Monkeying Around In The Golden Pagodas Of Myanmar

Once upon a time I joined a biker gang and invaded Myanmar. It was a great story of conquest and overcoming hardship, but the truth is I didn’t see or do a whole lot once I made it inside this Southeast Asian state. So that meant I was destined to return and so I did. And here are my real impressions of this often overlooked land.

But first…

The Spiritual and Political Backdrop

As some of you know, I consider myself a Taoist.

That hasn’t stopped me from admiring all the great things about Buddhism. Like when I visited the world’s only wholly Buddhist state in Bhutan.

Or when I climbed the Sacred Mountains of China.

Or even when I visited what is considered the birthplace of Buddhism in Sarnath, India

Many of the spiritual aspects of Buddhism resonate with my own personal philosophies. Because of that, I was excited to visit another majority Buddhist country, Myanmar.

Myanmar’s tourism industry suffered for a long time due to outsized influence of the military in government of Myanmar. In 2012 the junta, or governing power, transferred power to the civilian government and Myanmar saw an increase in tourism of almost 100%. Since then the industry has pretty much steadily risen by hundreds of thousands per year.

Despite neighboring Thailand which welcomed 40 million tourists in 2019, Myanmar is quickly becoming an exciting travel destination in South East Asia.

The great bell you will read about shortly must have been rung, because something was calling me to Myanmar and I was ready to accept the  invitation.


For anybody following my adventures chronologically, my Myanmar adventure took place after my trip to Cambodia.

It was the end of February and I had about two weeks left until the COVID-1984 lockdown took effect. Myanmar shares a border with China and is not far from Wuhan, so the crowds were already beginning to dwindle. 

You’ll remember that I ended the Cambodia story with my flight to Bangkok. For those of you who have been tuning in for a while, you know this isn’t my first time in Bangkok. I have a few libertarian friends there, so my visits are starting to develop a bit of a traditional itinerary.

Hello again Bangkok

To kick things off we went to the very same German restaurant I got horrible food poisoning from a couple of years ago. With visions of driving around the hot Syrian desert completely nauseous in mind, I decided to refrain from ordering meat again 😛

After dinner, we went to one of our favorite rooftop bars. A place called Above Eleven. This is one of my favorite rooftop bars in Asia and I highly recommend you check it out if you’re in the city.

It even has the best bathroom in Bangkok.

View from the bathroom at Above Eleven

Luckily I didn’t need to use it for food-poisoning related issues this time.

It was a fun night in Bangkok, but our evening broke tradition with a bit of an early ending.

Part of our tradition is going to this sort of special gogo bar called Spanky’s. If you don’t know a gogo bar is basically just a Thai strip club. 

As you can imagine, strip clubs aren’t that well suited for social distancing, masks, and gloves. Most gogo bars in Bangkok had closed early on in February. I assume they will be some of the last businesses to reopen. The gogo bar being closed was the first of many plans of mine that COVID-1984 would change in the coming months.

My flight to Myanmar was pretty early the next morning though so I wasn’t too upset about getting some extra sleep.

I said goodbye to my friends and headed back to my hotel.

The next morning I took my direct flight to Mandalay, Myanmar.


Mandalay with Mandalay Hill far in the background

Mandalay is the second-largest city in Myanmar. It sits right on the Irrawaddy River making it a very important commercial and cultural hub.

While I have once before illegally crossed into Myanmar from Thailand for a few hours, this was my first time in Myanmar proper.

I landed in Mandalay and immediately took a taxi to my hotel. After a brief rest, the staff at the hotel arranged to have a driver drive me around and show me some of the city.

Myanmar (aka Burma) is oftentimes referred to as “the land of the golden pagodas.” A pagoda is basically a tiered tower with multiple eaves. It traces its origin to the stupas of ancient India, which I saw many of when I visited the Buddhist park Sarnath outside of Varanasi.

While India is a majority Hindu nation, Myanmar is overwhelmingly Buddhist at around 88% of the population. 

Gold and Buddhas.. Very rare in Myanmar (just kidding)

Gold is an integral part of Buddhist mysticism. It is considered an earthly representation of the sun, which by extension signifies knowledge, happiness, purity, and freedom.

As such, pagodas are everywhere in Myanmar. All of them are either completely colored golden or incorporate gold into their appearance in some fashion.

Naturally, a golden pagoda was my first stop.

I wonder if the hot sun and bright pagodas everywhere have effected Burmese peoples vision 😛

I had about half of the day to explore Mandalay, and much of that was spent making the hike up Mandalay Hill which the city derives its name from. Mandalay Hill is a large hill not far from the city center that is a major pilgrimage site for Burmese Buddhists. 

