Tag Archives: Myanmar

Imperfectly Perfect!

Jewelry designer Marlar Maw talks exclusively to Ashwrites about her incredible journey

The very first time I met Marlar Maw was at my daughter’s school. She was one amongst the many new mommies who anxiously waited by the main entrance, eager to know all about her child’s first day of school. Back then, I didn’t know much about Marlar, except that her son went to Year 1 and that she had a sophisticated yet edgy sense of fashion. Our interactions in the following years, though friendly, were often limited to a few courteous smiles and customary hellos.

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Jewelry Designer Marlar Maw wearing one of her designs

But there was always something special about Marlar. Not sure if it was the serene aura that surrounded her or just the sheer positivity and calm that she embodied. And once I saw pictures of some of the exquisite pieces of jewelry she had designed, I was certain that I wanted to know more about her story.

And there she was…after innumerable hellos and smiles across the school multipurpose room at class assemblies, she now sat in my living room enjoying a cup of Indian ginger tea recollecting the days she spent honeymooning with her husband in India, her life in Melbourne, China and  most importantly her home that is Myanmar.

“Yangon has always been my home. Except for the four short years I spent finishing up my University education in Bangkok due to my father’s posting, this is where I have spent all my growing up years.” But life in Burma for this entrepreneur was far from being a bed of roses. In the year 2004, Marlar’s father and her older brother were imprisoned. “The country was in a complete state of turmoil. We were not allowed to travel and it was a very difficult time for our entire family,” recalls Marlar

Marlar with her husband Nigel Blackwood
Marlar with her husband Nigel Blackwood

But things were only starting to get more complicated for this new designer. “A year later following my father’s arrest, I met my husband Nigel, who was a British Diplomat. We fell in love, got married and were really looking forward to starting our life together.” Nigel had finished his tenure in Yangon and was moving to Shanghai when things took an unfortunate turn for the Blackwood family.

“I still remember the time as if it was just yesterday. We had shipped off all our belongings to the new location and were at the airport looking forward to a fresh start when I was unexpectedly stopped by the immigration officer.” Marlar was told that she wasn’t allowed to leave and was forced to stay within the British embassy compound for fear of arrest. “For three whole months, I stayed in; my freedom completely taken away from me. I couldn’t work, travel or even step out of the embassy compound. It was one of the most difficult times of my life.”

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A 14K white gold ring with a pearl centre piece and multi-coloured sapphires from Marlar Maw Jewelry

The one big positive that did churn out from the unfortunate scenario was that Marlar finally discovered her one true passion which was jewelry designing. “I always had an interest for it and loved designing and adding a little twist to my own personal pieces. But for the very first time I had all the time to truly develop my creativity and imagination.”

Talking about her biggest support system Marlar says, “Nigel has always been the biggest positive force in my life. He kept encouraging me and believing in me even when I wasn’t sure about myself.” Today Nigel is as involved in Marlar Maw designs as she is…be it creating the logo to naming each of her exquisite pieces and designing some of them himself.

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Marlar Maw Designs include  contemporary and timeless pieces ranging from earrings, bracelets, rings and pendants

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Marlar Maw jewelry today is a premium luxury brand producing contemporary yet timeless pieces ranging from bracelets, necklaces, pendants, statement rings, ear-rings and cufflinks… all set in silver or gold and hand crafted using traditional techniques by local artisans. “I wanted to produce something that was unconventional yet extremely wearable using local resources,” says Marlar.

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Marlar’s designs use a wide variety of stones ranging from tourmaline, moonstone, garnet and colored sapphire
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Marlar loves using cabochon, uncut and sculpted stones in her designs

Another unique feature of her designs is the use  of different types of stones ranging from spinel, tourmaline, colored sapphire, garnet and moonstone just to name a few. The range includes cabochon, uncut, sculpted stones as well as pearls. “If you look at each of my pieces, you will see that they are all a little rugged, unusual and to an extent imperfect. I don’t do or like ‘perfect,’ she says.

