Friday, 12 June 2015

Myanmar: Cultural Splendours with a Dash of Nature

By Gloria Seow, travelling with Timothy Pwee & the Singapore Heritage Society

After gallivanting through most of Southeast Asia, it was superb to finally add Myanmar (formerly Burma) to my country collection. My husband Tim had steadfastly refused to go there due to ‘political instability’ in earlier years. So when the Singapore Heritage Society offered its 'Capitals of Burma' tour from 6 to 13 December 2014 curated and led by Dr Lai Chee Kien, coupled with the recent opening up of the country, the opportunity to go proved irresistible. I had especially wanted to see ancient Bagan, with its temples by the thousands spread over an expansive plain. For me, Bagan has the same cachet as Angkor (Cambodia), Borobudur (Indonesia) and Ayutthaya (Thailand). 

Myanmar has a sincere, unsullied and fresh feel about it, quite unlike the commerce-oriented and increasingly soulless places that some regional countries have become. We flew into Mandalay in Upper Myanmar, 716 km north of Yangon. Mandalay was founded by King Mingdon Min in 1857 as the capital of the kingdom of Ava. Only two Burmese kings have ruled from here, King Mingdon and his son King Thibaw. Mandalay is also Myanmar's second largest city and last royal capital before succumbing to British rule in 1885.

From the airport, our chirpy guide Ms Myo Myo Thet transported us to the first of a long string of temples. Nestled at the foot of Mandalay Hill, Kuthodaw Paya has the distinction of being the 'world’s biggest book', built in 1857 by King Mindon. In my hazy understanding of Myo Myo's words, I must admit that I had been looking for a tome the size of say a massive hall. Only after I had finished touring did it dawn upon me that I had not seen such a 'book'. Tim kindly pointed out that those rows upon rows of little white 'caves' that you see in the picture above each house two pages of the 'book' comprising a marble slab inscribed on both sides with writings from the Tipitaka. In all, the 730 kyauksa gu or stone-inscription caves hold 1460 pages containing the entire Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism. These caves are in turn arranged around a central golden stupa. Red in face, I was nevertheless filled with awe at the sheer size and splendour of the 'book'.  

In the picture on the right is one such inscribed slab that has been placed behind the Emaciated Buddha. Concerning this stately statue, it depicts the fasting Siddhartha Gautama (Shakyamuni Buddha). As a young prince, Siddhartha left his palace in search of enlightenment. He practised for six years under extreme austerities and intense mental concentration such that towards the end of this period, he was purportedly surviving on only a grain of rice a day. His aim was to cut attachment to the senses including indulgence in food. This led in part to his spiritual awakening. In another take on the story, the Emaciated Buddha portrayed the period when Buddha had already attained enlightenment in Bodhgaya whereupon he meditated and fasted for 49 days. Not sure which telling is correct.
In modern times, fasting is regarded as a purification rite. Theravadin monks eat just two meals a day. They fast after lunch from 12 pm till around 4.30 am the next morning, some 16.5 hours of deprivation each and every single day. Truly, the epitome of divine devotion.

The next morning, we trundled by coach to one of Myanmar's ancient capitals Amarapura (1783-1821 and 1842-1859), founded by King Bodawpaya. This is the famous U-Bein Bridge, the world's longest teak bridge built circa 1850. It stretches 1.18 km across Taungthaman Lake.

Walking along U-Bein Bridge, we had ample opportunities to observe rural life including rice and vegetable farming using humped water buffalos to plough the fields, net and line fishing, as well as duck rearing. The man you see here is clad in the longyi, similar to a sarong knotted in place. It is worn commonly by both men and women in the countryside. Did not come across too many people wearing pants or modern clothes, except in the city. 

Pahtodawgyi Pagoda in Amarapura is a stunning white edifice erected by King Bagyidaw in 1820. Chee Kien briefed us on the act and significance of circumambulation or walking around a stupa or temple in a clockwise direction. The stupa represents the holy enlightened minds of all Buddhas. Traditionally, Buddhists circumambulate a stupa as a form of veneration while reciting mantras. For us, we circumabulated to explore and snap pictures.