The entire hill is covered in pagodas and monasteries, but at the top is the famous Sutaungpyei (wish-fulfilling) Pagoda. 

Sutaungpyei Pagoda from Mandalay Hill

The hike was fairly easy and very rewarding once you got to the top. Being so centrally located you got to have a beautiful panoramic view of the whole city and its surroundings.

While this would have been a great place to watch the sunset, Taungthaman Lake is the preferred spot by locals. 

U Bein Bridge

The locals gather on this gigantic 2 km long wooden bridge that cuts across the lake and watch the sunset together. It is one of the largest wooden bridges in the world, and interestingly enough is made entirely from the remains of a former palace.

Other than the festival of lights in India, this was one of the last times I would see so many people in such close proximity for a while. Hypothetically if one of these people already had coronavirus and it is as contagious as they say, they would have infected thousands of people.

It was quite a romantic atmosphere. I walked back and forth on this bridge enjoying the sunset and one last pagoda before it became dark.

I returned to my hotel afterward a bit exhausted and ready to do my best “reclining buddha” impression in the hotel bed.

The Buddhist Book of World Records

The next day I had scheduled a visit to Mingun, a local Buddhist township. Mingun is located about 11 km up the Irrawaddy River on the opposite side of Mandalay. Because of this, I decided to charter a boat so I could watch the life of the locals on my way.

To get an idea of the general price of things here, chartering a boat this size for 2 hours only cost about $40. Despite the room for 40 or so people, I was the only passenger on the entire ship.

SMS Staatenlos

Although my ultimate goal is to one day commandeer a gigantic submarine a la Captain Nemo and the Nautilus, for now, I dubbed this the SMS Staatenlos.

The trip up the river takes about 45 minutes, so it was nice to be able to just relax and enjoy the scenery. Nobody was burning any bodies like the Ganges so it was a pleasant ride just watching the villagers fish and farm along the river. 

No cremations this time thankfully

The Irrawaddy also has a rare species of river dolphin and river shark, but I wasn’t lucky enough to see any.

Before we docked in Mingun, it’s most famous landmark was visible from far down the river.

Mingun Pathtodawgyi up close.

This is the Mingun Pahtodawgyi. It was once destined to be the largest pagoda in the world with a planned height of 150 meters. It never finished construction, but even today it holds the record as the largest pile of bricks in the world.

It was originally commissioned in 1790 by King Bodawpaya. The construction required a huge amount of resources and slave labor and took a heavy toll on the entire country. Because of this, the entire pagoda was cursed in a prophecy. Allegedly the prophecy stated that the day the pagoda finished construction, the king would die and the country would cease to exist.

Bodawpaya was deeply superstitious, so he never attempted to finish construction after hearing of the prophecy. In 1839 a serious earthquake damaged the pagoda, and it has remained unfinished as a physical manifestation of Bodawpaya’s eccentricities ever since.

One thing that he did manage to finish however was this:

The only larger bell in the world was finished in 2000 in China and is called the Bell of Good Luck

This is the second-largest ringing bell in the world at 3.6 meters. It has a diameter of 4.9 meters and weighs almost 91,000 kilograms. Bodawpaya commissioned it for use by the massive pagoda that he never finished. While the same earthquake that damaged the pagoda knocked the bell off it’s supports, it was never cracked and remains usable today.

After the bell, I had about an hour to explore a few more pagodas in Mingun. One thing worth mentioning is that because China was completely locked down at this point, I didn’t have to deal with a lot of Chinese tourists. 

Chinese tourists have a reputation of being very loud and not that understanding of rules or personal space. I understand that there are a lot of reasons they have this reputation, but it was still refreshing to get to explore Myanmar without seeing them everywhere. It’s nice to see these old buildings and temples without a million selfie sticks everywhere 😛

Anyway, after the bell, I went to visit the Myatheindan Pagoda.

Myatheindan Pagoda

This is a unique pagoda because it departs from traditional Burmese pagoda design. It is instead modeled after the physical description of the Buddhist sacred mountain Mount Meru.

Eventually, it was time to head back to the boat and return to Mandalay. 

We docked in Mandalay and I was quickly picked up by the driver who would be taking me to my next destination, Bagan.

The Land of Ten Thousand Temples

Bagan is an ancient city that was basically the first capital of Myanmar. It was founded in the second century AD long before Myanmar existed but was the capital of the kingdom that unified the regions that would later constitute modern Myanmar.

More importantly, it is sometimes called the Land of Ten Thousand Temples.

