It’s not very often you feel like you’ve stepped into a new world. Myanmar is the official name for the country most people know as Burma. This isolated place secretly hugs the shoulder of Thailand, touches the eastern point of India. In a region dominated by sunny Thai resorts, Vietnamese food and Singaporean skyscrapers, this South East Asian country is often overlooked.
An introduction to Burma
This is a land where cities and farms alike are dotted generously with pagodas of dazzling pure gold, where a greedy, backwards government enforces martial law through violence, taxation and censorship, and where people’s smiles and welcoming attitude instil a glimmer of hope in a country that is usually in the news for the wrong reasons.
The result is a curious mix; an unassuming, corrupt country with an exotic mystique. As Thailand’s neighbour, one might think that culturally, it must be quite similar. Not quite. Let me tell you why a journey through this country, recently coming out of isolation, is a strange and fantastic thing.
The visa, as of 2012
The country is famously adverse to letting the media through it’s borders; writers, journalists and media professionals are typically denied entry, unless they lie on the visa form and make sure the government’s google search won’t blow the facade. I obtained my visa in Bangkok after being challenged for all kinds of unusual paperwork at Myanmar’s Hanoi embassy (a permission letter from my employer? A detailed itinerary?).
Yes, it meant I needed to enter Thailand purely to visit the Myanmar embassy, but thankfully it was a smooth and straightforward process. One completed form, one passport photocopy, two photos and 810 Thai Baht, and I had my entry visa.
Stuffing your wallet with Myanmar Kyat before you arrive is an impossibility. Crisp, clean, and new portraits of Benjamin Franklin are as good as gold, and the only thing that will get you anywhere. Money changers are found in abundance in Yangon, but it was important to treat the US dollars like a geek might treasure a comic book, because they are scrupulous about tears and folds, and won’t hesitate to reject your note. ATMs are as rare as Buddha’s hairs (legend has it a few examples of each exist somewhere in the country) so visitors must bring all their spending money from abroad.
I couldn’t help but make similarities between Yangon (Rangoon) and an African city such as Mozambique’s capital Maputo. It made me feel as though I was in a mysterious new continent, Asian looks with an African personality, and a twist of India for good measure.
A spiced, simmering soup of an city populated by umbrella-toting monks sporting sunglasses and tattoos, smiling women dabbed with spots of sandlewood cream on each cheek, and betel leaf-chewing men spitting streams of blood-red saliva from blood-red mouths.
We walked the dilapidated, shambolic streets of cracked and broken cement, a minefield of open sewers, blankets piled with market vegetables and roasted grasshoppers, stalls selling watches, and red betel leaf stains spattered on the sidewalk.
Touts were noticeably absent and had been replaced by curious onlookers who stared, open-mouthed, dressed in traditional long skirts. Dangling from the iron lattice balconies of brightly painted, crumbling British apartment blocks were makeshift doorbells, a bell on a long rope.
I was here with C, from Paris, whom I’d met a month earlier in Borneo. When she suggested travelling together in this place, I couldn’t resist. I knew so little about Myanmar and wanted to find out more. During my time slurping noodle soup and sidestepping motorbikes in Vietnam, she’d been sunning and diving in The Philippines, and in Yangon’s tiny international airport we reunited.
In the centre of Yangon’s chaos, we found a structure of serenity. A shining gumdrop of pure gold, 110 meters tall, surveying the city in glimmering resplendence. It was Shwedagon Pagoda, bell shaped, half a spinning top, plated with gold leaf that reflected brightly against the overcast sky. The pagoda was ringed by it’s loyal subjects, hundreds of pagodas lesser in size but equal in magnificence, each one attracting kneeling and bowing Buddhist worshippers. Some small copies mimicked Shwedagon Pagoda, others were angular golden houses, decorated with delicate verandas and overhangs of gold lattice.
Nearby, temples of mosaic mirrors shone like a shard of diamond plunged into the earth’s surface. A wonder of the world, but unknown to many. Pilgrims abound, but barely a tourist in sight.
Ringed by rolling mountains of deep green, Inle Lake’s calm surface was a liquid blue glass softly lapping beneath the hull of our canoe. We were in Myanmar’s east, the Shan state, a mixing bowl of towns which fed off the lake, occupied the banks and small islands, and balanced, stilted, upon it’s surface.
