A monk atop the Shwedagon Pagoda.
Myanmar

Myanmar

If the temples in Thailand were opulent, those in Myanmar are downright ostentatious. The Shwedagon Pagoda, seen above, is reportedly clad in 60 tons of gold (!) and diamonds galore. It is the gem of the city of Yangon which, I was delighted to find, is a big, clean, modern metropolis. Blessed with oil and natural gas, Myanmar is not a poor country. Unfortunately, it also has some of the highest levels of inequality in the world.

Known as Burma until 1989, Myanmar is a complicated country. These days, it is in the news because of the Rohingya crisis, and the stories being reported are indeed stomach-churning. We stayed in touristy areas far away from the devastation, and our guides didn’t like to talk about it much either. When pressed, they said that it was a power play and that the military was using the conflict to retake control of the government.

From Yangon, we traveled to Mandalay, which was once the royal capital. Mandalay has had a tough go of it. During WWII, Mandalay was heavily bombed by the Japanese before they converted the palace into a supply depot. Then palace was then bombed to the ground by the Allies (it has since been rebuilt). From there, we took a boat down the Irrawaddy to Bagan, stopping in Yandobo along the way. Bagan was the capital of an empire some 800 years ago, during which time they saw fit to construct over 10,000 temples, pagodas, and monasteries. From Yangon to Bagan, it is hard to escape the notion that state resources are and always have been funneled into curiously conspicuous public works.

The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon at sunset. "Shwe" means gold, which is appropriate because this 99-meter tall pagoda is reportedly clad in 60 tons of pure gold.
The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon at sunset. "Shwe" means gold, which is appropriate because this 99-meter tall pagoda is reportedly clad in 60 tons of pure gold.
Sean Pont
A monk captures the Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset on his phone.
A monk captures the Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset on his phone.
Sean Pont
We ran from Mandalay to the U Bein Bridge and took a delightful boat ride at sunset. The bridge is famous for having been built out of teak wood reclaimed from the former royal palace in Inwa. It's over a hundred and fifty years old now, and having passed under the bridge several times I can confirm that some of the pillars are not looking so good.
We ran from Mandalay to the U Bein Bridge and took a delightful boat ride at sunset. The bridge is famous for having been built out of teak wood reclaimed from the former royal palace in Inwa. It's over a hundred and fifty years old now, and having passed under the bridge several times I can confirm that some of the pillars are not looking so good.
Sean Pont
Under the U Bein Bridge at sunset.
Under the U Bein Bridge at sunset.
Sean Pont
We took a cruise down the Irrawaddy from Mandalay to Bagan, pausing at this town called Yandobo. They are well known for their terracotta pottery, which they make from mud collected from the bank of the river.
We took a cruise down the Irrawaddy from Mandalay to Bagan, pausing at this town called Yandobo. They are well known for their terracotta pottery, which they make from mud collected from the bank of the river.
Sean Pont
An old woman in Yandobo regards the photographer warily.
An old woman in Yandobo regards the photographer warily.
Sean Pont
Yandobo is also famous for the Treaty of Yandabo, which ended the First Anglo-Burmese War. But don't go looking for any commemorative statues -- you won't find any.
Yandobo is also famous for the Treaty of Yandabo, which ended the First Anglo-Burmese War. But don't go looking for any commemorative statues -- you won't find any.
Sean Pont
Literally the whole village of Yandobo makes pottery, and that requires a lot of fuel. They fire the pots by burying them in huge earthen mounds with a wood fire in the middle. It looks a lot like how charcoal used to be made.
Literally the whole village of Yandobo makes pottery, and that requires a lot of fuel. They fire the pots by burying them in huge earthen mounds with a wood fire in the middle. It looks a lot like how charcoal used to be made.
Sean Pont
All the boats on the Irrawaddy have truck engines, and all the trucks have tractor engines. Perhaps it is no coincidence that we didn't see many functional tractors.
All the boats on the Irrawaddy have truck engines, and all the trucks have tractor engines. Perhaps it is no coincidence that we didn't see many functional tractors.
Sean Pont
A rooster keeps guard over his resting comrade.
A rooster keeps guard over his resting comrade.
YiOu Wang
The streets of Yandobo. In the background, a man can be seen adjusting his Longyi, a large cylindrical cloth worn by nearly all of the men. It is held in place by folding fabric over without a knot.
The streets of Yandobo. In the background, a man can be seen adjusting his Longyi, a large cylindrical cloth worn by nearly all of the men. It is held in place by folding fabric over without a knot.
YiOu Wang
Sunset on the Irrawaddy
Sunset on the Irrawaddy
YiOu Wang
Bagan is home to literally thousands of Buddhist temples, many dating from between the 11th and 13th century.
Bagan is home to literally thousands of Buddhist temples, many dating from between the 11th and 13th century.
Sean Pont | Art direction by YiOu Wang
The monumental scope of the temples can best be appreciated from the air. Below us sits the Dhammayangyi Temple, the largest temple in Bagan.
The monumental scope of the temples can best be appreciated from the air. Below us sits the Dhammayangyi Temple, the largest temple in Bagan.
Sean Pont
The trails around Bagan are actually wonderful for running, but with sites like these along the way we often had to stop the watch.
The trails around Bagan are actually wonderful for running, but with sites like these along the way we often had to stop the watch.
Sean Pont