Exploring Ancient Myanmar

I’ll never forget my first sip of lǎp’eq·ye tea on our first day in Myanmar. Decadent like Belgian hot chocolate, but with a distinct black tea flavor, the hot liquid sent an instant message from my mouth to my brain that THIS is the taste of heaven.

Our local guide smiled knowingly in response to the look of joy on my face. “The secret is that we stir in sweetened condensed milk.”

She gestured to the left of the table where we sat. A man stood over a large metal vat, churning a creamy mixture of condensed milk and black tea. Suddenly I wondered why I didn’t regularly stock sweetened condensed milk in my pantry at home. Clearly, I’ve been living my life all wrong.

After only 10 days in what is perhaps Southeast Asia’s most mysterious nation, it became clear to me that there was far more I could learn from the people of Myanmar than just how to make the perfect cup of tea.

Myanmar tea

Decadent Myanmar tea, sweetened with condensed milk

Itinerary:

  • Days 1-2: Yangon
  • Days 3-5: Inle Lake
  • Days 6-8: Bagan
  • Days 9-10: Mandalay

Dates: June 30-July 9, 2018

Our Odyssey:

We arrived in Yangon (formerly Rangoon under British colonization) early on a Saturday evening. We stayed in the Best Western Chinatown Hotel, which was very nice. The location in particular is perfect. The hotel is only a few blocks away from 19th Street, Yangon’s best food street.

That first night, however, we weren’t hungry for a full meal so we just ate snacks we still had in our bags.

The next morning, we dove right into Myanmar’s culture and history.

Myanmar’s History

Formerly known as Burma, after the majority ethnic group of the area (the Burmese), Myanmar has a complex history. In the 1800s, when British controlled India, they instigated a series of three wars with the Burmese people. The British gained control over the area and included it their administration of India.

This resulted in Indians coming in as second colonizers. As Indians as well as Chinese poured in, the Burmese people became the minority in cities like Yangon.

Just prior to WWII, a young Burmese man named Aung San recruited a small army to take back Burma. He negotiated with the Japanese military to recieve training. He returned to Burma with Japanese invaders in 1941. The Japanese drove out British-Indian forces, but didn’t treat the Burmese people much better. Aung San and his army looked to the Allied side of WWII in 1945 for help. Within two months, the British army pushed the Japanese out.

Burma remained a British colony until 1948 when it declared independence. Unfortunately, ethnic and political conflicts disrupted the new nation immediately. After a military coup in 1958, university students led a peaceful protest in 1962. The military killed over 100 students in response.

Over the next 50 years, the military suppressed opposition to its regime by banning other political parties and killing thousands during peaceful anti-government protests.

Starting in 2010, the military president began cooperating with a road to democracy. Now, the military has minimal power in most of the country.

Is Visiting Myanmar Ethical?

Peace now prevails in most of the country, but their problems aren’t over. Most prominent in global headlines is the deadly violence perpetrated by Buddhists in Rhakine has pushed the Rohingya Muslim population into neighboring Bangladesh. The Myanmar government hasn’t responded effectively to end the violence, something many people cite as a reason to boycott travel to Myanmar.

In my opinion, though, if we stopped visiting every country with human rights issues, we’d no longer visit most countries, including the United States. In the “west” we are often somehow blind to our own flaws but are quick to point them out in developing nations.

When you visit a developing nation, you do far more good for the local people than for their government. For this reason, I wholeheartedly advocate visiting developing nations. You will almost certainly have a change of heart and mind about how you think of the developing world.

Yangon

We started our exploration of Yangon with a visit to the city’s most iconic site, the Shwedagon Pagoda. This Buddhist monument is the most decadent I’ve ever seen, with 27 metric tons of gold leaf and an abundance of gems and diamonds. Legend holds that this Pagoda enshrines 8 hairs of Buddha and relics from the three Buddhas before him.

According to legend, a stupa has sat at this site for 2600 years, when the Buddha gave 8 of his hairs to two merchant brothers to take back to Myanmar. Archaeological experts date the original stupa to somewhere between the 6th and 10th centuries. It wasn’t until the 15th century that the tradition of adorning the stupa in gold began.

Shwedagon Pagoda Yangon

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon

The temple complex suffered many earthquakes and colonial pillagers over the years, but today it stands tall and beautiful. My favorite part was seeing local families bringing picnics to the grounds. It had the feel of a community meeting point and a great place for a Sunday stroll.

