By John S. Hamalian

The morning sun reflects brilliantly off the glittering gold of the ancient temple, a structure so old its origins are clouded in a mist thicker than the incense burning at a nearby shrine. Imagine a land tucked away in time, virtually unchanged for a millennium. A land of diverse ethnic groups jockeying for influence, of Buddhist monks quietly chanting morning prayers, of centuries-old legends and tales of intrigue, of businesspeople scrambling for a slice of newfound prosperity. Welcome to the fascinating tapestry of people, history and culture that is Myanmar.

An Ancient Legend Endures Without a doubt, the most impressive sight in Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon, is Shwedagon Pagoda. Soaring high above the cityscape like a giant golden Hershey’s Kiss, this icon is the soul of the city and the heart of the land. It can be seen from nearly anywhere in Yangon, constantly permeating the city’s very existence. The enormous gold plated stupa (a monumental structure, usually housing sacred relics) soars nearly 320 feet high, its tip encrusted with 5,448 diamonds, as well as scores of other precious gems, deposits of which Myanmar has some of the world’s richest.

According to legend, Gautama Siddhartha, as he reached enlightenment and became the last Buddha while sitting under a tree in India, plucked eight hairs from his own head and gave them to two of his brothers. The men then toiled their way through dense jungles and jagged mountains to southern Myanmar, carrying the hairs in a special casket, where they were eventually enshrined in the massive stupa, along with relics from three previous Buddhas. Because of this, Shwedagon is one of the most venerated sites in the entire Buddhist world – a responsibility welcomed by the people of this land, over eighty percent of whom are stoutly devoted to the belief.

The Land of a Thousand Temples Rumbling down the dusty roads of an ancient city mired in time, a flurry of pyramid-like structures bombards the visitor like flecks of dust in a sandstorm. But these are not pyramids, they are temples, giving the ancient city of Bagan its nickname of ‘The Land of a Thousand Temples’. At every glance, another one appears, as if one were somehow stuck in an endless loop of archeological discovery. Buddhist edifices dot the landscape like skyscrapers in an urban jungle. The entire old section of the city is considered a historical site – unlike other culturally important places where you may pay a fee to get into a particular landmark, in Bagan you have to buy a ticket to enter the city itself.

Bagan is one of Asia’s most amazing wonders, some even placing it on par with Cambodia’s mighty Angkor Wat, a weighty comparison indeed. Before Kublai Khan’s Mongols repeatedly invaded this region in the 13th century, it is estimated that Bagan contained over 10,000 temples and stupas – an astounding number considering the city’s relatively diminutive size. Miraculously, more than 2,200 of them remain today, considerably more than the nickname suggests. The buildings vary in design and construction, depending on their ethnic style, having, among others, Mon, Bamar, Tamil Indian, Sri Lankan and even Tibetan influence, perfectly reflecting the incredible cultural diversity that defines the montage of Myanmar.

One of the more fascinating structures in Bagan is Ananda Temple, a dominating edifice with its whitewashed exterior, most regal in appearance. It is said that the King was so taken by the temple’s uniqueness that he personally executed the designer to preserve its singularity. Another impressive site is the giant Thatbyinnyu Temple, the tallest building in Bagan. As is typical of these creations there is at least one Buddha figure inside. One contains a giant reclining Buddha over 60 feet in length. Another temple-building legend persists at Dhammayangyi, Bagan’s largest shrine, where it is said that during its construction the King would have masons executed if a needle could be pushed between the bricks. It’s a good thing he never saw me lay my first bathroom tile!

Empires Come and Gone

After the Mongol invasion destroyed the first Burmese empire, the area of Myanmar was in various states of transition for half a millennium, with in-fighting between ethnic groups, war with neighboring Thais, and the rise and fall of two more Burmese Empires. Enter Britain, who by 1886 annexed all of Burma, as the country was named in those days. This British Burma period was the time that Orwell wrote his famous Burmese Days novel and Kipling his notable poem, Mandalay. After around a century of stiff British rule and episodes of Burmese rebellion, the area came under brutal Japanese occupation between 1942 and 1945. Myanmar eventually gained its independence in 1948, finally getting a breather after so many years of meddling. In recent years, the formerly inward country has begun to open up, presenting commercial opportunities for those brave enough to accept the risks of fresh intrepidity.

The name change of the country in 1989 from Burma to Myanmar was meant, in part, to highlight the old term’s namesake that people are one of many in what is among the most ethnically diverse nations in in the world. Other than the majority Burman people, the dizzying array of ethnicities includes Shan, Kayin (Karen), Kayah (Red Karen), Mon, Kachin, Wa, among many others. Each one carries its own language, customs and style, helping to make Myanmar a true interwoven tapestry of peoples.

Rocky Outpost in the Sky

As we drive across the dry, desert-like flat plains just east of Bagan, a monolithic outcrop appears out of nowhere. Like Devils Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the sheer-sided formation looks as if it doesn’t quite belong here, and there is something shining on top. Like an undiscovered outpost of a bygone empire, a large monastery compound with golden domes gleams magnificently atop Taung Kalat, a towering 5,000 feet high volcanic lava neck. To get to the top one has to climb a mere 777 slippery and zigzagging steps, but the wonderful view of the surrounding landscape, including majestic Mount Popa volcano, is well worth the effort. As is typical of these kinds of complexes, the monastery, stupas and shrines all seem to meld together in an unceasing array of gold, incense and intrigue. While coming down, an elderly man, hunched over and busy sweeping the walkway with a dilapidated broom, paused for a moment to look at us, point at the floor, and mutter something in the local language that I took to mean “hey, I just cleaned all these steps”. We handed him some money, said goodbye to the wild monkeys scurrying overhead, and made our way to the next stop.

Humanity at its Best

While traveling in the open countryside, I decided to stop and say hello to some locals. No sooner than I got out of the car was I greeted by some playful children, some of the boys bearing footballs and the girls wearing thanaka bark powder (a whitish natural sun-block and make-up) on their faces. A bit shy at first, they soon warmed up to me and let me take a photo of them. They then ceremoniously ushered up to me the kid with the highest level of English, who proceeded to lead me into their little village with all the others merrily skipping along behind us. I was shown where they kept their cows, where they stored their hay, how they ground their seeds to make oil; they gave me a grand tour of their entire village. Amused and curious inhabitants emerged from their huts to see the ‘parade’, some joining us, the kid leader, as a sort of local pied piper, with I and the others dutifully marching behind. A few adults approached and insisted that I sit down and take some tea along with their sweet cakes, a local specialty from the sugar cane trees that grow abundantly here. Finally, we entered their little temple in the center of town and met the village elder. Seizing my chance to show my gratitude, I politely gave a donation that I knew would benefit the village as a whole, so as not to corrupt individuals with hand-outs. He graciously accepted on behalf of the people, with a toothy smile and a warm handshake.

The village experience echoed my entire trip to Myanmar – permanently etched into my memory will be the perpetually friendly and warm-hearted people of this land. Exuding a simple, good-natured affability that is hard to find in developed countries, I found that they were just as curious about me as I was of them; the brilliance of their colorful wraps as bright as the smiles on their faces. A country is not a flag, a symbol, nor a landmark; it is a place full of people living their lives during our shared human journey. And I was glad to come across a few here: the smiling young girl sewing in her humble little hut; the two holy men silently praying under a colossal Buddhist figure; the friendly women waving while lugging heavy pails of water from a nearby river. Wonderful threads of humanity stitched beautifully into the amazing tapestry of Myanmar and, indeed, the world.

Getting There

Three-hour flights from Singapore Changi to Yangon and connecting flights to Nyaung-u for Bagan depart daily.