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Marlar’s designs have been greatly inspired by Greek Mythology. This 14 Carat bold cuff embellished with a spinel centerpiece is called Enyo, named after the Ancient Goddess of War

Each of Marlar’s pieces is not only different but also tells a unique story. “My designs are greatly inspired by the greek mythology hence the names Astrea, Phyrgia, Calliope, Chloris…just to name a few.” And the reason behind this obsession with Greek Mythology? “Greek mythology tells stories of heroism, strength, beauty, love and passion along with tales of tragedy, jealousy, lust and revenge all set during a time of unrest and conflict. It somehow reminds me of the turbulent history of my own country.”

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All of her pieces are handcrafted using traditional techniques by local artisans

Elaborating about the design process, Marlar adds, “ I work very closely with my artisans, telling them exactly what I have in my mind. Each day is a different day and I might have a completely different design in my mind. On a particular day, it could be the texture on a leaf that has inspired me.” And challenges? “The biggest one is communicating what I have in my mind to the artisan. He might completely nail it or it could be a complete miss. In short I end up adding a ton of pieces to my own personal collection,” she laughs. “But when it’s a hit, we create something extremely beautiful and one of a kind.”

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Marlar Maw with singer and songwriter Joss Stone, seen here wearing a custom made Lapis Lazuli necklace from Marlar’s METTA collection

From a sheer idea that developed in a tiny single room to the luxury brand it is today…Marlar Maw has indeed come a long way. In just a year she has  added over 100 customers that also include soul singer and grammy award winner Joss Stone, who wore a custom made Lapis Lazuli necklace and a hammered silver cuff with embedded blue sapphires from Marlar’s METTA collection during her performance in Yangon.

For more information on Marlar Maw Designs please log on to:

https://www.marlarmaw.com or like her page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/marlarmawjewellery/

INCREDIBLE INLE

Ever wondered how it would be to live the simple life? If yes, then pack up and head out to the pristine and picturesque Inle Lake, a fresh water lake located in the Nyaung Shwe township of Shan State, Myanmar. Here you can experience rural life at its very best and enjoy a kind of peace and calm, probably never experienced before.

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Despite being one of the top tourist destinations in Myanmar and attracting over hundred thousand tourists every year, Inle continues to remain raw, exotic and untouched. DSC_0438_Fotor

The locals, called Inthas who live in the neighboring villages and also in stilted-houses built right on the lake, seem to remain almost oblivious to the world beyond it, depending primarily on farming or fishing as the main source of livelihood.

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One of the most fantastic sights on Inle is seeing the local fisherman, practicing a completely unique style of rowing that involves them standing on one foot at the edge of the boat and rowing with the other, firmly wrapped around the paddle. Other produce like fruits and veggies are grown in plenty on the large floating gardens. Apparently the high nutrient-level in the water makes it possible to grow almost anything on the lake. Other source of income come from the sale of hand-made goods made in the several small-scale cottage industries also set along the lake.
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One particular product that is completely unique to Inle and found in no other part of the world is the Lotus Silk. During the monsoons, lotus stems are cut and twisted to reveal a thin fiber. Thousands of this fiber are then spun together and handwoven to make this luxurious fabric. DSC_0511

The fact that the locals are devout Buddhists are obvious from the vision of the numerous pagodas and Buddhist temples cropping up on various parts of the lake, some new and some like the Shwe Indein Pagoda located on the Indein Village, dating all the way back to the 17th century. A trip to the village, located on the western banks of the lake is an absolute-must to see the ancient ruins of over 100 stupas and also catch a panoramic view of the village atop the hill that houses the pagodas.
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Another major temple that is a must-stop at Inle is the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda. No visit to the lake is considered complete or auspicious` without paying your respects here. The pagoda houses 5 Buddha stupas, completely covered in gold to the extend that it is impossible to recognize its original form. Only men are allowed to place the gold leaf on the shrine that is believed to have magical powers. In the 1960’s during the festival procession, the royal barge carrying the stupas had capsized. The search party were only able to retrieve four of the five idols. But when they returned, they were simply amazed to find the fifth statue back in its place.
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Simple is beautiful and Inle stand proof of it. So come and fall in love to what can only be described best as the perfect synthesis of beauty, peace, divinity and harmony. A place like no other.

