Beach, Buddha and Pagoda – How To Spend 5 Days in Myanmar

Myanmar (aka Burma) has only recently opened to tourism after lifting an embargo on foreign visitors. Tucked away in the South Asian peninsula, the country is unknown to most western tourists, except for it’s communist politics followed by a fight for democracy led by female activist Aung San Suu Kyi. A deeper dive into Myanmar’s history opens up a rich pandora of culture, religion and architecture spanning thousands of years. The country is biodiverse with beaches, mountains, lakes, rivers and forests. While it is difficult to see Myanmar in just a few days, I managed to capture a few highlights through my lens.

Yangon, the capital, is where I spent most of my time as our ship was docked there was three days. Sailing into the Irrawaddy River Delta gave way to views of muddy brown waters with nomadic fisherman on traditional boats, followed by golden domes popping out from bare villages. The city, itself is pretty small, with business buildings, hotels, tea shops, gardens and lots of pagodas. Having been cut off from the rest of the world, you won’t find any name brands or chain restaurants here. People still dress traditionally in sarongs (called longyi) and put bright creamy paste (thanaka) on their faces, while crouching on low stools on the street side cafes eating fish curry and steamed rice. It is easy to walk around, taxis are cheap, though traffic can be bad at times.

Chaukhtatgyi Buddha Temple houses one of the most revered reclining Buddha statues in the country. Though the original statue was built in 1899, it has been modified and reconstructed few times until the 1970s.

Dominating the Yangon skyline, Shwedagon Pagoda is spectacular by day and night. Shwedagon Pagoda is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar, and perhaps the oldest Buddha stupa in the world, built between 6-10 centuries CE. Allow yourself at least a couple of hours to wander around the complex of temples to absorb their splendid beauty, and maybe you would feel like spending a few minutes in silence or meditation.

In the evening, head over for dinner to Karaweik Royal Barge. Karaweik Palace was constructed in the shape of a barge as a symbol of Burmese culture and arts. It serves international buffet with cultural performances. Other restaurants I tried were Yangon Tea House, a casual and hip Burmese/ Indian restaurant, and Feel Myanmar, a traditional place where you can pick and choose your food and quantity. This is a great venue to safely try a lot of Burmese dishes that you may have seen on the streets as well.

On the other side of Yangon’s cosmopolitan city, is the township of Dala. This is the place to go if you want to see daily life of the locals – where they live, shop, study and pray. Most people cross the river on ferry boat to work in the city. Walk through the wet markets, visit a monastery, stop by an orphanage, and ride on a trishaw.


From Yangon, take a short flight to the city of Bagan, in the eastern province. It is said there were over 10,000 religious structures built in Bagan between 9-13 centuries, though only 2,000 of them still remain today. Shwesardaw offers a great lookout to many of these temples spread across the archeological area.

Though there are dozens of other temples in the area worth visiting if you have the time, Shwezigon Pagoda built by the Mon Dynasty, is covered with more than 30,000 copper plates (originally gold). The pagoda houses four huge bronze statues of Buddha, and contain his original footprints.

Lampi Island is the only marine national park in Myanmar, home to over 1000 species of animals, plants and marine life, as well as occasional sea gypsies. Here you can take a private zodiac cruise to visit the mangroves.

Further south is Shark Island, a secluded natural island perfect for snorkeling, swimming, and relaxing on the white sandy beach. There are a number of beaches and exclusive beach resorts in Myanmar, that offer opportunities to see the rich coral formations and marine life.

Located at the Myanmar-Thailand border, is the charming town of Kawthoung. With strong Indian and Muslim influences, it is a town on a hill where you can walk around and explore within a day. Kawthaung is also the starting point for Myanmar-based cruises to the vast Myeik Archipelago.

My trip to Myanmar was possible through Silverseas Discoverer Andaman Sea Expedition cruise. I was on their inaugural sailing to Myanmar, a country that should be added to your travel bucket list!

Myanmar: The Buddhist Life

A bell tolls from a nearby temple, welcoming the rising sun as it seeps through the valleys, illuminating one pagoda at a time. Dawn marks the hours of alms for the novices that inhabit the hundreds of monasteries and nunneries of Sagaing, the holy center of Myanmar. I watched through the bamboo thatches of my hut as the novices at the IBEC (International Buddhist Education Center) descended the hill with their bowls, some balanced on their head, others falling into their hands. The younger novices struggled to keep their robes tied properly around their shoulders as they ran to keep up with the monks. They were heading to the town to ask the villagers to contribute “alms”, gifts to the monastery. It is these alms and contributions that the holy centers survive on.

kids at Buddhist monastary in Burma

I had been living and teaching at the IBEC for two weeks now, participating in the daily rituals of the novices and learning about the pillars of Buddhism. As one of two westerners, and the only woman at the monastery, there is a lot to learn quickly. The principal, a highly respected monk, welcomes me and thanks me for coming. When addressing the principal, one must sit lower than him, with their feet tucked in, as a sign of respect. When he walks through the monastery grounds, people bow on the ground to him. Every morning the monks and nuns come to pay their respect from neighboring monasteries. They kneel before him and bow their heads three times.

