Burma: a land lost in time


by Rob Sangster, Nova Scotia

“. . . For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say, ‘Come you back, you British Soldier, come you back to Mandalay!’. . . On the road to Mandalay, where the flyin’-fishes play. An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ’crost the Bay. . .”

With these words, Rudyard Kipling immortalized the longings felt by British soldiers who’d returned to foggy England after having been garrisoned in exotic, sultry Burma. He also fired my determination to experience Burma for myself, to see Rangoon, Pagan and the mighty Irriwaddy River.

But, in one sense, I waited too long. When I visited in October 2003, those places no longer existed. Instead, they are now called Myanmar, Yangon, Bagan and the Ayeyarwady River. However, in the larger sense, I found that little has changed there since. . . ever. Fifty million people live as if ageless and immobile under the glare of the tropical sun.

Malaysia, a prosperous gateway

Many visitors arrive in Myanmar after a stop in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of nearby Malaysia. K.L. (as everyone calls it) is a booming, beautiful, highrise metropolis that includes the famous 1,400-foot-tall Petronas Twin Towers.

I watched young women in traditional Muslim tudung (white head scarf covering hair, neck and upper chest) chatting away on cell phones as they strolled through a very upscale shopping district. An economy that used to depend on tending rubber trees now specializes in manufacturing microchips.

A couple of hours after leaving K.L.’s mammoth polished marble-and-glass airport, Malaysia Airlines set down on Yangon’s battered, antiquated landing field. That contrast was stark, but Myanmar’s charms are simply different in nature.

What makes Myanmar so compelling?

Since the story of Myanmar cannot be told best in a straight line, I’ll talk about what makes this country so compelling.

A visitor immediately notices the near absence of Western influences, even in the cities. There are virtually no chains or franchises and no honking. Then there are the tea plantations, teak forests, rice, peanuts, sugarcane, coconut and seemingly endless red, yellow and sea-green fields of ripening grains. People in Myanmar farm and fish, they handcraft and repair and they get by on very little cash income.

I have fond memories of the universal commitment in Myanmar to the principles of Buddha, of unfailing friendliness and of profound feelings of tranquility. And who can forget the aroma of jasmine and smoldering joss sticks?

The Lady

In 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi (Suu Kyi is pronounced “sue chee”), fondly known as The Lady, led the National League for Democracy to triumph with 80% of the vote. The victory turned to ashes when the military State Peace and Development Council arrested the winners. Since that day, it’s never loosened its iron grip on power.

Aung San Suu Kyi, imprisoned winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has tried to mobilize the world against the repressive military government. Despite her heroic efforts, most powerful world leaders still ignore the plight of the 50 million people living in Myanmar.

Consequences of tyranny

Education and health care are miserable (patients must buy their own medicine on the black market), many main roads are crumbling asphalt strips and the electrical grid is even more frail than the banking system.

To reduce the impact of student demonstrations, the government simply relocated universities far away from the cities. Not trusting most teachers, the government replaced them with its own employees. Government control of the media keeps the people uninformed. Chronic high inflation has made savings worthless. Infrastructure improvements often have potential military purposes.

I saw no military personnel on the streets, but my guide looked around and cupped his hand over the corner of his mouth when answering my questions about the government.

Because of the Bush sanctions, the junta is said to detest the U.S. government. However, on the street I felt no animosity being directed toward Westerners, including Americans. The most common reaction to me was a direct look in the eye followed by a smile. At least for travelers, Myanmar felt as safe as a visit to a Quaker meeting house.

Sights in Yangon

Although it’s the national capital, with a population of five million, Yangon puts on no airs. Most men and women dress in longyi, a sarong-like garment that wraps around the waist and falls to the ankles. Street stalls sell veggie soup and fried noodles. Sparrows in bamboo cages peep to be purchased and freed for good luck. Long lines of Buddhist monks with shaved heads walk silently along the roads, begging bowls clutched against maroon robes.

Despite being surrounded on three sides by water, Yangon is still hot and dusty and feels like a place that’s been occupied for even longer than its 2,500 years.

When a traveler leaves Yangon, the image of glorious Shwedagon Pagoda, virtually a national symbol, will be engraved in memory. Built to enshrine eight of Gautama Buddha’s hairs, it’s considered the holiest pagoda in the land. The massive terrace, a rectangle that measures 900 feet by 700 feet, supports dozens of smaller stupas, pavilions and temples as well as the central dome that rises to 326 feet. (By the way, pagodas and stupas usually have no open interior space but are supposed to contain some relic relating to Buddha, while temples have an interior space into which worshipers can enter.)

