The Spirit Flows Through It: Burma’s Pagodas, Stupas, and Monasteries

by Bill Strubbe  |  Published August 19, 2015

Rich in history, culture and tradition, in Burma bygone Asia still endures; it must be among the few countries still left beyond the clutches of the corporate world. But modernity is rapidly encroaching, and ever since the military regime began shifting power to civilian leaders in 2011, people have begun flocking to the country for its unique spirituality.

Stupas from the air. (Photo: Bill Strubbe)

Stupas from the air. (Photo: Bill Strubbe)

Dreamy and surreal, the hot air balloon drifts over the fabled Plains of Bagan where as far as the eye can see golden temples and stupas jut skyward in the dawn, the molten sun creeping above the distant violet-hued mountains. Floating over a cluster of brick pagodas, I turn around in the wicker gondola and below us appears the impressive Dhammayangyi Temple where dozens of early risers enthusiastically wave and point cameras at us as we languidly drift past.

Nearing the ruined walls of Old Bagan, a flock of birds passes below, a shifting breeze nudges us eastward. To the west shimmers the broad curve of the Irrawaddy River wending down from the mountains of Kachin State on the China border to the Andaman Sea. Before we gently land near a schoolyard, between the trees at the river’s edge I briefly glimpse the white and red-trimmed Orcaella, the five-star riverboat that will soon become home base.

Two hours later, my traveling companion and I board the Orcaella where we’re offered cool minty drinks and the staff genially welcomes us for our week-long cruise through Burma, a country seemingly preserved in time. Catering to well-heeled travelers, Belmond’s recently launched Orcaella – named after an endangered river dolphin – rises up three decks, is 200 feet long and 40 feet wide. It has a shallow four-foot draft enabling it to pass unencumbered over the Irrawaddy’s shoals in the dry months.

In the afternoon, we set out sightseeing in a mini-van with our affable guide, Kenny, who explains that after King Anawrahta converted to Theravada Buddhism, he began in 1044 a massive campaign of constructing temples built of brick, topped with gilded hti pinnacles, decorating the insides with frescoes; a mix Buddhist, Hindu, and local nats (spirits) images. At its peak there existed some 12,000 temples, and this breathtaking mist-enshrouded vista of several thousand stupas and pagodas counts among Burma’s most important historical sites. Yet, to date it fails to merit a UNESCO Heritage designation due to shoddy restoration efforts, an intrusive history museum, and an eyesore of a tower jutting up from the Aureum Palace Resort – a military general’s vanity project.

Of the numerous pagodas in Bagan, a dozen are commonly frequented by visitors, with the gilded Shwezigon Pagoda ranking atop the list. Begun by King Anawrahta then completed by King Kyansittha (1084-1113AD) the Shwezigon Pagoda is among the oldest, the massive gold-plated edifice gleaming in the sun, enshrining a number of sacred Buddhist relics, including a replica of Buddha’s tooth. The other three dental copies are enshrined in regional temples, and locals believe prosperity will be theirs by paying homage to all four relics in one day. Damaged dozens of time in earthquakes – the most recent in 1975, the temple was restored and every December attracts thousands of devotees to the Shwezigon Festival.

Sunrise over Burma. (Photo: Bill Strubbe)

Sunrise over Burma. (Photo: Bill Strubbe)

Here Comes the Sun

Sunset – and sunrise — chasing is popular in Bagan. As the fiery orb lowers in the west, tourists flock to the taller pagodas. After descending, we encounter on the dusty road two Padaung women whose feminine beauty is expressed by wearing copper neck rings. Commenced as early as age three, the rings’ pressure slowly deform the collarbones and ribs downward, creating the illusion of an elongated neck. Due to ongoing fighting in the Thai border region, displaced Padaung women frequent the lowlands garnering money by being photographed; I couldn’t resist, and rather sheepishly pose between them while Peter snaps away.

The next morning, the Orcaella sails to Salay, where we board minibuses to Yout-Saun-Kyaung, a monastery carved entirely from teak. Built on ten-foot posts, underneath is a cool refuge from the glare and heat. Through a stairway, we enter an interior paneled in mellowed teak, sunlight streaming through intricately carved screen panels. The curved roof rises in tiers like a fantastic mocha wedding cake carved with scenes from the life of Buddha, village life, foliage, and animals.

During the monsoon season—May through September—the upper Irrawaddy River rises some twenty feet, making permanent docks impossible. In most “ports,” the Orcaella simply noses onto the sand, extends a plank to the beach with improvised steps cut up the steep bank. Waking up moored below the village of Gwechaung, I pull back the curtains and see a wooden boat next to the Orcaella, a family bathing and washing laundry. I’m eager to join the children splashing, but am advised that for health reason it’s imprudent to swim. Instead, I open my cabin windows and blow out soap bubbles, to the delight of the kids.

