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A Road Trip to Myanmar – the Land of Golden Pagodas

As with every new journey, the trip to Myanmar was preceded by the excited preparations and anticipations of new discoveries of places, people and the opportunity to experience a glimpse of the life of a different culture, customs and region- a different country in this case. Often called the Land of Golden Pagodas or The Golden Land, this part of South East Asia has been a reclusive state for almost half a century ruled by Military Junta. After its transition to Democracy, there has been an increase in footfall of tourists many are willing to visit and explore this once reclusive state. Myanmar is much more than a neighbour country and has been an integral part of our history since time immemorial. Stories of numerous wars between the Avas (Awas) and Manipur before the British era still lingers on in our minds.

Predictably, I did not hesitate even for a moment when a golden chance came up for me along with few other fellow journalists to visit this Golden Land by road organized by Department of Information and Public Relations, Government of Manipur.

The first-hand experience of trans-border formalities at the Integrated Check Post located at the Indian side of the border at Moreh leaves a lot to be desired and is evidently at a very nascent stage at least in terms of efficiency. The paperwork, immigration process and the whole lot was a mess and could have been managed in a more systematic manner. We were directed to run all over the place for getting our paperwork done. After stamping on our Passport, we crossed to border on Myanmar side and were made to enter our details at the Immigration office. As compared to our side’s handling of Visas and all, I found theirs to be a lot more systematic and efficient. After finishing with our paperwork, we got the green signal to move ahead. We were equally excited to travel through the roads leading from Tamu towards Kalemyo which is about 133 Kms from Tamu. This stretch of Tamu-Kalemyo-Kalewa section is a part of the Trilateral Highway (India-Myanmar-Thailand) built by Border Roads Organisation. The road was noticeably smoother than the Imphal –Moreh stretch. The thought that if India can do so much for its neighbouring counterpart, why can’t it do the same for our two National Highways which are the lifelines of our landlocked state.
Many of the lifestyles and the landscapes as well are quite similar to ours. Although the Landscapes were beautiful, they were nothing new to me, for one raised in Manipur get to see such beautiful landscapes, if one wander away a little away from Imphal. So, no excitement till this point for me. One cannot forget the number of small bridges, that too one- way and I was told we will encounter a total of 52 bridges on this road stretch. We stopped at some local eateries on our way and were greeted with “mingalaraba” with a friendly smile. We had a hard time trying to communicate and had to talk in sign language with the people out there as they had little or no knowledge of English. The menu was all written in Burmese and one cannot figure out what to order. All we had to do was talk in sign language or point to the items laid on other people’s table. I noticed that most of the food items are similar to ours although the cooking style is different.

Inle Lake – a freshwater lake located in the Nyaungshwe Township of Taunggyi District of Shan State, part of Shan Hills in Myanmar

After dinner, we resumed our journey towards Mandalay along the same Tamu-Kalemyo-Kalewa road. All night we were on the vehicle, could not sleep a wink.

After a hectic ride for almost 14 hrs we finally reached Mandalay the next morning. The landscape has changed to a completely new one and the weather was comparably hot and humid. After driving a couple of hours we came upon the mighty Irrawaddy River. This river which flows from North to South through Myanmar is the country’s largest river and one of the most important Commercial waterways. One can witness the various cargo ships, ferries and other small ships right from the road. Also, in the west bank backdrop one can view the various Pagodas of Mingun.
Mingun is a town in Sagaing Township of Sagaing Region, north-west Myanmar with the ruins of the incomplete Mingun Pahtodawgyi which was started by King Bodawpaya in 1790. Legend claims that the temple was not completed as an astrologer claim that the King would die once the construction of the temple is complete. If completed, it would have been the largest in the world at 150 meters. Now many cracks are visible on the structure from the earthquake of 23rd March 1839. A couple of steps from the unfinished stupa, one can view the beautiful white Myatheindan Pagoda with a unique style said to be modeled after the mythical Mount Meru. The story behind this White Pagoda is reminiscent of the Taj Mahal of India. Built in 1816 by Bodawpaya’s grandson and successor Bagyidaw dedicating it in fond memory of his first spouse Princess Hsinbyume or Lady of the White Elephant who died during childbirth in 1812, the White Pagoda is also called as Hsinbyume Pagoda.

