Burma Begins at Bagan

“Close your eyes and point in any direction,” our Burmese guide challenged, “When you open them, you will be pointing at a spire.” Sure enough, no matter which way we pointed there were hundreds of spires on the stupas and temples that spread across the almost treeless plain.

In Myanmar (Burma), the ancient city of Bagan has hundreds of templesLocated on forty square miles on the east bank of the Ayeyarwady River, 300 miles north of Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar’s Bagan stands as one of the two most preeminent ancient religious sites in Southeast Asia along with Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

It was in Bagan that the Buddhist religion took hold in Myanmar, influencing the society, its art and architecture.

Historically, Bagan was formed from 19 villages at a time when the region was beginning a transition from its Hindu origins to the Buddhist beliefs that are still a major force today. Manuha, the king of Thaton, a Mon kingdom to the south of Bagan, sent a monk to convert King Anawrahta of Bamar (the origin of the name Burma) to the new religion. Once converted, King Anawrahta asked for a number of sacred scriptures to be brought to him. The monk was unsure of the king’s sincerity, so he refused the request. In response, King Anawrahta attacked and conquered Thaton in 1057 AD, and brought back to Bagan classic Buddhist scriptures, as well as artisans, craftsmen and architects.

Thus began the golden age of Bagan, highlighted by the building of thousands of pagodas. Over 13,000 of these religious structures were built. Two and a half centuries later, in 1287 AD, Bagan was conquered by Kublai Khan and began to decline.

For many years the region was considered to be inhabited by bandits and nats (spirits). Once the British came to the area in the 18th century, and ensured their safety, Burmese people began to move back to the region.

Over time, floods, earthquakes, vandals and nature have reduced the number of pagodas, but over 2,200 still stand today, many in very good condition. There is beautiful detail on the exteriors and interiors and exceptional murals.

A trip to Myanmar is a wonderful experience—super-friendly people, a cultural mix of British colonialism and Buddhist tradition, magnificent temples and beautiful landscapes, but the true splendor of the country begins at Bagan.

“Nat”-urally Myanmar

In Myanmar (Burma), a nat calmly chews on a pipeThere they stand in a line, offerings of food and flowers covering their pedestals. These figures are called Nats, spirits of the wind, earth, rain and sky, and in Myanmar (formerly Burma) they are representations of people (and animals) who have died tragic deaths. Some are former royalty, territorial overlords or soldiers. One is a former Burmese King. Another is a buffalo, who is said to have raised a prince. The prince was found by some soldiers and returned to the palace, wherein the buffalo followed them and rammed through the palace gates to get to her stepchild before the guards killed her.

On Mt. Popa, the core of an ancient volcano often described as the Mt. Olympus of Myanmar, the thirty-seven “inside” Nats are honored in the most sacred Nat shrine in the country.

Around 1100 AD, King Anawratha, who had learned Buddhism from a missionary, united all the Burmese kingdoms then attempted to convert the people to Buddhism, outlawing the worship of Nats, but this act angered his subjects and they resisted his efforts. Finally, he decided to incorporate the Nats into the Buddhist religion and, declaring Buddha to be the greatest of the Nats, announced that there would be 37 official Nats, whose images he personally carried up to Mt. Popa. These are known as the “inside” Nats. Other Nats, who continue to be worshipped, are called “outside” Nats.

Mount Popa, MyanmarMt. Popa rises straight up from the plain, with a staircase winding to the temple at the top. Along the way are colorful Nat shrines, and pilgrims come from all over the country to give their offerings and make peace with the flamboyantly dressed representations of the spirits. Alongside the stairways, shops sell all variety of exotic merchandise, including bear paws, while frolicking monkeys run up and down the stairs begging for handouts.

It is believed that Nats can cure illnesses, grant favors and predict the future as long as they are rewarded. Otherwise, they can cause a lot of trouble. The spirit of the Nat is believed to enter the physical statue as it is crafted.

Most Nats have regular festival days, when pilgrims come with offerings and ask for favors. Each Nat has foods he favors or dislikes. They all love color, so everyone dresses brightly at these festivals. When a family has a celebration, they may hold their own festival. The Nats have “spouses,” someone who has had a dream in which the Nat offers to marry them. A traditional marriage ceremony is carried out, then the “Natgadaw” presides over the festival. The spirit of the Nat possesses the “spouse,” who then acts out the life of the Nat, accompanied by cheering and hissing. The Nat’s favorite foods are served, and there is much music, dancing, clapping, loud singing and drinking (except in the case of a Nat who abhors alcohol!).

