Burmese are very devout Buddhists. Driving through the country side you can see golden pagodas everywhere. There are literally hundreds in every community. They seem to especially like putting them on the tops of mountains and hills.
In Myanmar they are often playing recordings and videos of monks chanting. This is not only at Buddhist wats and stupas but even at public parks, in the streets and on buses. This is something that we didn’t see in other Buddhist countries.
One awful practice in Myanmar is chewing Betel nut. It is actually areca nuts, tabaco and lime rolled in a Betel leaf. People chew it for the buzz it gives them, but the result is tooth decay, oral cancer and really unpleasant red saliva. The roads, sidewalks, and even the floors in temples everywhere are covered in disgusting red spit.
Mawlamyine – This small city, set on the mouth of the Thanlwin River was the capital when the British governed in the mid-1800s. At that time, it was a major shipping port. Today this former capital is quite run-down. There are some colonial houses here, remnants of the British, but they are all in disrepair.
The most famous site here is Kyaikthanlan Pagoda. It was the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘Mandalay’. The story is that he fell in love with a young Burmese woman on the steps of this pagoda.
Hpa An – From Mawlamyine we took a long boat for 4 hours north to Hpa An. It was a slow-moving boat, but it was a relaxing way to travel. We passed by farms of rice, corn and bananas. On the river we saw many local fishermen in their dug-outs and long-boats. We stopped to visit a small beautiful monastery on the way.
Hpa An is close to the karst mountains so has a number of caves. The most interesting cave was Kawt Goon. It has 7th century clay Buddha figurines and carvings covering the cave walls and ceilings. It’s impressive today and must have been remarkable in the 7th century.
Saddan Cave was also interesting. After walking through the first half of the cave, a long boat takes you through a low-ceilinged chamber in another part of the cave.
Another impressive sight around Hpa An is Kyauk Kalap. It’s a tall, sheer pinnacle rock with a pagoda perched on the top. Its set on the edge of an artificial lake in front of Mt. Zwegabin. The setting is perfect for pictures.
Mt Kyiktiyo and the Golden Rock – This precariously balanced bolder near the top of Mt Kyaiktiyo is a very important site for Buddhists. Getting up and down the 1100m hill is a part of the experience. Open trucks seating 40 people take everyone to the mountain top.
The road is steep and windy with a sheer drop-off. We thought it was scary on the way up, but the drive back down was worse. It was like a roller-coaster. The trucks go quite fast around hairpin turns that have a grade of about 20 %. We’d never heard brakes make such squealing noises before. On the way down each truck stops midway for about 20 minutes to cool down the brakes. That’s not very comforting when you start going downhill again. It takes about 45 minutes each way, which is a really long roller-coaster ride.
Once you get off the truck at the top, there’s a long walkway past shops and restaurants. It is full of people making their pilgrimage. Early in the morning there are many monks collecting alms on the walkway. There were even a few reclusive Yati hermit monks. It was really special to see them with their goatees, dark robes, tall hats and collection baskets carried on a long pole on their shoulders.
The Golden Rock sits on the edge of the mountain and does seem to be defying gravity. The legend says that one of Buddha’s hairs is in the stupa on top of the rock and it is the hair that prevents the bolder from falling off. The hair was given to a king in the 1100s by a hermit monk. The monk told the king to find a rock in the shape of the hermit’s head and enclose the hair in a stupa on top of the rock. Many Buddhists make pilgrimages here to see the rock and to pray. Men place a gold leaf on the rock, in fact that is how the rock is golden. Women are not allowed to touch the rock as touching the rock is the same as touching Buddha. Each gold leaf is $1.80 and Richard put two on the rock, one for Maggie and one for himself.
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