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Central Myanmar, Dec 2013

Our second day in Myanmar, Nancy and I placed a bet: How many days would it take us to get templed out? Myanmar is definitely the country to find out your temple tolerance level. Everywhere we went, every direction we looked, temples! Even our Burmese monk friend wondered why his country attracts people. In his own words, “there is nothing but temples here.” (For the record, Nancy said 5, I said 6; we were both wrong.)

U Bein Bridge, Mandalay, teak foot bridge, Myanmar, BurmaU Bein bridge, one of the handful of attractions that is not a temple. It’s the world’s longest teak bridge.

Sunset at U Bein bridge, Burma, Myanmar, MandalayThe sunset a U Bein bridge is said to be the most photographed in Myanmar. One of these people got mad at me for walking close to the bridge poles and bombing his photo. Weird.

traditional burmese food buffet, enormous, deliciousAnother non-temple attraction. Burmese buffet makes my belly happy.

Central Myanmar is the religious hub of the country and we hit all the three cities with the most numbers of temples, pagodas, stupas, monasteries: Sagaing, Mandalay, and Bagain. Mandalay, the last royal capital, has been the country’s center of Buddhist higher learning and teaching since the 19th century. 20kms south across the Irrawaddy river is quiet Sagaing, where 6000 nuns and monks settle live their religious journey. Continue onto the southwest for 4 hours by car and you’re in Bagan. The capital of the first unified Burmese kingdom dating 1000 years back saw over 10,000 Buddhist structures erected on her land over 2 centuries, more than 2000 of which still survive till this day. (Yes, all of those numbers are correct.) Although we constantly joked about it, we were pleasantly surprised at our eagerness to visit temples after temples. Not only was the architecture unique and the sculptures impressive, the history was fascinating. We learned about the evolution of stupa styles, the rise of the Burmese kingdom, the influence of the conquered but highly sophisticated Mon people… One thing that blew my mind was their foresight in preserving history. Every temple had a dedicatory stone inscription that details the date and story of construction. Some of them were written in several languages (Burmese, the now extinct Pyu, Mon, Chinese, Pali). Of course not all inscriptions survive time and looting, but the remaining still provide a wealth of information on language, culture, and history. The other thing that blew my mind? The omnipresence of temples. In Bagan, no matter where you are, you cannot find any visual space uninhabited by temples. There is simply no escape. And there, we finally clocked out, at 7 days!

Shwenanda monastery, teak temple, Mandalay, burma, myanmarBeautiful teak carving at the Shwenandaw monastery, built in traditional Burmese style Read the rest of this entry »

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My 3 months stay in Da Nang came to an end today. I’ve been a hermit for the most part, and here are the top 3 spots where I go to soak up solitude in the open air:

– Non Nuoc beach: about 7 kms south of town. Practically no tourists ever set foot here, especially after the last b&b was demolished to make way for future resorts. The crowd is exclusively local from the nearby Marble Mountains neighborhood, and they all go to the beach 5-7am and 4:30-6:30 pm. If you go anytime outside of these slots, good chance that you’ll have the whole beach to yourself.

– Marble Mountains: very popular with Vietnamese tour groups, but later in the afternoon and it’s much less crowded.  It’s lovely with marble stairs carved right out from the mountain leading to temples and caves reflecting a long Buddhist and Champa (Hindu) tradition. Climbing up to the top, you’ll be rewarded with the cooling ocean breeze and a beautiful panoramic view. The whole place would take at least 2 hours to explore. If you go after 4:30 you don’t even have to pay (ticket people have gone home).

– Linh Ung pagoda: From the beach, you’ll see a big white Guayin (Kannon) statute up in the mountains to the north. One of the biggest temples in central Vietnam, it’s a destination for locals and visitors alike. It gets quiet in the evening (the temple is open till 9pm) and that’s usually when I come to wander around. There are convenient benches where you can sit and enjoy a pretty view of the ocean sparsely lit up with squid fishing boats, and further away of the city blinking with neon lights stretching all the way Hoi An. Remember to check the lunar calendar to make sure it’s not the 1st or 15th of the month, or else you’d find yourself among a crowd of hundreds.

Linh Ung pagoda, Da Nang skyline at night

Khmer temple Trà Vinh, VietnamOn Thursday, I got to Tra Vinh province after a 4-hr bus from Dong Thap, only to find out that I wouldn’t be able to go ahead with work. Already there, and not wanting to spend another 4 hours on bus to get back to SaiGon, I decided to stay for a day.

Next day, on a rental Honda (scooters here are simply referred as Honda), I rode along the major roads and just stopped at whatever that caught my eyes and piqued my interest. 60% of the population here is Khmer and the most visual indication is all the Khmer temples dotting around.

At the third temple that I stumbled upon, the monks were friendly, and spoke Vietnamese well enough, that they invited me to stay for a drink, and then for lunch. Our conversation ranged from the differences between the Southern school of Buddhism (Theravada, found here and similar to what you’d see in Thailand, Cambodia, and Myanmar) and the Northern school (Mahayana with heavy Chinese influence), to how this land once was all Khmer land. Read the rest of this entry »

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