Marion Hume | August 24th, 2011
Photos by Amber Rowlands
Should you go? My decision to go to the nation the ruling junta renamed Myanmar was perhaps easier than yours will be; I was assigned a story there and thus had the privilege to visit one of the world’s most complex and compelling nations.
Here’s some of what you need to know; Burma is a dictatorship and despite recent changes in parliament, still ruled with an iron fist. It is not, as it may appear to visitors, “gloriously unspoiled” because its people are not free. It is, however, opening up for tourism. Cash only. No credit cards. No international phone roaming. Restricted internet access.
We didn’t plan our days, it was done for us. However should you be planning yours, here’s what we did (leaving out the work bit, and thus making this trip shorter than it was).
Early morning flight from Bangkok to Yangon. Lunch at Padonmar Restaurant, Thai and Myanmar Cuisine, served at an old colonial house with wicker chairs on the lawn and lanterns in the trees. Sightseeing including Chauk Htat Gyi pagoda, to see “one of the highest colossal reclining Buddha images in Myanmar” (with very long eyelashes and a pearl pink manicure). Cold towels are offered to wash our feet as we leave. Then the Shwedagon Pagoda (see solo story). Evening spent on the Royal Barge from Mandalay, which isn’t really “the” royal barge, instead a bigger replica in concrete. Cabaret includes amazing puppetry and a dancing pantomime elephant. Around the barge are “tableau vivant” of ancient Myanmar.
Addresses in Burma are complicated. Here’s that of the Padonmar Restaurant;
No 105/107 Kha-Yae Bin Road, Dagon T/S between Pyi Daung Su Yeik Tha (Halpin) and Manawhari Road/ Ahlone Road, Yangon. So no point in giving you addresses here. We stay at the Traders Hotel, which we find fabulous for such a poor country. We have a lot to learn about how ritzy things can get in Burma.
Flight to Heho, gateway to Inle Lake, which is 14 miles long, seven miles wide and spectacular. Visit to NgaPheChaung Monastery, where young monks pose in ancient wooden window frames. They have done this before, although today, we are the only visitors. We visit Aythaya, in the Shan state, between Taunggyi and Inle Lake, the first successful western-style vineyard. The vines were brought from Europe in 1998 by the German proprietors. The local cool kids are here, having arrived on their motorbikes. They keep their 50s-style helmets on as they sit at the prime table. It is clearly cool to be a biker. Night rest at Pristine Lotus Hotel. The beer is chilled. The wine is good. We are amazed.
Proceed to Nampan morning market for sightseeing. We travel by wooden boat and see the first other foreigners on this trip. Entry to the market is by rickety bamboo bridge. Germans tourists, despite all that “Vorsprung durch Technik” stuff, which would surely convince that the weight of 10 fat Europeans is not the same as that of four undernourished Burmese, push past to get to the bargains. The bridge bends just short of breaking point over the muddy shallows of the lake. They buy elephant puppets and horse puppets and little articulated jewelled fish. I also buy a little articulated fish, but not a jewelled one because I have heard unsettling stories about ruby mines in the Shan State. Behind the front line of souvenir sellers, the real business of the market goes on. Pao ladies smoking fat cheroots sell chillis, Inntha ladies sell tomatoes grown on floating gardens in the lake. We arrive at a monastery famous for its jumping cats too late. The cats are asleep. We are disappointed. Travelling around the lake by boat is awe inspiring, especially at twilight, when the mist rises off the water. There is little electricity, just a few burning braziers. It is astonishingly lovely. By the time we head into the reeds to moor, it is pitch dark. And silent.
The truth about Day 4 and 5 is we work. So let’s skip to the day we travelled on a groovy coach complete with damask curtains and chandeliers (they ship them in from Japan and India and don’t change the furnishings) to Kalaw, high in the hills. In the colonial days, the rich escaped the heat up here. Now, they are reopening houses that would not look out of place in Surrey as country house hotels. We have lunch at one surrounded by an English country garden. The food in Burma, if you are rich, is delicious. We travel on to meet some tea roasters. Muscles bristling, they look like Hell’s Angels. “Arnold Schwarzenegger” is painted in big black letters on a wall, no mean feat in a place where you can’t check the spelling on Google.
We catch another flight on Air Mandalay. We get in another (groovy) coach. We drive to a temple, walk a bit, then go inside. Buddhas are illuminated by our torchlights. A biker in one of those 50s helmets slides up to me in the dark and opens his hand. He shows me a “ruby”. Burmese rubies are illegal in the US and Europe. The “ruby” shimmers under the light of a quick camera flash. He does not know that someone with me is a gem expert. Anyway, it is not a ruby. Outside, he drops a brick on it, having placed it in a pre-arrange indent in the ground, this to prove it is a real gem and it does not break. I pass. We continue inside. We climb. We walk out onto a parapet and a view over the thousands of temples of Bagan. Seeing the sun go down, here, would be incredibly moving, except that a bunch of Aussie backpackers turn up (the only ones we’ll see). “I can take a picture of the back of your head at home, mate,” says one, as the other blocks his view, and they both block mine. But even they are silenced by the spectacle of sunset. As we climb back down, the temple has been lit by naked, upright candles. It feels like climbing into King Tut’s tomb. Alone. (I have waited to let the Aussie boys leave first).
Up before dawn. A drive on a WW2 bus, with wooden slatted seats and rattan wrapped around the poles. A field. Three vast deflated balloons. A gift of a balloon flight which I know has cost more than someone’s monthly salary. The balloons fly over thousands of temples as wisps of smoke from the breakfast cooking fires hover close to the earth. We fly higher than is comfortable, then back low, skimming over the tree tops, which is completely wonderful. Eventually, we land in a field, our heads ducked down, as instructed, in the wicker basket. When we emerge, a beautiful boy in a pork pie hat is smiling. He has with a wonky photocopy of George Orwell’s “Burmese Days” to sell. Night rest at Aureum Palace Hotel, so jaw droppingly grand you cannot help wonder who owns it. Thousand year old pagodas and stupa are illuminated across from the swimming pool.
Work, if you could call it that, learning how Burmese lacquer is still made in the traditional way, using tree resin, horsehair and bamboo. We spend so much time there, we miss a temple but not Ananda Paya where the four towering standing gold Buddhas are awe-inspiring. We run out of adjectives to describe golden Buddhas. We stop at other pagodas and temples. We step into the interior darkness, then aim a flashlight and there’s another 12 foot high Buddha. Back out in the daylight, a girl cycles past with a ghostly phantom face, somewhat like a geisha’s make up. It is Thanakha, a paste made from sandalwood to protect against the sun. We fly back to Yangon.
We stay at the Governor’s Palace. We know the grander the hotel, the more questions one must ask. We ask them of ourselves and quietly. Dinner is served out on the lawns amidst the heady smell of camellias and lit by candles tucked behind vast red parasols. Before that, we have had afternoon tea - proper afternoon tea, with scones and jam and cream, at The Strand, once frequented by Kipling and the colonial rulers of old Rangoon. Before that we have visited Bogyoke Aung San Market, searching for (more) lacquerware and buttons made from mother-of-pearl. The good deed we have done today (we hope) is to briefly visit a monastery and give money and to linger longer with the nuns, who have a harder life than the monks, and give them money and food. We leave Yangon astonished, hoping to return and wondering if that will ever be possible.