Panorama from 5 vertical shots, additional exposures for highlights, focal length 16 mm, aperture f/11, shutter speed 1/30, ISO 64, tripod.
During my wanderings through Sagaing, I found the Sitagu International Buddhist Academy. Located at the base of Sagaing Hill, the temple is a visually stunning place, and very different than Myanmar’s other temples. In a landscape of conical, needle-like stupas, the broad golden dome of the Academy is difficult not to miss. And compared to its centuries-old counterparts, the Academy is a relative newcomer; it was only built in 1994.
Buddhism is an integral part of life in Myanmar, and education is an integral part of the faith. Most adolescent boys will spend at least part of their lives in a monastery, praying and studying Buddhist teachings. In Sagaing, long an important Buddhist center, monks and nuns from across Myanmar come to study the ancient texts. In one of the most profoundly religious countries in the world, Sagaing is perhaps its most devout city.
The Academy was founded by Sayadaw Ashin Nyanissara in 1994 to train the brightest Buddhist monks. Since that time, thousands of seekers have come through its terra cotta entryway in search of knowledge. Inside the temple, there are images of Buddhism’s sacred sites, as well as a collection of hundreds of Buddhas from around the world.
I was lucky enough to wander into the temple on a day when there weren’t many people there. I had the great, gilded dome and its courtyard to myself. Feeling the serenity that thousands before me had experienced, I took my photographs then continued on my walk. I had my own seeking to do.
Panorama from 7 vertical shots, additional exposures for highlights, focal length 140 mm, aperture f/11, shutter speed 4 seconds, ISO 100, tripod.
A short drive from Mandalay is the pilgrimage site of Sagaing Hill, one of the country’s religious centers. Though it’s a large city, it’s nothing on the scale of Mandalay, and the landscape here, which is dotted with pagodas and stupas, is serene and contemplative after the hustle and bustle of Mandalay.
I went to Sagaing Hill early in my trip, but I was intrigued by the city and its history as a center of Buddhist study. Before I left Myanmar, I arranged for three more days at Sagaing. I wanted to wander its winding streets and hillsides unhurried. An ancient faith permeated the city and the feet of thousands of devout followers had walked its streets; I wanted to understand what Sagaing meant to people.
With its lush green hillsides and golden stupas, Sagaing looks a bit like Bagan. More than six hundred monasteries and temples dot the landscape at Sagaing, their gilded domes and spires glittering in the sunlight. It’s a stunning sight, and deeply moving.
One of the more remarkable structures in this landscape of gilded temples is U Min Thonze Caves. Its name is a bit misleading — there are no caves here, but rather, a fascinating temple that is partly built into the hillside. In a landscape of elaborate temples and beautiful interiors, U Min Thonze Caves is perhaps the most special. Its most incredible feature is a crescent-shaped colonnade of forty-five golden Buddhas. At first glance, the outsized Buddhas appear to be identical — the same posture, the same serene expression. A closer look reveals that they are, in fact, all different. Each carefully sculpted face bears a slightly different expression, a nearly imperceptible variation. The forty-five Buddhas represent forty-five years of Buddhist teachings.
2,7361119 January, 2019
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Staged photo, panorama from 5 vertical shots, additional exposures for highlights, focal length 14 mm, aperture f/8, shutter speed 1/4, ISO 800, tripod, 2 led lights.
Myanmar is a landscape dotted with the gilded spires of temples and monasteries. There are thousands of them — along riverbanks and roadsides and even in the poorest villages. Some are ancient and in states of decay while others are meticulously preserved. But each is a remarkable structure, often incredibly ornate, and imbued with the deep reverence of the country’s people.
One of the most stunning monasteries in Mandalay is the Shwenandaw Monastery, an intricately carved and ornamented building completed in 1880. Built and carved from teak, the monastery is the only major surviving building from wooden Royal Palace, which was built by King Mindon in the mid-1800s. King Mindon died in the monastery (where his meditation cushion still sits), and his son and successor, King Thibaw, became convinced that his father’s spirit haunted the building. Unable to meditate in the building, Thibaw had the building disassembled and relocated outside the royal fortress. The meticulous reassembling of the monastery was completed in 1880, two years after Mindon’s death.
Many years later, during World War II, much of the Royal Palace was destroyed in bombing raids. Shwenandaw Monastery is the only major survivor of the palace complex. It remains today largely as it was when it was completed — fragile but imposing, with Buddhist myths meticulously carved into teak wood and stories of the Buddha’s past lives cast in gilt panels. The building’s intricately carved roof is held aloft by numerous columns, each one formed from the trunk of a single teak tree.
