The road back to Burma

With the tourism boycott over and the political situation thawed, this untouched corner of South-east Asia is enticing travellers in their droves.

By Mark Stratton
Published 18 Apr 2012, 14:11 BST, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 08:51 BST

An elderly monk, wearing oversized spectacles, chimed a bell and on came the dancing cats. As if the stilted teak monastery on Inle Lake, hosting centuries-old golden Buddha statues wasn't enough, the monks coax cats to leap through hoops in return for tourist donations. Yes, the Jumping Cat Monastery was bizarre, yet further exotica awaited.

"Shall we go see the long-necked ladies now?" asked Kyaw, my guide. A short paddle away, in a floating souvenir emporium, five tribal Kayan women paraded elongated necks bearing 25 chunky brass coils. Kyaw explained their giraffish appearance was an optical illusion, as the coils depress their collar bone rather than lengthen their neck.

The shop owner had hired them to increase custom. "Before coming here, these ladies were very poor but now they can feed their families," said Kyaw, sensing my unease at this sideshow. I watched a German couple hand over several US dollars to them, inducing smiles as extended as their necks.

The debate about whether or not to visit South-east Asia's last unexplored frontier is over. In 1995, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi requested tourists boycott Burma to avoid benefiting a callous dictatorship that has systematically brutalised and impoverished its people since 1962's coup d'état. Recently freed from seven years' house arrest, Suu Kyi reversed this advice, urging 'responsible individual tourism' instead. The floodgates have since opened, with Burma seeing a surge in visitors throughout 2011.

From my perspective, it felt the right time to visit. Burma's new military-backed 'civilian' government, under president Thein Sein, gained power in 2010's sham elections but has since held public talks with Suu Kyi. Newspaper stands in the former capital of Yangon are sprouting new titles as press censorship eases, some political prisoners have been released and the government has quietly suggested it stole Suu Kyi's 1990 election win. On a recent visit, UK foreign secretary William Hague said there was a chance that what Suu Kyi had "hoped and longed for for so long will actually take place."

Boycotting Burma has hurt ordinary Burmese not the military junta that has pillaged the country's mineral wealth.

It's impossible to completely avoid putting money into government hands when visiting, yet I hoped my trip's itinerary — arranged by a Burmese-born tour operator and featuring small private hotels, local guides, as well as experiencing public transport and family restaurants — would benefit local people.

First impressions

Transferring from Bangkok to Yangon was like shopping in a designer store, then ending up at a car boot sale. Economic sanctions have bitten Burma's principal city hard. Yet for all Yangon's decaying British neo-classical edifices, pavements polka-dotted by betel (a chewable leaf) saliva, and low-rent sidewalk entrepreneurialism, I enjoyed my energetic introduction, fuelled by condensed milk-sweetened teas taken in the myriad tea shops.

On the streets, I was surprised both by the strong Indian influence, evidenced by samosas sizzling in vats of oil, astrologers, and betel paan sellers, and the posters of Suu Kyi, being sold openly. "You wouldn't have seen that six months ago," said my guide, Nu Nu. Later, while buying a dog-eared copy of George Orwell's Burmese Days on Pansodan Street, I heard gallows humour directed towards the government. Asking the bookseller if he had 1984, he quipped, "We don't need any more Big Brothers, sir."

Trains of burgundy-red robed monks bearing silver alms bowls quickly become familiar sights in this devoutly Buddhist country. Particularly at Yangon's crowning glory: the mountainous, hand-bell shaped Shwedagon Paya, coated in five tons of gold and capped by 4,000 diamonds around its 330ft-high summit. Legend has it this stupa, or pagoda, is 2,500 years old and contains relics of Lord Buddha, including strands of hair.

While some pilgrims dozed in the pagoda's shade, others placed flowers and bathed images of Buddha. "If you make Buddha cool and happy, then you'll have happiness yourself and purify your mind," explained Nu Nu. Performing good deeds such as this, and making donations, is part of Buddhist life — a process of 'merit-making' believed to help attain 'salvation'. Their faith has arguably given many Burmese the inner strength to survive decades of hardship with remarkable dignity.

