An image of Lord Buddha at Ta Moke Shwe Gu Gyi

Ten facts about Buddhism in Myanmar

 

Su Myat Naing, Tour Mandalay’s Product Executive provides us with ten fascinating facts about Buddhism in Myanmar. In no particular order of importance, here we go.

 

1) Almsgiving (food donation) to monks in the early morning

 

Putao morning market

Almsgiving in Putao’s morning market

 

Almsgiving, or ‘Soon’ in Myanmar language, is practiced throughout the country every day of the year. The sight of this is surely one of the most charming and romantic associations with religion in Myanmar. In the early morning before sunrise, monks line up along the streets and walk slowly to receive food donations from local people. This is called an alms round. Local Buddhists practitioners spoon the rice into the alms bowl and offer a range of food, including curries and desserts to monks. They will then crouch down, with their hands placed together in a prayer like gesture, in order to receive a blessing from the monk. Due to the monks are walking barefoot, it is also important that the person giving the alms also removes their shoes.

 

2) Novitiation ceremony

 

Novice monk ava

A novice monk studying at Bagaya Monastery, Ava

 

The Novitiation ceremony is another unique characteristic of Buddhism in Myanmar. The ceremony is usually celebrated during school holidays, but most often in the summer months of March and April (just before the Thingyan water festival). For pious Myanmar parents, it is deemed an important religious duty to let their son go forth and embrace the legacy of Lord Buddha. They will then join the Sangha for a short period of time to learn about important Buddhist teachings. Another requirement is that the son’s head is shaved, which is carried out as a sacrifice of vanity.

 

The first day of a Novitiation ceremony sees participants parade around their local pagoda dressed up as princes. Parents usually take lead from the front whilst carrying important ceremonial items such as an alms bowl, fan and a specially made box containing the robe. Other relatives walk by the novice monk’s side, shading them with a golden umbrella. It’s also common for the monk-to-be to be followed by a line female family members, who each carry decorative items in honour of the occasion. Upon completion of the procession, the family will then pay a quick visit to a Nat (sacred spirit) shrine for homage, before seeking permission from an abbot at a monastery to become a novice. It is also at this point when the individual shaves his head.

 

3) Religious courtesy in Myanmar

 

Conversing with monks

Enjoying conversation with monks in a monastery outside of Bagan

 

Images of Lord Buddha, along with practising monks and nuns are highly respected in Myanmar society. It is important that any visitor, regardless of personal belief, is respectful towards any aspect of life associated with Buddhism in Myanmar. Under no circumstance should you touch a monk or nun, along with his or her robes. When seated, you should not stretch out your legs and your feet should not point in the direction of any Buddhist imagery. Tattoos of Buddha, even if they were drawn out of respect, are likely to offend local people so please keep them covered up and do not display in public. Taking off shoes and socks at a religious site is a must, as is wearing appropriate clothing. Showing too much skin may see you turned away, so try to cover up as much as possible. Our advise would be to pack and wear a longyi (a sarong often worn by Myanmar locals); not only will this ensure your legs are covered, but it will be sure to put a big smile on the faces of local passersby.

 

4) Horoscopes and birthday corners

 

Birthday corner at Shwedagon

Paying respect to the Tuesday birthday corner at Shwedagon Pagoda

 

The majority of Myanmar’s Buddhist practitioners believe fervently in astrology. Due to the Myanmar horoscope practise being based on the day of the week, an individual’s date of birth is extremely important. There are eight zodiac signs in Myanmar, one for each day of the week (including two on a Wednesday). These signs are represented by animals with Monday being a tiger, Tuesday a lion, Wednesday morning an elephant, Wednesday afternoon a tusk-less elephant, Thursday a rat, Friday a guinea pig, Saturday a dragon and Sunday a Garuda (a mythical bird). When a child is born, it is common for them to be named using a name associated with their zodiac sign. Many people also believe that the day of birth determines an individual’s personality. Almost every pagoda (depending on size) has a special corner dedicated to each sign of the zodiac and this is often referred to as the birthday corner. People often visit pagodas to pay respects to their corner and carry out special devotional acts. Neglecting to do this may bring about bad luck and misfortune.

