Myanmar is a mystical destination, one of gilded pagodas, hidden mountain villages and gentle, charming locals. A country where pious monks are more revered than Hollywood stars, life moves at a slower pace, and ancient traditions endure. The country is in an intriguing time of transition, where rural life and traditional values are entering the modern day, where swathes of the country, once off-limits, are now waiting to be freely explored. So what is there to explore, exactly?
Legend has it that there’s been a stupa on the Singuttara Hill in Yangon for 2600 years. Two merchant brothers met the Buddha, and he gave them eight of his hairs to take home to Myanmar. The King of Myanmar at the time, Okkalapa enshrined the hairs in a temple of gold on this hill. The tradition of gilding the stupa didn’t begin until the 15th century however, and today it is adorned with 27 metric tons of gold leaf, as well as thousands of diamonds and other precious gems. The larger pagoda complex, also known as the Great Dragon Pagoda and the Golden Pagoda stands 110 metres tall, and consists of hundreds of colourful temples, stupas and statues, which give an insight into the importance of Buddhism to the local people.
Famed for being the town where George Orwell was stationed as a policeman in the 1920s, and thus inspiration for his novel Burmese Days, Katha is a vibrant market town on the banks of the Irrawaddy. A remote outpost, the town is an intriguing mix of colonial era buildings, bustling local markets and views to the picturesque rolling countryside beyond.
At the foot of the Mandalay Hill, the Kuthodaw Pagoda is a complex cluster comprising hundreds of shrines, several pavilions and a gilded pagoda. Built shortly after the founding of Mandalay in 1857, it is also known as the ‘world’s largest book’, named after 279 marble slabs inscribed with ancient Buddhist teachings.
This special Mandalay pagoda is home to one of the most nationally celebrated Buddhist statues, a 3.9 metre tall seated Buddha. Believed to be some 2000 years old, the statue was seized from the town of Mrauk U in 1784 and hauled back to Mandalay – the story of which is depicted in a series of paintings in the pagoda’s inner courtyard. The seated Buddha itself is quite the sight: devotees flock here and males paint the figure with gold leaf, leaving him covered in a six inch layer of pure gold.
An impressive sight, the U Bein Bridge is the world’s longest teak footbridge, stretching 1.2 kilometres across the shallow Taungthaman Lake. In the dry season it stands tall above gardens of vegetables, whereas following the heavy summer rains, the water rises so high that it laps just shy of the walkway planks. Incredibly, of the 1086 support poles, only a handful have been replaced by cement supports.
Home to just 15,000 people, this small village on the banks of the Irrawaddy near Sagaing, is a thriving pottery industry. Home to the only four large scale glaze factories in Upper Myanmar, ceramics have been the lifeblood of this region since the 18th century. A true insight into traditional Burmese life, Kyauk Myaung is where large earthenware pots are made. These huge pots are thrown with 18 kilograms of clay and can hold up to 200 litres of liquid.
Myanmar is home to eight reclining Buddha statues, from one of the largest, Chaukhtatgyi Paya in Yangon to the most famous, Shwethalyaung Paya in Bago. The reclining Buddha image is highly important to Buddhists because it represents the Buddha during his last illness, before entering Nirvana. Each reclining Buddha in Myanmar has individual significance and provide a unique insight into the local religious traditions.
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