While in Mingun, one cannot miss the World’s second Largest Bell, put up by King Bodawpaya also known as the Mingun Bell, weighing a total of 90 tons. Our next stop is the Kaunghmudaw Pagoda which was modeled after Ruwanwelisaya pagoda of Sri Lanka. It is an important pilgrimage and tourist hotspot in the region. Construction started during the reign of King Thalun on 25 April 1636 and was completed 12 years later. One cannot forget the story of Maharaj Garibniwaz aka Pamheiba entering the Pagoda and marking the eastern door with his sword as a mark of victory. The door is nowhere to be seen now and it is said to be kept away in some storeroom away from Public view. It would have been great if we were able to witness the door and the sword mark, maybe the Burmese Government didn’t want the world to witness it for reasons known best to them.

A Traditional hearth of the Shan state at National Races Village.

The Pagoda is different from other traditional Burmese styles. Some local lore has it that the relic chamber of the pagoda contains the lower left tooth relic of the Lord Buddha, 11 hair relics, an alms bowl, statues, pagodas and other relics. After strolling through the various shop stalls selling worship materials like incense sticks, sandalwood, flowers and numerous photo sessions, we bid adieu to Kaunghmudaw Pagoda.

While sitting on the bus during our journey, I saw something on the road which captured my attention. A vivid picture of our Traffic system flashed into my mind when I saw the way Traffic rules are being followed out there. In my entire journey, I did not see a single commuter breaking Traffic rules. We Manipuris have a long way to go and can learn a lot from the Burmese at least when it comes to matters of civic sense. They don’t have any road dividers/medians but they never cross other lanes or overtake like we do out here. Also, roads are narrow or not so big as compared to ours. Our Government expanding roads in the name of Traffic management seems like a big joke to me after seeing all these. What we need is Proper Traffic management and proper awareness of traffic rules among Commuters.

Now it is time for us to start our journey to Yangon, which is an overnight drive from Mandalay via Yangon-Mandalay Expressway. After seeing the Bus we are going to travel, a faint hope came into mind- a hope that I will be able to sleep, as the Bus is quite spacious and comfortable as compared to the one we travelled in from Tamu to Mandalay.

Mingun Pahtodawgyi- an incomplete monument stupa in Mingun, approximately 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) northwest of Mandalay in Sagaing Region.

After an overnight drive, we finally reached Yangon Bus Terminus early in the morning. After checking in at Hotel 63 and having brief rest (for me it was 2 hrs sleep), we started out for National Races Village which is located near Thanlyin Bridge, Thaketa Township. In National Races Village, one can have a sneak peek of the lifestyle of the various races of Myanmar namely Kachin, Kayah, Kayin, Chin, Mon, Rakhine, Shan and Bamar. Oh yes, another thought came into my mind and this time it is about our Heritage Park at Hatta Kangjeibung. Ours is in a very pitiful condition and I would say the structures at Hatta are just for namesake after seeing the National Races Village.

1. Kachin: Traditional house of Kachin nationals are mostly made of Bamboo, thatch and wood. At the rear of the house, mortar, pestle and firewood are kept. One can see many paintings and pictures depicting Traditional utensils on the wall. Also Horn of Mython, Ceremonial Spear, Guar’s Horn, Quiver, Tumee Guns and Deer’s Horn are displayed on the wall. Very similar to a traditional Meitei house.

2. Kayah: A traditional house of Kaya Nationals does not have any windows and roofing goes past the floor and almost touches the ground. Processing of Cotton textile materials are shown step by step. One cannot miss the Bamboo mugs for serving brew.

3. Kayin:
The first thing to be noticed about a Kayin traditional house is the Bronze Frog drum and Buffalo horn, the former is said to be a symbol of Kayin National races. A total of four rooms comprise a traditional Kayin house.

4. Chin:
The most significant symbol of a Chin house is the Hornbill. Hornbill Bird, Bear Skull, Barking Dear Skull, Guar Skull, Mythun Skull are put up above the main door. The Blacksmith’s workplace is one of the attractive aspects of a traditional Chin house.

5. Mon:
In the Mon traditional house, one can witness the Mon traditional Crocodile Musical Instrument, Mon Crescent Moon-Shaped Gong and Mon traditional utensils. Also, a traditional Mon Cart and Mon Boat are placed on the yard.