 

5) Watering the scared Banyan (Bodhi) Tree

 

Head monk at Yandabo

A head monk in the monastery at Yandabo village

 

The Banyan, or Bodhi Tree, plays an extremely important role in the spiritual life of Myanmar Buddhists. The main reason being that it is the tree associated with the life of Lord Buddha. It is said that Buddha attained enlightenment under a banyan tree and as such, it is revered by Buddhists all over the world to this day. When travelling you will notice that almost every major pagoda complex has a Bodhi tree located somewhere inside and it is common to see people paying their respects.

 

On the full moon day of Kason, Buddhist devotees honous the occasion by pouring water on the Bodhi tree. For Myanmar Buddhists this day is very important as it’s the day Buddha was born, the day he attained enlightenment and the day of his demise. The carrying out of the ceremonial act is supportive not only to the religion and traditions, but also in keeping the sacred trees green, lush and healthy during the summer months. In addition, people perform meritorious deeds by keeping Sabbath, chanting Buddha’s Summons, meditating, and by offering various items such as flowers, water and incense to images of Lord Buddha.

 

6) Festivals

 

A novice monk paying his respects in Bagan

A novice monk paying respect to a reclining image of Lord Buddha

 

Myanmar is a country rich with culture and religious festivals. When we talk about Buddhism in Myanmar, we cannot forget to mention the many festivals that take place throughout the year. For me, one of the most special is the Thidingyut (Light) festival celebrated across the country from the beginning of October. The story behind the festival is that Lord Buddha came down from the abode of Tavatimsa (according to Buddhist cosmology, the second highest level of 31 planes of existences) after spending three months of the Buddhist lent there. People welcomed Lord Buddha with candles and colourfully illuminated objects of light. During the festival, houses and streets are decorated with lanterns and strings of light. People typically enjoy this lighting festival by visiting pagodas at night with friends and family. Here it’s common to see wonderful displays of oil lamps, fireworks and manmade balloons rising slowly up into the sky.

 

7) Paying homage in Myanmar

 

An image of Lord Buddha at Ta Moke Shwe Gu Gyi

Paying respect at Ta Moke Shwe Gu Gyi

 

Paying homage is a long-standing practise of devout Myanmar people. A person, always of lower social standing, pays respect or homage to a person of higher standing (including images Lord Buddha, Buddhist monks, elders, parents and so on), by kneeling before them and paying obeisance with joined hands and bowing. This is a way of showing an individual’s reverence, gratitude and it also serves as an opportunity to ask for forgiveness. Elders readily forgive if there is anything to forgive. This form of repentance is usually carried out over the Thingyan and Thadingyut periods.

 

8) Mythical lions

 

Two lions protecting Shwedagon

Come rain or come shine, two lions keep watch over the entrance of Shwedagon Pagoda

 

In Myanmar a pair of mythical lions, known as Chin-the, can often be found outside the entrance of stupas, pagodas and Buddhist temples. Lions are noted for their bravery and magnificence, thus considered the best guardians for religious shrines and edifices. According to folklore, the lions actually stand watch for completely different reasons.

 

A princess gave birth to a son through her marriage to a lion, but later fell out of love with him. Pained with a broken heart, the lion was unable to control his feelings and unintenionallt became the terror of the land. One day, the son went out to slay the lion, only to find out after that it was his father. To atone for his sins, the son later built a statue of a guardian lion outside of a temple.

 

9) The donation of gold leaf

 

Gold leaf production

Gold leaf production in Mandalay

 

Segments of delicate gold leaf are widely sold at the pagodas in Myanmar. Devotees gently press the gold leaves onto sacred images as offerings; for most, this is seen as a meritorious deed. Some believe that by placing a gold leaf on a certain parts of a Buddha image, it will help to cure their own pain in that area. The majority of gold-leaves are made in Mandalay.

 

10) Robe offering

 

Monks in Loikaw

Two monks watch the sun slowly setting over Loikaw

 

Myanmar people believe that offering robes to monks and Lord Buddha is one the noblest forms of donation. Buddhists in Myanmar offer robes on various occasions. The most famous of all are the Waso robe offering, Kahtein robe offering and Matho-thingan offering.

