Burma’s Buddhas by Barefoot

Trip Start Feb 14, 2012
Trip End Mar 03, 2012

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Burma & the Irrawaddy River
Pandaw II

Flag of Myanmar  ,
Wednesday, March 14, 2012

As with any overseas travel, there always seems to be last minute changes. Our adventures in Myanmar (Burma), with Boston based, Vantage Deluxe World Travel, began with our flight to Bangkok being cancelled and combined with another flight a day earlier. Scheduling flexibility counts when traveling across the world!

Arriving in Bangkok, Thailand a day early, left us on our own to explore the city, before flying to Yangon Burma, accompanied by our Vantage program manager the following day. The concierge at the Bangkok airport hotel paired us with a local guide and van to tour the city. Our guide immediately sent us back to our rooms to change from shorts to long pants (covering the knees) and into shoes that are easily removed. Unbeknownst to us, the following two weeks in Burma would include countless, shoes-off and knees-covered, temple, monastery and pagoda visits.

Our day in Bangkok netted hundreds of photos of; Grand Palace (knees-covered), the Golden Buddha (shoes-off) the largest gold statue in the world, housed in the Traimit Royal Temple and Wat Benchamabopitor the Marble Temple.

Not bad for a day on our own. Just think what the organized tour of Burma holds for us in the next two weeks! (Hint: temples, pagodas and monasteries … (knees-covered and shoes-off!!)

The next morning we met our Vantage tour representative, boarded a plane and herded our group of Americans off to Yangon, Burma. Destination: The beautiful Chatrium Hotel on the Kan Daw Gyi Lake.

India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand border Burma, in Southeast Asia. Invaded by the Mongols in the 13th century and the Japanese in the 20th century, the country was colonized by the British in the 19th century. Burma gained its independence in 1948, and has since been in an almost constant state of civil war between its multitudes of ethnic groups. Military rule began in 1962 and ended just last year (2011). Whether you call it Myanmar or Burma depends on whom you talk to, and in what environment. But, in short, the Burmese refer to their country as Myanmar when speaking in a public situation. However in private and in their writings, they refer to it as Burma. Calling it Myanmar is thought to sympathize with the former military regime.

Our tour group followed just weeks behind a visit by U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. Her visit was the first by a U.S. Secretary of State in over a half century. Since Burma has now installed a civilian government, it is seeking an end to U.S. sanctions against its once repressive regime. The U.S., somewhat skeptical of the new reforms, has offered a loosening of restrictions and the possibility of additional aid, only on proven progress in the country's treatment of human rights.

Before flying to Mandalay, to set off on our ten-day river cruise down the Irrawaddy River, we spent two days investigating the Yangon area. We toured the Shwedagon Palace (filled more camera memory cards than I can remember), Scott Market and the ancient capital of Bago. We also took a trishaw ride through Yangon’s China town, netting another slew of market photos.

Two weeks after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese attacked Myanmar on their way to India. Many military from various countries aided and died in the recapture of Rangoon (Yangon) in May of 1945. Their remains are interred in the Rangoon War Cemetery. We visited this beautiful cemetery just outside of Yangon on our way to Bago.

Touring Bago meant filling camera memory cards with temples, monks, monasteries, reclining Buddhas and ancient palaces. It soon became clear that this trip was going to test our digital photography preparedness. For those planning to do this trip, take multiple camera batteries and charge all of them over night at the hotel or on the boat. Also, take some sort of storage to dump your pictures into. Some of us had laptops, others iPads, the rest were envious.

In 1892, Nobel laureate, Rudyard Kipling wrote the poem, Mandalay, in which he says, "Come back to Mandalay, Where the old Flotilla lay;" He was referring to the hundreds of beautiful riverboats operating on the rivers of Mandalay. In May of 1942 one Scottish company, The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (IFC), scuttled its entire fleet of 200 river boats to prevent the Japanese from commandeering them during the war. In 1998 a newly setup IFC founded by art historian Scotsman Paul Strachan began operating Myanmar river cruises in replicas of these scuttled riverboats. Our boat, the 180ft Pandaw II beckoned our boarding at Shwe Kyet Yet Jetty in Mandalay.

The Irrawaddy Cruse:

The Irrawaddy River is nearly 1,400 miles long and is Burma’s largest. It flows from the North, empting runoff from the Himalayas, south to its delta draining east into the Andaman Sea and west into the Indian Ocean. Its name comes from the Irrawaddy River Dolphin, several of which we saw frolicking in the muddy waters of this magnificent river.

