When visiting Southeast Asia, you will find a dazzling assortment of different religious buildings. None are more iconic than the stupas built to hold relics. In Thailand they are called chedis, in Myanmar, zedis… and in Laos, that. They are remarkable structures worthy of further investigation.
Stupas trace their history back to pre-Buddhist burial mounds, but they came into their own and developed after the passing of the Buddha, whose remains were buried in ten mounds. Later, more permanent structures started to be built to house relics such as the 3rd century BCE Great Stupa at Sanchi in India.
The original meaning was retained and the Sanskrit word stūpa literally means heap.
The Burmese, Thai and Lao all have styles that come as a result of the transmission of Theravāda Buddhism from Sri Lanka. One of the most common style of chedi in Thailand is the Lanka-style bell chedi. Interestingly, this bell shape is not much seen in Sri Lanka, where the original round Sanchi-style stupa remains the most usual. Looking at the great sites of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, we can observe some interesting styles that give us good reference points for stupas we see on our travels through Southeast Asia.
In Myanmar, there is a clear progression of styles. The earliest stupas were built by the Pyu people and this Pyu-style can be found at the 7th century Bawbawgyi Pagoda at the ancient city of Sri Ksetra near modern day Pyay.
This bulbous, but elongated version of the simple mound is the beginning of the Burmese stupa.
River tours are becoming ever more popular with tourists in Southeast Asia, with both high-end luxury cruises and many more general options including day trips. The major river in Myanmar is the Ayeyarwady (also/formerly spelled Irrawaddy).
We recently posed some introductory questions to Sven Zika, Sales and Marketing Manager at Pandaw / The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, the first company to offer international tourists river expeditions in Myanmar, from 1995, with a company history going back over 100 years before that (see the history of the company here).
1. Has there been a growth of interest from travellers recently?
Sven: Yes, there has been a huge surge of interest in river cruising, especially as Myanmar has become more widely appreciated as a holiday destination. From two ships in 2013, our fleet has grown to 7 ships in 2014 with one more on the way in 2015.
2. What ages and nationalities of passengers most often come on your cruises?
Sven: At the moment the majority of passengers are 50+ and come mostly from the UK, USA, and Australia, as well as all over Western Europe
3. Why are river tours a good way of seeing Myanmar?
Marc Schlossman is an expert photographer who travelled with Golden Lands author Vikram Lall to capture views of Myanmar (particularly Bagan) as well as many of the other stupa, monastery, and temple photos for the other SE Asian countries in the book.
Here we interview Marc about his work on this Architecture of Buddhism series so far:
1. Which countries did you cover for the Golden Lands photography?
Had you already travelled in these countries?
Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. I had never been to the first two; I had traveled in Thailand a few times but never to Sukhothai or the other temples outside Bangkok.
2. Have you previously or subsequently done photography projects similar to this, focusing on SE Asian historical sites?
I was commissioned to shoot in Singapore and Malaysia for the book Paradise Found: Journeys Through Noble Gardens of Asia, [ISBN 9789833214037] published by Cross Time Matrix in Kuala Lumpur in 2008. It’s a showcase of public gardens in the region and the shooting involved the same skills I needed to shoot the three chapters in Golden Lands. Continue reading Interview with Marc Schlossman, Golden Lands Photographer→
The story of the Botataung Pagoda (also spelled Bo Ta Htaung or Botahtaung) began at least 1500 ago: King Sihadipa (of the Thaton Kingdom, a Mon state) and his queen held an assembly of one thousand armed generals at the bank of Yangon river, called Dagon Jetty at the time, now known as Bo Ta Htaung Jetty meaning 1000 generals Jetty. The assembly was to welcome the landing of Buddha Hair Relics and enshrine the sacred hair at the place for 6 months. This king constructed the Pagoda to hold the relics and other artifacts
The original pagoda was destroyed during World War II from bombing raids. When the new pagoda was constructed, a new mirrored maze-like walkway in was added in the interior with glass showcases for the ancient Buddha relic and other artifacts. The height and other architectural aspects retain the original structure’s designs. According to the terracotta plaques founded when the casket was opened, the script date from the ancient Mon kingdom. Continue reading Botataung Pagoda – One of Yangon’s Most Distinctive Landmarks→
Bagan is one of the world’s greatest Buddhist sites, comparable in size only with Angkor Wat.
Even though Myanmar already nominated Bagan for listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, it still remains only on the “tentative list”.
After years of unrest, the government is slowly but steadily working towards UNESCO’s suggested plans for conservation and preservation of Bagan’s more than 3000 temples, stupas and monasteries.
The Bagan Archaelogical Zone stretches across an area of 42 km2.
When discussing the historical kingdom, Bagan is commonly spelled “Pagan”: the city was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan from the 9th to the 13th century and covered a large part of present-day Burma. Often considered as the glory days, much of the Burmese culture and known traditions were established during that time. Continue reading Visiting Bagan, Myanmar (Burma)→
Of the thousands of pagodas and temples in Myanmar, Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda (also spelled Chauk Htet Gyi) stands out because of its famous huge reclining Buddha. The pagoda is located on Shwe Gone Dine Road, Bahan Township, in the North of Yangon.
