In the fading sunlight over the golden-domed, Shwedagon Pagoda in the middle of Yangon, Myanmar’s former capital city, a group of about twenty people sat across from one of the giant Buddha statues, their palms together in prayer. They were Indonesian Buddhists, who had travelled all the way to pay their respects to the stupa which historians and archeologists claim was built sometime between the 6th and 10th centuries. On another side of the complex, a group of Thais, facing another Buddha icon, chanted a litany, led by a maroon-robed monk.
According to legend, however, the Shwedagon Pagoda was built 2,600 years ago to preserve strands of Buddha’s hair he had personally given to two merchant brothers on their own spiritual journey to India. The ruler of Okkalapa (as Yangon was then known), ordered the pagoda’s construction to preserve the relics. But what has also attracted visitors from around the world, is the effigies of three other worldly Buddhas and their relics as well.
There are no specific figures to differentiate the types of tour groups arriving in Myanmar. But of the nearly one million visitors in 2012, according to travel agents, about half of them were groups of Buddhist pilgrims from neighboring Thailand, Laos, Indonesia and Cambodia.
Easier access to visas and the profusion of regional budget airlines has made it easier for religious tourism to develop in Myanmar. Back in 2007, a former Burmese tourism minister estimated that the tourism industry contributed US$182 million, or 12 percent to the state budget. Burmese officials expect the number of tourists to top the 1.3 million mark by the end this year.
According to the UN World Tourism Organization, millions of people a year travel throughout the world for faith-based visits to holy sites and sacred places. Probably the best examples of faith-tourism destinations are Benares or Varanasi in India for followers of the Hindu faith, Lourdes in France for the Catholics and Mecca in Saudi Arabia for Muslims. Buddhists make the pilgrimage to venerable temples stretching from China to Indonesia, where Buddhism first made its mark in the region around the 6th century.
In fact, with 60 percent of the world's population practicing a religion, Asia is considered to be the region with the greatest number of pilgrims and travelers to faith-based events, both internationally and domestically. It is not only filled with religious sites, many places form the hubs of pilgrim centers, festivals and other related cultural activities linked to religion.
In Myanmar, where the culture is based on the predominant Theravada Buddhism, life revolves around the pre-requisites of faith. It is practiced by 89 percent of the people and is known to be the most religious Buddhist country in the world, in terms of the proportion of monks in the population and the proportion of income spent on religion. This is evident not only in the magnificent religious monuments built by bygone rulers, but also the lavish money Burmese spend today on religious rituals and offerings.
Except for national days, all holidays seem to be linked to Buddhist festivals, such as during the ordination of boys into the monkhood. Parents will spare no expenses to send off their son in style: some come in full princely regalia astride a horse or an elephant, accompanied by a retinue of chanting family members riding in a convoy of cars.
When paying homage to a shrine or a temple, Burmese don’t think twice about buying gold leaves (not cheap given the soaring price of gold) to paste on the icon. It is this aura of ‘religiosity’ permeating local life that attracts visitors to the many Buddhist shrines scattered across Myanmar.
Of 100,000 temples built over the centuries, only 2,200 remain intact, or have been rebuilt following devastating earthquakes. The center of Burma’s cultural and religious center of Buddhism is Mandalay, the country’s second largest city, with more than 700 pagodas and home to the country's biggest Buddhist university.
At the foot of Mandalay Hill is the Kuthodaw Pagoda, which houses the world’s largest book or ‘Buddhist Bible’ - 729 slabs of stone inscribed with the entire Buddhist canon, each housed in its own white stupa. Built by King Mindon in 1857, the tomb-like white stupas encircle the entire pagoda.
Another favorite destination of religious tourists is the Maha Muni Pagoda, regarded as the holiest monument because of its age and the second greatest, behind Yangon's Shwedagon. Built by King Bodawpaya in 1784, it contains a 12-foot statue of a sitting Buddha, brought all the way from western Rakhine state. The early morning ritual of washing the image’s face draws daily crowds of devotees.
But of all the temples in Myanmar, the most breathtaking are found in the ancient city of Bagan, also known as Pagan. Lasting from the ninth to the 13th centuries, the kingdom of Pagan was the first to unify the regions that would later become modern Myanmar.
During the peak of the Pagan reign, more than 10,000 temples, pagodas and monasteries were built, of which only about 2000 remain today. Located in an active earthquake zone, Bagan was slowly destroyed by 400 recorded quakes between 1904 and 1975. The last major tremor, registering 8.0 on the Richter scale, left hundreds of collapsed temples and stupas in its wake, though many were restored during the 1990s.There are lesser known but equally remarkable pagodas off the beaten track, which are likely to increase faith tourism in Myanmar.