Perched high atop the Pahtodawgyi Pagoda is a golden finial comprising a lotus, a bird and a belled umbrella. Not sure of its significance, but the attention to detail, even for a distant object, is astounding.

We next visited the Maha Ganayon Buddhist Monastery (Kyaung) in Amarapura, one of the most important and largest monasteries in the Mandalay area. Built in 1914, it houses over 1,000 monks who gather at 11 am daily for their second and last meal of the day (as mentioned, they fast from 12 pm till the next sunrise). Hoards of tourists line the streets from 10.30 am onwards, jostling with each other for the best spots to photograph this daily ritual. Locals wait for months to do their merit making by feeding the monks and/or donating items like soaps and even sweets (see 3rd photo from top). Most fascinating, and for me, hopefully a prelude to a similar ritual in Luang Prabang (Laos) that I have long wished to see.
As this was chiefly a heritage tour, we treasured every sporadic encounter with wildlife. Tim, always equipped with a torch, found our first of many bats under the Bagaya Kyaung Wooden Monastery's platform (in Inwa), held up by massive teak posts. This is  my best shot of the commonly-seen Wrinkle-lipped Free-tailed Bat (Chaerephon plicatus), photographed in another temple. Later in Yangon, we saw millions of them flying out at dusk from the Shwedagon Pagoda. More about this tale later. Tim also rescued a big orange-and-black caterpillar which had climbed onto his shoe. 
We had a bout of artisanal craftsmanship at the Shwe Sin Tai Silk House in Amarapura. Here, pairs of workers expertly weave colourful longyis following a 'pattern sheet' (a piece of paper hung between them). No doubt, there was shopping to be had next door where I bought a maroon silk blouse. If you look closely, you can see that these ladies have thanaka (yellowish powder) on their faces. Thanaka is worn as a traditional form of make up (shaped into patterns) by practically all women (and sometimes kids and even men) in Myanmar. The ground wood, bark or roots of several trees (Murraya spp,  Limonia acidissima etc) are applied onto faces and hands. For the last 2,000 years, thanaka has been touted as a cooling skin balm and cosmetic, rich in antioxidants (coumarin and marmesin) that offers sun protection, removes acne, promotes smooth skin, and is an anti-fungal. Some of us (including me) bought the powder which can be used as a mask at home.

Throughout the tour, we visited several more handicraft and local produce shops, learning about wood carving, delicate lacquer ware, gold leaf making and gemstones. One of the best places to shop, with plenty of odds and ends including old artefacts, is the Bogyoke Aung San Market and its surrounding streets in Yangon.

This adorable tot also has thanaka on her face. Finally, we glimpsed our first rural birds in the fields of Inwa (Ava) on Day 2. The photo shows a foraging Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) seen once only.
From Amarapura, we took a ferry across the Myint Nge River to Inwa (Ava). This ancient capital was founded by King Thadominbya (1364-1555 and 1821-1842). Two by two, we got onto rickety horse carts to bring us to the Bagaya Kyaung Wooden Monastery. It was one bumpy ride on unpaved roads, with the clippety-clop of the horses throwing up clouds of choking dust. 
Right behind us was our trip leader Dr Lai Chee Kien (with fan) with Dr Jack Lee.
Myanmar is replete with stupas. We even spotted one in the middle of shimmering rice fields in Inwa.

Built in 1834, Bagaya Kyaung Wooden Monastery in Inwa treated us to teak carvings that covered every conceivable surface. Only a small group of monks and acolytes inhabit its grounds. Bats (shown in an earlier photo) can be found below the structure as it is built on an elevated platform.

