It would be remiss (even impossible) to visit Burma without learning a bit about Buddhism. There are half a million monks, 75,000 nuns, and not a skyline without a stupa – where to start?
Theravada Buddhism is practised by 89% of the population and pervades over every part of life in Burma (Myanmar). Religious practice starts at an early age with nearly all boys spending at least a few weeks living in a monastery, and it’s believed to play a large part in the inherent honesty and non-confrontational attitude of Burmese people.
“So how can I explore and learn about Buddhism in Burma”? I hear you ask. Let me count the ways…
1. Shwedagon Pagoda – Yangon
Shwedagon: the most famous pagoda of all. Out of the thousands of Buddhist temples in Burma, this shining beacon – standing at 99m and bathed in gold leaf – is the nation’s most treasured.
2. Kyaikhtiyo pagoda – ‘Golden Rock’
The Kyaikhtiyo pagoda sits atop a huge boulder, or ‘Golden Rock’ that clings precariously on the edge of a cliff. The pagoda is said to hold one of Buddha’s hairs, and worshippers travel from far and wide to make offerings. It’s worth visiting first thing in the morning as pilgrims congregate at sunrise.
3. Kyauk Ka Lat – Hpa An
Kyauk Ka Lat is a pagoda on top of a limestone pillar that reaches up from its own tiny isle in the centre of a lake – the thing of fairy-tales! It actually makes the Golden Rock seem sturdy. There’s a small shrine halfway up that visitors can walk to, and there are outlets to buy food from, but this is still primarily a working religious site surrounded by monasteries.
4. Laykyun Setkyar – Monywa
The second largest statue in the whole world. If you find yourself in Monywa, it won’t take long to spot this enormous standing Buddha (in Burma’s favourite gold leaf) overlooking the skyline.
5. Meditate at a monastery – Yangon
Spend time at the Mahasi Monastery in Yangon for an introduction to Buddhism and Vipassana meditation. It’s recognised across the country as an “Educational Spa” and although at least a week’s commitment is normally required, we can arrange a one-day programme of study.
6. Sagaing hill – Mandalay
Sagaing hill, one of the three ancient capitals of Mandalay, has 600 white-painted pagodas and monasteries, and is home to 3,000 monks and 100 meditation centres. If you visit, it’s worth a stop at the local market to pick up some locally made handicrafts.
7. Temples of Bagan – Bagan
If you’re planning a trip to Burma, you will probably be familiar with the enduring image of Bagan. These vast plains are home to 2,000 temples, some of which date back to the 12th century. You can take a hot air balloon ride here for an overview of the whole site, or dot from temple to temple on an e-bike.
8. Kuthodaw Pagoda – Mandalay
This pagoda in Mandalay is home to the world’s largest book; 729 marble slabs inscribed with the Tipitaka Pali canon of Theravada Buddhism.
9. Mahamuni Pagoda – Mandalay
Head to this pagoda in Mandalay to see monks wash the face and brush the teeth of the huge Buddha. Male Buddhists often apply gold leaf to the Buddha, leaving the image covered in rather lavish bumps.
10. Pindaya Caves – Pindaya
The Pindaya Caves in Shan State contain over 8,000 Buddha statues; a collection that has been steadily growing since the early 18th century.
11. Sagar sunken stupas – Inle Lake
Very few visitors get the chance to see the stupas in Sagar, found in the far southern reaches of Inle Lake. Take a boat here to see 108 Buddhist spires that date from the 16th-17th centuries. Depending on the time of year, you may find them partially submerged, earning the nickname “sunken”.
12. Thanboddhay Pagoda – Monywa
The incredibly intricate red and gold Thanboddhay pagoda is full of Buddha images (more than 500,000 of them). Whether it’s a huge Buddha guarding an archway, hundreds of rows of tiny Buddhas or serene seated Buddha surrounded with neon halos, there isn’t an inch of wall to spare.
Whether you’re interested in meditating in a monastery, cleaning Mandalay’s ‘lumpy’ Buddha, spending a few weeks counting the images in Thanboddhay, or having a ‘see it to believe it’ moment in Kyauk Ka Lat, we’d love to help you plan a holiday to Burma.