Bedecked in gold: The Shwedagon Pagoda

Came an atheist, left a believer

It was probably the first thing I saw as I exited the Yangon International Airport. I was nervous. I had bid farewell to my friends and my home back in DC and was stepping now into a mysterious land that I knew nothing about. But something about the 325 foot golden stupa that towered over the entire skyline of Yangon told me that I was going to be just fine. And as long as this gilded shrine stood watch, no harm was ever going to come to me in its land.

In the days that passed, I saw the Shwedagon Pagoda several times; from the glass window of my hotel room, every time I drove past it to reach downtown and even when I shifted into my new house, almost an hour away away from the Ar Za Nir street, where the pagoda was located. I saw it every single day and I could sense the strange feeling of guilt starting to rise within me. After all, it had been more than a month since I treaded it’s very streets, a month since it welcomed me, embraced me and yet I had still not found time to pay homage to the shrine that epotimised the very warmth and serenity that defined the city of Yangon. I knew it was time, time for the much awaited divine rendezvous.

A Divine Intervention

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Though the pagoda is open for tourists from 6 am to 10pm, it is best recommended to see the Shwedagon during sunrise and sunset. Because it is at these times one can see the golden pagoda glimmer in all it’s glory, thanks to the 1800 carat (76 being the largest) diamond orb located at the top, comprising 4351 diamonds that captures the rays of the sun, reflecting it beautifully and making the entire stupa glisten in the light. So following my friend’s advice and to save myself from Yangon’s scorching heat, I arrived at its footsteps at 5.00 pm, almost an hour before sunset. I had waited too long and I wasn’t going to miss seeing the shrine at it’s very best; just before, during and after sunset.

Just like most temples back in India, here too, the very first thing we had to do was remove our slippers before entering. But unlike temples back home, here there were no angry guards to yell at me or discard me as a mere sinner when I accidently treaded into its premises with my slippers on. (Even after living here a whole month, the locals’ lack of aggression and plentiful amount of patience still seem to amaze me). There was no shouting and no angry stares, but just a polite gesture to remove my slipper and place it in my handbag before I went in through security.

Despite the lack of aggression, it must be noted that this place is sacred and must be approached with utmost respect. Though it is absolutely fine to wear jeans and t shirts, one is expected to dress modestly keeping their arms and legs covered and nothing short or disrespectful is permitted. The entry for locals was free, but we had to pay an entry fee of $5 (8000 kyat) each. What was amazing was that despite being one the most visited attractions in Myanmar, seeing over 1000 tourists every day, there were no long queues, unecessary security check points or chaotic traffic jams at the entrance, making the entry as peaceful as the tiled premises encircling the pagoda.

There are several entrances to the shwedagon pagoda. If you don’t mind a bit of a climb, you can chose between the over hundreds of steps on the south, west, north or eastern entrance (south being the most preferred and having the least number of steps). Though the shopoholic in me, would have preferred to take the eastern entrance that houses a number of souvenir shops, tea stalls and interesting bazaars, the mommy in me decided to stick to the easiest option of taking the elevators at the southern entrance. And though I was a bit disappointed that I missed out on all the shopping, I was glad to find myself right at the footstep of the 150 year old Bodhi tree.

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A total of five Bodhi trees planted all around as early as in the 1926 is regarded with utmost respect and reverence by the locals and the monks alike. And I couldn’t help but consider myself lucky when one of the locals handed me a leaf from the Bodhi tree. It was only once I was handed the leaf did I realise that there were hardly any fallen leaf to be found lying around. Thankfully I was able to get just about three more for my friend, my daughter and my husband and couldn’t help but think of it as a sign acknowledging and accepting my arrival.

