Myanmar has the most Buddhist temples of any South East Asian country. There are said to be a million pagodas and stupas throughout the nation! In the rural village of Bagan alone, there are over 3000 structures on a plain of 42 square km, the site of the first Burmese kingdom between the 11th and 13th centuries. In each city, each town and even in remote villages, there are pagodas to be found.
Fascinatingly, although hundreds are now in ruins - with vegetation valiantly growing on the walls or through floors - countless are still places of active worship and the center of community life. In addition, hundreds of Buddhist temples are being built, to add to the existing vast numbers. I saw new construction – with bamboo scaffolding - as well as restoration, in each place I visited. Donating money to build a pagoda on temple grounds, or to support a monastery, is one of the most popular ways to earn merit (kutho), believed to allay illness and misfortune and secure a better rebirth in the next life. The wide practice of Theravada Buddhism in Myanmar permeates the daily life of the people, ranking them as the world’s most generous country, along with the USA.
I experienced the renowned hospitality when I was invited off the street into a private home in Bagan, to enjoy a munificent meal with an extended family.
Exploring some of the major temples and their nearby monasteries, observing the vibrant and bustling activity in these often exquisitely beautiful places, is a major attraction of Myanmar and it provides an opportunity to chat with the warm local people. When you enter a temple - whether it is famous like Shwedagon Paya in Yangon, Mahamuni Payi in Mandalay or if it is an obscure small complex that you discover near your hotel at Inle Lake – you will be required to take off your shoes. Make sure you take slipslops to facilitate this process. Women and children will approach you selling bunches of fresh cut flowers like Lotus, Anthurium or Orchid, fruit or incense, which are placed at the shrines as an offering.
Once you have run the gauntlet of the sales people and are inside the temple, expect numerous images of Buddha. Sometimes a huge statue dominates in each of the four compass points. Aspects of the life of Buddha are shown in various ways using sculpture, bass relief or paintings. Some temples sell gold leaf, which is pressed onto certain statues, as an act of worship. In some places the gold is so thick, that the Buddha effigy becomes an amorphous mass. In Mandalay, in Maha Myat Muni Pagoda, women are not permitted to apply the gold leaf. The Buddha graven images frequently have brightly coloured and flashing lights above them. Sometimes pillars are also entwined with these pulsating lights.
The devotion and sincerity of the worshippers is touching. As you are not allowed to point your foot at a Buddha image, people tend to either sit on their knees or cross-legged as they meditate or pray. In one temple I saw a tiny toddler copying her mother, who was bowing down. Outside the temple there is a sizeable bell, which you can ring using a thick wooden stick. This is a symbol of Buddha’s voice, calling for the protection of deities and sustaining the order of things in the universe. Children love to sound the bells and gongs and vie to see who can make the loudest sound. Stray dogs and cats wander in and out of the temples, seeking food and shade, but are mostly ignored, or given the occasional pat on the head. Faith and superstition go hand in hand in Myanmar. I saw vans selling lotto tickets outside the temples, with individuals carefully considering which ticket to choose. People still consult astrologers to find a marriage partner or an auspicious date for a major life event. In private homes that I visited, personal shrines to Buddha included spirit houses for “nat”, or spirit beings. Tree spirit shrines can be seen on venerated Banyan trees, which symbolise Buddha’s enlightenment.
Myanmar people of all ages can spend an unspecified time as a monk or nun. In the early mornings, members of the Sangha walk in the streets with their bowl (formerly known as a begging bowl, but now as an offering bowl) wearing their robes. Men are clad in saffron and women in pink. Restaurant owners, or any lay people come out onto the streets with pots of rice - or if the Sanga is lucky maybe some curry - which they ladle into the bowls. Giving food to the monks and nuns is done willingly as an offering, as unto Buddha and is considered a righteous act that creates positive karma.
Feeding birds is another way of making an offering, so birdseed is sold and thrown to the pigeons. Needless to say there is a great flurry of wings and a healthy population of fat feral pigeons. Outside the temples worshippers pay to set free a bird, which has been caught and placed in a cage. Sadly, they are often caught repeatedly.
Now is the time to visit this fascinating country, which was one of the most isolated countries of the world, but opened to the West - and to the thought of democracy - in 2011. Be surprised and delighted by tradition where all the men where sarong-like longhis, women and children paint their faces with thanaka made from bark, old men and woman savour cheroots or chew on bright red betel nut and teahouses are almost as abundant as temples.
Great places to stay:
The Strand Yangon - set in the vibrant old city, surrounded by grand colonial period buildings – is recently refurbished, but still steeped in tradition from the colonial era, with delicious high teas and fine-dining, whirring ceiling fans, a smoking bar and butler to unpack your clothes. www.hotelthestrand.com
Blue Bird Hotel Bagan – in a verdant garden, with swimming pool and al fresco restaurant – is an oasis, on a dust road in a village walking distance from some of the extraordinary temples of Bagan. Local people are employed and sound eco-friendly principles are practiced here. www.bluebirdhotelbagan.com
Hotel by the Red Canal, Mandalay is a boutique hotel in a welcoming space enclosing a lush garden with water features. It has a striking Pagoda-style roof, red teak furniture, floors and staircases and provides lavish amenities. www.hotelredcanal.com
The Strand Cruise is the perfect way to get from Bagan to Mandalay - in pure luxury, enjoying excellent food - exploring fabulous temples and local life along the Ayeyarwady river, with musical and puppet shows by local artists, plus demonstrations on how to wear a longhi and facial tanakha paste. www.thestrandcruise.com
Sanctum Inle Resort is tranquil and elegant, with high ceilings and selected teak furniture, set in a large garden including Tamarind trees, with views over an infinity swimming pool to paddy fields and Inle Lake, with the Shan mountians. Well sited for day boat trips to water villages. www.sanctum-inle-resort.com