animist beliefs burma

A Little History… Myths and Spirits in Modern Myanmar

A tiny bell tinkled in the light whisper of wind outside the inner temple, the faint music audible inside the small prayer room despite the crush of bodies kneeling prostrate in front of the gilt Buddha. After paying my respects to Buddha, Buddhism, and Burma inside the room, I continued circling the tall zedi, the Burmese word for stupa. My friend’s young daughter, M, instructed my niece Ana on Buddhist history and prayer rituals. They bowed their heads together, the sounds of their low murmurs contained to their tiny circle of instruction.

coconut offering at mt. popa bagan incense bagan burma

I peered at the carved creatures adorning the outside of the temple, and it struck me I how much Buddhism and spirituality is a consistent and daily part of Burmese life. In fact, in terms of ceremonies, merit-making activities, and donations, Burma ranks as the most religious Buddhist country in the world according to scholars who research these things. Myths, animism, and spirituality form the religious core of Myanmar and none of my pre-traveling research prepared me for the deeply spiritual side of daily life in Burma and their faithful fastidiousness.

incense temple bagan
Incense floats through the air as an offering at the Popa Taungkalat monastery near Mt. Popa, Bagan, Burma.

More than 90 percent of the Burmese practice Theravada Buddhism, a fact common in this region of the world since Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Sri Lanka report similarly high percentages of Buddhism. Burmese society differs a bit though because they embrace the merit-making tenant of Buddhism. Meaning the religious engage in good deeds, offerings, and charity work to build merit on their path toward enlightenment…a task is not undertaken lightly.

Religion devotion suffuses the country and is the most obvious layer of spirituality in Burma. But when I looked closer at the temples and shrines, Buddha is but one part to their spirituality. Spirit worship and beliefs that pre-date Buddhism are still alive and fully integrated into modern Buddhist worship, as evidenced by the mythical figures and twisted faces of part-animal creatures standing guard on every temple, in street-side shrines, and throughout the countryside.

mount popa temple bagan burma
The Popa Taungkalat monastery is home to the 37 Nats in Burmese spirituality and sits the Pegu mountain range near Bagan, Myanmar; it takes 777 steps, fending off monkeys, and a dose of ambition to reach the top of this volcanic plug that formed a pedestal of sorts that sticks out of the mountain’s sloping hillside.

Ana and I wandered the temples in Bagan and Mandalay, examining the odd additions to seemingly Buddhist temples. Why are there twisted images of strange creatures? Who are those upright people guarding the temple high at the top of Mt. Popa?

For me it came down to why? Why are these images here? I have long noticed but never researched the many Spirit Houses outside businesses, shops, and houses in Thailand.

Well, it comes from the same, basic and ancient animist beliefs. Animism predates Buddhism, Christianity, and the majority of the world religions. And it’s funny, I have spent nearly a year in Thailand over the past two years, and yet, until Ana and I traveled through Burma and saw the fervent devotion, it hadn’t occurred to me to look more closely.

spirit house thailand
A colorful spirit house at a small outdoor coffee shop in Chiang Mai, Thailand protects the establishment.

In Burma, these statues, and animals on the temple are Nat, which are at their simplest form spirits. The Burmese believe in 37 different primary Nat, while Lower Nat are regionally influence, and often, only a small community worships that one spirit. The stories behind each Nat are fascinating and remind me of the Catholic Saints I learned about in youth. And, that’s likely a bit controversial for any strong Catholics, but the Nat all have a human story behind them—a person who lived and died (often violently) but is ultimately appeased for protection through worship and honor.

naga spirit siem reap cambodia serpent angkor wat siem reap.

There is a King of the Nat, Thagyamin, who is based on of Indra, a Hindu deity. Then, the Nat descend from there with spirits to protect the mountains, forests, trees. The Nat cover every aspect of human life: hearth, animals, crops, safety. The animist beliefs integrate into daily worship for many rural Burmese, as well as the various ethnic groups.