We boarded the Pandaw II basically smack dab in the middle of the country in all four directions at Shwe Kyet Yet Jetty (Mandalay). After casting off and enjoying a very short journey the boat pulled over and moored at what seemed to be some random spot in the middle of nowhere. We went ashore and toured the most amazing and quaint little village one can imagine. The villagers all took part in the growing of peanuts. Collectively, I would say we shot probably 2,000 photos in this village. The children had never seen Americans. One man in our group, sporting, how should I say, hairy arms, commanded most of their attention as they stroked his “fur”. They had never seen such body hair. We were as curious of them as they were of us. Had our voyage ended today, the trip would have been well worth the travel.

Pandaw II - Day 2:

On our way to Mingun we stopped to tour a spectacular pottery village called New Nyein near Kyauk – Myoung. For those in our group who consider themselves photographers, this village was a goldmine for filling pixels. I could have stayed here for weeks, and still have found photos to shoot. It was absolutely amazing.

After lunch we tied up the boat at Mingun and went ashore to see more spectacular sites. The unfinished, and earthquake cracked Mingun Paya and a nearby temple netted hundreds more images, one of which I later labeled one of my few “National Geographic” shots.

Pandaw II - Day 3:

Before casting off, our growing group of early risers filled more camera pixels with a spectacular sunrise. After our Northern excursion yesterday, the boat is now heading south, back towards Mandalay. This morning we toured Ava (Innwa) via horse cart. This ancient city was a point-and-shoot dream. You could basically point your camera and shoot with little skill to net beautiful images. It was kind of like shooting fish in a barrel. We experienced our first teak wood monastery. Rather than the gaud and gold we were becoming accustomed to, this magnificent building was made of dark teak wood with just as ornate decorations as anything we were to see on this trip.

After lunch we experienced Mandalay, the second largest city in Burma. We visited a gold leaf workshop to see how the small gold leaf squares that people apply to Buddha statues are made. Next we visited Mahamuni Pagoda which houses the most revered Buddha statue in the country. So much gold leaf has been applied to this statue that it is purported to weigh several tons. Afterwards we watched silk being woven into beautiful patterns at a silk factory. We then walked across the street to the silk outlet and loaded up on more souvenirs. Then we experienced the most amazing sunset while sipping champagne from our Burmese gondolas on Taungthaman Lake. The sun setting through the U Bein teak bridge, we had just ascended, netted his or her own “National Geographic” shot. It was just spectacular!

We ended our day with entertainers from the Mandalay University of Culture performing Burmese traditional dances on our sun deck.

Pandaw II – Day 4:

Several of these overseas travel companies, like Vantage, go out of their way to create “culture connections” where you have one-on-one experiences with the local residents. On this trip we collected money and bought school supplies to donate to a local school. As we finished our morning walk through the pottery village of Yandabo, we stopped by the local school to make that donation. The school children sang for us and then suggested we return the favor. Let’s just say, American tour groups cannot sing!!

Back on the boat, and headed towards the city of Bagan (Pagan), our national tour guide gave us a lesson and demonstrations of Burmese culture and customs. We learned how the longies, (wrap-around skirts worn by both men and women) can be tied and used in many different ways. We ground and applied Thanaka, a yellowish tree bark that is used in Burma by women, men and children as both a make-up and a skin care concoction. Sunset that night, in this dust infused region, offered many fantastic photos.

Pandaw II – Day 5:

Bagan, words cannot describe. Probably the most visited of sites by foreign tourists; this former capital is the home of over 3,000 monuments, temples, pagodas, stupas and ancient ruins of all the aforementioned. It is where most pictures you have seen of Burma originated. It is awe-inspiring. In between monument stops, we visited Bagan House, and its famous lacquer ware workshop. Craftsmen there carve the most intricate lacquer ware one has ever seen. After filling our tour bus with all sorts of lacquer souvenirs, we headed off to enjoy the sunset on top of the ruins of an ancient temple. To try and describe this experience in words would be impossible. The camera pixels per second ratio as the sun went down over this amazing city could not be calculated. One word … wow!