From there, we visited Mahasi Sasana Yeiktha Meditation Center. Here, we had the honor of meeting with an elderly Buddhist monk who spent two hours instructing us in the specific meditation practices (called satipatthana vipassana or insight-awareness meditation) of the region. I’ll never forget his voice repeating “Just try, try, try with your breath. Rising, falling, rising, falling.” as we practiced our sitting and walking meditation techniques.

Mahasi Sasana Yeiktha Meditation Center

Mahasi Sasana Yeiktha Meditation Center

Mahasi Sasana Yeiktha Meditation Center

With our monk in Mahasi Sasana Yeiktha Meditation Center

This was definitely one of the most special experiences of our trip, and one we couldn’t have had without the help of a local guide. We booked this tour using 10,200 Chase Ultimate Rewards points for the two of us.

Tim and I both have the Chase Ultimate Rewards Sapphire Reserve Card. It has a larger annual fee ($450 per year), but it comes with $300 cash back on travel purchases and access to airport lounges around the world (which typically range from $20-50 per visit without a pass). If you apply and are approved, you can earn 50,000 bonus points. That is the equivalent of about five tours of Yangon for 2 people. Note: I will also receive a small commission in points if you apply and are approved. Learn more here.

After the deep relaxation and concentration we experienced at the meditation center, it was time for lunch. Our guide took us to a traditional tea house and food hall. There were stalls outside where you could get snacks, as well as a seating area inside the cafeteria.

We sat inside and ordered a few dishes that our guide recommended. The food was truly incredible. We enjoyed rice with a hearty lentil stew, chickpeas and bamboo shoots, and a delicious plate of shrimp covered in an umami-rich sauce. I was hesitant to eat the shrimp, since it was unpeeled, but it turned out to be amazing, peel and all!

Myanmar food in Yangon

Our first lunch in Myanmar

Topping this all off of course was my first taste of the decadent lǎp’eq ye tea. Sipping my dessert drink, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for our amazing day and the special experiences we’d already had. It was at this moment that a felt in the core of me that I absolutely loved this place.

After lunch, we made one more temple stop to Chauk-htat-gyi Buddha Temple The large reclining Buddha was surrounded by scaffolding. Every 10 years monks and contractors restore the Buddha statue and apply fresh layers of gold paint. Again, I felt so lucky that we got to be there to witness the restoration process.

Though we were exhausted from our full day of exploring, we still ventured out to 19th Street for dinner. We found a spot with many people inside, and their food in a fridge instead of exposed to the muggy air. We’ve learned that these are two ways to avoid getting sick when eating foreign food!

Exploring 19th Street, Yangon

Exploring 19th Street, Yangon

We ordered a Myanmar beer each, tempura fried vegetables, and skewers of meat. Our food came with a fantastic salty and spicy dipping sauce. We ended up eating this sauce many times in Myanmar, and it’s so good that I want to find it at home.

Tempura veggies in Yangon, Myanmar

Tempura veggies in Yangon

Inle Lake

The next morning we had an early flight up to Heho, a small city about an hour from Inle Lake. Heho ended up being one of the smallest and most old fashioned airports we’ve ever seen. For example, instead of a motorized truck to bring checked luggage into the airport, there was a wheelbarrow-like cart. Also, instead of a luggage conveyor belt, there was just a spot on the floor where they put the bags.

Heho Airport

Luggage carts at the Heho Airport

Thankfully getting a cab to our resort on Inle Lake was easy even though the airport was tiny. Our cab driver’s tan-colored car was from the early 1990s. He wore a fadora and spoke little English. Along the way we passed by a farmer herding his cows. What century were we in? The scene reminded me that Myanmar had been cut off from the world for decades until just recently. As a result, daily life sometimes feels like you’ve stepped back in time.

Heho Inle Lake

Driving to Inle Lake

The vibe continued when we arrived at our hotel, the Hupin Inle Khaung Daing Village Resort right on Inle Lake. With a soaring ceiling and intricate woodwork, the lobby felt rich and luxurious, but from another era.

My first impression as we walked down to our cabin over the lake was that this was the quietest place I’d ever been. Everything was still and silent. Being low season, there weren’t even any other guests at the resort. It is the most intensely peaceful place I’ve ever visited.

Hupin Resort on Inle Lake

Hupin Resort on Inle Lake

The next day we embarked on a boat ride over the lake, which we had also booked using our Chase Ultimate Rewards points. Like our experience at the meditation center, our day exploring Inle Lake was full of moments that just couldn’t have happened without the connections of a local guide.

