A capital adventure

A journey to four former Myanmar capitals reveals a surprise among the country's culture, way of life and food

River breeze and morning sunlight softly touched our skin while a large group of Thai tourists were cruising on the Irrawaddy River. We had left the old Myanmar capital of Mandalay and were bound for three other major cities. The trip centred on Thai art in Myanmar, along with other famous cultural attractions. The art is believed to have been the work of Siamese war prisoners brought to Myanmar after the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767, and their descendants.

People in Myanmar, especially the women, love to apply tanaka paste (made from ground bark) to their faces as a cosmetic and sunscreen. Tanaka is available throughout Myanmar in various forms — tree branches, paste, sticks and pressed powder — and has become a popular export product.

The cruise was part of a four-day trip to Myanmar's old capitals _ Mandalay, Amarapura, Innwa (known as Angwa in Thai) and Sagaing (known as Khraeng in Thai) _ and the hillside resort town of Pyin U Lwin.

The first destination was Toungthamon Lake in Amarapura, a 30-minute drive from Mandalay. We chose to travel across the lake by boat to the 147-year-old Taungthaman Kyuktawgyi Temple, famous for a huge white marble Buddha statue and the marble statues of the Lord Buddha's 82 monk disciples.

Highlights are mural paintings that reflect Thai art, including the Thai-style paintings of thepphanom (angels in a respectful gesture with both hands clasped), nakan (Ayutthaya-style giant guardians' faces) and Thai floral patterns called prajam yam, kan khot and krajang ta oi.

"This temple boasts murals that look similar to Thai murals. A French archaeologist and I came here about 30 years ago and believed the paintings must have been created by the second or third generation of descendants of Siamese war prisoners from Ayutthaya," Thai historian Paothong Thongchua said.

Horse-drawn carriages serve as taxis in the former capital of Innwa. The fare is $10 or 6,000 kyat (300 baht), for two people to ride a carriage to Bagaya Monastery, Yadana Sinme Pagoda, Palace Tower and Maha Aung Mye Bonzan Monastery.

On the way back, we walked across 1.45km-long U-Bien Bridge, the world's longest teak wood bridge. Later, we proceeded to Mandalay Kyuktawgyi Temple at the foot of Mandalay Hill to pay respect to Myanmar's second-largest white marble Buddha statue, whose face is said to resemble that of King Mindon (1853-78), the founder of Mandalay. We then took a pick-up truck turned modified taxi to the top of the hill to worship the Buddha image Shweyattaw and enjoy the panoramic view of Mandalay.

Our itinerary also included a cruise on the Irrawaddy River to Mingun to see the world's largest pagoda, the world's biggest bell that can actually ring and remains of the world's largest lion statues.

Another must-see in that town is Psinbyume Pagoda, one of only two structures in the world representing Chulamanee Pagoda on the mythical Sameru Mountain, the centre of the universe surrounded by the Srithandorn River. Travel in Mingun is fun and challenging on an ox-drawn cart or you can choose to take a taxi or walk.

The next destination was Innwa, the third of the old capitals, where you can ride a horse-drawn carriage to several cultural attractions. A highlight is Bagaya Monastery where the teak wood prayer hall (vihara) with a seven-tiered roof is elaborately decorated with stunning wood carvings. Some of the carvings mirror Ayutthaya art, and include a garuda and a few floral patterns.

"Its wood carvings are very beautiful, especially the garuda. There may not be such big garuda carvings in Thailand," Paothong noted.

From Innwa, you can take a ferry across the river to Sagaing, which was Myanmar's capital city from 1315-64. It is one of the places in Myanmar Siamese war prisoners were taken. A stupa enshrines what are believed to be King Uthumphon's remains. Certain temples in Sagaing boast Ayutthaya-style art, including murals at Wat Maha Tengdawkyi and Wat Tilawkaguru.

Thummachuk Prompuay, deputy dean of Ramkhamhaeng University's Faculty of Fine Arts, believes skilled craftsmen were among the war prisoners taken from Ayutthaya to Sagaing.

The resort town of Pyin U Lwin, also known as Maymyo or May Town, was a British hill station when Myanmar was under British rule. The town is full of colonial-style architecture and famous for fruit and strawberry jam. A must-see is the former British governor’s residence, now a luxury hotel and displaying the wax figures of all the former British governors and old photos. Many of the town’s residents are descendants of people from India, hired during the colonial period.

''Those people must have preserved the art, culture and traditions they had practised in Ayutthaya, such as Songkran, ordination and religious ceremonies which required the construction of ordination halls while the Burmese preferred a vihara. In those halls, mural paintings of bussabok [movable thrones], triphum [the three worlds] and Thai motifs, such as kanok and krua thao, as well as patterns from Ayutthaya's woven silk were found,'' he said.