Nyaungshwe was like a vintage photograph, and the gateway town to Inle Lake. Roads of dust swept past shop fronts selling rice, noodles and beer. Mangy dogs scampered out of the way of horse and carts, under the watch of monasteries and pagodas. The soundtrack was composed by crude home made trucks with tractor engines bolted to the front bumper, trundling down the streets in clouds of choking diesel fumes.
The floating village washed into the distance as the canoe’s tractor engine thrummed with a loud throaty rumble. I smiled at C, seated behind me. “Looks like rain”, I said to her, half confused by my own statement. Over her left shoulder, pastel skies of bright blue and turquoise, the sun illuminating palm fronds. Over her right, bubbling armies of rain clouds, amassing forces to strike the mountains with cold spears of rain.
C and I had noticed this phenomena from afar the day before, atop a mountain lookout we had cycled to. The lake seemed to have two, three, four simultaneous weather types, and now we drifted into light rain. As we opened our umbrellas, we noticed the other boats doing the same, and canoes bloomed with round coloured shields. All the while, solitary fisherman continued throwing nets and awkwardly controlling wooden paddles using one hand and one foot. They knew the rain wouldn’t last long. And so; a moment later, sun.
Usually when someone insists bus travel can’t be done, they’re right. The taxi was the right choice, we realized. C, plus B and L, two Belgians who we met at Inke Lake, and myself shared the bumpy, offroad, two-and-a-half hour drive to Pindaya. The landscape was a woollen tapestry of green paddocks and trees, and slick mud fields of iron red. As we enjoyed the scenery, locals on motorbikes and horse-drawn carts returned our waves and hellos.
With memories of Borneo’s enormous Deer Cave still fresh in my mind, I knew that Pindaya cave had a lot to live up to. When we entered the mouth of the cave, through the monastery carved into the side of the mountain, eight thousand sparkling golden Buddha statues welcomed us into their cold, quiet, cavernous home. Large and small, faded and newly painted, each one wryly smiling at us with golden lips.
They crowded narrow passages and cascaded up the cave sides, the smallest ones gripping impossibly to the steepest walls. The aptly named ‘maze’ section was a swirling dream of a million golden Buddha eyes, the ‘perspiring’ black Buddha cold and wet to the touch. Sometimes a place seems so surreal you wonder if it actually happened.
A brief stop in the city of Mandalay, thrumming with pimped-out jeeps, jade merchants, relaxed beer cafes and construction sites where women balanced piles of bricks on their heads. We bid farewell to our Belgian companions at photogenic U Bein bridge, tall, skeletal and wooden, as monks and bicycles silhouetted against the sunset.
We sat down for an ice cold coke in a small shop. We pulled up plastic chairs, and received a warm welcome from the waitress, who clearly hadn’t seen many westerners in her cafe before. It was a hot day, and we were sweating. To our amusement, she took out a fan, and began fanning us as we drank!
The next day we arrived in Bagan. Bicycle mounted, and with hundreds of kilometers of dry scrubland to explore, C and I set out to discover Bagan’s temples and pagodas. Numbering over four thousand, the brick and mortar structures exploded into the distance like a shotgun spray, the pointed stupas nestled among the palm trees and spiked bushes.
The sun was relentless and the cycling through deep sand was slow going. Most pagodas were bell-shaped ruins of red and orange brick, house-sized, baking under the fierce sun as they had for hundreds of years. These ancient structures spent their retirement huddled in clusters, but the biggest of the temples were mighty solitary giants, dominating the landscape like castles of brickwork.
Dhammayangyi Pahto was monstrous, square and angular, with turrets and spires reaching for the sun. Another colossus, Sulamani Pahto was more akin to an Aztec ruin with it’s pyramidal shape, a mountain of brick hiding high hallways painted with Buddha images. With no rules or safety regulations, it was easy to gain a high vantage for the sunset, climbing freely up onto the walls of one of the bigger temples.
One taxi driver we met told us the government, in conjunction with the petrol station company, limits his fuel stops to prevent him from earning more money. Myanmar is humbling. It is generous and honest, but with the submissive, money hungry government, it has the feeling of a friend in an abusive relationship. Its people are very friendly and love to say hello to foreigners, and it is the traveller’s responsibility to ensure the money goes into the people’s hands. The politics are complicated, so I can do no more than hope Myanmar sees better times in the near future.