6. Shan
Two ladders are kept at a Shan traditional, one is said to be for use by Guest and the other for the owner/family members of the house. Fishing equipments, traditional musical instruments are displayed. There is also a replica of Inle Lake outside the house.

7. Rakhine
One can observe the customs and the way the houses are built in accordance with the tradition of Rakhine. A Weaving model and a traditional boat are displayed on the ground of the house and on the house yards respectively. The traditional longyi worn by many is said to be woven by the Rakhine women using the Rakhine Weaving Model.

8. Bamar
The traditional house of Bamar nationals are said to be designed from an ancient form of a rich man’s house from Shwe Bo City. Also traditional musical instruments are displayed on a Bamar national house. One can observe the customary ways of living, handicrafts and style of dress.

I definitely recommend visiting this place, if you want to learn more about the lifestyles and custom of the various races of Burma from this National Races village.

A visit to the Manipuris settling at Yangon was an emotional one. Many of the Meiteis settled there have now problem in speaking Manipuri and also they were unable to recall their family surname. When asked if they want to visit Manipur, they express their willingness to visit Manipur some day and visit Govindajee Temple, Loktak etc to name a few. Indeed it was quite emotional to witness how they were still maintaining our tradition, although they were far away from Manipur.

Yangon has the highest number of colonial era buildings of all South East Asia. Buildings built in Victorian and Neoclassical style during the British occupation of Yangon in late 19th century still stand tall. Owing to its isolation from the rest of the world during its prolonged military rule, the building remained as it was before.
After our trip to the National Races village, we return back to our Hotel located at Botahtaung. We began making plans for the night and decided to visit China town which is just a few minutes away from our Hotel. This particular China Town of Yangon was created during the British rule. It is flanked by Maha Bandoola Road and the Strand Road.

With Manipuri brethren at Mandalay

After about 10 minutes by taxi, we finally reached the vibrant China Town. China town is a haven of fruits, vegetables, fish and street food. Small makeshift shops are erected in each narrow alleys after sunset. Here too, I remember about our very own Night Plaza started by our government. If we can arrange something like the way being done here in China Town instead of blocking roads and adding to the already worsening woes of the traffic, it would be a lot better. Here in China Town, no elaborate arrangements are made for all these setup like the way it is done in our night plaza. Also, our Night plaza is not public friendly as many Gun-wielding state forces are seen loitering around and create a sense of uneasiness in the minds of the public. Also, during my entire stay in Myanmar except for a few occasions I could not see any gun-wielding security personnel in the street as opposite to ours, where security personnel proudly display their guns in public. We need to check this if we want to create a tourist friendly atmosphere otherwise the mere sight of guns is a huge deterrent for outsiders. Now back to China town, we settled on a roadside eatery after much loitering around. We chose to have local cuisines and beer for the night. It was dirt cheap and affordable as opposed to our Night Plaza, where the price is sky high. I don’t blame the stall owners in our Night Plaza for the high prices, it is quite understandable that they are charging a high price owing to the exorbitant deposit fees imposed by the Government for each stall. Many other tourists can be seen having a good time at most of the street.

One cannot leave Yangon without visiting Inya Lake, an artificial lake built by the British as water reservoir to provide water supply to Yangon and the area surrounding Inya Lake is one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in Yangon. It include properties of Aung San Suu Kyi and US embassy to name a few. The lake has been in the news for many reasons, for instance Aung San Suu Kyi’s lakeside residence and Rangoon University of the student-led 8-8-1988 national uprising. During its peak Pro Democracy movement, students marching towards Pyay Road were confronted by security force near Inya Lake and many were either beaten to death or drowned in the lake.
Well on a brighter side, there is a park adjacent to the lake and the park is most well known as a romantic dating area for the university students. How I wish to date out there, just joking!

Also, we got a chance to catch a glimpse of the various commercial activities conducted on the Port of Yangon River. One can see large cargo carrier ships sailing on the river.

