Golden Pagodas, Ancient Kingdoms & An Incredible Country Frozen In Time

Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
On May 24, 2014, my fiancé, Andy, and I got married in New York City. A week later, we hopped on a plane with two carry-on suitcases and two one-way tickets to Paris. We had just pressed pause on our careers, sublet our apartment, and moved all of our things into storage. The only plan was to have no plans at all — and we ended up traveling for 394 days through 25 countries, stopping in nearly 100 destinations. Over the next few weeks, come along on this crazy journey to learn more about how we did it — packing, plotting, budgeting — and see some of the tens of thousands of photos we took along the way.

The first stop on our tour of Southeast Asia was Myanmar, a country in a tornado of change. Recently, it emerged from more than 50 years of military dictatorship and self-isolation, and began opening its doors to tourism — and working toward becoming a full-fledged democracy.

This isolation preserved the country from globalization, and has made it a huge draw for tourists. In many parts of Myanmar, it seems as if time has stood still. Women cover their faces in the traditional cosmetic yellow paste called thanaka, men wear long skirt-like sarongs called longyi, and people everywhere chew a combination of spices and tobacco called betel nut. They smile at you with bright blood red teeth, and spit out red juice that stains the streets. In rural areas, it’s common to see people get around by ox and cart. You don’t have to go to a museum to view thousands of years of history, you can watch it play right out in front of you.

Because of all this, Travel + Leisure put Myanmar on its cover in 2014, and named it the Destination of the Year. Part of me hoped that by the time we arrived, we’d still be able to fully immerse ourselves in the local culture, without a tourist in sight. But the secret is definitely out. Since the government restricts visitors from certain parts of the country, and keeps them on a ‘tourist circuit,’ the amount of foreigners feels amplified. Every other stop felt packed with tourists. It seemed like so much had been commercialized, and many of the locals were onto the game of profiting off of tourists, along with the invasion and observations of their daily life. It’s part of the greater conflict surrounding tourism in Myanmar: We’re all so eager to get there and catch a glimpse of this untouched culture before the Western world arrives at its door, but our very presence chips away at its authenticity.

And yet, the overwhelming majority of people we met were hospitable, funny, warm and, as in India, shared the same innocent curiosity for us as we had for them. They were eager to share their country’s culture and history. It might not sound like much, but this total openness is a rarity in our globalized world.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
In our research on Myanmar, we read a few times that if you were short on time, Mandalay was a city worth skipping on the tourist circuit. And at one point, we almost considered doing just that. But looking back, I couldn’t have imagined our time there without it. Mandalay really set the tone for all that Myanmar had in store for us — exquisite crafts, centuries old traditions, ornate monasteries, glittering pagodas, and kind people, like our friend here on the street who was, as his wheel front slogan says, "Taking It Easy."
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
In our time in Mandalay, we saw the most impressive variety of artisan crafts. One of our first stops revealed how gold leaf — which is frequently used as a religious offering in Myanmar — is made. It’s commonly rubbed into Buddha statues or applied to the outside of temples, which is why Myanmar is referred to as the "golden" country.

In this workshop, we saw how thin sheets of gold were sandwiched between layers of bamboo paper, and then beaten by men with a sledgehammer until reaching the desired consistency — 0.000005 of an inch. This grueling work can last up to seven hours. After the leaf is beaten, it’s sent to another room where these women carefully cut and package it.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
The gold leaf is then shipped to places like the Mahamuni Pagoda — one of the most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites in Myanmar — where it is applied to the statue of Mahamuni Buddha by male devotees. In the interior of this archway, in the very center of the image, you can see men lined up around the giant statue, illuminated by its gold. So much gold leaf has been applied over the years, that the shape of the figure has actually been distorted.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
After the Mahamuni Buddha Temple, we visited the nearby stone carving district. It’s impossible to miss, as the sound of drills pierce the air and white clouds of dust billow out into the street. Blocks and blocks are lined with these carving businesses, and men who look like they are coated in powdered sugar. We were so impressed with the workers' ability to free-hand carve these statues with relatively rudimentary tools. As they carved, women sanded and polished the final pieces.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
The Shwenandaw Monastery is built entirely of finely carved teak wood and is one of the best examples of a traditional 19th-century wooden monastery in Myanmar.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
The Royal Palace in Mandalay is the last palace of the Burmese monarchy, and its walled grounds are sprawling, which dominate the cityscape. The palace was built in the 1850s by King Mindon, destroyed during World War II, and reconstructed during the 1990s. There are over 40 timber buildings on the site. These stellar views are from the top of the watchtower, with a questionably stable spiral wooden staircase.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
For most of our time in Myanmar, we didn’t have a guide. Instead, we chose to wander, explore, and stumble upon information throughout our stay. In Mandalay, we hired a cab driver for the day, who did a circuit of all the most popular sites. He spoke little English, but did his best to explain the basics of each place we stopped. Most importantly, he helped us perfect the Burmese pronunciation of hello, ‘min-ga-la-ba,’ and thank you, ‘cè-zù tin-ba-deh’ — which I couldn’t say to save my life.