Out on the water, we quickly learned that the lake and it’s tributaries serve as a highway system for the local communities. It also provides an abundance of fish as well as water for irrigation on reclaimed farmland.

Inle Lake

Inle Lake

After about an hour on the water we stopped into the village of Kyae Paw Khone. A young girl and two men met us and took us on the backs of their motorbikes to their home. We learned how they make crispy rice cakes over hot dirt. They let us have a try at making them and Tim and I both burned ours.

Making rice pancakes in an Indein Village on Inle Lake

Making rice pancakes in an Inthein Village on Inle Lake

Making puffed rice cakes on hot sand in an Indein Village in Inle Lake

Making puffed rice cakes on hot sand in an Inthein Village in Inle Lake

We then went into a small room where 5 women sat on the floor stitching together bamboo hats. They began asking us questions via our guide, who served as translator.

Are you married?

Do you have any children?

Is there rice where you live?

Do you eat fish?

We sat there talking for about 40 minutes before the eldest woman invited us upstairs into their home. She was clearly the matriarch of the extended family living in this bamboo house.

We walked up the narrow steps, made only of single bamboo rods. Upstairs, a smiling, toothless man greeted us as he laid out straw mats for us to sit on. The eldest woman said this was her husband and that he wanted to meet us.

The family took us in as guests, offering green tea and rice cakes as they showed us family photos and asked to see photos of us too. I asked about the white streaks on their faces, traditional makeup that also acts as sunscreen.

Before I knew it the women pulled out a piece of wood and scrubbed it with a wet stone, creating a paste. They laughed when I tried to apply it myself. One woman took over, delicately applying the paste to my cheeks.

“There, now you look beautiful,” she said.

Our guide told us that we are the first Americans to ever visit this village. I realized they were as curious about us as we were about them.

Eventually we had to leave, but we took photos together and promised we’d send them a copy (and we did). Since this day Tim and I have talked often about this kind family who opened their world up to us. Having our guide who spoke their language and ours enabled us to form a genuine connection with people we would have otherwise never even met. Once again, Myanmar was blessing us with priceless memories.

Indein family Myanmar Inle Lake

With the Inthein family in their home

Bamboo hats Inle Lake

Stitching bamboo hats

We then had lunch in the home of one of the young women, enjoying numerous dishes comprised of beans, tea leaves, veggies and fish.

Lunch in in Indein Village

Lunch in in Inthein Village

Afterwards we visited a temple in Inthein where over 1,000 Buddhist stupas stand at Shwe Inn Thein Paya. Some of these date back to the 16th century. Walking among them and taking photos, I imagined what this place must have been like when it was new. It had to have been so beautiful to walk among rows and rows of new shining, gilded stupas.

Inthein

Walking among the stupas of Inthein

Inthein

Inthein has over a thousand stupas at this one temple

Over the course of the day we also visited a monastery where the monks were watching the World Cup, and Hpaung Daw U Pagoda where the Buddha heads were covered in so much gold leaf that they looked like lumpy blobs.

That night we enjoyed dinner at our hotel and a relaxing evening. The next morning we lounged around before heading out on to the lake one last time to the “city” of Nyaungshwe. It was not a very interesting visit, but it was enjoyable to get out on the water again.

Nyaungshwe, Inle Lake, Myanmar

Nyaungshwe

Boating on Inle Lake

Boating on Inle Lake

Bagan

A few hours later, we flew from Heho to the ancient city of Bagan. This is Myanmar’s most popular destination with tourists, thanks to the 2,270 Buddhist temples and pagodas throughout the area.

We arranged another private tour using our Chase Ultimate Rewards points to visit the highlights of the region the next day.

Our guide turned out to be an archeologist, and he was very passionate about the history of his home.

We started at Sulamani Pahto, which was built in the 1100s and has the best brickwork in the area. Inside, you can still see original plaster and stucco work, including ancient paintings depicting the life of Buddha. It is amazing to me that we are able to see this ancient art work in its original setting and presentation. There were no barriers or panes of glass separating my eyes from work that is nearly a thousand years old.

Sulamani Temple, Bagan, Myanmar

Sulamani Temple, Bagan

Sulamani Temple, Bagan, Myanmar

Ancient wall paintings in Sulamani Temple

Sulamani Temple, Bagan, Myanmar

Tim exploring Sulamani Temple

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Ancient wall paintings in Sulamani Temple

We then visited Ananda Pahto, Bagan’s most popular temple. I also really loved this one. From the courtyard surrounding the white stone temple, it looks almost regal thanks to the intricate details and shimmering golden top. Inside we saw Buddha statues facing north, south, east and west, as well as more wall paintings that somehow survived numerous earthquakes over the years.