Behind the Bagaya Kyaung, I spotted a frolicking Finlayson's (Variable) Squirrel (Callosciurus finlaysonii). We later saw this species several more times. The Variable Squirrel is an invasive species in Singapore, concentrated in the Woodleigh-Bidadari area.
The magnificent Sagaing Hill studded with stunning golden and white stupas. Such is the beauty that can be found in and around Mandalay.
We took a mini bus up Mandalay Hill to Sataungpyei Pagoda to enjoy the sunset and a bird's eye view of Mandalay far below. Rather than gazing at the disappearing sun, I was more taken in with the temple itself, clad in golden paint, colourful glass and sparkling mirrors. Most if not all temples have the eight Burmese Zodiac planetary figures or signs (see photo above) within their compound. Depending on which day (ie. Monday to Sunday) one was born in, a Burmese would have a sign to pay respect to, through the burning of joss sticks, ablution and offerings such as flowers. Each planetary figure has its assigned day, animal, cardinal direction and planet (celestial body), see Wiki table below.  Those born on Wednesday can be one of two animals - tusked or tuskless elephant depending on whether one was born in the first or second half of the day.
Cardinal directionBurmeseSanskritEnglishPlanetSign
SouthBoddahuBudhaWednesday a.m.MercuryTusked elephant
NorthwestRahuRahuWednesday p.m.Ascending Lunar nodeTuskless elephant
NorthThaukkyaShukraFridayVenusGuinea pig[note 2]

Wiki also elaborates on the ninth sign called Ketu that rules over the others. Ketu's sign is the mythical Animal of Five Beauties called the Pyinsa Rupa that has the antlers of a deer, the tusks and the trunk of an elephant, the mane of a lion, the body of a naga (ie. serpent), and the tail of a fish. The nine signs neatly fit the Nine Gods of Burmese animist tradition. They form an essential part of the "Ceremony of the Nine Gods" held when there is sickness in the house. I suppose this is syncretic Burmese Buddhism for you. However, modern Burmese astrology rarely features Ketu, sticking only to the use of the other eight signs. In this scheme of things, Tim and I are both Tigers, and our characteristics according to are rather flattering:
Zodiac animal sign:Tiger
Day of Week Born: Monday
Ruling Planet: Moon
Ruling Direction: East
Personality/Attributes of the Tiger:
You are very intelligent and intuitive. You have a keen eye for detail. You are strong and patient, but only to a point. You detest being taken advantage of and you don't like people wasting your time. You are goal oriented and like to succeed. You are respectful of laws, and take responsibility for your actions.
On 8 December 2014 (Day 3), we took a one-hour cruise up the Ayeyarwaddy (Irrawaddy) River to Mingun in the Sagaing region, 11 km north of Mandalay. Mingun was once the royal capital of  King Bodawpaya. Along the riverbanks are attractive rustic dwellings (top photo). We also encountered this gigantic raft (bottom photo) with a little hut in the middle which Tim thinks is a fuss-free way to float logs down river, carried entirely by currents. The raft held two people and even a dog. Greeting us at the end of the cruise was the uncompleted and  looming Mingun Paya, started in 1790 by King Bodawpaya. Construction was stopped when the King began to believe the prophesy that should the stupa be completed, his dynasty would fall.

I am standing inside the Mingun Bell, the second heaviest and largest ringing bell in the world at 90 tonnes or 55,555 viss (a Burmese unit of measurement). It was commissioned by King Bodawpaya in 1808. People usually ring the bell using a heavy wooden stump after making a donation. The insides are filled with graffiti, and I could not resist being in there while Tim struck the device from the outside. Not as loud as one might expect.
The wavy all-white Hsinbyume Paya in Mingun, built in 1816 by King Bagyidaw in memory of wife Hsinbyume.

This motorcycle, piled high with inflatable toys, brings back memories of my childhood.
I could not get enough of the pagoda-filled vista of Sagaing Hill, which evokes a sense of old-world magic, akin to a crown studded with jewels. Sagaing was capital from 1315-1364 and again from 1760-1763, founded by King Athinkhaya Sawyun.
At the top of Sagaing Hill stands Umin Thounzeh Buddhist Terrace with 30 caves (ie. the openings you see above) and originally, 30 Buddha statues. Today, it boasts 45 resplendent Buddha figures.
Buddha statues line the interior of the Umin Thounzeh Buddhist Terrace from end to end.

