Burma’s ‘tourist life line’

Burma is rapidly emerging from its cocoon of self-imposed isolation. And, as AMAR GROVER discovered, a visit to this land of golden pagodas is like a trip back in time.

Long isolated, even from immediate neighbours Burma, or Myanamar as it prefers to be called now, is rapidly emerging, from a wasting socialist cocoon. Visit Myanmar Year has ended and as the accompanying controversy over visiting the country recedes, it is certain visitors will come once more. And, this seems to be what its people want.

Old hands may miss downtown Yangon’s complete absence of traffic, its “town from the lost end of time feel”. But for me, the city retains an intriguing mix. Ancient wooden Chevrolet buses still pack in the commuters and rumble up and down the Colonial British grid-like streets. The air of neglect is being gradually offset by development. Burma’s famous Strand Hotel has been thoroughly revamped (despite the air-conditioning ceiling fans still turn, giving that film set feel) and in the evening impromptu markets spring up on virtually every street corner.

Though a large Indian community stayed behind after independence in 1948, Burma is overwhelmingly Buddhist. Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda, rising nearly 100 metres from its base, is a pivotal point. One of the largest and most famous in the country, it is reputed to contain hairs of the Buddha and has survived earthquakes, fires and pillage.

I visited Shwedagon Pagoda on several evenings when the soaring golden stupa was aflame with the sun’s last rays.

Worshippers stood or sat before their planetary posts, determined by one’s day of birth, while monks reclined in quiet alcoves surrounded by clay Buddha statues. A dazzling array of pavilions, shrines and prayerhalls make up the complex and it’s quite likely a local will approach and talk you through a tour of the temple. Rather than attempt Yangon’s other less interesting pagodas, it might be better to save your stamina for Pagan in the north.

In the meantime we made for Mandalay, Burma’s second city and the capital before the arrival of the British. There’s enough here to keep you busy for days, and its regular street life – trishaws, bustling markets and the goings on along the banks of the Irrawaddy River – offers more variety than any other town. Only from the summit of Mandalay Hill can the vastness of the old Palace be appreciated. In one of the country’s great cultural tragedies, this immense wooden structure caught fire in 1945 as the Japanese tried to hold off Allied forces. Only the wide moat and high walls remain, outlining a square of 2km-long sides.

Instead, I ventured to a collection of pagodas and monasteries south of Mandalay Hill. At the Shwenandaw Kyaung you can see traditional Burmese woodwork, large panels beautifully mottled and aged by the elements. The Kuthodaw Pagoda is known for its 730 inscribed marble slabs. Each is housed in a pavilion and together they make up one complete Buddhist text.

These have spawned a host of bizarre statistics – 450 days to read the whole lot, and 2400 monks once read it in a continuous six-month relay.

Some of the best day-trips from Mandalay are to the sites of old capitals strung along the banks of the Irrawaddy River. Being built of wood, the palaces are long gone. However, the real appeal of these outings are not the palaces, but in discovering a more rustic Burma. Amarapura proved not so much a “city of immortality” but a quiet enclave of watery fields, buffalo and the charming U Bien’s Bridge. A ruined palace provided the teak for this one kilometre construction and I happily watched locals fishing off its stumpy pillars.

Mingun, on the other side of Mandalay, is another popular outing. Access is by boat, an 11km journey upriver past low, sandy banks, tent-like huts and a handful of villages. The Mingun Pagoda was never completed, in fact it never became more than the base of what may have become the world’s largest pagoda. It’s an extraordinary ruin, split by an 1838 earthquake, yet still accessible to those willing to go barefoot. A massive 90-tonne bell hangs in a nearby pavilion and local children delight in scampering about its curves.

Some of the country’s most picturesque pagodas can be found at Sagaing on hills looming over the Irrawaddy River. We came by way of the Ava Bridge, a pre-war, wrought iron monster built across brick pillars. Surprisingly, it is the river’s only bridge, and totally at odds with the majestic and spiritual surroundings.

Of all the journeys one can make in Burma, the 10 to 12 hour cruise down this great river is probably the most popular. It’s not a trip for its own sake. The destination is the city of Pagan – one of Asia’s great archaeological sites – situated on a vast plain broken only by hundreds of pagodas in all shapes and sizes.

We awoke before dawn, hailed a trishaw to the dock and mingled with bleary-eyed passengers and crew. On our boat there was strict segregation-; locals squeezed together below and foreigners (plus a few seemingly privileged monks) on deck chairs above. We could, and did, go down freely but they never came up. Perhaps the only justification for this was in the ticket price.

It is a tranquil cruise with just a few stops. Low, distant banks were offset by occasional hamlets set back even further and other boats passed infrequently. We called at unmarked, jettyless stops packed with villagers, traders, passengers and onlookers. It all suggested a vibrant life beyond.

Pagan may be an archaeological site, but its appeal is immediate and rarely disappointing. Pagodas, nothing but pagodas, in all shapes, sizes, and states of preservation. From around 1057AD to 1278AD, the kingdom’s kings launched a furious building programme, but the city was abandoned when Kublai Khan’s hordes appeared on the scene. All traces of other buildings – palaces, monasteries, houses – has long since vanished. Only pagodas, religious structures built of brick and masonry, have survived.

They are spread out over 40 square kilometres so, unless one can afford a car, the best way to get around is by bike or horse and cart. The setting is completely rural and the immediate towns are more like overgrown villages.

It’s wise to get hold of a site map and decide which pagodas and temples merit a visit – most guidebooks note around 40 to 50 monuments, more than enough for all but the most devoted. People spend days out here, never returning to the same place and you often see farmers in their fields or bullock carts lumbering along dusty tracks.

We made one final excursion from Pagan, hiring a car for the 50km run to Mt Popa. Perched on a distinctive outcrop amidst a sharp range of hills, the temple here is known for the worship of nats – guardian spirits – who are either good or evil.

Steep covered stairs lead up to this peculiar spot and there are excellent views across the countryside. In some ways, Mt Popa looks better from a distance since most of its shrines are a bit kitsch. But if you’re ever there, keep this to yourself, you don’t want to be tripped up by a mischievous nat.