Palatial Pagodas (Myanmar Part 3)

This is the holiday that has meant that when in Bangkok this past week with Eleanor I had to strike a deal… no pagodas, no temples, no palaces and no monasteries.

We booked a tour with the hotel for the next day to see Yangon. For the four of us it was cheaper and lets face it more comfortable to have a driver and guide for the day than to be traipsing Really we only wanted to see the Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset, but we were also interested in the rest of Yangon and from what we had read it was easily doable in a day.

That day we were also taken to what can only be termed as a glorified marquee for lunch. A place were tour groups alongside locals chose from all sorts of curries from a top table. Once the curry had sold out it was gone for that day and a replacement curry was given. Vegetable, prawn, chicken and goat curries appeared as did a bowl of rice. The place was hiving with activity and with cacophonous conversations happening all around us the only thing we wanted to do was eat! It was a far cry from the monastery that we had visited in the morning where we had witnessed lunch being served by volunteers to the monks and nuns. We were told that on most occasions companies would sponsor lunch and volunteers would serve it. I was hestitant to take photos of this, but was assured it was fine. Many of the monks and nuns are children and with food being served every day, it is probably reassuring to their families to ensure their children are being nourished both spiritually and physically.

Visiting the monasteries and the pagodas meant that our knees had to be covered and so Martin went and got himself a male longyi – a skirt. One piece of material in a tube, tied in a bundle at the front. He wore it well after he was shown how to tie the “knot”.

Our first visit was to Chauk-htat-gyi Buddha Temple a 65m reclining buddha, complete with red nails and red lipstick – as teachers we are alert to nail polish and lipstick on students so it was funny to see a statue with such prominent features.

We also went to another temple where we were followed by a policeman. I thought he was following us and checking what we being told, but he was actually following us to develop his English. How much of a fool did I feel when I asked our guide why he was following us to be told the simplest reason.

The day ended at Shwedagon Pagoda for sunset. It was magnificent. Golden and beautiful. The day had made me think that there was a lot of gold and a lot of gems on top of the pagodas, and yet we had seen a lot of poverty. It was difficult to reconcile the poverty with the diamonds, rubies and saphires and other precious gems on the tops of the pagodas.

From Yangon we went to Inle Lake – and had been told by our guide in Yangon to go to Indein Village so see the Shwe Indein Pagoda. We walked up from the river and had to pay a photography fee. I got a tiny receipt on an elastic band and put it on my bag. We didn’t know whether it was a scam or not, but when we went to Bagan I saw some other people sporting the receipt so either we were all scammed or it was legit. Inle Lake will be a blog in its own right, but in keeping of the theme of pagodas and stupas, Indein Village on the banks of a tributary river of Inle Lake has its own share of Buddhist pagodas and stupas. 1600 of them approximately dotted all over the countryside. Many of them are in disrepair, and others exceptionally well kept. Emma and I hopped on two motorbikes (with drivers) and we were taken up to a look out point. The journey was less than 5 minutes and it was heartstopping as we went off roading on a narrow path – the path the width of the bike tyre and once we had got over the mild panic we scrambled up onto the rock and were met with panoramic views. Eleanor and Martin chose to stay behind in the coolness of the covered walkedway that led from the village up the hill.

From Inle Lake we went to Bagan, an ancient city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site with 3822 temples and pagodas remaining from the original 10,000. We had to pay 25000MMK at the airport to visit the Bagan Archaeological Zone. Only one site asked to see the receipt.

The money that we had to hand over (children were free) to the Myanmar Tourism Federation (MTF) I later learned does not all go to the upkeep of the pagodas, temples and monastries. In fact the MTF takes a cut, the state takes a massive cut and only 2% of the fee goes to conservation and maintenance of these beautiful buildings.

Some are in desperate need of repair after the earthquake in 2016. And compared to the pictures in this BBC article a tremendous amount of work has been done, but 2% is not very much to continually pay to the upkeep of these majestic buildings.

In Bagan we wanted to do one thing. A hot air balloon ride. Turns out there really is no cheap way to do a hot air balloon ride. All the companies quoted between $320 and $350 per person. Approx 250GBP. No discount for children – and in fact only a few companies would take our 11 year old daughter. We finally got a company who gave us $300 per person. We booked through the hotel, Bagan Thande Hotel and were told to reserve our places we would have to pay in cash. The ATM at the hotel only dispensed Kyat. The four of us withdrew 1,739,757 MMK. A LOT OF CASH

However, before doing a sunrise balloon ride with Balloons Over Bagan, we booked, much to Eleanor’s delight a half day tour around Bagan, the guide was knowledgeable and yes it most definitely is the way to get the history of the place in a short period of time, but Emma’s experience of getting out and travelling on her own gave her a different insight and she saw many of the stupas off the beaten track.

The definite highlight of Bagan was the hot air balloons though. One company tried to charge more because it was close to Christmas!

We were collected by vintage bus, and trundled through the countryside until we got to an open area with many many balloons spread out on the ground. We had a safety briefing and then the 15 of us in our group were divided. The basket of the balloon was divided into 4 sections and one section in the middle for the pilot. We climbed into the basket and sat down waiting for our Spanish pilot and the ground staff to ready the balloon for lift off.

Once up in the air, the view was stunning.

We had an hour floating through the air. Seeing the other balloons gave us the perfect view of seeing balloons over Bagan. It was serene and quiet. A true bird’s eye view.