 

The Waso robe offering is celebrated in the Myanmar month of Waso. It marks the beginning of the three-month period of lent in the month of Waso (June – July). This ceremony celebrates Lord Buddha’s first sermon, delivered forty-nine days after he attained nirvana. During the ceremony monks are offered robes to wear during lent, a time when they are not allowed to travel. According to the monks’ code of conduct, they are still obligated to carry out a round of alms to source the monastery’s daily provisions. Monsoon season also starts around about the time of Waso, so the offering also helps to ensure the monks have an extra supply of dry robes (anyone that’s visited Myanmar before will know how heavy the rain can get!). Interestingly, events such as marriage and moving home are avoided during the lent period and pious individuals try to follow the five precepts more conscientiously.

 

The Kahtein robe offering ceremony takes place between the full moon day of Thadingyut and the full moon day of Tazaungmone (October – November). This robe cannot be offering to a monk of an individual’s choosing, but to the Sangha in general. People also donate other useful accessories such as umbrellas, shoes, fans, medicines and alms bowls. These donations are then hung from tree-like stands (usually found in public places all over the country) and sent to monasteries in a delightful, pomp and lively procession.

 

The Matho-thingan, literally translates as “the robe that has not decayed”. Groups of devout Buddhist women start weaving robes in contest on the 14th waxing day of Tazaungmon (usually November) with the aim of completing the garment by sunrise. Shortly after, the robe is then donated to a sacred Buddhist image.

 

Thanaka onboard Pandaw

Pandaw

 

The longest operating cruise company in Myanmar and easily the best value for money; for a 3-4 star product, the service on here is exceptional! Due to them having operated in Myanmar for so long, we find the excursions are extremely well-oiled and the cruise captains know the Irrawaddy’s challenging sandbank gauntlet better than anybody. The rooms however aren’t huge and it’s fair to say they’re not very private when the cabin’s curtains are open. This does however encourage passengers to get out and socialise, and judging off the multiple times we’ve sailed with them, this is one of the main things that makes a Pandaw cruise different from any other. Another important point is that, even though the ship is still considered luxurious (certainly by Myanmar standards), it’s not as “bling” or in your face as some of the more high end options. We regard Pandaw as the experienced, slightly more humble option. Although it’s only a small thing, it’s worth mentioning that they have the most powerful showers on the river – you’ll be sure to appreciate this even more after a long, often sweaty day of touring.

 

As per the Pandaw’s website: “We began in Burma. The unique Pandaw river expedition concept evolved here from the vestiges of the colonial Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. Our first ships were built here and in Burma we learnt to master river navigation at its worst. These lessons were applied to the other rivers of Asia.

 

Burma, after 1987 renamed by the regime Myanmar, is the largest mainland South-East Asian country and with the greatest variety of scenery from Himalayan peaks to tropical beaches. We have yet to meet a visitor to Burma who does not feel that this is the most beautiful, friendly and culturally interesting Asian country ever visited.

 

Most of the population live in three great river valleys encircled by impenetrable horseshoes of mountains. River life dominates the country and still to this day forms the main system of transportation, irrigation and from its rich fishing grounds the principal protein source for the majority of the population.

 

In the river valleys two millennia of Buddhist art, architecture and archaeology survive, including the 3000 standing monuments at Pagan. There is no other Asian country with so vast and varied a range of cultural sites. Almost everywhere there are temples and monasteries, festivals and ceremonies. The Burmese are a deeply pious people and Buddhist activities dominate every aspect of life.

 

The Burmese are also very warm and friendly people who since Independence in 1947 have suffered terrible impoverishment and deprivation. We do our best to support the local domestic economy and make sure our suppliers and contractors are small local businesses. We are very careful to make sure our clients’ money falls into the right hands. Sanctions and the politically correct refusal of most NGOs and international charities to work in the country has served to exacerbate deprivation and entrench the regime further.

 

Our Pandaw passengers believe that by visiting Burma we are doing something to help as has been proved by the many schools our passengers have built, not to mention the outstanding contribution made by our passengers after Cyclone Nargis struck in 2008. Most of the Burmese our passengers encounter tend to agree with this assumption. These cruises are the most acclaimed luxury vacations on the Irrawaddy river.”