Then you take those basic but seemingly separate Nat concepts, and mix in the Nāga serpent spirits and you have the twined and headed snakes and dragons guarding the entrances to temples complexes throughout Southeast Asia, including the ancient temples of Siem Reap.

mermaid burma burmese nat

And to complete the picture, the animist beliefs spawned a rich culture full of myth and folklore that hasn’t made it outside Burma much in the last century because of the country’s rocky politics. Stories passed to children in Burma explain why crows are black (Ana and I read this one to get a sense for their myth culture), and Burmese folklore founded the country’s creative comic characters rivaling the marvel superheroes with their powers and lessons in humanity.

animist worship burma
An odd assortment of carvings, animals, and colors denote this spot for animist worship outside Hpa-an, Burma.

Myth, history, and religion intertwine in modern Myanmar in an odd fusion I’ve only seen echoed perhaps in the spiritual Hindu-Balinese culture in Bali, Indonesia.

Mount Popa, near Bagan in Burma, is a pilgrimage site for the Burmese, and my friends and their extended family opened up their days and took Ana and me along on their journey through Bagan’s crumbling ruins, golden stupas, and mountain-side temples. After passing nearly an hour at the mountain top temple, our group reconvened near a bright golden zedi. We discussed Buddhism, spirituality, and life. Then, when we each murmured our last prayers, the thin plumes of offered incense delicately dancing into the air, I grabbed Ana’s hand for the long descent back to ground level.

buddha hpa-an
A lone Buddha statue and aging stupa are all that is left of an old hilltop temple.

I took one last look at the faded green mountains and crafty monkeys cagily watching us walk; how easy it once was for me to believe the story of the world murmured to me in my cradle, but through traveling, I have listened to so many tales. So many gods, goddesses, and deities. Cultures full o f myths, storytellers, and history. The combination and commonalities across all the cultures — Burmese, American, Balinese — it continually changes shape the more I learn and see of this beautiful world.

ad dayr monastery petra jordan

A Little History… Exploring the Myth & Fascinating Mystery of Petra, Jordan

A rose-red city half as old as time; though these words sound like the opening lyrics to a love song, they’re instead penned by a poet and speak of an ancient civilization that carved evidence of their history deep into the soft sandstone rocks jutting toward the soft blue Jordanian skies.

Wandering through the miles of sandy roads, the nubby domes of eroded mountains visible in every direction, I was overwhelmed the moment I stepped into this ancient civilization. How did they do it? Why did they carve such beautiful structures into the side of the towering rocks? And I wondered even more, since sandstone is so delicate, why is the evidence still here a full two thousand years later?

Loch Ness Monster

A Little History… Romanticizing the Myth of Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster

Loch Ness Monster
A scandalous shot of Nessie the Loch Ness Monster

You know her as Nessie and the first image of her ever captured caught the imaginations of dreamers and scientists, children and adults, and everyone in between. And even as the world learned that image was a hoax, it was too convincing—too many people wants to believe. The legend of the Loch Ness Monster, pulled straight from Scottish folklore, captivates minds with tales of a dinosaur-like prehistoric aquatic creature that has survived millennium at the bottom of Loch Ness. I had ample time before I needed to arrive in Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival, so I planned a multi-day stop to Fort Augustus, a small city situated in the heart of Scotland and home to the long and legendary lake holding Nessie’s secrets.

It’s not so much that I believe that Nessie exists, truthfully I only knew her from pop culture references in movies. But any story that generates that much intrigue deserves a closer look! Just as I love learning about myths, spirituality, and local legends in any place I travel, I wanted to dig deeper. I grew up on Celtic mythology from my dad, and thought it would be fun to learn more about Gaelic mythology and it’s influences on modern Scotland.

Plus, I wanted another reason to take some epic hikes and walks through the Scottish countryside after my Old Man of Storr hike was so memorable. From the Isle of Skye, I took a bus to Fort Augustus with a plan to hike, walk, and simply relax by the lake on a Nessie-spotting mission. The locals have an affectionate indulgence for the Nessie legend—after all, she brings in tourist dollars—and the woman at my fantastic hostel, Morag’s Lodge, mapped out several hiking routes in and around Fort Augustus. Many of these hiking routes offered ample vistas over Loch Ness (which literally means Lake Ness).

loch ness Scotland
Loch Ness unfolds on a very sunny Scottish day in Fort Augustus.