Our next stop is the Indian Embassy, where we are to meet Sweta Singh, First Secretary (Eco & Com) & Head of Chancery at Indian Embassy at Yangon, Myanmar. During our interaction with Sweta Singh, we got to know that the Government of India is negotiating for a Motor Vehicles Agreement with Myanmar for facilitating the movement of vehicles across the two countries. This is huge, thinking if we were able to cruise into Myanmar with our own vehicle, without the need of hiring tourist vehicles. Act East Policy Convenor, RK Shivchandra also stressed on the financial problem faced by Myanmarese pilgrims while visiting Bodh Gaya. After having a brief formal interaction and of course, a mandatory group photo we departed for our Hotel.

The next day, we are to meet the good people from Myanmar Press Council at a Hotel in Yangon. During the interaction, IPR Director H Balkrishna said that this tour was organized with an objective to build better media relationship between Manipur and Myanmar. He also said special short term journalism courses can be undertaken by Myanmar students free of cost at the State institute of journalism in Imphal. Also, Balkrishna invited media, cultural troupes etc from Myanmar to take part in the upcoming Sangai Festival 2018. After having luncheon together with the members of Myanmarese media fraternity, we bade goodbye to our host.

And now we are ready to bid farewell to Yangon and move towards Shan state and to Inle Lake. Shan state borders China, Laos and Thailand and is the largest of all states and regions in the country. The state got its name from the Shan people, one of the ethnic groups that inhabit the area. Most of the Shan state is hilly plateau, very similar to our land. The bumpy roads, red-dirt road cut through the countryside, sunflowers in full bloom in vast expanse of field, the rural Myanmar that I want to experience. Power lines made of tree trunk, people washing clothes in small pond or canal, similar to what we witness out here in rural area can be seen. People seem to be in touch with Mother Nature and living in complete harmony. The housing style are very similar to ours, also the gate designed using bamboo poles is very much similar to the kind of gates we can see out here in rural areas. Studying this part of Myanmar may provide many clues to our roots and genesis instead of arguing theoretically. Finally reached our hotel called Hotel Paradise located at Nyaungshwe. After freshening up, we readied for our journey to Inle lake.
Inle is a freshwater lake located in the Nyaungshwe Township of Taunggyi District of Shan State, part of Shan Hills in Myanmar (Burma) and is the second largest lake in Myanmar. The lake has been designated as a protected Ramsar site since September 2018. It is a fantastic place to visit, all away from the hustle and bustle of urban city. The scenery was awesome and the uniqueness of the lake is the way of life of the inhabitants of the lake. Most of the people dwelling in the lake are devout Buddhists, and live in houses made of wood and woven bamboo on stilts; are largely self-sufficient farmers. The entire lake area falls under Nyaung Shwe township. Transportation on the lake is mainly by traditional boat or boats fitted with single cylinder diesel engine. Most distinctive feature of rowing practiced here, is where the local fishermen standing at the stern on one leg and wrapping the other leg around the oar. It is said that this style of rowing evolved out of necessity as it is difficult to see the reeds and floating plants while sitting and is more convenient to view the reeds and other water plants.

This standing rowing style is said to be practiced by men only whereas womenfolks row in the usual style using oar with their hands and sitting cross legged at the stern.

Apart from fishing, one can view the large number of gardens that float on the surface of the lake growing fruits and vegetables. The floating garden beds are formed by extensive manual labor. The farmers collect weeds from the deeper parts of the lake and make them into floating beds in their garden areas, fixed by bamboo poles. These gardens are incredibly fertile. It is very similar to our very own Loktak Lake and the Phumdis, whereas Phumdis are naturally floating mass of matted vegetation, organic debris, and soil.

One can witness many floating restaurants on the lake. To me, the lake seems like some town that has been flooded over time. Also, one cannot miss the galore of pagodas and stupa on the lake. Old stone pagodas as old as 1000 centuries are nestled together behind the restaurant where we had our lunch.

Weaving is one of the main cottage industry of Inle Lake. A unique silk from the stems of lotus plant is produced only at Inle lake and is said to be used for weaving special robes for Buddha images called Lotus Robe. Inle lungyi, high quality hand woven silk fabrics with distinctive design is produced here. We also had the opportunity to witness one of the artisans making silk from the stems of Lotus plant. I would say our very Loktak lake is nowhere near when compared to this lake of Myanmar as a tourist destination. In reality Loktak lake doesn’t have much to offer. The only thing that people find Loktak fascinating is the tag of the largest freshwater lake in Northeast India, the abode of the Sangai/Brow Antlered Deer and the floating Phumdis. Our policy makers only boast of having Loktak Lake in theory whereas nothing much prominent have been done to promote or improve the lake and making it more attractive. I see no point in focusing on the lake only during Sangai Festival. Many things still need to be done if we want to bring up Loktak Lake to the very status of Inle Lake.