The 'Orcaella' noses onto the sand. (Photo: Bill Strubbe)

The ‘Orcaella’ noses onto the sand. (Photo: Bill Strubbe)

With the Orcaella sailing 96 miles to Pyay, it’s our first full morning on board to indulge in a whole lot of nothing. I read, swim in the pool, and perfectly timed after my nap, we disembark to the ancient city of Sri Kshetra, which flourished during the 5th-9th centuries when this impressive 153-foot high Bawbawgyi Ceti stupa was built, unusual in its solid, bell-shaped structure, and among the earliest Buddhist monuments in Burma.

Monastic Life

While walking through town, we cross paths with a colorful procession. Musicians bang on drums and gongs while a machete-wielding man whirls about as though possessed. A half dozen elaborately made up young girls pass by in decorated carts, followed by a procession of somber looking women wearing brilliant longyis and bearing flowers and fruit. Our guide explains that the young girls are heading to the nunnery to be initiated as novices. Within hours their gaudy make-up will be removed, their hair shorn, pink robes will be donned and they’ll begin the ascetic life of a young nun.

In Burma, it’s customary for males, and to a lesser degree females, to take up monastery residence twice; once while a child, then again fully ordained as an adult, often after raising a family or retiring. In the mornings, we always see monks and nuns on the streets collecting food for their single daily meal; it’s not begging, but allows the populace to turn the good deed of dhana. Religion here is so integrated into daily life.

Colorful procession attendees on their way to the nunnery. (Photo: Bill Strubbe)

Colorful procession attendees on their way to the nunnery. (Photo: Bill Strubbe)

That night, after an onboard performance of traditional marionettes, I retire to my cabin. Moments after I turn out the light, a commotion erupts outside. Drawing back the curtain, I see several hundred people gathered on shore, a line of woman passing agricultural offerings to men partially submerged in the water, accompanied by music and singing. I quickly throw on clothes and scurry ashore to join in the dancing; I know that I’m causing a bit of a spectacle, but can’t help myself. A crew member later explains that this celebration marks the conclusion of a fast by Hindu priests.

In the morning we disembark for a morning excursion to the Shwe MyatMhan Pagoda that features the only bespectacled Buddha in Burma. Some temple Buddhas appear serene and distant, a few downright foreboding, but this smiling face with brilliant ruby-red lips and gold spectacles, seems so accessible, like a friendly professor; it makes me laugh. People with eye problems pilgrimage here for healing. Indeed several Burmese with eyeglasses enter as we are leaving.

Later in the day, while cruising toward Yangon, we pass the famous cliff carvings of Akauk Taung, which means “Tax Mountain.” In the 18th century, river toll-takers here passed the hours between taxing boats by carving reclining and meditating Buddhas. For some reason, I’m expecting giant Buddhas, like the ones in Afghanistan destroyed by the Taliban; instead dozens of Buddhas of varying sizes painted white, blue, ochre and yellow peer down at us from the high cliffs.

Yangon, The Big City

The Irrawaddy River doesn’t actually flow past Yangon, but filters through the delta many miles to the west. In 1883, the ruling British constructed the Twante Canal connecting the Irrawaddy to Yangon. For several hours, I sit on the lounge deck as we pass in close proximity to villages and I catch glimpses of Burmese life; men and women carting loads of reeds on their heads, workers in the fields, children laughing and playing.

West Gate of the Shwedagon Pagoda. (Photo: Bill Strubbe)

West Gate of the Shwedagon Pagoda. (Photo: Bill Strubbe)

We arrive in Yangon in the afternoon, and visit the 2,500-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda; Burma’s most sacred site enshrining strands of Buddha’s hair and other holy relics. With a base perimeter of 1420 feet and rising 330 feet, Shwedagon Pagoda is plated with 22,000 solid gold bars. The top of the stupa is encrusted with 4531 diamonds; the largest 72 carats. Repeatedly damaged by earthquakes over the centuries, the top collapsed in 1768, but such is the importance of Shwedagon that it is repaired again and again, the gold donated by royalty and the wealthy.

Reached by four covered walkways guarded by lion-dog statues, the massive central pagoda is surrounded by a complex of hundreds of smaller temples. It happens to be a full moon, hence a minor holiday, and the grounds throng with thousands of families praying, eating, socializing, and sleeping. On display in one side temple are dozens of intricately decorated cakes, apparently meant to appease mischievous nat folk spirits. As much as a spiritual site, it appears like some exotic Buddhist Disney World, shimmering in the setting sun, illuminated at night. Truly Burma is one of the spiritual wonders of the world.

The curiosity of youth. (Photo: Bill Strubbe)

The curiosity of youth. (Photo: Bill Strubbe)