The Myth & Mystery of Nessie

The lake itself is big at 23 miles long, but it’s a mere one mile across, which is an intriguing shape and arguably made the Nessie hunting harder over the years since it was such an expansive distance. Several towns dot the shores and they are tiny and lovely spots afternoon Nessie-spotting picnics. I embraced the “Nessie-ness” of the area as a way to entertain myself. As a solo traveler, I was hiked and walked along most day, and Nessie provided me with of food-for-thought as I studied the placid ripples on the surface of the lake.

Now, no shade on any Cryptozoologists reading this (they search for legitimate evidence of legendary and mythical animals, think: Big Foot, Nessie, Yeti, etc), but most scientists now agree that Nessie is a modern-day myth. Using modern technology in 2003, a BBC-sponsored expedition extensively canvassed the entire lake using sonar technology and found no evidence of anything the size and scale of Nessie. Even so though, dreamers and skeptics persist—plus, the well-read scientist Robert Rines contends that Nessie may have died only recently as a result of global warming!

With such a pervasive myth around her, I was far from the only tourist on the shores of Loch Ness hoping to feel a piece of the legend.

Nessie spotting in Loch Ness

Loch Ness Monster selfie

Pretty waters on Loch Ness.

Evolution of the Loch Ness Monster Myth

Nessie-themed cruises are a popular attraction in Fort Augustus, and many backpackers and families take the small boats onto the lake for an afternoon of sunshine (or rain). I didn’t take a cruise this time around because I had quite enjoyed my other hikes int eh Scottish countryside. Plus, boats aren’t my thing. Instead, the local tourist information office shared a wealth of information with me about how the myth has evolved since it reached a fever pitch in the 1930s.

The first sighing of a large monster in the area actually dates as far as the sixth century, but water beasts myths were actually a common thing back then—they were very popular in Celtic folklore! So, those accounts are even less credible than the video footage, photos, and sightings that have come forth in the last 70+ years. Basically, despite the best technology offered today, there is a whole lot of speculation and very little proof. The scientific community has indulged the myth by using extensive sonar testing equipment on the lake floor—not once, but multiple times over the decades. And although some sightings contend that Nessie resembles the prehistoric plesiosaurs, paleontologists say that not only did the lake’s formation not overlap with the time period the animal lived, but that its anatomy and cold-blooded status would make the lake an impossible habitat.

Suffice to say, I loved seeing first hand the place that launched so many myths—a lake so dark and vast that it gave way to a myth as persistent and beloved as Nessie. Even though the bulk of the scientific and global community agree that Nessie is likely a myth, there’s something thrilling about a new shadowy photo taken and shared online. I want to believe. :)

But thankfully, even in a town built around such a potent legend, Loch Ness offers a lot more to do and see, so I will soon share how I spent my days on Loch Ness!

Video Tour of Loch Ness

Quick Tips: Planning Your Trip to Inverness

Where to stay: The Inverness Youth Hostel is the best budget option in town—book well ahead during high season, however, as Inverness can fill up quickly! The King’s Highway Wetherspoon is a lovely option for those on a mid-range budget.

Rent a car: Driving a rental car is the most popular way to explore the Scottish Highlands. Many backpackers are willing to pool resources to share rentals for a day of exploring.

What to wear: The weather changes quickly not only in Scotland. You’ll be glad for waterproof boots and a raincoat, and I was grateful for the travel umbrella I carried with me around Scotland—it made waiting at bus stop more enjoyable, so I highly recommend bringing one if you’re backpacking the area and not renting a car. Bring a scarf as well so you can protect yourself from the midges if they’re out in full force. And if you’re bringing nice camera gear, heed the warnings that it can be wet—bring your camera’s rain jacket and even consider a small dry bag.

Onward travel: Consider buying the Scotland Lonely Planet before backpacking the area—I found the transportation advice invaluable in helping me backpack Scotland.