Mysterious, Magical Myanmar

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Myanmar travel - A fisherman on Inle Lake in Myanmar. Photo by Sherrill Bodine
A fisherman on Inle Lake in Myanmar. Photo by Sherrill Bodine

I had to travel halfway around the world to discover through Myanmar astrology that since I was born on a Wednesday and my husband on a Saturday, we are the perfect match – destined to have a lifetime of happiness – which might explain how we’ve endured for so long!

Thus begins a voyage of enlightenment into a country isolated from the world for decades because of military rule and only recently opening its borders as a democracy.

Travel in Myanmar

As most visitors do, my travel in Myanmar begins in Yangon, the largest city in the country. Traffic is chaotic until we turn down a quiet tree lined street in the Embassy Quarter and pull up to the Belmond Governor’s Residence. The elegant teak mansion dating from the 1920’s is set in extensive gardens with lotus ponds and an amazing fan-shaped pool blending into the lush surroundings. Music coming from a party at the Sri Lanka Embassy across the road completes the sense of slipping back into a bygone era when Myanmar was known as Burma.

Myanmar Travel. The Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar. Photo by Sherrill Bodine
The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar. Photo by Sherrill Bodine

Yangon is home to many fine buildings and temples that are well worth a visit, but the mighty Shwedagon Pagoda cannot be missed. Gleaming with gold leaf, its umbrella and vane studded with jewels topped by a Diamond Orb totaling 1,800 carats, it looms over the city.

I do recommend entry with a guide even though maps of the pagoda are available in many languages. All material reminds visitors that the dress code for visiting temples and pagodas is no shorts, covered shoulders, plus shoes and socks must be removed on entry.

Our guide, carrying a small black book which turns out to be a 100-year calendar, leads us to our appropriate Buddhas. Mine – Wednesday – is represented by an elephant and my husband – Saturday – is a dragon. We bathe our Buddhas in clear water for a blessing and then strike the large bell, its deep bong echoing through the vast complex, to share our blessings with all there.

Everywhere I wander, in the pagoda and on the streets, I find the Burmese people very friendly and helpful – especially when I enter a local, small, three-story mall seeking a hair salon for a quick fix after dusty days of travel. The receptionist speaks English and tells me I must wait my turn. Dutifully, I join dozens of men, women and children doing the same.

In a few minutes I am ushered into the shampoo room which consists of several long massage tables and told to take off my shoes, lie down on my back with my head slightly off the table. For the next 25 minutes I experience utter bliss as my hair is not only shampooed three times, but I am given a head and neck massage worthy of the best masseur. To add to the pleasure, another young woman gives me a hand and arm massage. I highly recommend you treat yourself to this unique pleasure.

The Bagan Plain in Myanmar. Photo by Sherrill Bodine
The Bagan Plain in Myanmar. Photo by Sherrill Bodine

Bagan, Myanmar

Totally relaxed, I am ready the next day for my very early flight from Yangon to Bagan, an ancient city that is one of the main visitor attractions in Myanmar and one of the greatest historic sites in Southeast Asia.

My first sight of Bagan is the breathtaking vista of over 3,000 temples, most built between the 11th and 13th centuries, dotting the plain beside the Ayeyarwady River.

We stroll through the bustling morning market at Nyaung, with its stalls piled high with exotic fruits and vegetables and typical Myanmar products such as betel leaf (which the Burmese chew) and thanaka wood that is made into Thanaka Cream.

Many wear thanaka cream on their faces, which is believed to keep skin looking young, supple and elastic plus protect from harmful UV-A rays. Photo by Sherrill Bodine
Many wear thanaka cream on their faces, which is believed to keep skin looking young, supple and elastic plus protect from harmful UV-A rays. Photo by Sherrill Bodine

This is the first time I notice several Burmese women and children wearing a yellowish white paste all over their faces. I am told thanaka is a unique feature of Myanmar and widely believed to keep skin looking young, supple and elastic plus protect from harmful UV-A rays. Hoping for the best, I rub some onto my cheeks before proceeding to the jetty to board my ship, Belmond Road to Mandalay, anchored in mid-river.

Cruise with Belmond Road to Mandalay

We are greeted with cold glasses of champagne (a good start) and led to our stateroom, which is larger and better appointed than I had expected (additional points!). After a brief rest, we head back to visit one of the most significant pagodas of Bagan, Ananka Temple. This architectural masterpiece was built in 1090 AD and contains four gilded Buddha statues standing 30 feet tall. I roam through several other temples but am warned away from the many damaged in the 2016 earthquake which rocked this part of Myanmar.

As daylight fades, I hurry up a hill to watch a glorious sunset over plains peppered with hundreds of ancient pagodas. Then, after dark, we stop at a small temple near the jetty to participate in an exclusive candle-lighting ceremony organized by the ship. Each candle we light is offered for world peace – a wish shared by all in the international group onboard the Road to Mandalay.

Candle lighting ceremony. Photo by Sherrill Bodine
Candle lighting ceremony. Photo by Sherrill Bodine

The next morning several options are offered for exploration. Unfortunately, I did not book in advance for the Hot Air Balloon Ride at Sunrise (which I discover was essential) so I miss the opportunity. Hint: Book early! Instead of biking or taking a horse cart ride, I choose to visit Taung Be Village near the jetty to participate in one of Belmond’s Social Contribution Projects – a free health clinic established by the ship physician, Dr. Hla Tun.

Each week when the ship is in Bagan, hundreds of patients, many coming from as far as the Chinese border, gather to be treated. The clinic is on the grounds of the Nat-Htaunt Monastery and has volunteer doctors from around the world – the morning I visit I am pleased to report it was a doctor from Wisconsin, USA seeing patients.

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