Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Burma: Mt. Popa

We hired a driver to go out to Mt. Popa on New Years Day. Mt. Popa is a 1,400 foot volcanic tower that can be climbed by going up 777 steps. Mt. Popa is a sacred site for nat (spirit being) worship. You can offend the nat if you wear red or black on the mountain, bring meat, or say bad things about other people. The nat may then curse you with bad fortune. I like to wait until at least mid-January to be cursed with bad fortune, so we dressed accordingly. Hopefully the nat will take a joke about this cat drinking Buddha's water.

I somehow managed to miss the sentence in the guidebook that described Mt. Popa as a “monkey-tastic” volcanic mountaintop temple. Like most of the temples in Burma, you must take off your shoes when you enter. This meant climbing the 777 steps barefoot and dodging the piles of droppings left by the creepy nipple monkeys on Mt. Poopa (as we subsequently named it). The monkeys are talented little thieves. I saw one steal a water bottle right out of someone's pocket and then just stare at the person smugly as it opened the bottle. 

At the top of Mt. Popa, you can make a $100 donation and have a painted plaque with your name put on the wall, but you really have no way of knowing that they’ll ever paint it and put it up. Like the Buddha hair under the temple in Yangon, I guess I’m just going to have to take their word for it. Overall, Mt. Popa is pretty, but probably not worth the 2 hour drive unless you go on your way to somewhere else. If you do go, please let me know if there is actually a Sara Schroeder plaque there or if I got scammed by some very jolly looking monks.

Burma: Bagan

We took the “fast” boat from Madalay to Bagan. Fast is something of an exaggeration, because I think I could swim about as quickly as the boat was going.  The boat left at 7am and arrived at 4:30 pm. The long ride was fine, because the views were beautiful. From the boat, we could see hundreds of golden temples and shrines.

Bagan is called the heart of Burma. It was the capital of the country from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries. During that time, over 4,000 Buddhist temples were constructed. What surprised me was that many of these temples were built out of brick. Numerous temples have been restored (although often in completely different styles from their original form, making many historians rage). In any case, Bagan is amazing. There are just so many temples! We rented e-bikes for the day to go exploring. Early on, I learned an important lesson about not accidentally hitting the accelerator when reaching for the brake. Added bonus- I got a colorful bruise that matches the Burmese sunsets.

It can be a bit hard to find the temple you are looking for in Bagan, since the temples are usually a bit off the main road and the signs are in Burmese. The good news is that you’ll stumble across tons of temples you didn’t intend to visit, but which are also amazing. We had a number of these all to ourselves while we were there.

Many of the temples have colorful histories. Dhammayangyi Pahto stands out in that regard. King Narathu (who sounds like a real gem) had it built in the 12th century to atone for his sins. He had smothered his father and brother to death and executed his Indian princess wife for practicing Hinduism. Luckily, he’d outgrown his cruel streak by the time that he ordered the temple built. As part of the construction, he mandated that the brickwork fit together so tightly that a pin could not pass between any two bricks. Workers who failed to meet his standards had their arms chopped off. In an ending as predictable as romcom, Narathu subsequently died by assassination in 1170. The temple was then filled with brick rubble as payback. The temple is still believed to have bad karma. 

In terms of accommodation, there are three main towns in the Bagan area- Nyaung U, Old Bagan, and New Bagan. Around New Years is the busiest time of year in Burma, especially Bagan, so when we showed up with no hotel reservation, it took some hunting to find something decent. We ended up at the Golden House in Nyaung U, which was pretty good. The staff was super friendly (and much more hard working than the shower drain, which seemed to have taken a holiday from functioning). Nyaung U has lots of decent accommodation options and good restaurants. (Tip- definitely go to Black Bamboo for dinner in Nyaung U. This garden restaurant is run by a French woman and her Burmese husband. The food is good, but the homemade ice cream is amazing. Aroma 2 is also a good option for Indian food, plus I like their motto “No like, no pay.”)

