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    Myanmar is a strongly Buddhist country. Monks trying to save the forests from being cut down for firewood by villagers placed a large Buddha statue beside each new tree that they planted. Photo by Pat Foster-Turley/For the News-Leader

Adventures along the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar

I’ve traveled a lot in my lifetime, but somehow I’ve always wanted to see the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar and never had a chance. From my childhood on, the name and place have always had an exotic allure for me. So, when I was planning a month-long anniversary vacation for us (41 years!), it was finally my chance.

Bucko and I flew out from our home base of Bangkok, Thailand to board a luxury boat, the Ananda Sanctuary, in Mandalay for a five-day immersion into the culture and history of Myanmar. Each day was replete with great food, interesting people, field excursions and, yes, lots and lots of pagodas.

Myanmar is a strongly Buddhist country, with testaments to this faith dating back to the ninth century and through all the years up to the present. The landscape is dotted with ancient and modern pagodas, temples, monasteries and the like, in all styles of Asian architecture and in various states of ruin and refurbishment. Each day we boarded a bus and headed out into the countryside from a different location on the river, and each day we were overloaded with more and more information and images of these impressive buildings, the Buddha statues inside, and the people surrounding us.

It was overwhelming for sure, and soon one pagoda ran into another in our memories. But still, some things really stood out for us. At one site, the monks trying to save the forests from being cut down for firewood by villagers came up with a novel idea. They placed a large Buddha statue beside each new tree that they planted to replace the lost forest, about a thousand in all. No local person would dare to cut down a tree guarded by Buddha. It worked.

On the top of another hill, a standing Buddha 40-some stories high (!) stood over a reclining Buddha about the same size, but horizontal. Elsewhere, a site with more than a thousand caves and grottos inside a mountain were all filled with ancient artwork on the walls, and Buddha statues, some beheaded. It turns out that precious gems and gold were often hidden inside the Buddha heads, and sometimes over the centuries these were vandalized for the treasures within. Even headless, though, they were outstanding.

At another ancient pagoda, we were inside looking at four sixth-century Buddha statues when the power went off and the lights went out. This woke up the bats. All around us, bats were flying and the Buddha images were dimly outlined from light from small windows, a surreal experience, for sure.

The various temples and pagodas all had their contingent of people visiting to make offerings, and most also had their own contingent of animal hangers-on. Healthy looking domestic cats roamed the courtyards and our guide, Kuen, came up with the quote, “As poor as a church mouse, as fat as a temple cat.” Pigeons and crows were ever-present as well. And, if you wanted to get good karma by releasing a captive sparrow from a cage, you could do that too, for a fee of course. But this practice has its downside. Lots of birds are killed or injured in nets in the process of catching them and only a few survive to be “set free.”

And then there were the monkeys. At the Monywa caves, they were everywhere. When we entered the complex, a group of rhesus macaques was lining the stairs we had to climb up, just waiting for us. I don’t have a good feeling about monkeys, and in many places where they beg from people, they steal sunglasses and jewelry and bite – but not these monkeys. They passively watched us go by and inspected us from their perches among the ancient statues. Really polite monkeys, just like the people here. “Monkey see, monkey do?”

In between visits to these historical and religious sights, we were given tastes of local culture. We visited local markets, villages, textile and lacquerware factories, etc.

At a monastery school, children were well acquainted with visits from tourists like us. We were greeted with a rousing group singing, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!” With slightly different verses than I grew up learning – but close enough – much to everyone’s amusement I could join right in.

Our visit to Myanmar ended with a couple of days relaxing onshore in Bagan, a historic area chock full of ancient buildings stretching for miles. It was blazing hot there in the semi-arid desert, and really, we had seen more than our share of pagodas. We spent our last day at the swimming pool and the evening watching the sunset over the Irrawaddy River.

My bucket list is now complete. Oh, what to do next?


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