Oct 8, 2018

Mesmerising Myanmar


Cruising the Irrawaddy River provides an opportunity to visit a remarkable shrine. Fairfax Traveller writer Julie Miller reveals her recent spiritual experience in Myanmar.

I'm making a silent contract with an ogre queen in a shrine on Mount Popa, Myanmar. If the goddess grants my wish – to find my soulmate – I promise to help clean up her beloved countryside, whether by donation or physical action. I think it's a fair deal – after all, we could both do with a little help.

According to Tu Tu, our Scenic Tour Director, on this Scenic Freechoice excursion from a Scenic cruise along the Irrawaddy River, I'm in with a shot. Several years ago, Tu Tu made a deal with the goddess Mae Wunna and met her future husband two weeks later.

Mount Popa, Myanmar

Mount Popa, meaning ‘flower’ in Sanskrit, is an extinct volcano rising 1,518 metres above sea level. The centrepiece is a dramatic basalt plug topped with a gilded temple and monastery, looming above the jungle like a fairytale castle.

It’s said to be home to the most powerful ‘nats’, the spirits of heroic ancestors. Today, Buddhists such as Tu Tu flock to the shrine, handing promises and money to the 37 nats represented in the pantheon.

Mae Wunna had her own love story, albeit a Romeo and Juliet tragedy. According to legend, she was a flower-eating ogress who lived a solitary life on the volcano. One day, she fell in love with an Indian Muslim servant, Byatta, sent by King Anawrahta – founder of the Bagan empire in the 11th century – to fetch flowers.

When the king heard of their forbidden union, he had Byatta executed, and Mae Wunna died of a broken heart.

Fortunately, the lovers – and their sons, who were also executed – were resurrected as nats, and now dwell on top of the mountain. The repentant king ended up worshipping them, marking the start of the relationship between Buddhists and animism.

My contract with the Queen of the Mountain locked in, we begin our ascent up the 777 stairs to the peak. The passageway is fetid with the sweat of pilgrims squeezing past vendors selling toys, souvenirs, noodles and bottled yellow blossoms, called champac, which are given as an offering to the nats.

After 200 steps, we must remove our shoes and climb barefoot, dodging poo and lentils dropped by mangy macaques that threaten to steal sunglasses and hats from passersby; fortunately, most of the cheeky primates are having a siesta.

Finally, we emerge sweating on the pagoda’s scalding tiles, hip-hopping to a shady patch to photograph the astounding 360-degree views of the valley, shimmering Irrawaddy and spires of distant Bagan, where our cruise ship, Scenic Aura, is docked.

Later, over a Burmese-style feast at Mount Popa Resort, we gaze back at the gilded monastery, chuffed and a little astounded by our climb to the top.

As we depart the resort, I bend down to pick up a plastic water bottle, discarding it in one of the few bins I've seen in Myanmar.

Scenic Aura cruising the Irrawaddy River, Myanmar

After all, I have a promise to uphold, and this is evidence of my commitment. Watch this space to see if Mae Wunna rewards my diligence.

 


18 day Mystical Myanmar river cruise

Yangon > Yangon

Yangon is the perfect introduction to this incredible country. Navigate the vibrant streets seeking out keepsakes to take home or watch the golden sunset bounce off the Shwedagon Pagoda, there’s always plenty to appreciate in this hidden gem of a city.

Take to the waters of the Irrawaddy in unprecedented luxury, as you journey from Magwe to Mandalay. Encounter traditional villages, visit the temples of Bagan and marvel at the untold number of pagodas, temples and monasteries.

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14 day Mystical Irrawaddy river cruise

Yangon > Mandalay

This luxury journey unveils a rich legacy where British colonial reminders nestle alongside golden pagodas and the traditional culture of the friendliest people on earth.

After exploring Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, travel to Bagan to board the latest custom-built ship in Scenic’s fleet. Scenic Aura will take you on a very special voyage revealing the vast diversity and richness of the many influences that have shaped Myanmar.

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