Myanmar was the place for an organic foodgasm. Processed Western food was hard to come by and fast food chains did not exist in Mandalay and Bagan. I lived on local cuisine of mainly fresh herbs and spices with some meat and fish thrown in. It was the healthiest diet I had ever maintained in consecutive days.
“Myanmarvelous!” A former student posted that comment on my ‘Gram shot in a pagoda. I wished I came up with that! Not only was it a cool portmanteau, it was the truth in a nutshell. Myanmar’s sights were typically spectacular, much of its centuries-old tangible heritage an architectural and engineering marvel. A long chauffeured drive to the countryside out of Mandalay proved just that.
Yangon was an afterthought in my Myanmar itinerary. If not for the gloriously golden Shwedagon Pagoda, the former capital couldn’t rival the historical treasures of Bagan and Mandalay. As an urban center, it fell behind the popularity of other cities in Indochina. So what made me sit through an eight-hour overnight bus ride from Central Myanmar to Yangon? Simply because it had Shwedagon. In that quick visit, Yangon managed to charm my ignorant judgment away.
Jo and I stopped by Mahagandhayon Monastery in Amarapura, former royal capital, to watch monks line up for lunch. The experience was strangely calming. At 10:30 AM, the novices were being served what would be their last meal of the day. Hundreds, if not a thousand, of young monks, some still children, bearing black bowls formed snaking lines under tall tamarind trees in utter silence. They were mostly oblivious to the handful of tourists like me at the sidewalk taking their photos.
A midnight arrival in a foreign city left no elbow room for screw-ups. Six hours after setting off from Mandalay, the bus conductor assured us of a hotel drop-off. We heaved a sigh of relief and gratitude as it was a dark and rainy night in Bagan. The short but muddy walk from the gate to the lobby was the end of our long journey. Or so we thought. The lone receptionist at Amata Garden Resort could not find our reservation. A mistake was soon made clear. We were supposed to be at Ananta Bagan. Ananta, not Amata.
The words of Rudyard Kipling could not ring any truer: “My own sojourn in Rangoon was countable by hours, so I may be forgiven when I pranced with impatience at the bottom of the staircase….” Given less than 48 hours in the city, I only had this day to visit the spectacular Shwedagon Pagoda, and I could not find my Myanmar friend, Justin, at our appointed meeting place at the foot of the southern staircase. I did prance, scooting from the guarded gate to a few flights up the stairs.
It certainly wasn’t “only just Bagan,” a pun I sang to the tune of the Carpenters’ We’ve Only Just Begun. “Only” and “just” didn’t apply to Bagan, the historic heart of Myanmar. The numbers alone were staggering: Old Bagan had a long history going back more than 1,000 years and spanned an area of 104 square kilometers dotted by 2,217 extant Buddhist temples from the 11th century to the 15th century. Whew, taking those figures in was overwhelming enough, how much more doing a temple run in this vast, arid valley?
I was ready for my close-up. My friend Jo summoned me out to the courtyard at Ananta Bagan for my facial sesh with the hotel staff who came bearing a whetstone dish called kyauk pyin on which she proceeded to grind the bark off a chunk of wood. The resulting powder mixed with a bit of water produced a yellow paste – Myanmar make-up called thanaka – which she applied on my cheeks, nose, chin, and forehead with quick finger strokes.
I learned the word Burman from Rudyard Kipling. In his letters and stories, he used the word to refer to the people of Myanmar, then named Burma by the British Empire. Whether it was a blanket term for all tribes in Burma or meant specifically for the Burmese tribe, I didn’t know. What I did know was that he regarded the Burman fondly, a sentiment that I shared when I visited their country. In the words of Kipling himself, “Personally I love the Burman with the blind favouritism born of first impression.”
My closest encounter with the flat-top monolith favored by aliens in Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind was with its less famous cousin on the other side of the world. I had never even heard of it until a Google search led my travel buddy Melds and me to photos of Taung Kalat (Pedestal Hill), the 600-meter volcanic plug sticking out of the gentle slope of 1,500-meter Mount Popa. It would become a non-negotiable stop in our Myanmar itinerary the following year. Devil’s Tower in the US gained Hollywood fame, but what set Taung Kalat apart was the sprawling Buddhist monastery at the summit.