An elderly academic I met exemplified this. The authorities had forced him to retire from teaching history. "I was banned because I wouldn't accept them rewriting history to glorify themselves," he said. "I lost everything, but pray for a better life next time."

From Yangon, I headed into central Burma to explore its key attractions: the Irrawaddy River floodplain's architectural treasures around Mandalay and Bagan, then Shan State's trekking country and Inle Lake.

Compared with Rudyard Kipling's evocative poem, my own 'Road to Mandalay' was an unromantically quick flight. Mandalay proved similarly unremarkable: an expanding city of commerce fuelled by Chinese trade. Yet this former dynastic capital — the final one, before British subjugation in 1885 — is awash with several former capitals across the surrounding Irrawaddy floodplain.

Most dazzling is Mandalay's Mahamuni Temple, which hosts the revered 2,500-year-old Rakhine Buddha, said to have been touched by Buddha himself. A photograph from 1901 shows its original slender form — before the Burmese predilection for plastering their most precious icons in gold-leaf to obtain merit spawned a six-and-a-half-ton, gold-wrapped sumo. Preparing to add to Buddha's physical burden, I joined a queue, clutching a bought offering: gold leaf.

Elsewhere, I visited the world's longest teak bridge, spanning three-quarters of a mile and made of pillars salvaged from the former royal capital of Amarapura, south of Mandalay. I then toured another abandoned capital, Ava, by pony and cart, marvelling at crumbling stupas and listing palace towers from the 14th century amid humble paddy fields.

The greatest expression of dynastic one-upmanship, however, lies a short boat journey upriver from Mandalay. Here, in a town called Mingun, an unfinished stupa's 165ft-high ochre brick base looks as if it could have been deposited by a giant celestial hod-carrier. King Bodawpaya had planned for it to reach almost 500ft in height when it was begun in 1790, but died leaving it incomplete. "He had 200 grandchildren but none dared finish it because astrologers said the kingdom would be destroyed if they did," said local guide, Wim. These fears proved prophetic. The structure is incised by deep crevasses, opened by a massive earthquake in 1839 that would certainly have toppled the stupa had it ever been finished.

Irrawaddy adventures

At 5.30am, just as a fingernail of sunrise appeared over the Irrawaddy, the twin-decked 1950s Japanese riverboat groaned in protest as it escaped its moorings: the twice-weekly ferry from Mandalay to Bagan was departing. As we drifted out midstream, I found some floor space among the passengers — mainly women and children, smeared in a tree bark sunscreen paste called thanaka and clothed in the ubiquitous longyis (sarongs).

There was little else to do but enjoy the daily Irrawaddy's rhythm. Our boat rocked fisherman in canoes as they cast their nets, and passed mid-river island communities filling sandbags — used in construction — for a few dollars a day. Stopping frequently at riverbank villages, we watched departing passengers whisked away by waiting ox and carts and let hawkers board, bearing tempting fried bananas and quail egg snacks.

The riverboat delivered me to Bagan 14 hours and 130 miles later, where, next morning, on Dhamayazika Pagoda, I gazed at a landscape comparable only to Angkor Wat.

More than 4,000 archaeological monuments lie around Bagan, the former capital, built between the 11th and 13th centuries, into which Buddhism was first introduced from southern Burma and India. I could see stupas, monasteries and temples — some golden, some brick, some simply collapsed — popping up like toadstools across a verdant plain of crops.

Buddhism got off to a less than auspicious start in Bagan, as my guide, Hla Ma, revealed. "King Anawrahta wanted to convert his subjects," said Hla. "He sent his army to steal the sacred scriptures of the ethnic group Buddhist Mon of southern Burma and kidnap their monks and temple-builders." As a bid to promote a religion based on karma, Anawrahta's actions display a near psychotic disregard for the quality of his own afterlife.

A similar lack of sensitivity was shown in 1988, when, in an effort to boost tourism, the military forcibly evicted more than 5,000 locals to create Bagan Archaeological Zone — the city's historic region. "We're very happy tourists are coming here to improve people's lives," said Hla diplomatically; "Burma is safe to visit."

