Touching the ancient past in Myanmar
DESPITE Myanmar’s newly acquired status as the darling of the Asian circuit, there is still much about the nation that remains undiscovered. While renowned for its wealth of pagodas, unblemished countrysides, unspoiled coast, quaint festivities and great lakes, it’s also a country of history and has its fair share of fading ancient ruins and tumbledown structures that invoke the dynasties and grandeur of the past. Visiting these places could form part of an excellent itinerary.
Located in northern Rakhine State, Mrauk U is often a favourite for those that venture this far in the country and that’s because the ruins of the once great dynasty that ruled these parts from 1430 to 1785 form part of the scenic backdrop. Unlike Bagan where the temple area is uninhabited apart from the odd flock of sheep, rice fields and busy villages all continue to operate in Mrauk U as they have for millennia. Some 700 pagodas and temples remain although it is believed that over 6000 once stood in this area. Pathways between the stone figures, temples and pagodas lead to hidden chambers and new discoveries. The great thing about Mrauk U is that it’s not as popular as Bagan so you won’t have quite the same crowds to battle.
Bagan needs little introduction and is a well known and much visited archaeological site that absolutely should be on your itinerary if you’re keen to take in Myanmar’s ancient and most beautiful archaeological sites. More than two thousand pagodas fill the plains of Bagan and it’s fantastic cycling through by bicycle, sailing overhead by balloon or clopping around in a horse cart. The temples here were built from the 9th to the 13th centuries and while over 10,000 temples, pagodas and monasteries were built here, there are that have survived. Bagan is located in central Myanmar and many see it is as equivalent to the famed Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
The Pindaya caves in Shan State are a Buddhist pilgrimage attraction built within the depths of a limestone cave. Inside there are some 8000 images of Buddha, some dating back to the late 1700s although there are plenty of new ones as donors continue to bring more images. The collection is the most impressive in Myanmar with a range of styles, shapes and sizes apparent, giving the impression that people of all means have made their contribution to the gallery. It can be overwhelming walking through the cave with figures in every crook, crevice and wall of the cave. Monks and pilgrims are often praying here so it is best to walk through quietly.
This rather monumental stupa located on the river 11km from Mandalay was intentionally left unfinished. This was because a prophecy alleged King Bodawpaya, who started the construction in 1790 to advertise his power, would die the day the building was finished. Bodawpaya was the fourth son of King Alaungpaya, founder of the Konbaung dynasty. While incomplete, the Mingun Pahtodawgyi attracts a lot of interest today largely because at 50 metres in height — only a third of its original intended height — it’s pretty impressive. Many tourists approach by river and the stupa can be seen from the Irawaddy. In 1839 an earthquake damaged part of it and cracks appeared. There is a pagoda nearby that serves as a religious site.
This beloved pagoda in Yangon doesn’t actually appear that old with its fresh paint, well kept grounds and other modern touches, but it is thought to be the oldest Buddhist stupa in the world and first constructed 2600 years ago enshrining eight hairs of the Buddha. It obviously was repaired a number of times since then, the most recent in 1970. Today it still dominates the skyline of Yangon and a visit to the former capital is incomplete without doing the circuit around the pagoda. The annual Shwedagon Pagoda Festival is well worth attending. Shwedagon is not the only old pagoda in Yangon. The Botataung Pagoda is thought to have started more than 2000 years ago when Indian monks carried relics of the Buddha to the site where the pagoda stands today. The original structure was bombed in 1943.
Pyu city states
The Pyu city states existed from the 2nd to 11th centuries and were part of an overland trade route from China and India that brought wealth to the region. The Pyus were Tibeto-Burman and their records are the earliest recorded of any civilization in Myanmar. Their cities were mostly in upper Myanmar and five have been excavated along with some smaller towns. These include Beikthano in Minbu region, Maingmaw and Binnaka in Kyause region, Halin in the Mu valley and Sri Ksetra in Bago region. The cities were walled, often with gates and stupas. Various jewellery, pottery and other artefacts have been found during their excavation and remnants of the walls and palaces. Visits to these sites are a bit off the beaten track and not all the sites are well marked and organised so you may need to plan well and take a Burmese speaking guide.