Myanmar society is very conservative, and many believe that these festivals allow people to temporarily abandon the extreme self-control that is the norm in everyday Burmese life.

The California Native is Now on Facebook

Here at the The California Native, we are always looking for new ways to connect with our “fans.” We love to share any information we have about our destinations like Mexico’s Copper Canyon, Costa Rica, Yucatan, Peru, Bhutan, Burma and more. Lately we have noticed that more and more people are joining social networking sites to keep abreast of their friends and interest groups.

We are happy to announce that we now have a California Native Page on Facebook, and you can become a fan on our Facebook page. If you are not yet a member of Facebook, you can also join and connect with old friends and make new ones too. You might learn about a trip some old friend took that you are dying to try yourself! Maybe they even posted some great pictures.

You may also have noticed that all of our stories, and this blog itself, are available for sharing on dozens of social networking sites as well as e-mail. Just click on the “share” icons on our website, www.calnative.com, to share a story, or page.

There is also an RSS feed on the top of our blog pages, to allow you to see blog updates, as soon as they are posted, on your Google Home Page or RSS reader.

Of course, you budding travel writers can always post your own story or photos on our blog or Facebook Page.

Pizza: The Universal Food

Traveling around the world, an important part of the experience is tasting the local cuisine. From Mexico to China, from Hungary to Bhutan, no trip is complete without sampling the regional specialties.

But on a long trip, after days or weeks of eating the local dishes, I always develop a craving for the universal comfort food—pizza. And so, I make it a part of each of my journeys to try the local pizza, the one food, besides a ham-and-cheese sandwich, that can be found almost everywhere.

In Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma), we found excellent pizza at the Rudyard Kipling Bar & Grill. In LeJiang, Yunnan Province, China, after many days of Chinese banquets for lunch and dinner, in spite of protests by our Chinese host, we headed for the nearest pizza parlor and enjoyed our pizza and beer feast.

Traveling through Thailand, we discovered excellent pizza was at the Slow Food Italian Restaurant in Chang Mei, where the proprietor, an Italian expat in a wheelchair, greeted each guest. All of his staff were also wheelchair bound or disabled.

On a dark and stormy night, in a remote corner of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Mountains, Doug Rhodes, the owner of the Paraiso del Oso Lodge, outside of the little village of Cerocahui, in Mexico’s Copper Canyon, proudly served us what he declared was the “best pizza in Northern Mexico.” Kerosene lanterns lighted the dining room and the pizza was covered in generous portions of olives, which my wife, Ellen, hates, and had great difficulty trying to remove in the dim light. I, however, tended to agree with Doug’s assessment.

Last year, while visiting Budapest, Hungary, we enjoyed the pizza at Al Capone’s, a chain of pizza parlors in Eastern and Western Europe, which is now owned by Australian pizza giant Domino’s Pizza.

Wherever in the world we go we are not that far from home when we can take a break from the ethnic food and enjoy a great pizza. My favorite toppings are ham, pineapple, mushrooms and olives. What are yours?

Images of the World: The Weavers

Over the more than 25 years that The California Native has been traveling the world, we have accumulated a large gallery of photos that we have taken around the globe. I thought it might be fun if we arranged a series of them by subject. So here is the first in our series of Images of the World.

I took this photo of a Tarahumara lady with a shy smile, weaving a basket in Mexico’s Copper Canyon. In Mexico's Copper Canyon, a Tarahumara lady weaves a basket.
A weaver in Thailand concentrates on her work in spite of the tourist (my wife) taking her photo. A village lady in Thailand, weaves cloth while a tourist takes a photo.
In a small village in the Mexican state of Chiapas, a pretty young girl laughs as she weaves. In Mexico's state of Chiapas, a smiling lady weaves hand-made cloth.
A man in the remote Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, prepares fiber for weaving. In the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, a man prepares fiber for weaving.
In Myanmar (Burma), a member of the Long Neck Paduang, a sub-group of the Karen hill tribes, is not inconvenienced by the neck rings she has worn since her youth. In Myanmar (Burma), a tribal lady weaves cloth.