Ananda Temple, Bagan, Myanmar

Ananda Temple

Ananda Temple, Bagan, Myanmar

Inside Ananda Temple

Ananda Temple, Bagan, Myanmar

Small shrine-like cubbies dotting the walls of Ananda Temple

The next temple we visited was unique in that it combined elements of both Buddhism and Hinduism. Nathlaung Kyaung Temple is considered the only Hindu temple that remains in Bagan.

Nathlaung Kyaung Temple, Bagan, Myanmar

Nathlaung Kyaung Temple

After this we ate a quick lunch and then our guide took us back to our hotel for a siesta. Temple customs require visitors to remove their shoes and socks, but in the heat of the day the ground is unbearable. This meant we would nap away the afternoon, and our guide would return for us around 3pm.

In the afternoon we visited three more temples, starting with the blindingly golden stupa of Shwezigon.

Shwezigon, Bagan, Mandalay

Shwezigon Pagoda looking moody

Shwezigon Pagoda, Bagan, Myanmar

Shwezigon Pagoda

We then visited Htilominlo Temple, built in 1218. The brick temple has a terraced design on the outside and traces of old murals inside.

Htilominlo Temple, Bagan, Myanmar

Htilominlo Temple

Htilominlo Temple, Bagan, Myanmar

Htilominlo Temple

Our final stop was a hill overlooking the remains of dozens of temples and stupas. From there, we could really see the breadth and scale of the expansive archeological site.

Sunset over Bagan, Myanmar

Sunset over Bagan

Mount Popa

The next day we made a day trip to an enigmatic-looking spot I’d only recently heard about: Mount Popa.

Along the way, we drove down a remote road that cut through acres of rural farmland. Every 20 feet or so along the road, we saw an emaciated person reaching out or waving at our vehicle, presumably begging for food or money. Tim and I have witnessed and experienced begging before, but the sheer volume of people along the road, all crying out, was incredibly unsettling. It looked almost apocalyptic, and was a clear reminder that all is not well in this country.

Soon we arrived at Mount Popa. A golden temple perched on top of the tall, narrow core of an extinct volcano, Mount Popa sounds like something out of Game of Thrones.

Mount Popa, Myanmar

Mount Popa

We climbed the 777 steps up Mount Popa (2418 ft) to the gilded shrines, temples and monastery that sit on top. Along the way we passed by hundreds of macaque monkeys, which are cute and terrifying at the same time.

Mount Popa Myanmar

Macaques at Mount Popa

At the top, we saw many locals visiting with their families and friends, meditating or taking pictures of the view.

Afterwards we had lunch at the Mount Popa Resort, which has great views of the strange rock from afar.

Mount Popa

Mount Popa views

Mandalay

The next morning we flew to Mandalay, for another day of temple hopping throughout the city with a guide we booked using our Chase Ultimate Rewards points. Seriously, those points saved is so much money in Myanmar with all the private guides we arranged!

We also used points to stay at the Hilton, with a view overlooking the walled palace grounds. We arrived early enough to have breakfast and then head out with our guide to explore.

Of so the guides we had in Myanmar, Mimi was one of my favorites. She is a small elderly woman, standing not quite 5 ft tall. Her high-pitched but gentle voice reminded me of the librarian at my elementary school. She starts most of get sentence with some variation of, “My guests always ask me, ‘Mimi, what do you think about…?’”. In short, she had this universal quality that made me feel like she could be anyone’s grandmother.

We started our tour at Shwe Inbin Monastery, an intricately carved teak wood building dating from just 1895. Teak wood is very hard and very expensive. Using it here in this monastery indicates the long-term intentions of its builders.

Shwe Inbin Monastery, Mandalay Myanmar

Shwe Inbin Monastery

Shwe Inbin Monastery, Mandalay Myanmar

Intricate details at Shwe Inbin Monastery

Shwe Inbin Monastery

All of the details here are carved from teak wood at Shwe Inbin Monastery

Next we visited the Mahamuni Pagoda. The Buddha image here is considered a “living” Buddha. Legend holds that Buddha breathed upon this statue, indicating his approval of it. He stated it was his only true likeness and should live for 5,000 years. As a result, the Buddha statue here is a pilgrimage for Buddhists. Pilgrims cover it on gold leaf, which has created blobs of gold all over the statue.

