A golden moment in a golden land
Burma (Myanmar) is on the cusp of extraordinary change. Charles Nixon ventures into a country heralding in a new dawn... and rediscovers his family heritage
Now is a golden moment to visit Burma as it opens up after decades of diplomatic and economic isolation, and before it inevitably becomes a major tourist destination. It is just 18 months since Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s Nobel Prize winning pro-democracy leader, welcomed ‘responsible tourism’ back to Burma, or Myanmar as it is officially known. Since then there has been a landslide victory for her National League for Democracy party at the by-elections, visits by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and British Prime Minister David Cameron, and verbal agreements to ease EU sanctions. It’s not an overstatement to say 2012 is an epoch changing time in the country’s history.
For me, visiting Burma is also a very personal journey as it is the country where my grandparents spent the majority of their adult lives in the 1920s and 30s; it is where they were married, and where my mother was born. My grandfather, originally from Scotland, had been an engineer in the merchant navy and his wanderlust and desire to escape Scotland during hard times made him relocate to Burma in 1926 to work as an engineer with Burmah Oil. I was therefore intrigued to see how Burma had changed since my grandfather left shortly before independence from Britain in 1948.
My journey starts in the capital Rangoon (Yangon) where we stayed in the wonderfully restored Strand Hotel. It originally opened in 1901 and was frequented by the likes of Somerset Maugham, George Orwell and Rudyard Kipling (it was also my grandmother’s favourite place for high tea). Seeing Rangoon for the first time (the current population is around four million), you are struck immediately by the majesty and grace of this incredible city, with beautiful, wide, tree-lined roads, lakes and parks and its amazing mix of colonial and Burmese architecture. While there is certainly evidence of neglect, it’s not hard to imagine a once thriving economy in British colonial times (1852-1948), when Burma was the world’s second largest rice producer and had 75 percent of the world’s teak production, an abundance of rubies, sapphires, jade, gold and pearls and much of the region’s oil and gas.
Our first stop is a visit to the Rangoon General Hospital. An odd choice perhaps, but this was where my mother was born 75 years ago. The hospital, which cuts an impressive figure from the outside, was originally built in 1899 and is a grand Victorian red brick building with 1,500 hospital beds. The picture on the inside is quite different. If you were in any doubt about the social problems in Burma (which it is easy to be as a tourist in this beautifully enchanting country), stepping inside this imposing building leaves you in absolutely no doubt. The wards are open to the elements and the fatal lack of medical funding is very explicit. These conditions are of little wonder when you realise that the Burmese government’s spending on health consistently ranks among the lowest in the world, at 1.3 percent of the country’s GDP (compared to 25 percent on defence).
It’s also not surprising that, as an icon of her country, Aung San Suu Kyi has become somewhat of a tourist attraction in her own right. My guide, Mr Han, is insistent that I should visit her lakeside villa in Rangoon, despite not being able to see anything other than the gated entrance. Adorning the gates are grand presidential-style photographs of a smiling Daw Suu wearing a baseball cap, which look completely incongruous on this elegant lady’s head. Everywhere you go they are selling T-shirts emblazoned with her image (many in the revolutionary style of Che Guevara) and bootleg copies of the banned film of her life, The Lady. Despite this tackiness, she remains a hugely influential figure who attracts the respect and admiration of everybody you meet (even, they say, members of the military junta).
I then visit a more conventional tourist spot in Rangoon, the spectacular Shewdagon Pagoda. Legend believes the Pagoda is 2,500 years old but several historians suggest it was probably first constructed between the sixth and 10th centuries by the Mon people. The Pagoda stands at 99m and twinkles majestically across the skyline of Rangoon. It is gilded with an incredible 60 tons of gold (worth around US$3 billion), adorned with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies, and topped off with a 76 carat (15g) diamond for good measure. I would recommend visiting the Pagoda around dusk, when its gems twinkle in a truly magical way.
If you are on a short trip like mine, you definitely need to make use of the extensive and efficient network of internal flights as travel by rail or road is a very drawn out process due to the poor state of the country’s infrastructure. I flew the 600km from Rangoon to Pagan, which is an incredible place on a par with Angkor Wat except without the swarms of tourists. Pagan was originally 10,000 religious monuments of monasteries, temples and stupas (of which approximately 4,000 survive today) constructed over an area of 100sq km on the banks of the mighty Irrawaddy River over a period of 250 years between the 10th and 12th centuries by the people of the Pagan empire. It’s an unbelievable display of wealth and devotion to the Buddhist faith. Stay in Old Pagan next to the Ananda Temple and within cycling distance from the other main temples. Sunset and sunrise are particularly spectacular as the red sandstone of the temples comes brilliantly alive in the half light of dawn and dusk.
I then take another short flight to Inle Lake, 1,000m up in the hills of Shan State overlooking the plains of Pagan. The scenery is stunning and everywhere is blossoming with blue jacaranda trees, beautiful pink, red and purple bougainvillea trees and rhododendrons (I finally understand where my grandmother acquired her obsession with rhododendrons). Inle Lake really is a heaven sent place from a bygone era of traditional agriculture and hardy craftsmanship. The Intha people, who are the main tribe of the lake, live a centuries-old self-sufficient existence in stilted houses made of wood and bamboo. They work seven days a week for as little as US$3 a day, either cultivating the floating tomato gardens or fishing on teak boats.
Our visit by boat to the western shore of the lake to the local produce market at the Indein (Inthein) Village Temple complex is something very special. To watch the locals going about their daily shopping; bartering over freshly caught lake fish, green teas, peanuts, raw sugar cane and green cheroot cigars is a thrilling delight. The Indein Temple complex itself is no less spectacular than the others we have seen: 1,200 or more crumbling pagodas and stupas ranging from the seventh century to the present day, most of which are fortunately left largely unrestored.
If there is one slight disappointment during this trip, it would be the lack of local Burmese food we sample, although this is partly due to the lack of time. The one exception is the Intha Traditional House restaurant on Inle Lake (www.intharheritagehouse.com) which is a beautifully recreated Intha stilted wooden house where I have a delicious lunch of traditional chicken and sticky rice noodle soup followed by an amazing banana cake and Burmese coffee. I’m told they also organise Intha cookery sessions upon request.
It is hard to believe that in one short, hour-long flight from Burma we would be back to the modern world of Bangkok. My head was spinning with all the amazing sights and emotions that I have experienced in Burma. Even on such a short trip I could see why my grandparents loved this country so much and were so reluctant to leave. In my head, I’m already planning my next trip, this time with my mother, to explore more of Burma’s magic. Hopefully by the time we return none of Burma’s beauty and charm will be lost by the inevitable influx of open tourism.