 

Pandaw offer 11 cruise options ranging from the 1-night Bagan to Mandalay short cruise and a 10-night ‘Golden Land’ itinerary, which sails you all the way up to the northernmost point of the Irrawaddy. All of the expeditions can be found on the front page of their website (click here), and by clicking on ‘Learn More’ you can access the detailed itinerary and scheduled departure dates. For something truly unique, be sure to have a browse of the ‘Voyage to Nagaland’ programme.

 

BBQ

The Strand Cruise

 

Operated by the Strand Hotel, this is arguably the best option for any self-confessed foodies out there. Although it’s currently the most expensive cruise option and the entry level rooms are a little bit on the small side, the contemporary style and focus on fine dining puts this experience into a category of its own. The Strand even have their own resident Entertainment and F&B managers who provide 24/7 support to the Myanmar staff to ensure service levels don’t slip. Weather permitting, the BBQ on the side of a sandbank would surely make for a memorable highlight. Most of the dining options are a la carte (not buffet!) and the ship has what we feel is the grandest bar area on the river. The Head Bar Manager at the time of writing, Mr Win, previously worked for the popular Governor’s Residence, and his cocktail and silver service training received in Dubai after that really shows. In the evenings, the Entertainment Manager also keeps passengers amused with witty humour and mind boggling card tricks.

 

A short description, as per The Strand Cruise’s website: “The Strand Cruise is the latest Luxury Cruise to sail the magnificent Ayeyarwady River of Asia’s hidden treasure that is Myanmar. Embark for an authentic journey of discoveries from visiting temples, pagodas, palaces and monasteries to remote villages aboard this ship, which mirrors the heritage and reputation of its sister property.”

 

Currently the Strand only offer a 3-night and a 4-night cruise from Bagan to Mandalay and vice versa. The ship departs on Monday from Bagan to Mandalay (4-nights) and Friday for Mandalay to Bagan (3-nights). They only operate from September to April. For more information about logistics, please click here and select ‘Programme Details’.

 

To give you a better idea of what the experience involves, feel free to read through our detailed firsthand account by clicking here.

 

360 pool

Heritage Line’s Anawrahta Cruise

 

Heritage Line’s Anawrahta is the largest cruise ship on the river and it also boasts the largest entry level cabin. At 32-square metres, it’s huge and it also comes with a private balcony. Out of the cruises we’ve experienced first-hand, the guiding is the best, as is the outsourced entertainment. The highlight for most will be the swimming pool on the top deck, which offers an amazing 360-degree view of the passing scenery. The bar’s also fit for royalty, with large folding windows that extend fully to allow a nice breeze to circulate.

 

A short description, as per Anawrahta’s website: “With the largest cabin space on the Ayeyarwady, and the highest crew to passenger ratio, The Anawrahta offers the finest on-board experience in Myanmar. This impressive vessel is named after the founder of the Burmese nation, modern day Myanmar. During his reign, from 1044-1077, he introduced and spread the religion of Theravada Buddhism throughout the land.”

 

Heritage Line offer a diverse range cruise options, varying in length from 3 to 11 nights. The most popular cruise would surely be the 3-night Ancient Capitals/Golden Land cruise, with the crème de la crème being the 11-night Exotic Chindwin, which only sets sail in August and September. Information for each of these cruises including logistics and timings can be found by clicking here.

 

To read a detailed first-hand review of Anawartha, please click here.

 

Kalaw Princess Hotel

 

Rating: Medium

 

Located nearby to some of Kalaw’s best hiking routes, Kalaw Princess is a modern hotel that’s attempted to model itself in the style of a European classical mansion. We say attempted because it’s more a mishmash of European and local style, which we feel is made evident by the pink walls, heavily polished teak furniture and gaudy decorative items. It is however, perfectly clan, comfortable and the rooms are very spacious considering the price.

 

An unexpected highlight for most will be the view of the green surrounds from the top of the hotel’s rooftop bar. In a destination that’s popular with adventure enthusiasts, this is an excellent addition as it provides the perfect setting in which to relax after a full day of touring.

 

Due to it being located on the outskirts of town, it’s likely most guests will end up dining in the hotel’s cosy ground-floor restaurant. Although it’s a long way off Michelin level, there’s a good amount of local and European inspired dishes to choose from.

 

If you’re looking for something that’s great value, has local character, a countryside location and a bar with a great view, you can’t go far wrong with a stay at Kalaw Princess Hotel.