Vast amounts of gold gleam in the sun as well as in floodlights at night. The great stupa, plated with more than 8,000 slabs of solid gold, is said to contain more gold than the Bank of England. And who can calculate the value of the 5,400 diamonds, 2,300 rubies and sapphires and 1,000 gold bells used as ornamentation?

Workers sifting through the rubble of Botataung Pagoda after it was bombed in 1943 discovered a golden casket believed to contain a hair and two other relics of Buddha. Further discoveries included more than 700 bronze, silver and gold statues and one of Buddha’s teeth.

Anyone who’s missed the giant reclining Buddhas in Thailand or Sri Lanka will discover one of the finest at Kyaukhtatgyi Pagoda. As always, the message is in the soles of the feet.

The colossal scale of some pagodas and temples reminded me of the great structures of the Inca and Maya. Some are, in their distinctive way, as beautiful as Versailles. Here’s the problem: no matter how interesting the structures or their stories, laundry lists of pagodas grow tedious, so I’ll mention only a few (from among thousands) and add to that some verbal snapshots of other aspects of this fascinating country.

Bago or bust

Incongruous in a countryside of duck farms and cashew nut plantations is the stark, rectilinear grid of the British Cemetery. Twenty-seven thousand Allied soldiers died in this area during WWII. Headstones bear heartrending epitaphs composed by grieving parents whose sons died so young and far away. It made me think of the cemeteries for the tens of thousands of youngsters who slaughtered one another on the beaches and bluffs at Galipoli, Turkey. Despite these sad places, we seem to learn little about the fruits of violence from generation to generation.

Bago city boosters claim that 374-foot-tall Shwemawdaw is the world’s highest pagoda. Its predecessor on this site was built more than a millennium ago to house two hairs and several more of Buddha’s teeth. Unfortunately, mechanical chanting booming from omnidirectional speakers was less than uplifting.

At a monastery, I watched 1,200 monks devour daily rice, broth and vegetables in absolute silence. Despite the scoop of ice cream at the end, it’s a tough discipline.

To get a sense of Bago, I strolled backstreets near the river and found many 3-foot-wide shops, each with its own specialty. I also saw a tiny, wrinkled woman lying on her back using her feet to rock two hammocks holding twin grandchildren.

In describing Kanbawza Thadi Palace, a visiting 19th-century adventurer wrote that the rubies, sapphires, gold and silver possessed by the king surpassed the wealth of the greatest Turkish sultan. Bago has seen much better days.

Bagan (previously Pagan)

Now only a shadow of the powerhouse it was in the past, the small town of Bagan is defined by its thousands of pagodas (containing, yes, four more of Buddha’s teeth) and temples built between the third and 13th centuries. From the highest terrace of an 11th-century pagoda I viewed a serene landscape of hundreds of pagodas and temples, some a natural terra-cotta color, some painted white and many with gilded peaks. Marco Polo called this “one of the finest sights in the world.” Bagan is a unique place on Earth.

Traveling by horse-drawn cab, everyone’s first stop in Bagan ought to be Ananda Temple, a complicated architectural masterpiece meant to resemble an imaginary snow-covered mountain cave. Beneath a golden stupa stand four teak Buddhas, each 31 feet tall and each with distinctive hand and finger gestures.

One king obsessed with obtaining relics of Buddha built Shwezigon Pagoda on a site where a weary white elephant stopped to rest. The king collected not only a copy of the Tooth Relic enshrined in Kandy, Sri Lanka, but what he believed to be Buddha’s collarbone and a face bone.

After a different king murdered his father, he built massive Dhammayangyi Temple to improve his karma. Of course, he later executed one of his father’s wives as well as a few of the masons who built the temple, so I wonder how well that worked out.

Awed by the thousands of pagodas and temples in Bagan, I think of the immense amount of faith and manpower they represent and doubt they could be duplicated today.

“Please, just take a look”

Pleasant but persistent merchants patrol every tourist stop. These 10- to 15-year-old kids can bargain in English, German or Japanese and politely exchange a few personal words with a visitor before going for the sale. If I was not interested in someone’s pitch, I looked him in the eye and either said how much I enjoyed being in this place where they live or put my index finger to my lips, casting a spell that enabled me to drift away.

When I bought an elegant Buddha carved from teak of a golden hue, the artist tapped my payment on each of her other carvings. “Brings good luck,” she said. I think it meant I overpaid and she was wishing for another one like me.