Pandaw II – Day 6:

Dust masks were required for our trip up a mountain pass in Jeeps. Our destination was yet another stupa. But, the view from atop this stupa was simply spectacular. We filmed some of the oldest Buddha statues we were to see on this trip. From our mountain top lookout we could see down river towards Sale, the next village we were to tour by foot.

In Sale we visited another teak monastery called Yout-Saun-Kyaung. This wooden monastery was just as splendid, if not more so, than the one we saw in Ava. Sitting outside the monastery was an artist creating beautiful India ink sketches on clay-coated stock. His drawings were so impressive our group acquired his entire inventory!

Pandaw II – Day 7:

The sunrise club netted more pictures before settling into a game of Bingo in the cocktail parlor while the boat made its way to Magwe. We walked through this town to a pagoda said to be made of solid gold brick, named Myat-thalon. This was another gaud and gold experience that can cause your eyes and mind to seize, from an overwhelming visual experience. Seriously.

Pandaw II – Day 8:

After our trishaw ride through the Magwe town center and market, the Pandaw II headed south towards Min Hla. The British captured the Minhla fort, constructed in the mid 1800’s, in 1885. Once we photographically documented the fort, we finished our walk through this quaint little village.

Pandaw II – Day 9:

Our second “culture connection” was to take slips of handwritten notes to the local market in Thayet Myo and purchase whatever was written on our note in the Burmese language. This simple task was much more difficult than it appeared to be. But, it was a perfect way to get us tourists to engage in the local market atmosphere. After collecting all of the items, some food related, others not, we gave them as gifts to our horse cart drivers who were taking us through the town. Smartly designed, it was a very nice experience.

Pandaw II – Day 10:

Our final day on the Pandaw II found us in our destination city of Prome (Pyay). We visited an archeological museum along with more stupas and pagodas. We shot more “National Geographic” wannabe pictures while touring the town. Not but a block from where our boat was moored was a tree filled with hundreds of very large fruit bats ('flying fox’). Of course that meant filling more memory sticks!

 After settling our bills on the Pandaw II with the purser we enjoyed our final night on the boat, sharing cocktails with the captain and crew and watching a slide show of our trip compiled by our program director.


From Prome, we took a seven-hour bus ride back to Yangon, and then flew to Bangkok. From Bangkok we flew to Los Angeles and on to Philly. You don’t want to know the travel time! Your body will feel it.

The lessons I learned on this trip may be helpful for your own trip to Burma. We toured Burma in February, which is winter and considered the “dry season”. Be prepared for triple digit temperatures, dust and direct sun. We are still coughing, two weeks later, form the dust. Invest in a good pair of slip-on walking shoes. You will be taking your shoes and socks on and off, and on and off, and on and ….

Bring long pants that cover the knees. You will be visiting countless temples, monasteries and pagodas and expected to be courteous of local customs.

Spend your nights with a cocktail, pen and paper. Take notes of that day’s excursions. Don’t wait until you get home, like I did. It has taken two weeks just to jog my memory. Luckily our program director and national guide had detailed notes of the following day’s excursions delivered to our cabins every day. Without them, and my lack of note taking, this blog would have been impossible to reconstruct.

Your camera automatically names every photo it takes. Jot down the names of the first and last photos from each day. If you are like those on our tour, you will come home with thousands of photos! Good luck cataloging them without a predetermined scheme, as I did. If you take multiple cameras, you will have multiple in-camera file naming conventions. Ha! Have fun with that!

One of the members of our group had an iPhone App that audibly translates English to Burmese. This was an absolute hit with the locals. Get the App!

You are encouraged to shoot pictures of the children and then show them their image on your “magic box”. Believe me, they thoroughly enjoy this practice.

Burma only recently opened its borders to tourists. We were only the fourth river cruise on the Panda II with Vantage. Book your Burma trip now while “things” are still pristine and not yet overwhelmed with foreign influences.

You will be walking a lot and will be riding dusty, dirty and bumpy roads in horse-drawn carts and trishaws. Make sure you are physically able to do these things so you can thoroughly enjoy the experience.

When you do go, please share your pictures and blog. People really do read them. And as I found, other Burma bloggers helped me remember names and places I just couldn’t conjure up from the depths of my forgetfulness.


Shoes off! And, knees covered!!

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Jason Rhen on

Great blog about Burma and the Irrawaddy River trip with Vantage Travel! It is always great to hear first hand accounts of successful trips!

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