We missed one great opportunity to visit the Paduang women (also known as the long neck women) who wear brass coils around their arms, legs and necks as it was getting late. We missed many other places to visit while we were at Inle Lake owing to our tight schedule. I would definitely love to return here to visit the remaining places that I missed out this time. After staying a night at Hotel Paradise, we started our journey back to Mandalay. It was tiring ride as our Bus was going very slow. But it was good on the other hand, as it was a golden opportunity to view and cherish the countryside view.

Reached Mandalay and retired for the night as it was late, no sightseeing or shopping for the day.
The next day, we were told that a team of Manipuris residing at Mandalay would be visiting us at our hotel and were advised to be there at the gathering by our team leader. Many of our mates wanted to go for shopping and I accompanied them till market. After accompanying them for some time, I find it boring. So came this brilliant idea of bunking away from our group and doing a little bit of sightseeing of Mandalay on my own. I sneaked away from our group, hired a motorcyclist to take me sightseeing round the city. I also had the opportunity to ride the bike, which was fantastic. First, I had the opportunity to witness the Mandalay Royal Place from outside. I really wanted to go inside but time constraint refrained myself from going inside as we were to meet our fellow Manipuris residing in Mandalay. The Mandalay Palace is said to be the last royal palace of the last Burmese monarchy. Mandalay Palace largely follows the traditional Burmese palace design, inside a walled fort surrounded by a moat. Very similar to our very own Kangla Fort, the royal palace of Manipur in most aspects. The moat of Mandalay Palace has an uncanny resemblance to Kangla and one can say that the Royal Palace and Kangla fort are of same character and model. Oh yes, there is a big difference, ours is neglected by the government while theirs are properly maintained by government. After riding through the city here and there for almost an hour, I returned back to my Hotel as it was already time for the interaction.

The Kaunghmudaw Pagoda is a large pagoda on the northwestern outskirts of Sagaing in central Myanmar (Burma).

Our brethrens from Mandalay reached our hotel at the exact time which was fixed before- Punctuality, a thing that I have been witnessing ever since I came here. If it were here, it would have been a sort of that saying called Meitei Pung. After informal introductions, we began our interactions. Our brethrens expressed their desire to visit Manipur, during Sangai festival and to visit various part of the state. Also, they want the Government to provide Manipuri literatures to them so that they can learn more and the younger generations about Manipur. From our team side, RK Shivachandra invited them to visit Manipur during Sangai festival and said all the necessary arrangements will be made as soon as they reach Moreh. This is a good initiative from the Act East Policy team, I think. Our team presented traditional shawls and scarves to each and every individual who paid us a visit. After exchanging pleasantries and interaction, we bade them farewell.

Would be unfair not to mention the initiative taken by a Meitei, Zin Tuko to preserve our cultural identity out there by opening a Museum called Meetei Museum. Rare photographs of Lamyanba Hijam Irabot, books and other cultural items were showcased on his museum. This particular museum in Mandalay would help the younger Manipuri generations to learn more about their roots. As it is an initiative taken by an individual, it may get lost in annals of time if proper support is not reached out. It is high time our Government acts and helps in preserving such things, which will be a priceless treasure some day.

Now our time has come to bid farewell to Myanmar and cruise towards Manipur. It was a memorable trip, thanks to Directorate of Information and Public Relations and the Act East Policy team. Overall the trip was like a journey to the dreamland, exploring the unexplored. It also presented us with the opportunity to experience various aspects of the life and contemplate the future of our neighbouring country with which we have shared an inextricably intertwined history. But the best thing about the trip is the opportunity to share our experiences with the people of the state and beyond who have been harbouring the wish to visit the country. If we have succeeded in whetting their appetite for a trip to Myanmar by our brief narrations, we would consider the troubles and hardships endured during the trip worth it.

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