Places of wonder are those that whisk visitors away from the world of the mundane and transport them into the realm of the fantastic. Such locations evoke a sense of awe and surprise that expands the mind, changes one’s view of the world and challenges assumptions about the limits of the human imagination.
Myanmar has no shortage of these wonders, many of them sites of religious importance that leave visitors gaping in amazement not only at the ingenuity and devotion of those who built them long ago, but also at the beauty of the monuments they left behind. To enter these temples and pagodas is to step into a mysterious world that acts as no less than a showcase for the endless beauty of Myanmar art, architecture, cultural heritage and spirituality.
No trip to Myanmar is complete without a visit to Bagan, where ancient temples too numerous to count rise from the red soil of a 42-square-kilometre plain along the banks of the Ayeyarwady River.
Visitors can spend days exploring Bagan’s thousands of structures of various shapes and sizes, their earth-toned reds, browns and greys muted by age, their crevices sprouting plants and moss. Inside many temples can be found Buddha statues and murals that provide a fascinating look into the culture of those who lived in Bagan during its heyday from the 11th to 13th centuries.
No matter how you choose to see Bagan – by open horse cart, bicycle, motor vehicle or even hot-air balloon – be sure not to miss the ambience of the early morning mists of the Ayeyarwady drifting among the temples, or the spectacle of the sun setting beyond the spires of the ancient city.
Nearby sights include the town of Salay, known for its wooden monasteries, and Mount Popa, an important site for nat (spirit) worship.
No other city in the world is quite like Yangon, an urban centre of nearly 6 million people that straddles modern and traditional worlds. Shopping centres stand next to hectic vegetable markets, while sidewalks are shared by people sporting contemporary fashions and those wearing traditional sarongs called longyis.
Rising above the dynamism of the city are a number of landmarks that are, by their very nature, oases of tranquillity. These are the Buddhist pagodas whose spires glitter like golden treasures in the tropical sun. Their names are familiar to Buddhists everywhere: Sule Pagoda, Botahtaung Pagoda and, most famously, Shwedagon Pagoda.
Shwedagon Pagoda, the most important Buddhist site in Myanmar, boasts an awe-inspiring 98-metre spire that can be seen from anywhere in the city. Best experienced during the cool, tranquil hour of twilight just after sunset, the pagoda platform holds a dazzling array of shrines where devotees gather to meditate, make offerings, meet friends and share food. It is a vibrant, life-affirming atmosphere that illustrates the essence of Buddhist culture in Myanmar.
Kyaikhtiyo (Golden Rock)
Golden Rock Pagoda is one of the most revered Buddhist sites in Myanmar. It balances as if by magic on the edge of a cliff on the peak of Mt Kyaikhtiyo, its mystical aura permeating the hills and forests of the surrounding region.
Swathed in a blanket of intense spirituality, the gold-leaf-covered pagoda arouses a sense of wonder in all who see it. All through the warm days and cool, breezy nights, worshippers chant, meditate and light candles on the pagoda platform.
Visitors can choose between riding up the mountain in a truck or walking along an 11-kilometre trail that passes through mountain forests laced with paths leading to hidden pagodas and shrines dedicated to the spirits of the mountain.
Kyaikhtiyo can be visited as a two-day trip from Yangon via bus or hired car. Along the way, you can also stop in the town of Bago, once the capital of an ancient Mon kingdom and now brimming with fascinating religious sights, including Shwemawdaw Pagoda and the huge Shwethalyanung reclining Buddha.
At 50 metres high, Mingun Temple is so big that you will be able to see in from the very start of the 11-kilometre boat journey from Mandalay up the Ayeyarwady River to the temple site.
The unfinished temple is a mere one-third the height that King Bodawpaya intended when he started construction in 1790, a project that was later abandoned on advice from astrologers. Climbing to the top provides views of the Ayeyarwady River to the east, pagoda-dotted hills to the west and the village of Mingun in between.
Another of Mingun’s attractions is the 90-tonne bronze bell cast in 1808 to hang at the temple,said to be the biggest ringing bell in the world. Nearby is the shining white Hsinbyume Pagoda, designed to represent legendary Mount Meru at the centre of the Buddhist cosmos.
During the boat ride, be sure to watch for the elusive Ayeyarwady dolphin, an endangered species that can only be found along the 70-kilometre stretch of the Ayeyarwady River north of Mandalay.
A trip to remote Mrauk U begins with a boat journey from the coastal town of Sittwe, during which you will feel as if you were floating back in time as you pass fishing villages and farmland.
The ancient temples of Mrauk U, which served as the last capital of the Rakhine kingdom from 1430 to 1785, nestle in a landscape of narrow valleys and low hills. The structures are as scenic as the geography, including Laungbyanpauk Temple with its colourful glazed tiles, and Kothaung Pagoda, the biggest in Mrauk U and named for the 90,000 religious images placed inside by its builder, King Mintaikkha.
The distances in Mrauk U are not great, so it is possible to explore much of the area on foot. Walking between clusters of temples will take you through busy villages where locals work, children play and cattle wander. You may well imagine that lifestyles have not changed much since Mrauk U was at the height of its power hundreds of years ago.
The Pindaya Caves near Inle Lake in Shan State contain more than 8000 Buddha statues dating back hundreds of years. It is an astounding sight that has long beguiled Buddhist pilgrims and casual visitors alike.
The entrance to the cave system is marked by the 15-metre-high Shwe U Min Pagoda. Beyond lie thousands of Buddha images, most of which have been painted gold and now glint mysteriously in the dim light, some clustered in groups that reach to the ceiling on stepped pedestals, some tucked away in secret corners.
There are also rock formations with evocative names like the Weaving Loom of the Fairy Princesses, while wooden mallets indicate the location of stalactites that, if struck just right, make a “gong” sound that resonates through the subterranean chambers.
The town of Pindaya is also worth a visit, with its tranquil Boutaloke Lake nestled beneath a soaring limestone ridge. It is a popular starting point for treks that provide firsthand insight into local lifestyles.