Mahamuni Pagoda

The living Buddha of Mahamuni Pagoda

Mahamuni Pagoda, Mandalay Myanmar

Mahamuni Pagoda

One of the highlights at this temple, though, was meeting a group of school children on a field trip. They all wanted to take pictures with me and Tim. Mimi explained that we were the first white people they’d ever seen. Recalling how excited I was as a child to meet people from other countries, I didn’t mind posing for their pics.

Mahamuni Temple

School kids at Mahamuni Temple wanted to take pics with us

For the second time in Myanmar, I remembered the responsibility Tim and I have to represent ourselves, our culture and our country honestly and with kindness. The kids were fascinated by us and I get it. If they’ve never seen white people before, it’s natural to be curious and excited to meet the “kind” of people they’ve only seen on TV before. I certainly felt that way as a child my first time meeting someone from another culture or country.

Before lunch, we visited a factory that makes the gold leaf we’d seen so frequently at the temples. The process of taking a piece of gold and hammering it down into smaller and flatter strips is incredibly laborious.

Making gold leaf Mandalay Myanmar

Making gold leaf

The next stop was one of my favorites of the whole day. Kuthodaw Pagoda has individual stupas for each of the 729 slabs engraved front and back with writings from Buddha. Some say this is the world’s largest book. It would take a full year of reading 8 hours per day to get through it all. Tim and I loved meandering down the many rows of white stupas.

Kuthodaw Pagoda Mandalay Myanmar

Meandering through Kuthodaw Pagoda

Kuthodaw Pagoda Mandalay Myanmar

Many say Kuthodaw Pagoda is the world’s largest book

Kuthodaw Pagoda Mandalay Myanmar

Tim and me at Kuthodaw Pagoda

From there we visited my other favorite stop – Mandalay Hill and the temple (Su Taung Pyae Pagoda). The view from the hill looking out over the city is beautiful, but the real draw for me was the pastel and mirrored tile mosaics covering the hilltop temple. The Candy Land colors made this one of the most beautiful temples I’d ever seen.

Su Taung Pyae Pagoda Mandalay Hill Myanmar

Beautiful colors at Su Taung Pyae Pagoda on top of Mandalay Hill

Su Taung Pyae Pagoda Mandalay Hill Myanmar

The mosaics at Su Taung Pyae Pagoda are so detailed

It’s also one of our most memorable temple visits. While we were there, a monk from Cambodia asked Tim if he could take a selfie with him. Seeing that Cambodian Buddhist monks aren’t even immune to selfie culture made me laugh.

Monk selfie Mandalay Hill

A monk on Mandalay Hill wanted a selfie with Tim

After exploring this beautiful spot, we went to our last stop, Shwenandaw Kyaung Monastery. Before going in, we tried a street food snack of rice pancakes topped with peanuts and fried onions. We both loved it!

Mandalay street food Myanmar

Our Mandalay street food snack

The teak monastery building itself had previously been an apartment within the royal grounds for the king. When the king died in 1878, his successor had it moved outside the palace walls and turned into a monastery.

Golden Palace Monastery Mandalay Myanmar

Golden Palace Monastery

Golden Palace Monastery Mandalay Myanmar

Inside the Golden Palace Monastery

The next day, Tim and I hired a driver to take us to the other side of the Irawaddy River to the town of Mingun. There are several interesting things to see in this town starting with the iconic Hsinbyume Pagoda. This beautiful white Pagoda with wavy terraces leading the way to go the top is one of Mandalay’s most popular temples for visitors. We were lucky that there weren’t any other tourists there and had the temple to ourselves to frolic and take photos.

Hsinbyume Pagoda Mandalay Mingun Myanmar

At the top of Hsinbyume Pagoda

Hsinbyume Pagoda Mandalay Mingun Myanmar

Having some fun at Hsinbyume Pagoda

Our next stop was the Mingun Bell, the world’s second largest bell. It was cast in 1810, originally to go with King Bodawpaya’s huge but never finished stupa, Mingun Pahtodawgyi.

Mingun Bell, Mandalay Myanmar

Mingun Bell

We then visited the stupa, which would have been the world’s largest head it ever been finished. Instead, it sits as a giant pile of bricks and even has a large crack from an earthquake.

Mingun Stupa Mandalay Myanmar

The large, unfinished Mingun Stupa

That night we flew out of Mandalay, bound for Delhi, India. We absolutely loved Myanmar and are so grateful for the experiences we had there. Now if you’ll excuse me, I am going to make some tea, Myanmar style.

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