At this particular stop, we got the name, Kuthodaw Pagoda, and something about the world’s largest book out of our driver before heading in. We spent quite a bit of time admiring the gold covered pagoda and searching the grounds for an enormous book. At one point, a monk sitting on a bench waved us over, who spoke nearly perfect English. After a bit of small talk, including his thoughts on President Barack Obama, he whispered to us that we were looking for the wrong kind of book. The pagoda is surrounded by 729 white shrines, each containing a single marble slab inscribed with the teaching of Buddha. Together, they make up "the world’s largest book."
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
I wish I could tell you the name of this spectacular space, but it was one of those lost in translation moments. Our driver pulled over, pointed to the door, and we went in. The long, dark pathway ended in an explosion of color and these breathtakingly ornate mosaic walls. Even after visiting 25 countries, I can still say that Myanmar has some of the most impressive mosaic work in the world. It was consistent, not just at one extra special temple, but it embellished hundreds.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
A shot of the detailed mosaic work. And minutes after I took this photo, the oddest thing happened — Judy, our upstairs neighbor from back in New York City, came around this corner. I think you have better odds of winning the lottery than running into your neighbor in the same country, in the same city, in the same remote temple, at the same exact time. What in the world?!
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Our final activity of the day was catching the sunset at Mandalay Hill. Where we ran into Judy, again. Of course.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Mandalay Hill is the landmark of Mandalay, rising 790 feet over the city. It’s known for its abundance of pagodas and monasteries. This holy hill is where Buddha is believed to have predicted that a great city would rise at its base. You can hike the hill, or drive up and take an escalator to the top — like we did, barefoot, as you usually are when visiting religious structures in Myanmar. Barefoot on an escalator, that was a first. At the top sits the Su Taung Pyi Pagoda, which literally means wish-fulfilling. We spent an hour or so observing monks strolling through the corridors, swatting away the stray cat that wanted to join our party, watching the tourists pour in, and admiring how the warm light reflected off of the brilliant mosaic walls before the sun went down over the city.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
We started a new day by visiting a textile workshop, and seeing how these intricately patterned fabrics are still produced with a traditional loom. The paper in front of these women has a table, with a color code of sorts, which they follow to create the pattern. The final product was masterful. You would never believe it was woven by hand if you hadn’t just seen these women working in front of you.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Men tending to their boats on the Taungthaman Lake near the U Bein Bridge.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
We visited during the day and then came back at sunset, a popular time for local commuters and tourists. After teetering on the narrow bridge with the others, we thought a photograph from the ground would be more impactful (and secure!).
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Visiting the Mahagandayon Monastery was a rather upsetting experience for me. In my research of Myanmar, I had read about the monastery, and its attraction of watching the monks line up, systematically and silently, for their lunch. Many reviewers deemed the activity uncomfortable and invasive, and I was on board for skipping it. But on this particular day, I had no idea our cab-driver-pseudo-guide, with limited knowledge of English, was taking us there. What we found were rabid tourists, handing out Twinkies to the monks, pushing each other for the best spot along the pathway, and darting out into the street or shoving their cameras into the faces of these young men to get the best shot. Even if the monks found the attention amusing, they didn’t show it. I felt ashamed for being there. There are so few things that our cameras haven’t pried their way into in our age of information. Some should just be left simple, private, pure — unspoiled relics of the past.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
The Pahtodawgyi Pagoda in Amarapura, the former capital of Myanmar, and now a township of Mandalay.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
The Buddhist nuns of Myanmar may shave their heads like their male counterparts, but their vibrant pink robes make them stand out.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
The Shwekyimyint Pagoda was founded in 1167 by Prince Minshinzaw, which makes it older than Mandalay itself. The complex is adorned in hundreds of buddha states, colorful paintings, and…
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
...the ever present, ever brilliant, mosaic and tile work.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Inwa, or Ava, an island south of Mandalay, was the capital of the Myanmar kingdom from the 14th to 19th centuries. The city was attacked and rebuilt a number of times before it was abandoned in 1839, after a devastating earthquake. In sharp contrast to its glorious past, the villages that now surround the former capital are quite rural. To get there, you must take a ferry across the river to the island.

A popular way to explore the area is by horse and carriage. The transition from boat to horse was rather frantic, with drivers fighting each other and randomly shoving you into their wooden carts. It was definitely a fun way to see the sights, but beware of the bumps ( I spent the whole ride trying to levitate over my seat!). They go full throttle into the mud ditches with no regard for the fragility of their buggies.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
All over Myanmar, people still wear the yellowish paste called thanaka on their face. Thanaka is made by grinding tree bark, with a little bit of water, against a stone slab. It’s a 2,000 year old tradition still in practice today, and one of the many aspects of this culture that make it feel so untouched by the modern world. Nowadays, thanaka is most commonly seen on women and young boys. Besides having a pleasant sandalwood scent, it’s used as sunscreen, to promote skin health, and to treat acne and fungus. Every person had their own special application style, and some women even stenciled shapes and flowers onto their face.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
In Inwa, we visited the Maha Aung Mye Bonzan monastery, a well-preserved brick monastery from the Konbaung dynasty. This ochre-colored building has elaborate stucco ornamentation that looks like carvings. But our favorite part was watching a game of hide-and-go-seek among some local children. Can you tell by this pose and expression that this little girl was a quite a firecracker?
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Not a bad playground...
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
After four eventful days in Mandalay, we were on to Bagan. We decided to take the slow way, a cruise down the Irrawaddy River by ferryboat. And slow it was. Our entire ride ending up taking around 10-12 hours. We sat on the top deck in wicker chairs, chatted up other tourists, read books, drank cold cheap beers, and observed the local life along the river. We got to Bagan by nightfall, and once off the boat, tried to negotiate a reasonable cab rate to our hotel. We ended up in the bed of a pickup truck with a couple of other tourists.