The next destination was the resort town of Pyin U Lwin, formerly known as Maymyo. It served as a British hill station when Myanmar was under British rule. The weather there is cool and the scenery is beautiful with cold-climate plants and colonial architecture.

The trip concluded with visits to Mandalay Royal Palace, Shwenandaw (Golden Palace) Monastery, Kuthodaw Monastery and Mahamuni Buddha Monastery in Mandalay.

''At Mahamuni Buddha Monastery, you pay respect to the Mahamuni Buddha and see ancient Khmer bronze statues (seized from Ayutthaya) and also the world's biggest moon-shaped bell. Mahamuni Buddha is very important to Myanmar people like the Emerald Buddha to Thais,'' Paothong said.

As Myanmar has become more open to the outside world, the arrival of more foreign tourists, including Thais, have been reported.

Thai ambassador to Myanmar Pisanu Suvanajata said, ''Last year, 65,000 Thais requested visas to Myanmar. This year during January-June alone, 47,000 Thais asked for Myanmar visas. It has become less difficult to acquire visas.''

Myanmar has land totalling more than 650,000km2 and a population of 56 million. Its three major rivers are Irrawaddy, Sittoung and Salween. The Irrawaddy River is the country's bloodline and flows past many towns.

Myanmar declared its independence from British rule in 1948, and the government changed the name to Myanmar instead of the colonial-era ''Burma''. Myanmar means the unity of eight major ethnic groups in this country, while the Burmese are just one of these ethnic groups. The eight ethnic groups can be divided into 135 small tribes. Each tribe has its own dialect, but all use Burmese, the official language, to communicate.

Of the population, 80% are Theravada Buddhists. Certain cultures and festivals of Myanmar are similar to those of Thailand, such as Songkran and the Buddhist Lent. Nonetheless, Myanmar seems more eager than Thailand to conserve culture.

''Its government has a clear policy on that. I believe the people of Myanmar will continue to preserve their culture, all aspects of which are influenced by their ways of life. They still wear sarongs and use tanaka paste on their faces. If they don't change their way of life, their culture won't change,'' the ambassador noted.

Taungthaman Kyuktawgyi Temple in Amarapura was built in 1865 by King Mindon. It should be noted that mural paintings on the walls and ceilings reflect Thai art, including the Thai-style paintings ofthepphanom (angels in a respectful gesture with both hands clasped), nakan (Ayutthaya-style giant guardians’ faces) and Thai floral patterns called prajamyarm, kankhot andkrajang ta oi. There are also the paintings of the Lord Buddha’s footprint, conches (representing auspicious things), Myanmarstyle angels, Myanmar zodiac signs, Western-style angels, local lifestyles, meritmaking, local people in traditional costumes, hermits and foreigners. Its vihara has a huge white marble Buddha statue and also the marble sculptures of 82 monk disciples whose physical and facial features are different from one another. The Buddha statue was made in the Mandalay art style during the reign of King Bagyidaw (1819-37) in the posture of subduing the Mara.

The Mingun Pagoda in the city of Mingun would have become Myanmar’s largest stupa with a height of 165m and bigger than Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon if completed. However, only its base was finished. The project was started in 1791 by King Badawpaya. The king wished to build the region’s largest pagoda and chose Mingun, the city of Buddhists and artists. He oversaw the project for 14 years, residing in a nearby bamboo palace. He first had a temple with the Buddha’s footprint model built as the venue for his morning and evening prayers. He also built two huge lion statues and a large bronze bell. However, the project was never completed since the king died and there was a prediction that the city would come to an end after the project’s completion. In 1839, a quake destroyed the lion statues and sent their heads into the river.

Myanmar delicacies vary from seafood, crispy snacks, local food like rice noodles with fish curry to desserts. Some sweets are similar to Thai sweets, such as khao tom phad (sticky rice with banana fillings).

TRAVEL INFO

The passenger bus fare in Mandalay is 300 kyat (about 15 baht) per trip per person. Admission fees to various heritage sites in Mandalay is $10 (about 300 baht) per person.

The fare of a cruise from Mandalay to Mingun and Innwa, known as Angwa in Thai, is 150,000 kyat (7,500 baht) per person.

The fare for an ox-drawn cart to four cultural attractions in Mingun is 8,000 kyat (about 400 baht) per trip per cart.

The fare of a horse-drawn carriage to four attractions in Innwa is $10 or 6,000 kyat per trip for two people.

The fare of a Innwa-Sagaing ferry is 1,000 kyat (about 50 baht) each way per person.

HOW TO GET THERE

Thai AirAsia will operate four Bangkok-Mandalay flights a week, starting Oct 4. Visit www.airasia.com.

About the author

columnist
Writer: Pichaya Svasti
Position: Life Writer