I was mesmerised by Bagan's exquisite architecture: 13th-century temple Tayok Pye's rich ornamentation of Faustian ogres, flamed arches, and sea monsters; Gubyaukgyi Temple's sublime 12th-century murals depicting the Jakata tales — Buddha's previous lives, and finally, sunset viewed from the seven-tiered Shwesandaw Pagoda.

Most metaphorically poignant is the 11th-century Manuha Temple. Enslaved Mon builders honoured their own king, similarly captured by the unenlightened Anawrahta, by shoehorning a giant Buddha with angst-ridden features into a temple too small for it, thus symbolising imprisonment. I'd read Manuha became a resonant icon for Burmese visitors during Suu Kyi's imprisonment.

When released from house arrest in 2010, Suu Kyi's first trip outside of Yangon was to Bagan. She visited lacquer shop Maw Maw's, as I did, where I saw lacquerware being skilfully hand-painted. Shortly after her visit, Suu Kyi reversed her opposition to tourism. For owner Maw Maw, this was a huge relief. "It's been difficult with the tourist boycott and disasters like Cyclone Nargis", she says. "We desperately need tourism — I have a responsibility to keep my staff employed." She pays them around $3 (£2) a day — well above Burma's pitiful average monthly wage of $20 (£12).

Tribal life

Stupa fatigue had set in by the time I reached the southern Shan state, although I enjoyed Pindaya's dazzling limestone caves, home to 8,000 Buddhist images amid the dripping stalactites.

Burma's 135 ethnic groups are well represented in Shan and trekking is a great way to see them. The military regime has been in almost perpetual conflict with some, including the Karen tribe, who live on the Thai-Burma border — off-limits to visitors. Trekking in Shan's hills, however, is safe and permitted.

Kyaw and I drove to Kalaw for a three-day hike to Inle Lake. A former British hill station set amid pine forests and tea-plantations, Kalaw has a mock-Tudor, British-built railway station where occasional trains struggle along grassy tracks at walking pace.

From there, covering around seven and a half miles daily, we meandered through rice paddies and ox-ploughed fields of chillis, yellow sesame and wild ginger. Village after village introduced me to the Tanu, Taung-Yoe, Paluang, and Pa-O tribes whose cheroot-smoking women wear black clothes and vivid headscarves.

Both nights were spent in a different village monastery. "Your donation to them is very important," said Kyaw, "because the monks do many good things for the community." One deed included supporting 12 underprivileged young boys as novice monks in Nantilate Monastery, where we stayed our first night. I awoke to their youthfully discordant 5am prayer, which resembled an alarm clock whose batteries were running down. When the monk opened the monastery door, they flew out with robes flapping like bats fleeing a roost.

When we left, the monastery's smiling monk, Thi Ran, had an 'important question' for me? "What's your Premiership football team," he asked? A familiar question, and as everybody in Burma seemingly supported Manchester United, I plumped for them, aiming to please. "Ah… Rooney," the monk sighed in appreciation.

Our trek ended as the Shan Hills sloped towards wonderful Inle. Some 80,000 Intha people live in stilted villages across this 45sq mile body of water, which, in sunlight, glints between the floating rice fields like shimmering panes of glass.

My first impression, when transferring by motorised canoe to my stilted cottage in Namphan, was of a pre-industrialised Venice meets Lake Titicaca. Narrow watery avenues weave through towns of wooden stilted houses, rafts of tomato fields staked by bamboo poles with kingfishers poised on them, floating piggeries and, invariably, the golden stupas of numerous sublime water temples.

Besides long-necked ladies and feline gymnastics, I discovered Inle's theatricality includes its legendary leg-rowers. These remarkable fishermen intertwine a paddle behind their calf and shoulder blade to row by swinging their leg in exaggerated fashion, leaving two hands free to cast nets.