 

Facilities:

  • Restaurant
  • Rooftop bar

 

Keen to know what people on TripAdvisor are saying about this property? Please click here to find out.

 

Back to Kalaw accommodation guide

 

About

Founded as a family business in 1994, Tour Mandalay is one of the longest established and most experienced destination management companies in Myanmar. With annual tourist numbers set to increase to 7.5 million by the end of 2020, we are delighted that interest in our Golden Land is finally picking up. However, the country still faces many challenges in ensuring that these visitors travel responsibly. Through mutual cooperation with yourself, our partners and the local community, we are confident we can make this happen, whilst continuing to provide exceptional service and unique experiences for our guests.

 

Tour Mandalay’s staff celebrate 20-years

 

Tour Mandalay proactively source and contract our own local guides, thus ensuring you are taken care of by a representative whom is experienced, knowledgeable and extremely passionate about the area in question. On top of this, we have access to our own fleet of sedans, mini-vans, mini-buses and deluxe coaches, enabling us to cater for the majority of client’s transportation needs. With over 150 employees across four regional offices, and a small number of local representatives present in more remote locations, we can also ensure you will always have someone nearby.

 

On behalf of the people of Myanmar, we look forward to greeting you with a smile.

 

Contact

If you are looking to tour Myanmar with the help of Tour Mandalay, please get in touch using either of the contact details below – we would love to hear from you!

 

Email: info@tourmandalay.travel
Telephone (Yangon Head Office): +95 (0) 1 545 850

 

U Khin Zaw (Tour Mandalay’s owner and founder)

 

Please be aware that communication in Myanmar can be at times problematic, especially when it comes to using the internet. If you haven’t heard from us after a couple of days, please try again as we would hate you to think that we were intentionally ignoring you.

 

We would also like to stress that we deal with inbound travel only, and do not operate tour programmes to any other part of the world.

 

Royal Kalaw

 

Rating: Medium

 

Originally built in 1928, Royal Kalaw has recently undergone substantial renovation work, helping to further accentuate its period features. Surrounded by well-maintained gardens, with views over Kalaw’s mature green landscape, Royal Kalaw’s real strength is it’s location. Being only a short walk from the centre of town, you’ll also be within easy reach of some exceptional, low-key local restaurants.

 

The most sought-after rooms are in the original building, but the Deluxe rooms in the new wing will perfectly suit most; they’re bright, clean, spacious and tastefully furnished.

 

Facilities:

  • Hotel library
  • Spa
  • Restaurant

 

Keen to know what people on TripAdvisor are saying about this property? Please click here to find out.

 

Back to Kalaw accommodation guide

 

Amara Kalaw

 

Rating: Deluxe

 

Hidden down what could easily be mistaken as an English country lane, Amara Kalaw is a strong contender for the grandest and best preserved heritage property in the country. Surrounded by mature trees and a manicured garden, a stay here provides an idyllic getaway and sense of what it would it have felt like in Kalaw during the early 20th century (the main building was built back in 1909). Renovation work has been carried out since then, but thankfully this was done in keeping with the original style so it doesn’t feel as blingy as some of the other colonial options in town.

 

Guest rooms are large with their own fire place; these are necessary to fight off the evening chill of winter (December to February). In keeping with the original design, the interior is plain and simply furnished, with small splashes of red colour providing a warm contrast.

 

We occasionally receive comments that the restaurant is expensive, which is true when compared with other options available in the local area. Amara Kalaw does however source a lot of produce from it’s own garden, so it’s really in a league of its own when it comes to this.

 

Facilities:

  • Restaurant
  • Spa

 

Keen to know what people on TripAdvisor are saying about this property? Please click here to find out.

 

Back to Kalaw accommodation guide

 

Shwedagon Pagoda

 

Explore what Rudyard Kipling described as, “A golden mystery that upheaved itself on the horizon – a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun”. The 99-metre tall Swedagon Padoga is the country’s most famous landmark; one that we believe looks extra impressive at sunset. The current hti (a golden umbrella that adorns the top of pagodas) is decorated with approximately 85,000 jewels, with the centerpiece being a 76-carat diamond. History and opulence aside, the highlight for most is brushing shoulders with the people as they go about paying their respects to Shwedagon itself and the 150 smaller pagodas and shrines that surround.

 

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