure what to expect, it was a bit surreal, a huge golden stupa stood in the middle of the road with a city built around it. 
The security was very tight at the hotel, our bags were put through metal detectors and we were scanned each time we entered the building. 
Taking a stroll I saw monks walking barefoot carrying alms bowls, and food venders cooking fish right on the street.

     This was not going to be my ordinary adventure!

     I visited the giant reclining Buddha which is 217 feet long.
There I learned that the position of the feet on reclining Buddha's are the key to if Buddha is just resting or in the final stage of enlightenment (dying).
I also was educated about Thanaka paste, the yellow/white substance seen on the faces of the Myanmar people, especially women.
It is used as a sunscreen but also as a beauty enhancer, later in my trip I would even wear some myself for the day.

     We visited the imposing Shwedagon Pagoda, the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in the entire country. 
I had never visited a stupa such as this, let alone at night.             
My visit was timed with a new moon celebration and monks from all over Asia had come to the shrine. 
It was stunning seeing all the candles lit up, families chatted, children played it was a joyful atmosphere!
The party was to go on all night.

     Buddhism is extremely important to the people who live in Myanmar, the landscape is dotted with golden stupas.
These structures are gilded with real gold but do not need to be guarded.
The villagers have no plumbing or electricity but will mine and pound gold for the stupas as that is a priority.
Their beliefs give them comfort as they feel they are earning karma towards Nirvana.

    From Yangon I headed to Bagan, it is hard to describe what looking at the field of temples is like, watching the sun set over them was magical. 
Currently there are about 2000 stupas left, down from 10,000 or more, it is still an impressive view! 
I went back at sunrise to watch the hot air balloons and to see the stupas start to come into view from darkness as if they were glowing, is something I will not forget.

     Next I boarded a river cruise ship to sail the Irrawaddy all the way to Bhamo stopping each day along the way at small villages as well as larger places like Mandalay. 
I loved the tiny settlements, the people had next to nothing, no running water or even walls on their homes, but, their hearts were as golden as the stupas. 
Maybe it has something to do with Buddhism, or possibly the lack of electronics, each person I met seemed so content.
Everyone was very welcoming, the children I adored, they were fascinated with my red hair, it may have been a first for them. 
I would take photos of them and let them look at themselves on my telephone watching as they giggled with excitement upon seeing themselves.
I am not sure if they had seen photos of themselves in the past.
When I went back to the ship I made arrangements for my files to be printed and delivered to the villagers on the ship's return later that week.

     In the small villages I learned a lot more about Buddhism, most young men spend at least a year in the monastery.
There is a ceremony where they enter as royalty and then have their clothes and shoes removed, their heads shaved and become completely dependent on the community.
This is what believers feel Buddha did.
Many parents encourage their sons to stay longer in the monastery, it is there that they can get an education.
Each day they set out with their alms bowls to collect food, it is brought back to the monastery where they eat twice a day.


      While "at sea" I kept an eye out daily for the illusive Irrawaddy Dolphin, a round headed creature that looks very similar to a belagua whale.
On my last day on the ship I was rewarded with a sighting!
Up popped two dolphins, one spurting a stream of water from it's mouth, I am still kicking myself that my camera was not ready!
An endangered species, there are an estimated 92 of these dolphins left in the world, I am honored to have seen two of them.

    
     There is a lot of discussion about the Rohingya conflict in Myanmar, some people felt it was wrong of me to travel there. 
I was not going there to support the violence, I abhor it. 
I do feel, however, that my contributions to the small communities I visited helped those individuals. 
I was able to directly aid some families so, in my opinion, that is a good thing. 
I do hope that the senseless violence will end, I loved my time in Myanmar and do plan to return one day.

Golden Myanmar - Video 

 

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Ann Castagna Morin

Southampton, MA
Luxury River Cruise & European travel specialist

I have had a sense of wanderlust since I was a child, always yearning to go off and explore the world.

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