Scores of exotic Buddhist temples are scattered across a vast dusty plain making Bagan one of the most remarkable sights in Southeast Asia. Sitting on the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy River, the temple-filled plain contains over 4400 temples, pagodas and stupas, rivalling the magnificent Angkor in Cambodia and dating back to the same period, almost 800 years ago. The shape and construction of each building is highly significant in Buddhism with each component part taking a spiritual meaning. The brilliance of Bagan is in the wonderful collective views of stupa upon stupa dotting the plain and filling the skyline. Climbing to a temple lookout for sunset is an important part of the Bagan experience though it is best seen from a hot-air balloon at dawn. Coast over the temples with a bird’s eye view of the morning activities.
The former capital of Burma, Yangon is a city reaching for the future yet caught in the past. Longi-wearing pedestrians meander through the warren of historic streets while the pungent smells of street vendors linger in the sultry air. The dynamic city contains the largest number of colonial buildings in Southeast Asia today and is a unique example of a 19th century British colonial capital. Sitting on top of Singuttara Hill, the gleaming golden stupa of Shwedagon Pagoda is the centrepiece of the city and the single most important religious site in the country. Scenes of monks praying to shrines while locals congregate on the steps for an afternoon gossip capture the essence of the relaxed nature and strong ties the Burmese have with Buddhism.
Sitting on the east bank of the Ayeyarwady River, Mandalay was the last royal capital of Burma before the British arrived in 1885. Today, it is a thoroughly modern city under the strong influence of Chinese commerce though the very name of Mandalay still evokes a poetic sense of nostalgia. The magnificent complex of the Mandalay Palace, surrounded by a moat with finely built walls and crowning wooden pavilions, serves as a reminder of Burma’s once great empire. Mandalay is Burma’s cultural and religious centre of Buddhism with numerous monasteries and over 700 pagodas. The stupa-filled Mandalay Hill looms over the flat cityscape affording excellent views. Maha Moni Pagoda is revered as the holiest pagoda in Mandalay where crowds of devotees visit daily to witness the early morning ritual of washing the Face of Buddha’s Image.
The watery world of Inle Lake, where mountains tumble down towards the lakeshore, is a highlight of Burma. Heaven on earth for many travellers, the floating farms, stilted villages and crumbling stupas are to be savoured. While away the days canoeing, cycling or walking through the lush countryside while the people of the lake, known as the Intha, go about their daily business. The population of 70,000 Intha people live in numerous small villages along the shore and on the lake itself. Devout Buddhists, they are self-sufficient farmers who live in simple houses of wood and woven bamboo stilts. Famous for their unique style of rowing, standing with one leg on their small rowboats and the other leg wrapped around the oar, the Intha people themselves are one of the star attractions.