Only recently opened to the rest of the world, a trip to Myanmar is an increasingly popular way for people to immerse themselves in Eastern traditions before the place becomes too Westernized.
For decades, Myanmar's military kept it isolated from the rest of the world. But in 2011, the military dissolved and the country began to welcome tourists. It now draws travelers looking to explore its secrets and experience the spirituality of a country that's home to the one of world's oldest temple.
"I think Myanmar is the most peaceful place to travel to," says Bennett Stevens, co-founder of Luminous Journeys, a tour agency specializing in trips to Myanmar.
Stevens plans to offer seven- and 10-day meditation trips starting next year. One of the focal points of the trip will be a visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda, a 325-foot- high temple that towers over the city of Yangon.
The pagoda, says Stevens, is "where people interested in growing spiritually internally go."
One of Buddhism's most sacred sites, the Shwedagon Pagoda sits on the summit of the holy Singuttara Hill and contains many important religious relics. It is covered with an estimated 60 tons of gold and thousands of diamonds, rubies, sapphires, and emeralds. At its very top sits a 67-carat diamond about the size of a strawberry that glints magnificently as it catches the suns rays.
The pagoda is surrounded by a large open terrace with sweeping views of Yangon's hundreds of colorful pavilions, shrines, and other objects of devotion. Throughout the day, young monks ring bells to give thanks for passing their exams; others pour water on themselves to wash away their sins before settling into their most comfortable meditative positions to work on increasing their awareness of the present.
To those unaccustomed to the concept of mindfulness, the scene may look like a temple filled with sleeping monks and tourists. Buddhist pilgrims often walk clockwise around the main pagoda, occasionally stopping in pavilions to pray, meditate, or simply contemplate their lives and those around them. Visitors are expected to observe unobtrusively, barefoot and modestly dressed in trousers, knee-length shorts or skirts, and tops with elbow-length sleeves.
In the evening, the pagoda hosts a mystically peaceful scene. As the air cools, the golden stupas are highlighted against the darkness, and the sounds of prayers lower to a subtle tone, making it easier to focus on one's own emotions, thoughts, and sensations.
Reprinted with permission from Cathay Pacific.