Mandalay

Kipling, who never made it to Mandalay, wrote about
“. . . the road to Mandalay where the flyin’-fishes play.” Flying fishes on a road? Sure, because his “road” is actually the Ayeyarwady River, a trade route that stretches up the spine of the country from the Andaman Sea. Established to be the “golden city of Buddhist teaching,” Mandalay is considered the heart of Myanmar.

In 1861, to fulfill a prophecy by Buddha, King Mindon built a magnificent royal palace more than a mile square. The wisdom of the universe was supposed to flow down a 240-foot-tall gold-plated tower into the king’s throne. No reports on whether it worked.

Buddhist pilgrims come from all around the world to worship at Maha Muni Pagoda believing that the Buddha figure there is a precise image of Gautama Buddha. Tens of thousands have climbed onto a platform to apply gold leaf to the figure.

A day of pagoda-hopping can make Johnny a dull boy indeed, which led to my stopping at a gold leaf factory where workers swung 12-pound mallets hour after hour to produce rice paper-thin gold leaf squares. Even that tedious labor is probably not as bad as that at the unventilated lacquerware factory where workers apply coating after coating of lacquer by hand.

In an oppressively hot silk weaving factory, young girls worked at dozens of looms. The repetitive work leads to various infirmities that may incapacitate them by their early 30s. Tourists pass by these girls, take photographs, cluck-cluck in apparent sympathy and then buy as much of the product as they can carry.

Near the base of Mandalay Hill is the “world’s biggest book.” Ever-faithful King Mindon had 2,400 sculptors inscribe the “Tipitaka,” the great Buddhist scripture, on 729-head-high marble slabs. Each tablet stands separately in its own shrine.

It’s a tradition for visitors to climb the 1,729 steps to the top of Mandalay Hill (okay, many ride up in Toyota vans) to enjoy the sweeping view at sunset of the Ayeyarwady River and pagodas rising like golden masts from a sea of rice paddies.

Hidden pleasures

No guidebook sings the praises of the drive from Mandalay across the mountains to Inle Lake, yet it is one of the highlights of Myanmar. Our bus, powered by black-market gasoline, stood out among bicycles and motorbikes on the 4-lane highway that soon dwindled to a decaying strip of asphalt 15 feet wide.

Teak plantations and fields of ginger, mangoes and mustard bordered the narrow roadway. Spacious and colorfully decorated homes were built of woven bamboo walls and banana leaf-thatched roofs. Farmers led teams of white oxen plowing rich black earth in patterns laid down centuries ago.

We drove through Shan State, a land of mountains, river gorges and fertile plateaus where turbans and baggy trousers are common. Since fiercely independent Shan tribes vigorously oppose the central government, and some Shan men ply the opium trade in the infamous Golden Triangle (the junction of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand), part of the state is off-limits to visitors.

Beyond the highest mountain pass, we drove for hours through an idyllic pastoral landscape. A dozen different crops painted rolling hills with vivid shades of jade, burgundy and chocolate. The pleasure of that trip, including being invited into farmers’ homes, was a reminder that many of the greatest rewards from travel never appear on an itinerary.

Inle Lake

Each with a long shaft extending far behind the stern, long-tail boats are the taxis of scenic Inle Lake. In the moonlight, the motor drove our slim boat so swiftly through the shallow water that we took spray over the bow.

Characteristic of Inle Lake are the “floating gardens” in which long rows of tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, beans and even cabbage grow vigorously far out in the lake. Adapted to this environment, many farmers live in large wooden homes built on stilts over the lake waters.

Open-air markets flourish both onshore and on stilts over the water. Some merchants cater to visitors with high-quality Shan textiles, tapestries, woodcarvings, gongs and “folding books” that tell the story of the growth of a child, a perception of Buddha or whatever motivated the artist. I ignored the tattoo artists ready to permanently inscribe my whim on my body.

Other stops, still via boat, included a silversmith, a carpet factory, a shop where young women sat cross-legged on the floor rolling plump cheroots, a silk weaving plant and a blacksmith’s forge on stilts.

“Giraffe women” and jumping cats

After a short walk, we met three Padaung tribeswomen wearing 20 or more shiny brass rings around their necks to greatly increase the distance between head and shoulders. Each wore a flowing headdress, long earrings, white overshirt and black longyi and leggings. I understand that this dramatic distortion of the neck is no longer in favor among younger women.

