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April 30, 2013 > Myanmar... I call it Burma

Myanmar... I call it Burma

By Albert Vizinho

Editor's Note:
Albert Vizinho is a retired Fremont Unified School District elementary school teacher and by his own admission, a travel addict. He explains, "This addiction took hold in 1958 during my first trip abroad. I have not been able to shake the habit ever since. Reading, especially National Geographic magazines, prepared me for this happy addiction."

In the following article, Vizinho details his 2009 trip to Burma, a country that has been under military control since 1962. Recently the country has been more receptive to tourism and in November of 2012 President Barack Obama made a brief stop there with former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.


A visit to "the ancient kingdoms of Southeast Asia" started with an overnight stay in Bangkok before a morning flight to Yangon (the former Rangoon), Burma. Our group was greeted at the entrance to the hotel by two larger-than-life-sized teak carvings of a male and a female dancer draped in elegant robes and in dance poses typical of this part of the world: arms bent angularly at elbows, wrists, and fingers. The hotel itself was also Burmese style with steeply pitched pagoda-like roofs. It was a warm and welcoming first home in this somewhat mysterious land.

On a morning walk before departing for a tour of this former capital, I discovered that our hotel was beside a lake where magenta water lily blossoms float and a teak bridge zigzags across the lake: a great place for a first stroll in Burma.

Our visit to the first of many magnificent Buddhist sites was to Shwedagon Paya, also known as the Golden Pagoda. It dates back 2,500 years and is considered by the Burmese as the most sacred pilgrimage in the country. Here are enshrined eight sacred hairs of The Buddha. The dome of the stupa (a mound-like structure containing Buddhist relics) is covered with a great weight of gold leaf and the spire is encrusted with thousands of diamonds and other precious gems. At another site, the Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda, we paid a visit to the reclining Buddha, an extremely life-like figure extending over 225 feet. Both places were great for people watching, from families at prayer, to the procession of a young woman going to her Shinpyu, (the ceremony held before she would become a novice nun), to a young couple making an offering of prayers before a figure holding a small child, in hope of conceiving a child of their own.

A scheduled visit to a local village primary school and a family home was cancelled by government order so that foreigners would not see living conditions and to avoid anti-government feelings (At the time, Burma's most famous citizen, Aung San Suu Kyi, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, was still under house arrest and a military dictatorship was still governing). Fortunately, Aung San Suu Kyi has been freed and was finally able to accept her Nobel Peace Prize in 2012.

A boat trip on the Irrawaddy River was a great place for viewing everyday life of local people. Dinner in the Sky Bistro, atop one of Yangon's modern hotels, gave us a spectacular 360 degree nighttime view of the city.

A morning flight took us to Bagan, formerly Pagan, on a plain dotted with pagodas, shrines, and stupas numbering in the thousands, many dating back 800 years. Over the centuries, earthquakes have caused much damage, with the most recent seismic devastation in 1975. We were able to visit just a few structures during our two-day visit. Magnificent frescoes cover some interior walls along with beautiful figures of The Buddha. Glazed tiles and stone carvings decorate exteriors. A highlight of the last day was a horse carriage ride at sunset among some of the temples. I was given the name and horse carriage number of Khin Soe, the friend of a friend who lives in the Bay Area. Arrangements were made so that my carriage, number 37, belonging to Khin Soe, was waiting at the hotel for that memorable sunset ride. When one can make a friend in a foreign country, that visit becomes even richer.

A half hour flight took us to Mandalay. There is a beautiful wooden footbridge that crosses the shallow Taungthaman Lake on 1,060 teak posts. Many people - local and tourist alike - stroll on the three-fourth mile-long bridge: another great place for people watching and photography.

Later, a visit to Inwa, a former capital of Burma, brought a variety of experiences. Bagaya Kyaung, an early 19th century monastery, built entirely of teakwood and supported by 267 posts, was decorated with exquisite carvings on doors, window frames, posts, etc. A trip to the countryside gave us a chance to watch rice being harvested, soil being tilled with a team of oxen, while nearby were ruins of red brick temples. Our travel here was by horse and carriage.

Shwenandaw Kyaung lies in the hills of Mandalay. It is the only surviving building of the old Mandalay Palace and was moved here in 1861 from Amarapura a former capital. It was used by the royal family until the British takeover of Burma in the early 19th century. Another sight that is not to be missed is Mahamuni Paya with its figure of the Buddha, thought to date back to the 1st century A.D. It is unusual in that you can barely make out the figure because of all the layers of gold leaf that obscure it. New gold leaf is applied daily to the figure by male worshippers (and tourists!). The face of the image is washed each morning at 4 a.m. by monks. This is the only part, along with the crown, not covered with thick layers of gold leaf.

There were many other unforgettable experiences in this country that has suffered under harsh military dictatorship; but, it is now slowly enjoying the fresh air of freedom that much of the world takes for granted. A flight took us back to Bangkok after a memorable week in this country whose neighbors are India, China, Laos, and Thailand. The last two, along with Vietnam and Cambodia, formed the unforgettable itinerary for "The Ancient Kingdoms of Southeast Asia."

For more information on this excursion, please email Albert Vizinho at anabor37@sbcglobal.net

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