This blog post on Bagan and Myanmar was contributed by Nezasa’s Isabella Minzly, who travelled to Myanmar recently.
From the very moment you step foot on the ground in Myanmar, your heart starts to beat with a slightly different rhythm, and you start smiling without even being aware of it.
The first time I went to Myanmar, I left Italy with very high expectations. Everyone I knew who had been to Myanmar told me it was absolutely amazing, their whole faces lit up when they spoke about their trips, and each and every one of them wanted to go back. Again and again.
Bagan as the sun rises
When I arrived in Bagan, I had already been in Myanmar for more than a week, and my eyes and heart were full of that special feeling you get when everything is just so much more than you expected.
I arrived on a small boat on the Irrawaddy River. We enjoyed the sunset from the boat, so didn’t really get to see much of Bagan upon arrival as the roads are small and dark, and few of the temples are lit in the evening.
The following morning, our guide woke us up at 4 a.m. with a couple of flashlights. We didn’t even question this, as he had been absolutely amazing throughout our trip and all his advice had been spot-on. We left our room in complete darkness. We reached the observation tower of the Aureum Palace Hotel and took the lift up to the top floor, then climbed a narrow winding staircase to reach the terrace on the top. It was still dark.
The terrace offered a 360-degree view of the surrounding area. Slowly the sun rose … and there, suddenly, there it all was: more than 2,000 temples scattered all around us. It was so beautiful it looked almost unreal. All around us, people sighed and clicked their tongues in amazement, and we all took hundreds of pictures while still almost unable to believe what we were seeing.
Just a slice of everyday Myanmar life
We stayed in Bagan for three full days, and enjoyed every second of it. The monuments seem to overwhelm the landscape; thousands of temples, stupas and pagodas in different sizes, shapes and colours in an area of 16 square miles, most of them still throbbing with life and visited by devotees and tourists alike.
The Burmese culture and daily life is, to this day, very regulated and influenced by the profound faith of its people. In fact, 97% of the population is Theravada Buddhist. Most people have, at some point, been monks and stayed in a monastery, some for as little as a week and others, for years. The devotion of the people can be seen all over the country, and adds to its irresistible charm. This is not simply on show for tourists, but is the way people live their everyday lives.
Each morning all over the country, thousands of monks dressed in dark red robes collect the day’s food in a traditional black bowl. Even the very poor people offer at least a spoon of rice, and the monks thank them by joining their hands together. People also apply leafs made of pure gold on the temples, pagodas and Buddha statues, giving them a truly surreal appearance. Richer families will restore a temple and apply a small sign with the family name on it.
The traditions are alive
This is also one of the reasons why Bagan, in spite of being absolutely unique, is not a UNESCO World Heritage Site. To be recognized as such by UNESCO, there are extremely strict rules about how and how much the site can be restored, and this simply does not apply to Bagan and its continually restored temples.
Personally, I like this. The religious sites in Myanmar are alive! Part of the charm is to sit down in silence and watch the rituals performed by the local Burmese people.
This is only a small part of a trip to a country that can exceed the expectations of even the most experienced traveler. Myanmar is home to a land, a culture and a people more beautiful, warm and friendly than one could ever have hoped for.
This feeling is wonderfully immortalized in the words of Kipling:
“This is Burma, and it is unlike any land you know about.”
– Rudyard Kipling, Letters from the East (1898)
Isabella Minzly is one of the newest members of the Nezasa team. Originally from Denmark, she makes her home in Rome, Italy, and hopes to return to Myanmar very soon.