By morning, we were ready to explore this ancient city. Bagan was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan from the 9th to 13th centuries. During that time, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas, and monasteries were built over 26 square miles of dusty plains. Today, 2,200 structures are still standing, and you’re free to enter and explore nearly every one. Since the plain is so sprawling, we navigated the network of bumpy dirt roads and trails that connect them all by electric bike. We spent all day zipping across the city and came home every night covered head to toe in dust. Like in New Zealand, we had our own transportation, and were totally free.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
A local woman scales a wall.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
We braved the crowds at the popular Shwesandaw Pagoda, with its five terraces and 360-degree views, to watch the sunset. But in Bagan, it was so easy to get off the beaten path. We’d drive out to a remote part of the plains, where there wasn’t a person in sight, and spend all day crawling in and out of temples, braving the dark corners, climbing their exteriors, and admiring what remained of their beautiful art and architecture.... barefoot. As customary in Myanmar, you remove your shoes as a sign of respect before entering a holy site. We had some pretty raunchy feet at the end of the day, but it was oddly liberating — a sign of a day well went exploring.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
It’s impossible to capture the abundance and concentration of buildings. From the Shwesandaw Pagoda, temples dotted the horizon for miles in every direction.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
A+ sunsets.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
From Bagan, we took a bus to Inle Lake. Well, let me rephrase that, it was more like my mom’s minivan jam-packed with international tourists. And somehow, Andy and I always had to shove our lanky frames in the backseat. After a six-hour ride, we had arrived at Nyaung Shwe, the main tourist town. Here’s a view of the hazy purple and red sunset from our hotel.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
We got up before sunrise on the second day for a tour of the lake. Andy and I hopped into the narrow, wooden dinghy with a driver manning the motor, and cruised out onto the still lake in the early morning. And yes, Inle Lake is really packed with tourists, but truly, I was too in awe of the nature around me to even notice. We saw the fisherman, who famously balance on one foot on the edge of the boat, while they wrap their other leg around an oar and paddle. They also use this traditional, cone-shaped net which they trap fish in before spearing them from above. This technique is successful because Inle Lake is not very deep.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Views from the front of our boat as we enter the floating garden.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
The floating garden was one of the most fascinating things we saw on Inle Lake. The locals are able to grow produce on these mounds of land made up of floating weed and water hyacinth. Bamboo canes are thrust into the lake floor to provide support. When the water lowers and rises with the seasons, the land moves up and down these canes. Here, a group of women are moving along each bit of land, planting seeds from their boats.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
We stopped at a textile workshop on Inle Lake, where we learned how fabric is made out of the lotus flower. If you snap a lotus stem in half, you can see the fibers as clear as day. These fibers are spun into a yarn and woven into textiles.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
There are entire communities of homes, schools, stores, and restaurants built on stilts and floating in the lake — a true water world.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
This picture gives me chills because I remember the moment I took it, as the sun had just finally risen over the lake. I was in a nature trance admiring the beautiful, mountainous landscape in the distance, the cool, crisp morning wind on my face, and the glasslike water below me. And suddenly this striking, powerful silhouette cut through my frame.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
We spent two full days discovering the waterways of Inle Lake and the temples and monasteries that line it, before hopping on an overnight bus to the city of Yangon. Our first priority there was visiting the 2,500 year old Shwedagon Pagoda — one of Buddhism’s most sacred sites. It’s believed to enshrine strands of Buddha’s hair and other holy relics. The gold-covered complex is a sensory overload with hundreds of temples, shrines, and statues adorned with colorful paintings, mosaics, and gemstones. One of our favorite parts was that it didn’t feel overrun by international tourists, instead there were local tourists, strolling, praying, conversing, and lounging across the site. We were just little flies on the wall, trying to stay out of the way, observing the daily life of culture.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Pilgrims praying at Shwedagon Pagoda.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
Many parts of Yangon are covered in glittering temples and other parts have lush parks, but economic paralysis has left stunning colonial-era buildings crumbling in the streets.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
And we haven’t even spoken about the food yet! The unique salads are stand out in Myanmar cuisine. My favorites were the crispy bean and tea leaf salad, which can include laphet (fermented tea leaves), garlic, peanuts, seeds, fried beans, cabbage, and several other goodies. Some consider this salad the national dish.
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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Titus.
On our last night in Myanmar, we returned to see the gold of Shwedagon Pagoda sparkle by night.
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