Tim and I barefooted. From Day 2 onwards, our group abandoned our shoes and existed in our flip flops as we had to constantly take off all footwear when entering any holy site. After so many rounds of taking-off-putting-on, we did not even bother to clean our feet even though some temples provided wet wipes, only doing so at the end of the day. We also visited the nearby Soon U Ponya Shin Paya Temple in Sagaing Hill, an ‘early offering shrine’ or stupa built in 1312 by Minister U-Ponnya.
Another syncretic element of Burmese Buddhism has to be the nats or spirits that are worshipped alongside the Buddha. There are two types of nats: the 37 Great Nats and the rest (ie. lower nat spirits of trees, water etc who can be named or unnamed). Almost all 37 Great Nats (akin to saints) were once human beings who met violent deaths but now inhabit the six heavens. Every Burmese village has a village guardian nat called the ywa saung nat. I suppose this is similar to Singapore's locality-based 'Tu Di Gong' (in Chinese) or 'Datuk Kong' (Malay spirits honoured by the Chinese). Accordingly to Wiki, an offertory coconut is often hung on the main southeast post in the house, wearing a headdress and perfume as an offering to the Min Mahagiri (Lord of the Great Mountain), also known as the house guardian nat. One may inherit a certain member or in some instances two of the 37 Great Nats from one or both parents. A Burmese also has a personal guardian spirit called the ko saung nat. The photo above shows what I think is a husband-and-wife pair of nats. 
The Mahamuni Buddha Temple was constructed in 1784 by King Bodawpaya. It is a major pilgrimage site located southwest of Mandalay deifying the Mahamuni Buddha (The Great Sage), which originally came from Arakan. According to Wiki, tradition refers to the five likeness of Gautama Buddha made during his lifetime. Two are in India, two in paradise, and the fifth is the Mahamuni Buddha image in Mandalay. This highly venerated Buddha is central to many Burmese as it is represents the Buddha's life. Legend has it that the Buddha visited the city of Arakan in 554 BC where King Sanda Thuriya requested that an image be cast of him. The Buddha breathed upon the casting and the Great image took on the exact likeness of the Mahamuni. There is a daily face washing ritual of the deity at dawn, from 4 am or 4.30 am. A senior monk and several lay helpers would wash the face of the Buddha for over an hour using a succession of fresh towels brought by devotees, followed by the application of sandalwood paste and the sprinkling of scented water. Devotees would thereafter keep the used towels with reverence in their home shrines. If I remember correctly, only males are allowed into the inner chambers to see the Mahamuni Buddha. Females (considered unclean due to menstruation) can only watch the beamed Image on the TV screen outside.

The Mandalay Royal Palace was the last royal residence and seat of government before the British took over in November 1885. Constructed in 1859 by King Mindon and also lived in by his son King Thibaw, the palace has a walled fort surrounded by a moat. Under the British, the compound became Fort Dufferin. Even then, it was regarded by the Burmese as the primary symbol of sovereignty and identity. The Palace was rebuilt in the 1990s. This photo was taken from the 24m tall Watch Tower. Even in this non-religious site, it was a requirement that we had to go barefooted. Stepping on bird, bat and possibly rat excrement became quite unavoidable. After a while, one learnt to ignore such inconveniences.
Two of my six lifers from Myanmar, from a paltry list of 34 bird species seen in eight days. Great difference between a dedicated birding tour versus a by-the-way-birding one. Left-to-right: Vinous-breasted Starling (Sturnus burmannicus) in Bagan and the endemic White-throated Babbler (Turdoides gularis) found in small flocks of 3 to 5 birds in the Mandalay Royal Palace. It just means that we will have to do Myanmar again for its birds, especially Mount Victoria and Mount Popa. Am also keen to visit Lake Inle and other tribal regions.

