Travelers with a passion for Buddhist temples, pagodas and stupas should have a field day in Bagan, since it contains more of these than any other place in the world. The most popular destination in Myanmar, Bagan was the capital of the First Burmese Empire from the 9th to the 13th centuries. The site that Marco Polo once described as the “gilded city” was home to around Buddhist 13,000 temples in its 11th-century heyday. Thousands of temples, stupas and pagodas remain, including the famous Ananda temple with its sparkling gold spires.
Golden Rock, or Kyaiktiyo Zedi as it is known locally, is a totally awesome sight: a pagoda (zedi) sitting atop a huge boulder that appears as if it’s about to fall off the edge of a cliff. Both are covered in golf leaf. The locals believe the boulder, which sits 1,100 meters (3,600 feet) above sea level, is held in place through a miracle of Buddha; the pagoda is said to contain a strand of his hair. Visiting here is a pilgrimage for Myanmar Buddhists. Golden Rock is about a five-hour drive from Yangon, and also involves a long walk. A staircase leads to the pagoda complex that houses several viewing platforms and Buddha shrines.
The Shwedagon or Greater Dragon Pagoda is considered the most sacred site in Buddhism in Myanmar because it contains a strand of Buddha’s hair and other religious relics. The 2,500-year-old pagoda is located on Singuttara Hill in Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar. Over the centuries, the pagoda has grown from 8 meters to 99 meters (26 feet to 366 feet). The origins of Shwedagon are lost in antiquity but it is estimated that the Pagoda was first built by the Mon during the Bagan period, sometime between the 6th and 10th century AD. It is covered in gold leaf; the stupa is covered in 4,531 diamonds. Numerous temples, statues and stupas can be found at this unforgettable site. Pagoda visitors are expected to follow a dress code (trousers preferred, T-shirts with elbow-length sleeves) and enter the temple barefooted.
Built atop an extinct volcano plug, the Buddhist monastery of Taung Kalat is one of the most breathtaking sites in Burma. To reach the monastery, visitors must climb the 777 steps to the summit. Along the way are a multitude of Macaque monkeys expecting treats. From the top of Taung Kalat, one can enjoy a panoramic view. One can see the ancient city of Bagan and the massive solitary conical peak of Mount Popa, the volcano that actually caused the creation of the volcanic plug.
Vast and serene Inle Lake is one of the top tourist attractions in Myanmar. Besides its considerable natural beauty the lake also attracts tourists for the stilt houses of the Intha, the descendants of Mon people from the far southeast. A typical day-trip on the lake, taken in a long, narrow boat with a noisy outboard motor, will stick to the northern reaches of Inle Lake. These trips also include visits to small workshops in stilt villages, several pagodas and probably a market. Travelers are also likely to see fishermen propelling their boats using a distinctive leg-rowing technique, and other Intha residents of the lake tending to fruit and vegetables on floating gardens.
Mrauk U is an important archeological town. It was originally thought to be a fortress because of the thick walls, but the walls were made to protect temples from the fierce winds, not invaders. Stone temples can be found throughout the area. The medieval town was once an important Arakan capital and was an important trading city. Getting to this remote location involves a four- to seven-hour boat ride up a tributary of the Kaladan River. Travelers may want to bring rain gear at the region gets almost 1.2 meter (4 feet) of rain annually.
Ngapali combines two worlds in this Southeast Asian country. It is Myanmar’s premier resort town, with white sand beaches lining the blue waters of the Bay of Bengal and luxury hotels. It is a great spot to chill out and just relax. Contrast this with its fishing village atmosphere with local restaurants serving the day’s catch and ox-carts doubling as taxis. Locals believe the town is named after Napoli (Naples) in Italy. Most people visit Ngapali November to March; the rest of the year it is a sleepy little beach town.
Shwenandaw Monastery is an historic Buddhist monastery in the city of Mandalay. Known as the Golden Palace, this important building is located in central Myanmar. It was originally part of the Mandalay Palace complex as the royal apartment of a king, but his son moved it outside the palace after his death believing it was haunted by the king’s spirit. It later became a monastery. At one time, the building was covered in gold but the gold is mostly inside now. The exterior is covered with ornate teak carvings representing Buddhist myths. Ornate carvings made from other materials such as stone can be found throughout the structure.
Ayeyarwady River Cruise
Myanmar’s longest river, the Ayeyarwady, also known as the Irawaddy, begins high in the Himalayas, carving Myanmar in half on its way to the Andaman Sea. It is navigable by large ships and boats in the lower elevations, and is fast becoming a popular river cruise destination. Cruises run between Mandalay and Bagan; both cities offer plenty of temples, pagodas and statues of Buddha. Between the two terminals, cruisers will see river villages and beakless dolphins, and travel through jungles and deep gorges.
Shwemawdaw Paya got its name, the Great Golden God, because the glittering gold that covers it can be seen for miles around. The diamond-studded top also is responsible for some of the glitter. At almost 114 meters (375 feet) high, it is the tallest pagoda in Myanmar. It is especially important to Buddhism because it contains several relics belonging to Buddha. Located in Bago, the 1,000-year-old complex is highly ornate with smaller pagodas that also are gold-covered, statues and pavilions.