Though one might need a guided tour to completely understand the significance and the story behind each of the innumerable gilded Buddha statues and hundreds of temples spread across the sprawling 114 acre sacred land, our little group of three chose to simply walk around to absorb the sanctity of this architectural wonder and grandeur of the several Buddha idols. But despite having a detailed map of the the Shewdagon and the entire evening, it was still not enough to offer our respects to the various Buddha images (The Padashin Buddha, Saetawmu Buddha, Sun-Moon Buddha, Shin Saw Pu’s Buddha, Chan-Thar-Gyi Buddha, Dhamazedi Buddha, Shin Ma Htee’s Buddha, and my personal favorite the Jade Buddha carved out of one piece jade and weighing a total of 324 kgs, to name a few) housed in the different prayer halls.

However what we did have time for, was to simply marvel the sight of the thousands of oil lamps circling the shrine glimmering to life, hear the silent whispers of the hundreds of monks praying in the the gigantic shadows cast by the golden pagoda that towered over them and listen to the bustling of devotees as they offered flowers and washed the statues asking for forgiveness for their past sins and wishes for a prospective future.

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I was no devotee, my knowledge of the spiritual world rather limited to a few chants and rituals passed on from my grandmother and great grandmother, yet I couldn’t help notice the feeling that had begin to well-up within me as I washed the planetary post that represented the day, my daughter was born. I wasn’t sure how many times I was to wash the Buddha idol, the image of the guardian angel and the image of the animal that represented the day (I was only told much later that I was to do it 9 times). I wasn’t sure which mantra I was to chant. All I did know was that something changed within me as I sat cross legged engrossed in the sheer beauty that stood in front of me. I knew right away…I may have treaded into its premises an atheist, but was leaving a believer.

Eat, pray, love Yangon

From devouring its exquisite cuisine to treading the holy grounds of the innumerable pagodas and falling in love with the simplicity and humility, its streets have to offer, here are my top 5 reasons why Yangon should be on your list of places to visit

By Aswathy Kumar

‘What about Macau?’ Bali? Fine at least let’s do Bangkok.’
These were probably the constant suggestions we got from our friends every time we insisted that they visit us in Yangon. You see, there are plenty of perks of living the expatriate life here, but the distance from your loved ones can really take its toll sometimes. Though we have been extremely successful in convincing our family and friends to visit us in our previous two postings, DC & Nairobi, we haven’t had much luck when it came to Yangon.
‘There is nothing to do there.’
‘We have heard, that there aren’t even any shopping malls or multiplexes,’ our friends would say.
And I agree… Yangon has no fancy shopping malls like in Bangkok, strong cultural scene like in China nor any family friendly hot-spots like in Singapore. But Yangon is a place like no other and here’s what makes it unique and truly exceptional.

The Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon

It would be almost wrong or even to an extend inauspicious to talk about Yangon, without mentioning the Shwedagon Pagoda that epitomizes the very warmth and serenity that defines the city of Yangon. Probably the very first thing that you will see as you enter the city, the Shwedagon Pagoda is a shrine you need to see to believe. Towering at a 325 feet, no visit to the city is considered complete without paying your respects here. Housed in a sprawling area, extending up to 114 acres, not only is the Shwedagon a complete architectural wonder, it is also the symbol of hope, divinity and reverence. Watching it glimmer in all its glory during sunrise or sunset, courtesy the 1800 carat diamond orb at the very top, is something beyond spectacular. During sunset you can also marvel at the sight of over 1000’s of oil lamps encircling the pagoda shimmering to life, hear the silent whispers of hundreds of monks chanting or listen to the bustle of devotees as they offer their prayers at the several shrines and temples in gold, housed all around its premises.

Markets

Market scene

Agreed Yangon definitely lacks glitzy shopping malls and finding your favorite brands here can almost be next to impossible. As expats, we even struggle with finding basic stuff like socks, shoes or decent clothes for our little ones, often making us run to nearby Bangkok to fulfill all our shopping needs. But that being said, Yangon’s markets are truly a class apart. Take the famous Bogyoke market. Visiting this market is almost like exploring a
hidden treasure chest, offering a new surprise every time you dig a little deeper. I still remember the first time I visited Bogyoke. It reminded me of the local markets I had explored back home in Delhi… though a stroll around quickly ensured that the riches that adorned its streets was something I had never experienced before in any part of the world.