The Jataka Tales as depicted in bronze castings (I believe) in the interior of the stupendous Shwenandaw Kyaung in Mandalay. The Theravada Jatakas are made up of 547 poems. These are essentially stories about the previous virtuous lives of the Buddha, in both human and animal form. Shwenandaw Kyaung first served as a royal residence of King Mindon before it was converted to a monastery in 1880.  

Shwenandaw Kyaung has the most elaborate wood carvings of all the places we visited. I had a splendid time admiring its architecture and craftsmanship.
Enroute to Bagan, we were treated to a Novitiation Ceremony held in a village just outside Mandalay, thanks to the sharp eyes of our driver. We stopped to watch the entire procession for almost an hour. Essentially, a rich sponsor(s) had paid for the pageantry with dressed-up animals such as horses, water buffalos and even elephants used to send off young people to become monks and nuns. We saw kids that looked as young as four years old being escorted away. Most were around eight to 10 years old, and there were a handful of teenagers as well. Adults accompanied the novitiates and all were dressed to the nines and marched along to loud music.  
Water buffalo carriages painted in gold, Novitiation Ceremony.

Bagan was the pièce de résistance of the trip, living up to its reputation. I have never seen so many temples at so high a density. The earliest structures have been up since the second century. The construction tempo picked up pace from 1044 to 1287, when King Anawratha unified Burma under Theravada Buddhism. Bagan then became the glorified capital of the Pagan Empire. At its crescendo, the area had a staggering 13,000 temples and stupas erected by rulers and wealthy subjects, crammed into a 104 sqkm plain in central Myanmar. However, more than 400 earthquakes between 1904 and 1975 flattened many structures. Today, 2,229 temples and pagodas remain. 

We started our Bagan tour with the 60-foot long Reclining Buddha at Shinbinthalyaung brick hall, built in the 11th century. Its walls were covered in fading frescos.

While the others parked themselves at Shwesandaw to watch the sunset, Tim and I went birding. Our half-hour foray gave us a feel of grassland and open country birding. After satisfying ourselves with the birds, we dashed up the stupa while others were already making their way down to take in what was left of the setting sun and the classic sweeping view of the sea of temples. Shwesandaw is the earliest stupa built by King Anawrahta in 1057. It contains the Buddha hair relic. The next morning, we had another birding bout before breakfast. Our full bird list can be found at the end of this post.
These very skilful puppet masters could really animate their stringed contraptions - from making them do flying leaps to vigorous dances. They only raised the curtains to reveal the faces of the masters at the end of the performance.
One of the most spectacular temples in Bagan is the Shwezigon Pagoda, built by King Anawrahta and completed by King Kyanzittha. It houses four Buddha relics.

Scattered around the base of the Shwezigon Pagoda are the eight Burmese Zodiac planetary figures as well as special Nats. I found one Nat depicted as a bas relief at the side of one of the pagoda's staircases (off centre to the right in the photo above). I witnessed devotees pasting tiny (2cm x 2cm) gold leaf squares as offerings on the Nat's face while muttering their prayers. Earlier, we had attended a gold leaf making workshop where a worker demonstrated how he hammered gold into a thin foil. Am doubtful that gold leaf is really made the manual way today.
Burmese temples are never standardised affairs. Aside from a towering pagoda dominating its centre, there can be dozens of delightful gilded halls and shrines placed haphazardly around the pagoda's base such as this one above.
Htilominlo Temple was erected in 1218 to mark the spot where King Htilominlo aka Nantaungmya was chosen amongst five brothers to be the Crown Prince. The selection was performed by the tradition of using a white umbrella (hti) and noting which way it tilted to indicate the future king. It was the last Myanmar style temple to be built in Bagan. 

