Buddhism has ancient roots in Myanmar, and its influence is all pervasive – arguably more so than in any other Southeast Asian country. Everywhere you go you encounter monks and nuns in the streets, often marching around neighbourhoods and markets on their daily rice round collecting alms from local householders.
During a research trip in 2013 I crossed paths with groups of red-robed novices most days and thought them always poised and dignified, and fabulously picturesque – never more so than when hanging around beautiful stucco pagodas or tramping over teak bridges on the watery outskirts of Mandalay. I even came across a couple of young monks amid the ruins of ancient Bagan, swotting up on their language lessons between vigils at candle-lit shrines, in scenes that would have been familiar to the masons and sculptors who made the monuments nearly a thousand years ago.
The ubiquity of stone-carved Buddhas, still hand crafted in the backstreets of many Burmese cities, along with the prominence on modern skylines of elegantly tapering pagoda spires, identical in form to those erected by Burma’s ancient rulers on the central plains of the country, underline the great continuity that sustains the people of Myanmar. The quiet humility and devotion of the Burmese at prayer is for me one of the things that makes the country such a joy to visit.
Sun streams through late-twelfth-century windows of a shrine in Bagan
Sunrise over the Shwe Leik Too temple, Bagan
Young novice prays at a shrine dedicated to Buddha’s mother, Bagan
Novices crossing the famous U Bein’s Bridge, Amarapura
Worshippers circuiting the Kuthawdaw Pagoda outside Mandalay
Gilded stupas above the Ayeyarwady River at Sagaing, near Mandalay
Monks mustering ahead of the evening alms round, Mandalay
© Lukasz Kurbiel/Shutterstock
The resplendently gilded interior of the Shwenandaw Monastery, Mandalay
Buddha for sale: serenity amid the storm of south Mandalay
Young workers at a sculpture workshop in Mandalay give their newest Buddha a final rub down
A woman of the Pa-O minority at the stupa complex in Kakku
Shwe Yanghwe Kyaung monastery near Nyaungshwe
Shwe Yanghwe Kyaung monastery in Mynmar © Avigator Thailand/Shutterstock
A young monk playing chinlone
An ornate, Shan-style pagoda at a monastery in Nyaungshwe, near Inle Lake
Worshippers at the 70m-long reclining Buddha in Kyauk Htat Gyi Pagoda, Yangon