Sparkly jewels in possibly every color lay scattered all over the little glass cases in the innumerable shops aligning every nook and corner of the market. I had carried $100 with me, thinking it was way sufficient to return with a bag-load of goodies. Little did I know that, these sparkly stones that lay around in these unguarded unimpressive cases where in fact real precious stones, some costing even upto a $60,000.
From blue sapphires to pigeon blood rubies to amethyst, blue topaz, citron, garnet to what not; glitterred in the dull orange light. Forget jewels and semi precious stones, there is a lot the market has to offer if you are on a budget and looking for some retail therapy at a lot less, like hand woven longyis, accessories, colorful flip flops, paintings by local artists, wood carvings, exquisite lacquerware, silverware and religious artifacts to name just a few.

To also experience Yangon in its true self and understand more about how the locals live, head out to the various wet markets like the ones in China town or the popular Thiri Minglar Zei. Witness a burst of colors as you see hoards and hoards of vegetables, fruits and flowers being sold in plenty at these local markets. What I call, Yangon’s own version of a farmer’s market, here you can find fresh produce for as cheap as 300-1000Kyat. Believe it or not a whole bunch of orchids cost a mere 3000Kyat (Less than $3) and who wouldn’t love a brilliant bargain?

Food

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When I was in DC, my idea of the Burmese cuisine would begin and end with Khow Suey (Curried egg noodles in coconut milk). One visit to the innumerable local tea shops and road-side restaurants in Yangon, proved how ignorant I had been all these years.
When it comes to Burmese food, the choices are simply unlimited comprising a large number of noodle based dishes like the famous breakfast dish of rice noodles in a fish based soup and topped with fried fritters called the Mohinga, Kyah oh, vermicelli noodles in a pork based soup; salads dishes like the popular pickled tea leaf salad, Lahpet and Htamin thoke, a popular rice salad with tomato puree, potato and dried shrimp to several Chinese influenced dishes like the steamed pork buns or Pauk see, Htamin gyaw (Fried rice with egg) and Kaw yay khauk swè (curried noodles with duck or pork and eggs) and Indian-inspired dishes like the palatas (similar to our layered paratha) and Dan bauk (biryani).

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Though there is new restaurant cropping up in the city every week offering a variety of international cuisine ranging from Mexican, Indian to Thai, Italian and French, to experience the real flavor of Yangon, head to these tiny tea shops embellished by their neatly aligned colorful miniature plastic chairs selling chai, fried local savories and dishes. For a complete Myanmar barbecue & beer experience, you can also head to the famous 19th street aka China town where you can see glass cabinets displaying a variety of fish, meats and veggies in skewers. A glass of chilled local Myanmar beer and you are ready to rock the night, Yangon style


People…

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…one of the many reasons, I fell head over heels in love with this city. Though I loved DC and truly cherish the friendships I made during my stay there, I wont be lying if I said that I was grateful to be finally free from the suited bureaucrats I encountered everyday in the metro, their faces permanently glued to their iPhones, appointment-only playdates and the oh-so-artificial hellos and greetings in the elevators.

Extremely friendly, helpful and enchanting, people in Yangon always have a smile on their thanaka smeared faces, that can almost instantly relax anyone. And what’s more… they love taking pictures, so click away without having to worry that someone may call the cops. Go to any supermarket with a toddler and they are certain to fuss all over your little one and may even offer to baby sit while you shopped around.

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Always eager to help, I still remember the time I tripped on one of my market trips. A crowd had gathered almost instantly, and unlike in India where they would just stand around and enjoy the show or like in DC, where they would simply carry on with their affairs as if you were invisible, here each one of them were seriously concerned about my injury. While one boy ran and came back with a traditional ointment for my twisted angle, another grabbed a seat for me to rest and a third guy, quickly returned with a cold coffee from a nearby cafe.

That’s Yangon for you. Okay, maybe they dont speak a word of English or barely understand you…and maybe even the waiters at restaurants may not have received any formal training in the hospitality industry, but their constant friendly and dazzling smiles are more than enough to brighten up any day.