It is estimated that over the course of its existence, over 10,000 temples, pagodas, and monasteries have been constructed there. Today around 2,200 still survive.

I arrived in Bagan with not enough daylight to see them, but had arranged a hot air balloon trip in a couple of days to hopefully see them all 🙂

For now, I got some work done with this view from my resort in the background.

These hazy sunsets are common in the late winter here

The next morning a driver picked me up to take me an hour south to the world-famous Taung Kalat monastery.

Taung Kalat is this very famous monastery built on the volcanic plug you can see here.

Reminds me of where the Air Benders from Avatar lived

It’s a favorite pilgrimage site for Buddhists despite the 777 steps it takes to reach it. I figured I couldn’t come all this way and not do it, so I took my shoes off and started the long hike.

That’s another thing to mention, in any sacred Buddhist site, you must go barefoot. Unfortunately, that wasn’t even the worst part.

All over this monastery, there are thousands of these naughty monkeys who are very uhh.. friendly to tourists. I have encountered monkeys in Asia before, but these ones were really badly behaved.

Everywhere you looked these monkeys were basically attacking people for food and water. All the time monkeys were trying to jump on me and one even successfully stole my water bottle.

After fending about a dozen of them off I finally reached the entrance to the temple.

Time to begin my air bender training

It was a little bit of a tiresome hike, but in the end, it was worth it with very nice panoramic views of the entire area.

Misbehaved monkey with Mount Popa behind

I poked around the monastery a bit then headed down where my driver was waiting for me. 

Behind the Taung Kalat monastery is this huge mountain called Mount Popa. There is a popular resort there where you can have lunch with nice views of Taung Kalat so I had my driver take me there for a drink and some food.

Mount Popa Resort swimming pool with views of Taung Kalat

From there we headed back to Bagan so I could get some work done in preparation for my balloon ride the next day.

The next morning I was up just after sunrise to head to the balloon grounds. The weather seemed like it would be good so I was hoping to see a lot of balloons out. Sadly when I got there I was told there would only be about 30.

Not a bad way to start the day

In the past when I have ballooned in places like Cappadocia or Barcelona there are as many as 100 in the sky at a time.

I was more excited to see the temples anyway though, so I didn’t mind too much.

I think it was Kurt Vonnegut that said heaven is crossing the Swiss Alps in one of these

That was also a short-lived hope, unfortunately. We hadn’t been in the sky to long before it became clear that the wind was pushing us away from the temples. You are totally at the mercy of whichever way the wind blows in these balloons, so it’s a bit of a gamble to have a certain thing you want to see in mind before going up.

I still got to see some temples in the distance though, and either way hot air balloons are a neat experience for anyone who hasn’t tried.

Distant pagodas of Bagan

And while I didn’t get to see all the temples, it was nice to see the locals from this angle.

Just passing through don’t mind me

 I am used to watching them from cars and boats, but for once it was nice to spy from above 😛

The first untethered hot-air balloon flew in France in 1783

We flew around for a few hours before landing for a nice little champagne breakfast. One of the couples I met from a different balloon told me they were professional ballooners. Basically they spend 4 months of the year in Turkey, Canada and Myanmar giving hot air balloon rides. Quite the gig.

Love story

After breakfast, I had the rest of my day to explore the pagodas and temples of Bagan.

No gold?? Where is the Bagan Pagoda Owner Association to fine them

There’s really too many to list them all, but here are a few pictures of some of my favorites:

I wonder if these get struck by lightning ever

Very ornate

To be honest, unless they’re really unique like the ones I included they start to blend together after a while.

This one looks like there will only be 2,199 pagodas in Bagan soon

Anyway, after a few hours exploring it was almost time to leave. On the way out, I ran into this nice lady who had this massive joint thing she was smoking. 

Something medicinal I’m sure

It wasn’t cannabis inside, but some sort of strong tobacco and maybe some other stuff. It was too strong for me whatever it was. Plus I was going to the airport next and didn’t want some crazy high to set in.

On the way to the airport, I was using Facebook and may or may not have said some unsavory things about Germans regarding their response to COVID-1984 hysteria.


My next destination was the city of Yangon.

Yangon is the former capital of Myanmar and also its largest city. It sits near the bottom of Myanmar right on the delta that lets the Irrawaddy River flow into the Andaman Sea.

I landed there with the expectation of meeting my friend Monique shortly, so I tried to log into Facebook before I even left the airport.

Downtown Yangon

As it turns out, daring to criticize the hysteria around coronavirus is a bannable offense. My… let’s call it a “joke” about Germans being brainwashed landed me in Facebook jail for a week. Normally I wouldn’t have cared, but sometimes Facebook is my only access to friends I am intending to meet up with.

