Burma - View from the Inside

"From Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, to Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night, iconic artworks have not only influenced our culture, but also literally changed the way we see the world."

December 2014 • Debbie Heffernan, Senior Personal Travel Expert

Burma - View from the Inside

During my recent journey to Burma whilst cruising the Irrawaddy, I discovered that men wear a skirt-like garment locally known as the longyi,and that women applied thanakha on their face – a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground bark. We cruised from Bagan to Mandalay on the RV Kalaw operated by Pandaw and in some places, it fills with so much water it resembles a vast chocolate-brown lake. Sailing on the RV Kalaw was an outdoor experience with its al fresco dining. This beautiful ship is finished in brass and teakwood and although the cabins are comfortable and spacious, I spent most of my time out on deck watching Burmese life along the river. 

Memorable scenes along the way include children swimming in the river, women pounding their laundry on the rocks, ox carts transporting goods and paddle boats plying the river. Our journey started in Bagan which is located on the eastern bank of the Irrawaddy. Religious buildings are everywhere and there are enough of them to go around; so much so that we even had whole temples to ourselves. We visited a selection of these temples. Bring a flashlight to check out the dark interior of some of the temples and make that climb to the top of one to see the wonderful views across Bagan. 

Our first stop was to Yandabo, which can only be accessed by river; it is well known for its terracotta pottery, made of the yellow mud from the river bank. 

We drove through the beautiful Sagaing Hills to the summit to experience the wonderful views from the Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda overlooking Sagaing and the Irrawaddy. We visited the temple of Umin Thounzeh with its crescent shaped sanctuary housing 45 cross-legged Buddhas ornately decorated in vibrant colours and mosaics. To get to Ava (Innwa) we crossed a tributary of the Irrawaddy by ferry boat, then by horse carts to the splendid Bagaya Kyaung monastery. This working monastery is entirely built of teak. It was also interesting to observe the daily life of the people in the area from the back of the horse cart. 

The “City of Immortality” Amarapura was a collective favourite. This is the location of “U Bein” bridge which is believed to be the oldest and longest (1.2km) teak wood bridge in the world. The bridge spans the Taungthaman Lake where we boarded small boats to enjoy the stunning sunset. Locals were fishing. It was very tranquil, peaceful and picturesque. 

When our vessel arrived in Mingun we were greeted by the unfinished earthquake damaged pagoda, Hsin Phyu Ma. Although incomplete the stupa is still massive, 50 meters tall with huge cracks in it. The Hisnbyume pagoda was the next site visited. Looking up at this pagoda, the first impression is its sheer whiteness. It is possible to climb up a narrow staircase onto the higher level for wonderful views over the river and towards Mingun Pagoda. Both pagodas were quite distinctive from the ones viewed on previous days. Another main sight was the Mingun Bell, the largest ringing bell in the world. We even got to strike it! 

Our cruise came to an end in Mandalay. The city took its name from the hill. Mandalay Hill is known for its abundance of pagodas and monasteries. We took an elevator to top which is home to the Sutaungpyei Pagoda to see the panoramic view of the city. 

Burma is a magical place in terms of its people, culture and scenery.