Htilominlo Temple - a typical temple scene with devotees paying their respects. Notice the white umbrella on the right of the Buddha.
One of the grandest temples in Bagan is Ananda Paya built between 1090 to 1105 by King Kyanzittha. Its passageways are lined with niches going all the way up to the ceiling, housing Buddha statues of all types and sizes as given by donors. 
Lunch at The Green Elephant Restaurant in New Bagan. It has a relaxing outdoor setting just next to the river and the most outlandish march-in, complete with drums and an entourage of wait staff bearing food-laden trays.
A moment of hilarity. Chee Kien was merely taking a rest on this empty pedestal and next thing he knew, the others started 'deifying' him by arranging his hands into the Buddha's gestures of reassurance, blessing and protection (left hand), as well as into the earth touching sign (right hand). Super funny, not meant to be offensive at all.
The title of 'largest temple' in Bagan goes to Thatbyinnyu, built in 1144 by King Alaungsithu.
We climbed to the second level of the Dhammayangyi Temple. The long staircase was very narrow and steep and it was terribly exciting to be exploring its dark interior never knowing what we were going to find. As it turned out, there was just a gaping window on level two that overlooked the temple grounds, as well as a narrow beam that crossed an interior chasm.

As mentioned, bats are welcome denizens in many of Myanmar's temples, often roosting by the hundreds on the ceilings and under tiles. One can detect their presence by the sounds they make, by their swooping indoor flights and by their guano.

Likely, both bats here are Wrinkle-lipped Free-tailed Bats (Chaerephon plicatus) hanging upside down. One has white face and belly, while the other is all brown.

This is the most mesmerising and romantic view of the Ayeyarwaddy (Irrawaddy) River, enveloped in a soft pink wash that somehow brings out the intense gold of the Lawkananda Pagoda in New Bagan. We had dinner at the aptly-named the Sunset Garden Restaurant, with the river and pagoda as our magical backdrop.

On 11 December 2014 (Day 6), we coached from Bagan to Naypyidaw, the current administrative capital of Myanmar since 2006 under Senior General Than Shwe. This is the entrance to the Prime Minister’s Office with an unbelievable 20-lane road outside it, the widest road I have ever been on. It is also the emptiest big road ever, with just our tour bus and the occasional passing vehicle.
We also visited the Gem Museum featuring all sorts of precious and semi-precious  stones mined from this resource rich country. Later on, we had several opportunities to buy rubies, sapphires, jade and fossil wood from a tourist shop and the local market in Yangon. I took home a pair of ruby earrings, but regretted not buying a 'star' ruby. Learnt too that ruby and sapphire come from corundum (aluminium oxide), the third hardest stone in the world. The presence of chromium imparts in ruby a red hue, whereas it is iron that gives sapphire its characteristic blue. There are only four precious stones: diamond, emerald, ruby and sapphire.

To visit Naypyidaw's Uppattasanti Pagoda, all the ladies had to put on a longyi loaned to us.

Built from 2006-2009, Uppattasanti Pagoda is a replica of the incomparable Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon at 99 m high. Unlike Shwedagon which was packed with worshippers and full of shrines all over when we visited, Uppattasanti Pagoda was deserted with lots of open spaces. Nevertheless, the pagoda was massively impressive.
The  interior 'cave' hall of Uppattasanti Pagoda was clad in gold everywhere I looked. Shwedagon's 'cave' in contrast was not open to the public. Instead, it apparently houses between 1.8 to 2.5 million Wrinkled-lipped Bats. We witnessed wave upon wave of these bats continuously streaming out at dusk for nearly 30 minutes. They swarmed in spectacular formation, and would later spread out to feed on insects in the surrounding delta. An estimated one billion insects are eaten each night. Tim and I mistook the bats at first for starlings in murmuration. Luckily, my good friend Ding Li alerted me about a month after the trip to this batty phenomenon, and I realised with a jolt that our group had serendipitously witnessed it while waiting for our dinner at the Golden Duck Restaurant in Yangon. How super lucky!  

What did I say about gold everywhere? Even the coconuts in Uppattasanti Pagoda are gold-plated!