I found a driver to take me to my hotel as I tried to reestablish contact with my friend Monique outside of Zuckerberg’s personal propaganda machine. Luckily everything worked out and I ended up suing Facebook for access back to my account. Use my example and be careful calling brainwashed people brainwashed…

Also if any of Facebook’s lawyers are reading this, I only made that comment because I was high from that woman’s joint in Bagan 😛

Anyway, Monique and I eventually were able to meet for dinner and had a nice evening.

Nomads abroad

We were looking for any bar to get a couple of drinks afterward, but the big cities in Myanmar were getting more serious about COVID by the day. 

Basically we ended up just drinking beers at a bus stop, but with good conversation, the setting doesn’t matter so much.


The next full next day was dedicated to exploring Yangon and a nearby city called Bago.

I headed to Bago early in the morning.  Bago is most well known as what was once the most populous city in the Mon speaking empire. These days it is most popularly known as a gambling destination for the Chinese.

I wasn’t there to gamble however.. It may surprise you to learn that most of my time in Bago was spent visiting Buddhist pagodas, temples Buddha statues 😛

This is an example of one of the “reclining Buddha” shrines I alluded to earlier.

Sleepy Buddha

From there I visited a Buddhist temple where I got to sit with the monks and listen to them eat, chant, and pray.

I am a monk now

I continued to meander around Bago visiting a local market and taking a million pictures with the local youngsters. Because of my height, I get approached quite often to pose in pictures.

Bago is right on a river as well, so much of the commerce revolves around the fish trade.

Probably my favorite site in Bago was the Kambawzathadi Golden Palace.

Kambawzathadi Golden Palace. Borderline excessive, but still beautiful to look at

This palace is one of the most ornate buildings I have seen in all my travels. It is almost entirely golden and was designed this way to show the splendor and wealth of the second Burmese empire.

From the palace, I visited the Kyaikpun Pagoda. It is the home of the famous Four Seated Buddha shrine. 

Which way forward Buddha?

Here you can see the four Buddhas Kakusandha, Konagamana, Kassapa, and Gautama seated back to back facing four different directions. It was built in the 7th century AD.

One of the buddhas is facing the direction of Yangon and smiling, which I figured was a good sign to make my way back to the city.

On my way back I had one more stop, however.

Taukkyan War Cemetery

This is the Taukkyan War Cemetery.

This is sort of like the Burmese equivalent of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It is the resting place of over 6,000 British Commonwealth soldiers who died in battle in Burma during WWII. There are almost 900 remains of unidentified soldiers.

If you’re unaware, Burma was part of the South-East Asian theatre of the Second World War. It primarily involved Allied forces facing off against Imperial Japan and Indian Nationalists who sided with Nazi Germany to rid South-East Asia of British colonizers.

The Burmese campaign was among the most severe in the South-East Asia theatre of World War II with over 100,000 total casualties.

The Allies and native Burmese people who died in this conflict are highly beloved, even amongst non-violent Buddhists.

I paid my respect and headed back to Yangon.

Yangon and Gone

That evening I met with Monique again for a nice dinner and we decided to explore the rest of Yangon together the following morning.

Meeting up early in the morning we headed out to visit the old town of Yangon. We walked around enjoying the juxtaposition of this golden Buddhist city right on the banks of the massive Irrawaddy River delta.

Almost like a pagoda theme park

To cap off my Myanmar trip appropriately, we visited the Great Dragon Pagoda. This is considered the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in all of Myanmar.

The Great Dragon Pagoda

It is believed to contain relics from all four of the Buddhas I mentioned that were sitting back to back at the shrine in Bago.

Covered in real gold and diamonds it is arguably the most important pilgrimage site for Burmese Buddhists.

It was a nice way to punctuate my trip to this land of golden pagodas.

Unfortunately, that last day in Myanmar many people were wearing masks and there were certain places Monique and I went where they demanded masks were worn. This was a clear canary for the COVID-1984 hysteria that was quickly approaching on a global scale.

My flight to Bangladesh was leaving that evening, and I’d be going on to India shortly after that.

As you know India is where my future travel plans really started to fall apart. Myanmar was basically the beginning of the end of my normal nomadic lifestyle for the next few months.

After you’ve literally seen hundreds of them (although many from a hot air balloon) the pagodas start to be less interesting for a non-Buddhist like myself.

Regardless, I had a nice time and looking back, cherish the end of the non-hysterical world. 

I hope to be back one day to get ideas for the Taoist pagoda I will be installing on my property someday. Maybe even right next to my Mirror Cube 😛

Until next time…