And what magnificent arms she has, stretching from the pristine tropical islands of the Andaman Sea in the south all the way to the majestic Himalaya in the north. Enfolded within are 2,500 years of some of the most spectacular and least visited historical sites in the world, inhabited by one of the most ethnically diverse and genuinely welcoming populations on the planet.
Myanmar’s Magic Window
From my perspective as a photographer, and for many traveler’s in general, the upside allure of Myanmar’s long isolation is the rare window to the past that’s been opened, at least for a while. Stepping into Myanmar in many ways, is like stepping back in time.
The oldest time-marker begins in Yangon with the resplendent, 2,500 year-old Shwedagon Pagoda. The Buddha shrine and spiritual center of the nation rises some 320 feet and dominates the city skyline. An estimated 60 tons of gold cover the pagoda, which is capped with 5,488 diamonds and 2,317 rubies.
Jumping forward a couple of millennia, still in Yangon, one of the first things you notice is the crumbling glory of British colonial architecture. Near the city center much of it has been restored to grandeur, with much more slated to be. Personally, I love this stuff! The more “crumble” the more intrigue; and I find grabbing a camera and just wandering the streets of Yangon with no particular place to go, to be one of the great overlooked joys of the city. Any earnest attempt to engage the populace; and the city opens up before you like a great smiling lotus. What Rudyard Kipling wrote more than a century ago still holds true today: “Burma. It is quite unlike any place you know about.”
As part of many marvelous Myanmar tours and photo tours, there is one excursion into antiquity that never ceases to amaze me, and that’s the surreal temple-scape of Bagan. Truly one of the greatest historical vistas on earth, the temples that stud the east bank of the Irrawaddy cover 16 square miles and number more than 4,000. Bagan at her height boasted more than 13,000 pagodas, temples & zedis, and was the world center of Theravada Buddhism for a thousand years. It all came to an abrupt end in 1287, when the city was sacked by Kublai Khan and abandoned. Many of the shrines stand in partial ruin as his marauding hordes left them all those centuries ago. After a day of exploration, a climb to the top of Shwesandaw Pagoda and its mind-blowing sunset panoramas serves as an exhilarating climax. Here it’s easy to imagine the dust rising from the hooves of Mongol horses charging in the distance…
Alas, it is only the tourist hordes charging in their luxury coaches over the coming years who can threaten the Mongols place in Myanmar history. We will see if efforts for conscientious, low volume tourism will succeed against greed, but in the end we know the latter usually wins out. But for now, with poor roads and a lagging tourism infrastructure keeping the bus-herds at bay, Myanmar’s magic window remains open. Just don’t dawdle, because like all windows into the past, the future is relentless in closing them.
Bennett Stevens is a writer/photographer with 15 years experience in Southeast Asia. He first traveled to Burma in 2005 and fell head over heels. Several trips later he co-founded Luminous Journeys as a joint U.S. / Myanmar venture. “With the country opening up we saw a rare opportunity to combine skills and backgrounds to help foster a conscientious approach to Myanmar tourism, virtually from the ground up.” Visit his website