Mingalarbar—Hello! What an awesome adventure I recently experienced with a group of Warwick Travelers on the alluring Irrawaddy River in Myanmar (formerly Burma), a Southeast Asian nation of more than 100 ethnic groups, bordering India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand.
Buddhism is practiced by more than 90 percent of Myanmar’s population. The Buddhist life of peace, loving kindness and wisdom is just as relevant today as in ancient times. This was true throughout our visit in their country. Its people were warm, friendly, thoughtful, considerate—always smiling.
Yangon, (formerly Rangoon), the country’s largest city, is home to bustling markets, parks, lakes and the towering gilded Shwedagon Pagoda, dating to the sixth century.
In Yangon, our tour guide Myo spent three days with us, exploring the city and experiencing their food, culture and warm hospitality. Plus, a visit to the local craft market was a must!
Next, we flew to Bhamo and were transferred by trishaw (an Asian three-wheeled vehicle with pedals) to our riverboat, where we met Mark, our cruise director, and his amazing crew with whom we would spend the next 11 days cruising south on the Irrawaddy.
The next morning, Myo took us to the village of Kyn Daw, where more than 7,000 stupas surrounded the monastery. A stupa is a Buddhist commemorative monument, housing cremated remains or sacred relics associated with the Buddha or other saintly persons. We visited a school and a Buddhist nunnery to present the nuns with food. Unlike monks, nuns have to collect and cook their own food.
In Katha, we saw a colorful market offering fish, meat and produce. We visited the former British Club, featured in George Orwell’s 1934 novel Burmese Days, still in use although no longer as a club.
As we continued our cruise down the Irrawaddy, we encountered a series of cliffs surrounding a narrow channel. The river rewards travelers with iconic views and fascinating ancient treasures along the way.
Cruising on to Mandalay, we visited Amarapura to view the famous U Bein Bridge, a three-quarter-mile bridge built in 1783 of reclaimed teakwood from the old royal palace in Inwa. We took a sampan ride on Taungthaman Lake for memorable views of the sunset behind the iconic bridge.
In Mandalay, we visited a tapestry and woodcarving workshop and saw skilled artisans at work. At a gold-leaf workshop we saw how gold is prepared to adorn the great Buddhist shrine at Mahamuni Pagoda, the most revered shrine in Mandalay. Due to the continued application of gold leaves, officials estimate the gold is approximately six inches thick. We visited Kuthodaw Pagoda and Shwenandaw Monastery, the only remnant of former King Mindon’s “Golden City” to survive the bombing of World War II.
The Southeast Asian Buddhist monks and nuns shave their heads and wear saffron robes, a tradition going back 25 centuries to the time of historical Buddha. When we visited temples, pagodas, stupas or any sacred place, certain attire was required, and shoes and socks remained outside.
We stopped in Sagaing, a religious site with pagodas dotting the hillsides. We visited the Kaungmudaw Pagoda with its golden egg-shaped dome and stopped at a silversmith workshop to observe local artisans turning silver into beautiful works of art.
Cruising on to Shwe Pyi Thar, a typical farming village, we took a walking tour and learned how the locals make candy from the sap of a toddy palm.
Bagan, our final stop, presented a sunrise visit to some of the more than 2,200 pagodas, temples and monasteries, making it one of the world’s greatest archaeological sites. The day ended with an ox cart ride to a temple, ascending to the top to a beautiful sunset.
The Irrawaddy River has shaped Burma’s history—it is the country’s economic lifeblood and inseparable from Burmese spiritual life. Myanmar is carving a more prosperous path to the future, although it continues to have its political problems.
Visiting the “Golden Land” of Myanmar far exceeded my expectations. While the sights were awe inspiring, the people captured our hearts. This was one of my best trips, one I will forever remember!