Staged photo, panorama from 5 vertical shots, additional exposures for highlights, focal length 14 mm, aperture f/11, shutter speed 1/125, ISO 64, tripod, remote flash.
There is a proverb that states: “To be Burmese is to be Buddhist.” In Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma, it is impossible to separate Buddhism from the culture of the people.
There is perhaps no other country in the world in which a religion or philosophy is so deeply ingrained. Most scholars consider Myanmar to be the most religious of all Buddhist countries; virtually every adolescent boy will spend at least a brief period of time in a monastery, and many will stay for years. The country is home to roughly half a million Buddhist monks, 50,000 temples, and countless shrines. Even in the poorest communities, you will find numerous shrines and temples, some in decay and overgrown with vegetation, but all a place of reverence for the people.
The people of Myanmar practice an ancient form of Buddhism, Theravada, which is regarded as perhaps the oldest form of the faith. Historians believe that the faith was carried to the country by missionaries as early as the 3rd century BC. With a history so deeply rooted in the place, it’s no wonder that Buddhism permeates every aspect of life in Myanmar.
There is perhaps nowhere else in the world that a monument such as the Kuthodaw Pagoda could exist. In a country that values education in Buddhist teachings almost as highly as it values the philosophy itself and in which even the poorest families sacrifice to give their sons a monastic education, Buddhism’s ancient texts are venerated. The Kuthodaw Pagoda is a monument to that veneration. Hundreds of small white pagodas each house a stone tablet — 730 in total — that together contain the entirety of Buddhist teachings. Walking among the white stupas of the complex, a person could read the entire text of ancient Buddhist works.
Staged photo, single shot, focal length 14 mm, aperture f/8, shutter speed 1/125, ISO 250, handheld.
If Myanmar exists as a place apart from the world, Lake Inle exists at an even greater remove. It is a world that exists entirely above and around water, where everything — houses, gardens, pagodas — seems to float just above the glassy surface of the lake, and where the Intha people still live much as their ancestors did.
It’s one of the places they say you must see in Myanmar. Inle is a serenely beautiful expanse of water, where the blue of its surface seems to run seamlessly into the blue of the sky. It’s a massive lake — just under fifty square miles, but shallow enough for swimming.
It’s on the lake’s surface where the juxtaposition of past and present is most obvious. On this placid body of water, fringed with stilt houses and floating gardens, the Intha fishermen use a time-honored method of trapping fish which is not done anywhere else in the world. Using a large, conical net, they steer the boat with one leg while using their hands to fish. With movements that are nimble and practiced, the Intha fishermen appear like delicate acrobats on the water’s surface. Seeing this ancient choreography play out on the water was one of the most special moments of my trip.
But Myanmar is changing. The unique way of fishing that developed on Inle Lake is no longer economically feasible. Nowadays, the Intha people make more money appearing to fish as a show for tourists. In this land where the past and the present are colliding, there’s an irony in the performance of an ancient technique so that it can be captured on iPhones and posted to social media.
But in all other ways, Inle remains as it always has. Delicate stilt houses are perched just above the water, pagodas seem to float on the water, whole lives are lived on the water. Only the fisherman have changed.
Staged photo, single shot, additional exposures for highlights, focal length 14 mm, aperture f/8, shutter speed 1/160, ISO 800, handheld.
Not that long ago, Myanmar was unknown. It’s only been in the last decade or so — a blip, in the grand scheme of things — that Myanmar has opened itself to tourism, and for most people, the country is still well off the beaten path. It was a place few travelers ever visited, one that existed in a time apart from the rest of the world, largely isolated from modernity. As the writer Rudyard Kipling said of it, when it was still known as Burma, “it is unlike any land you know about.” When I arrived in Myanmar, it was easy to see that this is a land still immersed in traditional ways. Unlike much of the world, Myanmar doesn’t appear to be in any great hurry to slough off the past and adopt all the trappings of the new and modern. It’s still quite possible to see something of life as it has been lived here for centuries, behind a veil of near total isolation from the rest of the world.
But tourists are quickly discovering Myanmar. Its gilded pagodas and floating gardens are mystical and serene and it isn’t hard to find yourself completely enchanted by the country and its people. Foreign tourists will bring change to the country; it’s inevitable. And little by little, those traces of ancient life may begin to slip away.
As I traveled through Myanmar, I had the profound sense of having entered a land at a hinge moment of its history, a land still permeated by the past but where change is happening rapidly. A familiar refrain among travelers to the country is “You have to see it before it changes.”