International Buddhist Education Center in Burma

The IBEC gives free education to children from all over Myanmar. A lot of poorer families will send their children to become monks because it is the only education they can receive. Walking around the monastery, the children hang out of the windows exclaiming, “hello teacher, hello!” The novices range in age from three to eighteen. They wake up every morning at 4am for their morning chants and alms, go to school until 5pm, study from 5-9pm and pray until bedtime. It’s a tight schedule with little playtime. Teachers are highly respected and the young novices are extremely eager to learn. At the end of every class, they repeat, “thank you teacher, see you tomorrow teacher, thank you teacher.” The nuns also attend various classes at the monasteries. These bashful girls always sit in the back of the classroom and are easily identifiable with their bright pink robes and shaved heads. The boys and girls move in and out of the classroom separately. Gender roles become increasingly apparent when you go into town. Only men are seen eating at the restaurants and women are assumed to be home working.

The local teachers are mostly women and eager to practice their English. Each day they rub thanaka on my cheeks, a white paste made from a tree root, used to protect skin from the sun. In town, the villagers welcome the teachers with open arms. During a “food festival”, each house cooks an enormous meal and participants wander from house to house as a way to socialize with the village. When someone shares a meal with the Burmese, they are considered part of the family. I join over 30 families during my time in Myanmar.

volunteering with kids in Burma

The Burmese culture is infamous for their warm smiles and generosity. A once isolated country; its borders have now been opened to businesses and tourists alike. Aside from teaching novices, I help Burmese immigration officers improve their spoken English. They are required by the government to learn English to prepare for the influx of foreigners. At the end of my two weeks there, I am showered with gifts from my students. I leave the center feeling that I had received much more than I had given to them. This is quite common in Buddhist and Burmese culture, that is the spirit of giving more then you receive.

~ By Teresa Murphy of Tess Travels. Murphy spent three weeks living and teaching at a Buddhist monastery in the holy capital of Sagaing, Myanmar.

Read more about volunteering abroad. 

Burmese Days

A country in the midst of a political transition and geographically placed along the Himalayas, sharing borders with India and Bangladesh and linking a “Golden Triangle” with Thailand and Laos, Burma, now Myanmar, is a fascinating country with the friendliest people in Asia.

Yangon

I stay near the Sule Paya, a golden pagoda set in the middle of a busy traffic intersection. The first thing I do upon landing is head to the bank to exchange my uncreased, unmarked US $100 bills that originated after 2006. Foreign credit cards are not accepted in the country and the banks and black market are extremely particular about foreign currencies. After this extraneous process, I wander Yangon, weaving my way through the activity on the sidewalk; the plastic stools where men drank tea, the noodle stands and the open aired markets. Men use wooden crates to make their “cheroot”, betel nut and chewing tobacco rolled in leaves. I continue on to the infamous Shwedogan Pagoda, said to house eight hairs of the Buddha. The Pagoda is breathtaking at sunset, as the tower turns crimson and the monks begin their chants. A group of monks came over to practice their English and one spread his arms and said, “I wanted to thank you for choosing to come to my country, and welcome to Myanmar!” That would be the beginning of many welcoming gestures from the Burmese people.

Two men coating the Mahamundi Buddha with gold

Bagan

We pull into Bagan at 4am just in time to see the monks, dressed in crimson robes, walk the town for the morning alms. We are greeted at the bus station in the pitch black with horse-carts. Sitting on a wooden crate on wheels being dragged around town by a horse, I feel as if I have found the wild wild west.  At 5am, we take bikes and flashlights and set out to the city of temples, finding one, in time to see the sky change from black to purple to a light blue, and then slowly a golden orange, as the sun began to seep through the valley, illuminating each temple as it went. It is calming, majestic, and even spiritual. After a day of biking through the temples, I hop on a bus to Inle Lake.

Bagun at sunrise
Bagun at sunrise

Inle Lake

Inle Lake thrives with communities of villages that use it as a life source. It serves as a transport hub, with wooden canoes lining the canals to enter the lake each day. Villagers go to work by the lake, boats take children to school each morning and businesses moving goods, ship their items over water. It’s a source of food, with floating gardens and farms, and fishermen who wake in the early dawn. Its a religious center, housing floating temples and pagodas. And it serves as a town center, with floating markets bringing the villagers together each day to buy food. Craftsmen’s stilted stores line the lake, preserving age old professions like blacksmiths, weavers, seamstresses and basket makers. Each day comes to a close in Inle with a boat full of monks floating by, doing their evening chants. I fall so in love with Inle that I choose to ignore the creeping influx of tourist offices and western restaurants.

Daily commuters on Inle Lake
Daily commuters on Inle Lake

Mandalay

North of Inle, lies the busy, noisy, congested, dusty city of Mandalay. The city’s grid system is set up around the Mandalay Palace, the last royal palace of the Burmese monarchy. I visit the Mahamundi Buddha, a large Buddha painted in gold every day, and the historic teakwood Shwenandaw Monastery. On the way, my taxi driver is eager to discuss the political situation in Myanmar. With the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the country is at a crossroads and, as the US lifts some economic sanctions, tourists continue to flow in. This transition is seen in Mandalay’s financial distract, as men go to work wearing a dress shirt and tie, with a longyi, the traditional cloth wrap, on the bottom.

Produce market in one of the villages on Inle Lake
Produce market in one of the villages on Inle Lake

Although the country is undergoing rapid changes, it’s essential to preserve the centuries old customs and traditions that make Myanmar such a unique cultural gem.

~ By guest blogger, Tess Murphy. Tess has traveled extensively through Europe, Asia and Australia, keeping a travel blog everywhere she went.