Buddha, Buddhism, and Burma

August 26, 2017 ASEAN Backpacking

Myanmar (formerly Burma) is a very devout Buddhist country.  A visit is good for anyone’s spirituality, and it really doesn’t matter if you are a Buddhist or not.  


For seven days, my friends and I trod the streets of Myanmar with men and women clad in longyi and smothered in thanaka (traditional makeup) to visit some of the countries most revered payas or pagodas (memorial structures containing relics), and and ku or temples (places of meditation).


It was the highlight of our recent Independence Day ASEAN Backpacking Trip, which covered three countries and six cities.  In my bid to visit all ASEAN countries, it was my penultimate. 


This short trip covered the country’s most remarkable holy sites, each one unique and fascinating.


In Mandalay, we went to see the country’s highly regarded Buddha image; the Mahamuni Image enshrined in the Mahamuni Pagoda.  


The Mahamuni is one of only five likenesses of the Buddha made during his lifetime – two are in India; two in paradise; and the Mahamuni Buddha.  The image originally came from the Arakan Kingdom in Western Burma and was commissioned by the king after a visit from the Buddha.  The Buddha breathed on it, and thereafter the image became its exact likeness.

The Mahamuni Buddha

Chamber of the Mahamuni Buddha

The Mahamuni Pagoda

The image is enshrined in a small chamber in the pagoda.


Myanmar pagodas and temples, by the way, are guided by strict dress codes.  Guests are required to wear conservative clothing, covering the knees and shoulders.  Also, footwears are not allowed inside. 


The pagoda is housed in a big complex, which also includes several shops selling souvenir items; and a museum that tells the history of Buddhism. 


Also in Mandalay is the Kuthodaw Pagoda.  This one really charmed me.  The pagoda contains the world’s largest book.  Located its grounds are 729 stone-inscription caves with each one containing a marble slab.  Inscribed on both sides are excerpts from the Tripitaka.   

The caves containing the world's largest book

Inside these are the world's largest book

Buddhism in Myanmar is predominantly Theravada, and its doctrinal foundation is the Tripitaka.


Another major pilgrimage site in Mandalay is the hill where the city took its name.  Aside from its abundance of pagodas and monasteries, the hill is a perfect spot to watch the sun set. A panoramic view of Mandalay awaits those who visit.  No worries, though.  No need to climb steps as escalators are available for tourists.  

Taken from Mandalay Hill

At the top of the hill is the Sutaungpyei (meaning wish-fulfilling) Pagoda.


In Bagan, be prepared to be awed.  


Rising in its lush plains are countless golden pagodas and temples.  Its vast temple site is really the biggest draw for travelers from across the globe. 


With my fellow early risers, we watched as the rising of the sun slowly reveal the otherworldly silhouettes of pagodas and temples from one of the terraces of the Shwesandaw Pagoda, one of Myanmar’s popular sunrise or sunset viewing spots.   It was an exquisite experience that can only be had very early morning, so it was a good thing I was able to force myself out of bed very early in the morning. 

Sunrise watching 

Sunrise watching

The temples, all testaments to Burmese people’s devotions, stretched out as far as the eye can see.  Most of them built between the 11th and 13th centuries.  The country’s frequent earthquakes have shattered many of these temples, but there are also a lot superbly preserved or beautifully restored. 

Our guides took us to some of the notable ones, including Ananda, "Westminster Abbey of Burma"; Htilominlo Temple, known as the last Myanmar style temple built; and the Thatbyinnyu Pagoda, one of the highest monuments in Bagan. 


At one point during our sightseeing, one of my travel companions already asked ‘what if they are right and Buddha is the real god?’ Although, any Buddhist would argue that Buddha is not a God and has never claimed to be God.


Buddhism is actually the philosophy of awakening.  It’s born from the experience of the Buddha, awakened at the age of 35. 

Of these three structures our guides took us, Ananda is the most memorable.  The temple is laid out in a cruciform, housing four standing Buddhas, each one facing the cardinal direction of West, East, North, and South.  

Ananda Temple

Facing the West is the Gautama or simply the Buddha; the East is the Konagamana Buddha (the twenty-sixth Buddha); the North is the Kakusandha Buddha (the twenty-fifth Buddha), and the South is the Kassapa Buddha (the twenty-seventh Buddha).  The twenty-nine Buddhas, including the Gautama, are those who have attained enlightenment.


The Kakusandha Buddha and the Kassapa Buddha are said for be originals.  The Kassapa is also known as the Buddhalisa or the Smiling Buddha.  It got its moniker because the farther you are from the Buddha, the bigger the smile.  The expression of the face of the Buddha appears to change when viewed from different distances.


Another interesting tidbit about this temple is that the architecture was inspired by the stories of eight visiting monks from India.  The monks told the king about a legendary cave temple in the Himalayan Mountains, and the king decided to have it replicated.  It is said that after the Ananda temple was complete, the king has the architects executed, to make sure anything like it could never be built again.  

The name Ananda is derived from Buddha’s first cousin.


Similarly, Htilominlo Temple has four Buddhas that face each direction. Nearby is a monastery with a terrace that allows a vast view of the temple and other nearby structures.

Htilominlo Temple

On our last day in Bagan, we chose to explore more on two wheels.  We rented a bicycle and went to see more of these religious monuments.  Among them are the Thakyapone Temple, the Shwe Leik Too, the Leaning Temple, and the Minochantra. 

Thakyapone Temple

Shwe Leik Too Temple is another popular sunrise or sunset viewing site in Bagan.  Mid-morning, when we visited, it was quiet.  Aside from us exploring the temple grounds, there were only two women - a Caucasian meditating and a local selling souvenir items.

Shwe Leik Too Temple

View from Shwe Leik Too Temple

After all those temples, I really didn’t think I would still be impressed in what was waiting for me in Yangon, our final stop.  But, lo and behold, my jaw literally dropped upon entering Shwedagon Pagoda, one of Myanmar’s oldest pagodas.


Shwedagon Pagoda, together with the Botatung and the Sule, were constructed during the lifetime of the Buddha.  Of course, the original was much smaller.  Shwedagon Pagoda today is massive, majestic, and mesmerizing.  Stepping into the complex from one of its elevators or escalators is like finding the lost city of gold.


Its stupa is covered with gold, and the top is encrusted with diamonds.  Enshrined in this pagoda is Buddha’s hair.

Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda

But, what impressed me more was the tranquility of the devotees despite all the tourists roaming around, taking photographs and selfies. Their calmness was so encouraging for a person like me who has difficulty staying still.  


Also in Yangon is the Chaukhtatgyi Buddha Temple, which is home to the most respected reclining Buddha image in the country and also one of the largest, at 66 meters (217 ft) long.

Reclining Buddha

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