Way Down Upon the Ayeyarwady River

Asia, Cruise, Family & Kid Travel, Lost Girls RTW Adventure, Myanmar, Planning — By on April 27, 2007 at 10:46 pm

Another crack-of-dawn morning for Dad, Nadine, Holly and me.

After scarfing another quick buffet breakfast (I limited myself to a single plate this time), we flagged down a rusted-out taxicab with no shocks, cushioning or seatbelts but four working wheels and headed to the Yangon airport. Since Dad and Nadine were still without luggage, we were traveling lightly enough to make the 20 minute ride together.

As we chugged back to the airport, the four of us caught a glimpse of “public transportation” in Myanmar: trucks so stuffed to the gills with locals, people were hanging onto the sides, out the back and even riding the roof.

Things were just as friendly in the domestic side of the Yangon Airport, where passengers were standing close enough to smell each other’s deodorant (or lack thereof) as they waited for outbound flights. Hol and I handed our backpacks to the uniformed dudes underneath the “Air Mandalay” sign and crossed our fingers that they would make it to our final destination.

We got lucky. Not only did our beat-up bags make it to the ship on time, we learned that Dad and Nadine’s stuff would likely follow ours at the same time the next day.

After a quick inspection of our cabins (even smaller than our NYC bedrooms but somehow outfitted with every imaginable amenity) we headed topside to join the first activity of the week–a tour of the beautiful pagodas and stupas lining the banks of the Ayeyarwady River.

We learned that Bagan, or “The Golden City,” was the capital of the first Burmese Empire which thrived from the 11th through the 13th century. The city once boasted 13,000 Buddhist pagodas and monasteries, dotted across the 42 square kilometres of dry, sunbaked earth stretching back from the banks of the river.


Now, only about 2,000 religious monuments and temples remain (that’s plenty!), and most have been rebuilt by Burmese families hoping to gain merit towards their next life on earth.

Our guide brought us to three of the most significant religious sites-Ananda Temple, Htilominlo Pagoda and Myinkaba Gubyaugyi Temple-and gave us a bit of the backstory of Buddhism in Myanmar.

Initially, I tried to absorb everything that the guide shared with us, but my old grade-school ADD started to kick in. After a few minutes, I stopped tuning into what the teacher was saying and instead, focused on the spiritual beauty of the shrines, sculptures and religious figures that had been so painstakingly restored. Pale light played over the Buddha statues carved into the walls, making each one seem to come alive.

Unlike most Western religions, where hundreds of religious figures share the artistic spotlight, Buddhism seemed dominated by the image of one guy-and one guy only.

The Buddha-in all four of his incarnations-was everywhere. He showed up relief paintings, frescos, carvings, small metal figures and four-story, gold-plated statues. He was standing up, sitting down, lying on his side, smiling and not smiling. I was surprised to learn that Buddha is not actually considered a god, but a man who had become fully and enlightened and achieved the arduous task of reaching Nirvana on his own. According to the Buddhist teachers, any person on earth can reach this blissful state, but I suspected that it would take more than a week learning about the religion (and possibly giving up my favourite vice!) to make the journey.

Next on the itinerary: A stroll through a “traditional” village, something I wasn’t excited about on the grounds that such experiences are staged and tend to disrupt the lives of the locals.

Well we might have been a disruption but we certainly weren’t unwelcome!

Almost as soon as we arrived, it became that our little tour group was responsible for providing that evening’s entertainment. As we walked past the bamboo houses and small front yards, kids came bolting out to greet us, men smiled or waved and mothers held up their babies for us to see.

While most kids didn’t ask for coins or candy like the children we’d encountered in other countries, a few cheeky ones did approach and plead for us to give them lipstick, shampoo, face powder and other beauty products.

I was baffled—did they really need shaving cream and moisturizer? When I asked, the guide quietly explained that in Myanmar, there’s a burgeoning black market for Western toiletries. Kids can make far more money by “dealing” in cosmetics than they could from selling trinkets or begging for money.

Who would have thought?

Our day of religious, cultural and social exploration wrapped up with a view of the sunset from the Damayazaka Temple, an ornately built structure topped with a huge gold- structure that reminded me of a massive Hershey’s Kiss (filled with precious religious artifacts instead of chocolate).

As we watched, the sun-more ruddy and gorgeous than I’d ever seen it-set fire to the pagoda spotted landscape that stretched out below us.

Here’s a few additional pix from our first day of crusin’ in Myanmar

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    1 Comment

  • Anne in Oxford, Ohio says:

    Great stories, great photos, and great writing! Thank you for sharing your adventures. Now that you’re out of Myanmar, you might enjoy Amy Tan’s book: Saving Fish from Drowning.