Over decades, monks at Nga Phe Chaung (aka Jumping Cat) Monastery have taught generations of cats to jump through bamboo hoops held over their heads. The performance amuses both monks and visitors. No report from the cats.

Rewarding memories

Just before the sun set behind the mountain at the west end of Inle Lake, black silhouettes of long-tail boats glided over the red path laid across the water by the sun. Within minutes, a booming thunderstorm sent us scrambling for cover. Suddenly it seemed very primitive out in the middle of the lake.

As we departed in cool, early morning mist, the staff sang “Thank you. Thank you,” a farewell song. It was sweet, but I wished they would try my version of “This is my island, Inle sun.”

Thinking back, I find Myanmar rewards the traveler with pagodas, mountains, unique cultures and unforced friendliness. It’s one of the few destinations that have yet to enter the 20th century, let alone the 21st.

A visitor to Myanmar sees only part of the country and must interpret what he or she sees. Even so, I say go, experience, be alert — and speak out when you return. Aung San Suu Kyi and her 50 million countrymen living without freedom deserve our help.

Traveling in Myanmar

Malaysia Airlines — This is a first-class outfit. Since I’m 6'4", the station manager went out of his way to find me an exit-row seat with unlimited legroom on the upper deck of the Boeing 777-200. Each seat had a private TV/movie screen with a choice of five movies.

Each meal was well prepared and trays were quickly removed, a courteous practice most airlines ignore. Flights left and arrived on time.

Yangon Airways — I’m told this is the best choice among local airlines. It was consistently on time and its personnel were efficient and courteous. Of course, the cabin was so small, I took my daypack out of overhead storage without rising from my seat.

Travel in Myanmar — Myanmar is opening to both independent and tour group travelers. In some areas, hiring an approved tour operator is required. Some areas are still off-limits. A visa is required.

November-February is referred to as the dry, “cool” season. March-April is dry and very hot. May through August is monsoon season.

Money — Because of sanctions, credit cards and travelers’ checks are useless. Local currency is the kyat (“chat”). The official exchange rate in early 2004 was about six kyat to $1. The rate on the “parallel” market was about 900 kyat to $1. The government seems to tolerate the underground black market; however, I was told that dealers won’t exchange directly with tourists.

Health — Malaria risk is highest from May through December. Take sunscreen and Lomotil®, and don’t drink the tap water.

Food — Good food is plentiful. A typical hotel breakfast consists of Indian thali (a tray with a variety of small dishes), Chinese chow mein, a dozen different fruits, omelets of any style, Burmese yellow mee (a delicious noodle dish), baked beans, sausages, French toast, muesli, eight types of bread and more. Local cuisine seems to be a tasty combination of Thai, Chinese and Indian.

Etiquette — Don’t reveal a lot of bare skin. Shoes and socks should be removed at temples, where you should circle to your left. Be respectful.

Tour or independent travel — The ideal choice is to hire a car and driver or get four people together and hire an air-conditioned minibus and driver ($50 per day or less). If a tour is preferable, ask a lot of questions to ensure the right choice.

Accommodations

Most hotels are privately owned and charge $20-$80. Travelers paying in dollars are likely to pay up to 10 times as much as locals paying in kyat. Don’t hesitate to bargain.

Yangon — Summit Parkview Hotel (350 Ahlone Rd., Dagon Township; phone 95 1 211888, fax 95 1 227995 or visit www.summityangon. com) offers 353 rooms plus a pool and health club. Modern in the style of a mid-level U.S. hotel, it is kept very cold, perhaps to simulate luxury.

Bagan Hotel (Old Bagan; phone 95 62 70145 or fax 95 62 70146), with 108 rooms, is fabulous. The main public area is built to resemble a temple, while guest rooms are spread out beyond the huge swimming pool. My spacious room had polished wood floors, terra-cotta walls, A.C., satellite TV and a view of the pool. The bed was decorated with fresh gardenias and leaflets bearing inscrutable sayings.

Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel (No. 9, Kwin 416B, 10th St.; phone 95 2 35638, fax 95 2 35639 or visit www.mandalayhillresorthotel.com), where my room had a separate living room, two showers and a private balcony, is one of the best hotels in town.

Inle Lake — Golden Island Cottages (Nanpan village; phone 95 81 21347 or visit www.gicmyanmar.com) is an authentic-feeling lodge with separate rustic cottages made of hardwood and bamboo built on stilts over the shallow lake. An hour-long massage cost $8. Because the hotel is a cooperative, local people benefit from its success.