The most sacred and impressive destination for travellers, pilgrims, and residents, Shwedagon Pagoda stands witness to the history and importance of Buddhism in Myanmar (Burma). Almost 110 meters in height, covered with hundreds of gold plates – and the top of stupa coated with diamonds, the structure of the pagoda is truly amazing. The current structure is accepted by historians to originate from the 10th century AD.
The pagoda is located on Singuttara Hill which is west of the Royal Kandawgyi Lake. The pagoda contains important Buddhist relics including hairs of Gautama Buddha himself. There are a lot of legends about this pagoda as well as academic history, and visitors can learn more detail within the pagoda compound and photo gallery on the platform.
Marco Polo described Bagan as, “one of the finest sights in the world,” and with over 4000 temples, visiting this beautiful city needs to be planned. Here’s how to get the best out of Bagan.
A Short History
Bagan’s temple building era was at its height from the 11th to 13th century when most of the pagodas were constructed. During the later period many of the buildings have Indian features and are more intricate.
King Anawrahta was a devoted Buddhist and most of the prominent temples were built during his reign. In 1289 Bagan was overrun by Mongol invaders. This led to the decline of the city, however many of the Bamar inhabitants are thought to have departed before the invasion.
In 1975 a large earthquake destroyed many temples at Bagan but rebuilding began with the help of UNESCO. Today, Bagan is one of the major attractions in Myanmar and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Located in the heart of Siem Reap, in the Old French Quarter only 8 kilometres from the extraordinary Angkor Wat temple complex, Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor is the ideal place to explore the spiritual and archaeological masterwork. Relax and revitalise beside a magnificent pool inspired by Angkorian architecture or take a short stroll along the riverside to discover the vibrant local markets.
Located steps from the Opera House in Hanoi’s French Quarter this legendary property brings guests into intimate contact with the opulence of another era. Surround yourself in heritage as you stroll stately corridors and explore a dramatic past. Behind its classical white façade green shutters original wrought iron details and stately wood panelling reside over a century of stories. Stand on the walkways that grace its lush courtyard lawn and immerse yourself in the hotels rich traditions.
Temple sites nearby:
Tran Quoc Pagaoda – 4km
Chua Dau Pagoda – 30km outside of Hanoi, Thuan Thanh district
Temple of Literature – 2.5km
In the heart of bustling Vientiane stands a remarkable hotel. Built in the early part of the last century, circa 1932, and painstakingly restored to its former imperial glory, the Settha Palace Hotel serves as testament to the long lost era of classical elegance, gracious service and French colonial charm.
Temple sites nearby:
Pha That Luang – 3.5km
Wat Sisaket – 800m
Wat Mixai – 1km
Declared “the finest hostelry East of Suez” by John Murray in his Handbook for Travellers written in the early 20th century, the 1901-built three storey 5 star hotel in Yangon remains one of Southeast Asia’s few grand hotels and one of its most awe inspiring.
The Siam is the newest addition to, and crown jewel of, the growing portfolio of independently owned and operated properties that make up Sukosol Hotels. The Siam spirit is to create a luxury experience embracing every moment and every individual with sincerity and integrity and a passion for service.
Temple sites nearby:
Wat Suthat and the Giant Swing – 11km
Wat Arun – 8km
Wat Pho – 6km
Located in the heart of Yogyakarta, near the popular Malioboro district, the historic Phoenix Hotel Yogyakarta, a member of theMgallery Collection, is a colonial landmark dating back to 1918. With 144 elegant rooms and suites, each boasting a balcony and a fusion of Asian and European décor, The Phoenix Hotel features a restaurant, wine bar and terrace bar overlooking an open courtyard. An inviting swimming pool, indulgent day spa and modern conferencing facilities complete the exclusive experience.
There are so many options for tours around the countries featured in our Golden Lands Buddhist architecture book: Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. All the big international companies offer readymade tours for a range of budgets, but for each country there are also more specialized and local tours available, if you search a bit deeper. There are also tour companies offering packages for adventure travel, culture, diving, pilgrimage, and rail journeys.
To help you discover some of the best options for SE Asia travel, we’ve researched and put together a mind map of the tour companies.
The following image is a preview of our mind map, and see the link below for the full web page.
Some of the tour companies have Twitter accounts, and we’ve gathered the ones which are more focused on these particular countries (not big generalists) into a Twitter list of Southeast Asia Tour Companies here, so you can subscribe to all their feeds with one click.
Myanmar (Burma) is one of the best places in Asia to see Buddhist architecture and monuments. All over the country are countless iconic sights and pagodas. Here are three of the top Buddhist monuments to see on a visit to the country.
Shwedagon is the major Buddhist monument in Burma and is a landmark in Yangon. There has been a religious site here for over 2500 years and the golden stupa has been rebuilt several times; the latest in 1769.
Gilding the stupa began in the 15th century and today the golden zedi has thousands of tons of gold around its structure. At the very top are thousands of diamonds with a single 76 carat gem at the tip of the orb.
All around the zedi are smaller shrines for worship and a constant movement of people walking around the religious site, many in prayer.