We took the night sleeper from Naypyidaw to Yangon. We were supposedly in the first class section, but found out from Chee Kien that it was the exact same train he took 27 years old. No upgrading whatsoever in the interim years. Strangely, each cabin had its own carriage not connected by corridors to the rest, which meant that once the train started moving, we were locked in till morning. There were four bunk beds per cabin, which we shared with our travel companions Alex and Winnie Teoh. The cabin was dilapidated and dirty, and the train rattled and rocked like there was no tomorrow. The attached toilet was deplorable, but at least we had a loo. On the upper bunk, I was thrown about all night, making it next to impossible to sleep. The next morning in Yangon, it was pretty chaotic as one cabin almost found themselves going back to Naypyidaw because they thought they had not yet arrived, and hence ignored the bangs on their shuttered windows dismissing them for hawkers. Darn funny.   
Since we arrived in Yangon very early by train, we had to wait almost two hours for our hotel breakfast to be ready. After washing up, Tim and I decided to reccee our surroundings instead of waiting listlessly. We saw people selling bushels of grain, and later spotted them being hung from homes to feed sparrows and other grain-eating birds (see photo). I believe that this is a Buddhist practice that is most most kind hearted. There was another peculiarity we noticed in the rows of eight-storey apartment blocks that lined the streets cheek-by-jowl. A number of units had strings dangling from their windows at the end of which hung a plastic bag at ground level. This serves as a quick means for goods-and-money exchange between street vendor and home owner. Tim said that such transactions used to be a common in old Singapore but has since died out.

We stopped by the gates leading to the home of Aung San Suu Kyi for a photo shoot, and learnt from the guard that the Lady would soon be returning home. While the rest waited in anticipation, I decided to poke around the trees adjacent to her compound. Was thrilled to find half a dozen Indo-Chinese Forest Lizards (Calotes mystaceus) sunning themselves in various postures. Our lifer! In the meantime, a limo with darkened windows rolled by, and nobody could tell if indeed it was the Lady sitting within. Luckily I didn't bother with that.
The mother of all temples, the most resplendent of them all, the incomparable Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. This religious pinnacle was awe-inspiring as much as it was overwhemling. Aside from its central golden stupa, the place was a glittering 'town' full of little shrines and contemplation halls every which way you turned. Devotees and tourists were out in force, adding to the surreal atmosphere.

I snapped furiously in the little time we were given, admiring the intricate architecture and artforms that were arranged tightly around the main stupa, marvelling too at the acts of the pious.
Finding a moment of calm in the serentiy of the earth-touching Buddha, Shwedagon Pagoda.
A devotee performing his ablution at his Burmese Zodiac Planetary Figure, in this case the Guinea Pig at the Friday corner.
Every shrine shelters its own Buddha, and some are guarded by a pair of mythical beasts called Chinthe (leogryph or lion-like creature). Certain Burmese pagodas have guardian Manussihas on all four corners, a variant that has a human head and torso with lion hindquarters.  

We went on a heritage tour with the Yangon Heritage Trust. As we pounded the roads of Yangon starting from Pansodan Street, we spied local acts of devotion including (from clockwise) a makeshift shrine set beneath a Bodhi (fig) tree, as well as bundles of josssticks stuffed haphazardly onto a fig tree with no obvious indication of its patron deity or spirit. The final picture shows a quaint hole-in-the-wall 'mama' shop hawking its everyday wares.
The extent of street advertising in Myanmar is unbelievable. Apparently these shophouses (as well as those up and down the same street) were in need of a paint job. Lenovo offered to sponsor the 'kind deed' provided that the buildings bore the Lenovo colours and logo. Luckily the logos, painted at intervals on the façade, are small enough not to be obtrusive. The red-and-white colour scheme is thankfully not an eye sore either. Here's Burmese win-win for you.
Sule Pagoda marks the centre of Yangon. Pre-dating Shwedagon, this 2,500 year old icon is believed to enshrine a hair of the Buddha. It has an uncommon octagonal shape that rises a full 48 m above the bustle of the city. Unfortunately, we did not visit its interior. Our accommodation, Central Hotel on Bogyoke Aung San Road, was just a short stroll away. 