Travel back in time

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Ever wondered how life would have been in the good old days? Where people had time to sit around in front of little tea shops and discuss the daily news while sipping a cup of hot chai, or splash around in small rain water puddles in the middle of a hot summer afternoon. A time when people where not caught up in some mad rat race and actually had the time to say hello. A time of unreliable wifi connections, zero flyovers and nonexistent skyscrapers. A time when the only way to find out what’s on the menu in a restaurant was by actually going there and not by scrolling through any website.
If yes, then Yangon is probably your best bet to take you back to the past, where everything was a lot simpler and more beautiful. Travel back in time as you stroll amidst the colonial buildings in downtown Yangon, watch the local men play a game of Chinlon ( a traditional game where you are expected to keep a single rattan ball in the air by using a combination of knees, feet and heads) on an early Monday morning, take a slow ride on the famous circular train to absorb the wondrous sights this charming city has to offer or take a ferry or a trishaw ride to imbibe the true feeling of Yangon, a city that seem to have completely frozen in time.

 

Treading on Holy grounds

Brilliant, Blissful and breathtakingly beautiful…are probably the words that come to my mind as I think about Bagan, an ancient city in the Mandalay region of Myanmar, a mere four hour drive from its capital city of Naypyitaw and eight from its commercial capital, Yangon. Often compared to Angkorwat in Cambodia, Bagan is known for its numerous religious edifices built between the 11th and 13th centuries and ranks amongst the top tourist destinations of Myanmar.

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I have to be honest here and admit that I did have my doubts when it came to choosing Bagan as our next holiday destination. Not that I ever doubted its beauty or sheer splendor. I had heard raving reviews from fellow travelers and seen some spectacular photographs splattered all across social media posted by my expat friends. My only worry was if a temple town like Bagan known for its pagodas and holiness was really my cup of tea. After all I came from Kerala, Land of thousands of Gods and countless places of worship, where it is considered almost impossible to cross any road, street or even an alleyway without sighting a temple, church or a mosque clustered in every nook and corner and therefore rightfully termed God’s own country.
As we approached Bagan, many aspects did remind me of the home, I bid adieu to a while ago. Gorgeous plush fields aligning the sides of dusty roads, bullock carts trundling hay and other produce to sell at the nearby village market and children gleefully jumping into muddy puddles, quite unaware of the threatening clouds that had started to form in the sky; were all reminiscences of my home back in Kerala.

That being the case, will Bagan offer enough to satiate the tourist in me or will it stand to disappoint? I wondered.
I was proven wrong almost instantly as we entered the premises of this World Heritage Site and I was certain that this holiday was going to be quite extraordinary. Visions of hundreds and hundreds of pagodas began to unfold in front of us, some glittering golden in the heat of the scorching afternoon sun and others displaying a reddish hue, quite characteristic of the baked bricks and sandstone used in the construction of many of these ancient temples.
A total of 2300 well-preserved temples stand tall today in an area stretching over 40 square miles, having survived earthquakes, fire and the Mongol invasions. Once there had been 10,000, each temple built as a sign of devotion, faith, offering or simply as a symbol of economic and political standing.
After having absorbed the beauty of the river Irrawaddy that flowed lazily in front of us, it was time to explore the sacred pagodas and temples. We immediately knew that it would take us days if we ever wanted to cover a reasonable number of these awe-inspiring structures and months to truly imbibe each of its historical and religious significance. So like most of the other tourists we decided to make the best use of our short stay here and stick to the top major attractions of Bagan