South of Nyaung U, Old Bagan has some great temples to see and accommodation is primarily higher end hotels. (Bagan Thande Hotel is great. We celebrated New Years Eve there, which involved a pretty hilarious cultural show, including two men in an ornately decorated Burmese elephant costume dancing to Gangnam style. The downside was that they closed the bar at 11 P.M., which my friend Chris accurately described as "culturally insensitive.") 

New Bagan is just south of Old Bagan. New Bagan was started in 1990 when the (culturally insenstive) government forcibly relocated people from Old Bagan. There are good midrange accommodation options in New Bagan. These three towns are spread out over about 12 miles of road and it is easy to get between them by e-bike, horse carriage, or taxi.

Bagan was by far my favorite place in Burma. If I ever go back, I'm going to make sure to book the sunrise hot air balloon ride, which looks amazing, but sells out well in advance.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Burma: Mandalay

From Yangon, we flew to Mandalay (with my bag now in tow and the “Myanmar” shirt temporarily retired). Mandalay is said to be the country’s cultural capital. We hired a car to take us around to the main sites. We started the morning by going up Mandalay Hill, the 760 foot hill that has great views of the city and great views of monks on iPhones. 

From there, we went to Mandalay Palace, an impressive 1990s reconstruction of the original palace. It contains King Thibaw’s glass-pillared four poster bed, which actually looks even less comfortable than it sounds. We also visited Mahamuni Paya, which contains a revered 13 foot tall golden Buddha statue that is believed to be 2000 years old. Male worshippers can buy gold leaf and then apply it to the Buddha. So much gold has been applied that the body of the Buddha is covered in bumps. 

For a Guinness World Record moment, we went to see the “World’s Biggest Book.” Kuthodaw Paya contains 729 text inscribed marble slabs, each contained in its own small stupa. Together, they are the entire 15 books of the Tripitaka. When King Mindon had a team of 2,400 monks read the book in a nonstop relay, it took them nearly 6 months!

To keep with the Guinness theme, we saw the sunset at U-Bein Bridge, the world’s longest teak footbridge. This  gorgeous 1300 yard bridge is crammed full of monks, locals, and tourists walking its length and trusting the rickety planks to hold.

That evening, we went to a fabulous night market that sold vegetables and all sorts of local food. So good!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Burma: Yangon

            Myanmar or Burma? In planning this trip, I heard the country called by both names. Luckily, the 24 hours of flying to get here gave me plenty of time to read through the guidebook and figure out what is going on with this country’s name. Myanmar has been the official name of the country since 1989 when the military junta running things decided to do away with the name Burma. The UN and most other countries call the country Myanmar. The United States apparently does not care for the name preferences of military juntas and has decided to continue to call the country Burma.  In the spirit of being an ugly American, I'm going with Burma.

            Word of advice- don’t fly China Southern. It was a hot mess beginning to end. I was told that my bag did not make it to Yangon because of my "tight" (3.5 hour) connection in Guangzhou. They were not sure when/if it might arrive, but definitely not in the next day since there was not another flight from Guangzhou.

This meant that my first stop in Yangon was to the Bogyoke Aung San Market (aka Scott Market), which has more than 2,000 shops. I picked up some fabulous Burmese fashions including elephant print harem pants, ridiculously high underwear that could double as a parachute, and a shirt that says “Myanmar” which seems way less cool to wear when actually in Burma.

After the shopping adventure, we went to the Shwedagon Paya, one of Buddhism’s most sacred sites. In a cave under this 325 foot temple, it is believed that there are eight of Buddha’s hairs. Unfortunately, if you go down to this cave, you turn to stone, so it looks like I’m going to have to take their word for it.

We hired a guide to take us around the temple. He told us that it is important what day of the week you were born on. He even had a handy little book that lets you look up the day you were born. Turns out that I made my grand entrance on a Friday. Each day of the week is represented by a different animal. For example, Monday is a tiger. Friday appears to be a hamster pig. Apparently Buddha was also born on a Friday, so I’m in good hamster pig company. There is a different  shrine to each day of the week, so I paid a visit to the Friday shrine. Another clever part of the belief system- it is good luck to come to the temple on the day of the week you were born and sweep it with a broom.  Given that you have to have your shoes off while there, I am pretty glad about the aggressive amounts of sweeping going on.