Now back to Burma. We left Ubon on January 17th immediately after the Ajahn Chah Memorial and drove down to Bangkok where we spent the night before flying to Mandalay the next day. There, our first stop once we’d checked in was a temple that proudly displays what it calls the largest book in the world, an extraordinary collection of 729 marble slabs on which were engraved over an eight year period from 1860 to 1868 the entire Tipitika, that is all the books of the Pali Canon, the oldest and earliest account of the Buddha’s life and teachings. It’s all in the Pali language and in Burmese script, and each slab is housed in its own mini temple, the whole collection covering 13 acres.
From there we drove out to a famous wooden bridge, U Bein’s Bridge. It’s almost three quarters of a mile long, rather peculiarly constructed and entirely of teak. It spans a huge lake which gradually dries up as after the rains the hot season advances. It’s one of several places in Burma to view spectacular sunsets and tourists armed with hugely expensive and complicated photographic paraphernalia flock here every evening to snap away. I’m afraid I deplore this craze to record everything instead of just being there. Time is a precious commodity, you know, and when you try to capture it, you miss it.
The next morning saw us at the old Royal Palace and once again I climbed the circular tower from where it is said that in 1885 Burma’s last Queen watched the British invading forces sailing up the Irrawaddy. Then in the afternoon we visited a few of the hundreds of temples clustered around the Sagaing Hill before a brief return to U Bein’s Bridge for the sunset and finally, as darkness fell, the Mahamuni Pagoda with its famed Mahamuni Image of the Buddha, the most revered in Myanmar.
Our third day was spent sailing down the Irrawaddy, previously known to the British colonialists and to Kipling as ‘the Road to Mandalay’. This is an enormous and majestic river and it’s a wonderful experience. We were on a smarter and faster boat than last year and it was only late afternoon when we pulled in to Bagan, home to a colossal number of ancient and mostly crumbling pagodas, just in time to check in to our hotel and walk down to a favourite riverside temple for yet another sunset. We stayed there as darkness fell and small oil lamps were lit along the terrace overlooking the river and around the pagoda. Unfortunately, on our boat down the river we’d been rather over exposed to the sun and I’d got badly burnt. I’m one of those fair skinned persons who can be cooked like a lobster and it’s not all that much fun when it happens. So, the next morning I was not at my best but on that, our fourth day, we did manage visits to some of the more prominent of Bagan’s two thousand odd pagodas before being dropped off at the airport in time for our flight to Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon and until a few years ago, the capital.
Here we stayed as in previous years at an hotel with a view of the Shwe Dagon Pagoda. This is a massive chedi, covered entirely in gold that sits on a small hill from where it dominates the entire city. It’s dedicated to the last four Buddhas and at each of the four cardinal points there is a temple and image of one of these four great beings. As you climb the stairs at one of the entrances it draws you on and as you emerge onto the piazza that surrounds it, it welcomes you. There you find all sorts: monks and nuns, lay people, tourists, children – all sorts – some walking and looking about them, some sitting telling their beads, some chanting, some meditating. It has a serenity and a life that’s addictive. We went there as soon as we’d arrived and stayed until closing time and early the next morning we were back there again.
Our five few days in this golden land were over all too soon. All that’s born must pass and our visit too had to come to an end but I hope we’ll be back again next year.