Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Myanmar part 1 - Bagan, Ancient Capital

On November 5th 2014 the Gem and Mineral Council began a trip of a lifetime to Myanmar (Burma).  We had never had an opportunity to visit this country in the past. Prior to the military government changing over to civilian government in 2010 it was very difficult to visit parts of Myanmar that were off the beaten path.  

In the past few years the country has opened and become easier for tourists to navigate. Our main destination was the city of Mogok, located in the region known as the Mogok Stone Tract.  The Mogok area produces most of the world's rubies as well as many other minerals and has been mined for over a thousand years. 

Our trip was organized flawlessly by Dr. Kyaw Thu, geologist and owner of Macle Gem Labs in Yangon.  He has done a lot of research on the geology of Mogok.

Kyaw Thu, our wonderful guide in Burma.

Since we had traveled so far to see this amazing country, we spent a few days seeing some important cultural sites.  Our first stop was Bagan, the former capital of the Kingdom of Pagan from the 9th - 13th centuries.  There are over 2000 Buddhist temples on the floodplain of the Irrawaddy river. 
This is Bagan Archaelogical zone, some temples are from the 11th-13th centuries though many are younger, and many were rebuilt after damage from a devastating earthquake in 1975.

Our group arrives in Bagan for a three day visit.  L to R: Kyaw Thu, Kathy, Tony, Alyssa, Eloïse, Bob, Gerald, Skip, Karen, Mary, Zach,Wallace (our Bagan guide), Roy, Edna.  Missing: Joanna.

This is Ananda Temple, built in 1105 AD one of the most important sites in Bagan.

Buddhas in the Ananda temple.

We were in Bagan during a national holiday, full moon of November. Most of the famous temples were very crowded but surprisingly we didn't see that many foreign tourists.

The larger temples are full of vendors.  We even saw people selling gems (well...faceted glass, for the most part).

These are sand paintings, there are people selling them everywhere and most look very cheap.  The real things were beautiful.

Skip Simmons spotted this sand painting of "Chief of the Hill Tribes" ... the resemblance is uncanny.

Marionettes have been popular in Myanmar since the 1700s. There are often puppet shows at dinner in tourist restaurants.

This is tree bark to make thanaka, a fine paste that is used by women, children and younger men as a cosmetic and sunscreen:

There are so many beautiful temples! 

It was wonderful to visit a smaller temple with no crowds, this one also had a staircase so we could climb to the top:
You can get good reception on the ancient temples!

Steep staircases!

A popular tourist activity is taking a horse and cart to visit the city of Old Bagan.

From Wikipedia
Near Bagan is the volcano Mt. Popa.  This is Mt. Popa on a clear day! It was not clear when we visited so we did not get to see this view.  This hill is the core of an old volcano and it is a holy site.  It is the home of powerful Nats which are spirits worshipped in Burma. Pilgrims climb to the top to visit the Buddhist temples and Nat shrines.  We were there on the full moon holiday so it was very crowded.

Here is a view of the staircase to the top of the mountain.  There are 777 steps and you must climb it barefoot.

The lower part of the staircase is a crazy shopping mall, there is barely room for two people to pass side by side and vendors packed in on both sides of the steps.

Only a few people in our group made it all the way to the top. L to R: Eloïse, Wallace, Zach, Mary and Joanna.

On a clear day you have a view of Bagan but this was the view on a rainy day.

Macaques are everywhere.

The next day was sunny, perfect for visiting the gilded Shwezigon Pagoda.  Incredibly beautiful temple completed in 1102 AD.  The gold leaf covering the buildings is reapplied every few years.

A small museum (with extra security) at Shwezigon displays relics going back to the 11th century including these Buddha footprints.  It is only open a few times a year on holidays.

Some more random scenes from Bagan:
Local arts and crafts included these beautiful cloth parasols:

Touring a shop that makes laquerware.

At the Natural History Museum (no photos allowed) Tony and Kathy had a blast chatting with a group of high school students from Pyin Oo Lwin (near Mandalay).

Government commissioned fountain at the that a flying squirrel?  It's kind of frightening.

Young boys are encouraged to spend at least a few months in a monastery as a novice monk.  If they wish they can become a full monk at age 20.

Our last night in Bagan we watched the sunset from a temple... with hundreds of other people.  Not many of the temples have an accessible roof so those get crowded in the evening.

Farewell Bagan, one of the most beautiful places on Earth, we hope to return someday!

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