Ananda Temple

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One can easily though expensively (costing $300 per person) catch the inexplicable beauty of Bagan on top of a balloon ride but no visit to this holy city is considered complete without paying your respects to this particular temple. Regarded the most important and amongst the most highly revered temples, a trip to Bagan without having visited its holy grounds is regarded incomplete and to an extend even inauspicious.
So it was no surprise that the Ananda temple resplendent in white and gold was our first obvious choice. We entered through the west entrance, quite crowded by pilgrims and vendors displaying a multitude of souvenirs, books on Bagan history and beautiful lacquer. But the setting within the temple was quite the opposite compared to the hustle and bustle that we just witnessed outside. A 31 feet tall image of Buddha awaited our arrival at the other end. Made in pure teak wood and adorned in glistening gold leaf, there were a total of four similar images each facing a particular direction, namely north, south, east and west.
The image that welcomed us at the west end had its hands stretched out in the form of abaya mudra, depicting a sign of fearlessness. The mudra in the north and south were the same, symbolizing Buddha’s first sermon while the one in the east was shown holding a herb, symbolizing dharma as the ultimate cure for misery and distress.

Dhammayangyi Temple

Bagan

From the most prominent to the largest temple in Bagan, the Dhammayangyi Temple was our next stop. We were immediately welcomed by the sights of local artists skillfully replicating the splendor of Bagan in shabby canvases and friendly hawkers trying to make a sale by showing off their impressive yet limited knowledge of the English language.
The temple was built by King Narathu, when he came into power after killing his own father. The temple was a way to atone for his sins but call it Karma or simply fate, King Narathu was assassinated before it could have been completed. I wasn’t sure if it was the stories of murder and deceit, our guide eagerly elaborated or simply the dark claustrophobic passages within, I could definitely feel a sense of eeriness that had started to creep in. ‘Definitely need some fresh air,’ I joked to my husband.

Shwesandaw Pagoda

Shwezigon

And fresh air we got in plenty at our next stop and my personal favorite, Shwesandaw Pagoda. Probably Bagan is no place for adrenaline junkies but if you are still looking for some kind of a thrill amongst the sanctity and the calmness, Shwesandaw Paya is definitely the place for you. The Pagoda that has a total of five terraces and a set of rather steep 52 steps, leading to the top is considered to be one of the tallest pagodas and definitely the best place to catch a mind-blowing view of the sunset, when the entire scene turns color to a classic sepia tone.

Shwezigon Pagoda

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The sun had set when we reached our last stop for the evening, the Shwezigon Pagoda, a gold-covered pagoda that continued to glisten quite untouched by the darkness that surrounded its shrine. Believed to preserve the bone and tooth of Buddha, this pagoda definitely reminded me a lot of the Shwedagon Pagoda back in Yangon.
A total of six temples, a horse cart ride to devour the external beauty of the other lesser known pagodas and a crazy climb at the Shwesandaw Paya, I now sat at a local restaurant devouring a plate of freshly made hot chapatis and vegetable curry recollecting all the grandeur that I had just witnessed.

Yes Bagan was a temple town just like I expected, Yes there was a religious structure in every nook and corner just like I expected and yes a lot of it did remind of my home back in Kerala, including the spicy curry that now warmed my throat. But what I didn’t expect was this feeling I felt within me, the sheer sadness that I would soon have to bid farewell to the truly mystique structures that stood in front of me. I knew there was so much more and felt I was probably denied my fair share of this magnificent city.
“I want to come back, I told my husband as we slowly made our way back to the hotel. “Please bring me back,” I whispered as I turned to take one last look at the stupas that slowly started to fade in the background.

A sneak-peek into heaven!

Exploring Ngwe Saung, a destination like no other

Sorry love, but we can’t go now?’ My husband sat beside me, a sense of sheer disappointment splattered all across his face. I lay half asleep and through our white curtains I could see that the sun had slowly started to rise. In a few hours from now we would be on a flight for our annual beach holiday. In a few hours from now we would be sun basking on the warm crystal sands of Pattaya sipping frozen margaritas out of fancy swirly straws. Our suitcases lay packed right next to us and we were ready to go.

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It was only when I awoke the second time, a few minutes later to the sound of my husband calling his office to cancel our flight tickets and hotel reservations did I finally absorb it fully that our trip to Thailand had actually been cancelled due to the recent military coup. There wasn’t going to be the holiday that I had so longed for. I felt sad, let down but most of all I didn’t not know what I would tell my 6 year old once she woke up. I was unsure if I had the courage to tell her that she wasn’t going to be able to cuddle up with her mommy in a fancy four poster bed of our lavish hotel or splurge at elaborate breakfast buffets or swim in a glitzy infinity pool overlooking the sea. I looked at my husband and immediately knew that we both couldn’t do it!