Yangon City Hall incorporates Burmese and Colonial influences in its syncretic architecture. It was built between 1925 to 1940 (facing Maha Bandula Park) by architects McClumpha, Bray and Sithu U Tin.

The heritage tour introduced us to a slew of colonial buildings from the outside. We entered the very dilapidated interior of one of these buildings that today is a warren of small offices, shuttered rooms and damp corridors. In contrast, The Strand Hotel, built in 1901 by John Darwood for the Sarkies Brothers (who also built Singapore’s Raffles Hotel), was memorable for its air-conditioned and perfumed lobby decked in colonial furnishing. The Central Post Office (1908) built by A C Martin & Co is still functioning, as is the quiet and nice Armenian Apostolic Church of St John the Baptist (1862), both of which we visited.

My only encounter with an itinerant hawker of birds just outside our hotel.  
In all, we greatly enjoyed the Myanmar trip, including the company of our tour mates, the stories told by our good guide Myo Myo, and of course the many tourist sites that were well worth the visit. The shopping was good too. Picked up many souvenirs including a painting of birds, jade and fossil wood sauce dishes for my colleagues, t-shirts, old coins and notes, jade pendants and bangles (all very cheap) etc etc.
Myanmar’s cuisine bear similarities with Indo-Chinese food, with spicy and sour elements in some of the dishes. We added 10 new items to my Unique Food List including Tofu Crackers, Tamarind Sweet, Betel Nut with Fish Sauce, Myanmar Beer, Mandalay Beer, Lentil Soup, Shan Fish, Deep-fried Lake Fish (7cm long – street food), Deep-fried Lake Crab and Tomato Salad. Tim and I are quite familiar with Burmese food as we frequent the Inle Restaurant in Peninsular Plaza (Singapore), hence the small list.

Myanmar Bird and Vertebrate List 6 to 13 December 2014
No.LifersCommon NameScientific Name
1 Glossy IbisPlegadis falcinellus
2 Little EgretEgretta garzetta
3 Cattle EgretBubulcus ibis
4 Cinnamon BitternIxobrychus cinnamomeus
5 Little CormorantMicrocarbo niger
6 Black KiteMilvus migrans
7 Wood SandpiperTringa glareola
8 Rock DoveColumba livia
9 Eurasian Collared DoveStreptopelia decaocto
10 Spotted DoveStreptopelia chinensis
11 Black-nest SwiftletAerodramus maximus
12 Indian RollerCoracias benghalensis
13 White-throated KingfisherHalcyon smyrnensis
14 Green Bee-eaterMerops orientalis
15 Ashy WoodswallowArtamus fuscus
16 Common IoraAegithina tiphia
17L1Burmese ShrikeLanius collurioides
18 Black DrongoDicrurus macrocercus
19 Ashy DrongoDicrurus leucophaeus
20 House CrowCorvus splendens
21L2Red-vented Bulbul Pycnonotus cafer
22 Streak-eared BulbulPycnonotus blanfordi
23L3Ashy BulbulHemixos flavala
24 Barn SwallowHirundo rustica
25 Yellow-browed WarblerPhylloscopus inornatus
26 Plain PriniaPrinia inornata
27 Common TailorbirdOrthotomus sutorius
28L4White-throated BabblerTurdoides gularis
29 Common MynaAcridotheres tristis
30L5Vinous-breasted StarlingSturnus burmannicus
31 Pied Bush ChatSaxicola caprata
32L6Taiga FlycatcherFicedula albicilla
33 House SparrowPasser domesticus
34 White WagtailMotacilla alba
Other Vertebrates   
 Finlayson’s (Variable) Squirrel Callosciurus finlaysonii
2 Blyth’s (Glossy) Horseshoe Bat Rhinolophus lepidus
3 L1Wrinkle-lipped Free-tailed Bat Chaerephon plicatus
4 Banded BullfrogKaloula pulchra
5 L2Indo-Chinese Forest LizardsCalotes mystaceus

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