Inle's San Marco moment is the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda. Joining excited crowds bearing bunches of raspberry-coloured water lily offerings, I filed inside for an audience with five revered Buddha images brought here by a 12th-century Bagan king, expecting to be awed. Instead, I found locals kowtowing to images so plastered in gold-leaf that one resembled an egg; another, a cottage loaf.

Kyaw later took me to Pauk Pa village, to a household where ladies rolled around 1,000 cheroots each day, not on virginal thighs, admittedly, but with quick hands, earning around 400 kyat (40p) per 100.

He also arranged our return there for dinner, to put some much-needed tourist money on the table. We were leg-rowed over in the dark for a tasty spread of mystery waterfowl, vermicelli noodles, and fish riceballs called htamin gyin, served with spicy tamarind sauce. The main room filled with family and friends keen to witness the strange foreigner eating. Free-flowing Chinese beer and rice-fermented hooch assuaged my self-consciousness.

Golden future?

Returning to Yangon, I made one final trip to Kyaikhityo's sacred Golden Rock Pagoda, 125 miles east of the capital, travelling on a decrepitly atmospheric train whose windows opened with guillotine ferocity. Stewards in white tunics served coffee acrobatically as the carriage lurched from side to side.

The path to Golden Rock's shrine is a steep hike among Burmese pilgrims. They represented what I love about these people: their joie de vie — warm-hearted laughter, generosity that stretched from donating the little they have to temples, and repeated offers to pay for my meals, to a love of bling, attested to by oodles of kitsch souvenirs on route.

At the top, I found Asia's holiest geological oddity: a gigantic golden granite boulder, 50ft in circumference and topped by a stupa said to encapsulate more of Buddha's follicles (little wonder he's depicted bald). Around the rock, amid a fug of incense and chiming bells, devotees knelt in prayer; probably, like me, in awe of its gravity-defying balance on the cliff edge. Legend says the sacred hairs keep it from tumbling down the mountainside.

I stayed there until sunset, when the air grew chilly and the rock burned crimson then vermillion. It seemed to accentuate the shrine's precariousness, balanced on the edge, like Burma, which could so easily tip into civil war and violent crackdowns if reform isn't forthcoming. Or retain its balance and embrace a new civilian-run democracy, ensuring this magical country basks in a shining golden-leaf future.


Getting there
Thai Airways flies daily to Yangon from Heathrow via Bangkok.

AirAsia flies to Yangon from Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.

Vietnam Airlines flies to Yangon via Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City from Gatwick.

Average flight time: 13h.

Getting around
Internal flights are available from Air Bagan. Intercity buses are pricey but vary in quality and often depart early morning, or overnight for longer journeys. A journey on Burma's ancient railway is recommended, including atmospheric (and long) journeys to Golden Rock, Inle, Kalaw, Bagan, and Mandalay. The Irriwaddy ferry from Mandalay-Bagan leaves Wednesday and Sunday but may not run during dry season's low water. 

When to go
From late October-March during dry season. May-June is very hot, often 40C, while July-September is monsoonal.

Need to know
Visas: Required for UK citizens. See for more info and the latest on where to travel, as several ethnic conflict zones are off-limits and hazardous.

Currency: Kyat. £1 = 10 kyat. At the time of writing, Burma had no ATMs and only clean unfolded US dollar bills seemed acceptable.

Health: Talk to your GP before you go about anti-malarial drugs and other jabs.

International dial code: 00 95.

Time difference: GMT+6.5.

Where to stay
Golden Island Cottages (Inle).
Golden Rock Hotel (Kyaiktiyo). T: 00 95 057 60491.
Kumudara Hotel Bagan.
Pine Hill Resort (Kalaw). T: 00 95 081 50079.
Pindaya Inle Inn (Pindaya). T: 00 95 081 66280.
Panorama Hotel (Yangon).

More info
Lonely Planet: Myanmar (Burma). RRP: £15.99.
Under the Dragon: A Journey Through Burma, by Rory MacLean. RRP: £11.99.

How to do it
TransIndus offers a 20-day Burma Odyssey private tour, with B&B, internal transfers, guides, and return international flights, from £3,795 per person, based on two sharing. 

Published in the May/June 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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