It was then that we decided to head out to Ngwe Saung, a popular holiday destination in Myanmar. It was just a four hour drive from Yangon and fairly popular among the expats. But most importantly it had a beach and right now, that’s all that we really needed.

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I did have my share of fears and doubts as I exited the comfort of my lush green housing estate and into the chaotic, jam-packed and almost non-existent roads of Hlaing Tharyar industrial township. ‘What if we get lost? What if our google maps don’t work? What if we run out of water? Will there be any rest stops? What if the drive was too risky? I was nervous and who could blame me. I had heard my share of horror stories of people getting lost and taking 8 hours to cover a mere 150 mile distance.

‘We will be fine love,’ reassured my husband. ‘If we could handle the vast stretches of Masai Mara and the treacherous roads of Sikkim and Raniketh, this was going to be easy!”

And I was so glad he was right. So there were no highways and all you get were narrow roads stretching all the way to Pathen, the next big city between Yangon and Ngwe Saung and you were bound to have your heart skip a beat every time a truck hurtled at you at full speed or lose your patience every time you got stuck behind a slow-moving cycle rickshaw or unruly motorcyclists. But there was no better way to truly absorb the country in all it’s rawness and charm, quite a change from the craziness of Yangon. Be it the lush green fields stretching on either side of the road, the innumerable little tea stalls embellished by their neatly aligned colorful plastic chairs selling chai and fried local savories or the quaint thatched roadside shops on stilts displaying an array of Myanmar snacks, baskets loaded with fried fish and luscious fruits like guava, papaya and mangoes, Myanmar was so famous for. The short 4 hour road trip offered plentiful for our curious eyes to feast upon.

As my little family of three kept making a long mental list of all the things we needed to pick up on our return journey including a hand woven hammock, a cane stool and a basket full of mangoes and guavas, we were amazed to see a procession of women clad in a traditional neon pink Longyi, children in colourful turbans on top of horses and men blowing trumpets aligning the sides of the road. It had slowed down the traffic significantly and definitely added a few extra minutes to our trip. But we did not mind. Such temple processions were not rare on the culturally vibrant and pious villages located on the outskirts of Yangon, but it was our first time and it was well worth the wait.

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We reached our resort at around noon. Though the last 30km to Ngwe Saung was a bit of downer, courtesy the long winding road, we were beyond ecstatic to see the Bay of Bengal stretched out in front of us, in all it’s glory. Be it the breathtakingly beautiful coastline, the crystal clear waters that almost seemed to coincide with the Azure sky above us or the gigantic waves that almost seemed to mock at the calmness surrounding it. There was something about this particular beach that made me feel almost certain that I had somehow magically found my way into some kind of scenic artwork during our short drive from home.

I will agree, Ngwe Saung is nothing like your clichéd beach destinations. There are no bikini clad waitresses to serve you margaritas, no fancy street shops or open bar restaurants playing loud music. Here the only sound you would hear are the sound of crashing waves and the only shopping option would be a handful of stores selling hand made baskets, wooden trays, cloth bags, flip flops and shell bracelets.

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But Ngwe Saung is a beach like no other, worth visiting to soak up the sheer beauty of the Bay of Bengal or devour the exquisite local cuisine served in the non-glamorous roadside restaurants in the village ranging from barbecued lobsters, grilled whole fish in garlic sauce and Shark-fin soup to crispy fried soft shell crabs and my personal favorite the steamed fish in chilli and lemon.

So what if it lacked glitz and the glamor of a Miami, a La Jolla or a Phuket. So what if it didn’t have the noise or the sheer life that had made these a dream holiday destination across the globe, Ngwe Saung was special. She was raw, untouched, almost like a virgin. And as I dipped my feet into its warm waters watching the sky turn into scarlet orange, I knew that I had just gotten a sneak-peek into heaven!