The Golden Age: Myanmar
Originally published in WildJunket Magazine Spring 2013
he enormous bell rang overhead, thousands of candles flickered and the smell of incense filled the air. Row upon row of monks, dressed in swathes of burgundy, sat praying with heads bowed and knees bent. Hundreds of young ladies gathered in the hall, brooms in hand, ready to sweep out all the bad luck of the past year and welcome a new beginning.
We had arrived in Burma on a very auspicious date – The Burmese New Year, or Thingyan, which is the most celebrated festival in the country.
There was a festive mood in Yangon as we followed the crowds to Shwedagon Paya. The ‘Golden Pagoda’, poised on a hilltop in the heart of the city, is the most revered landmark and religious site in the country. During Thingyan, many locals check in to the temple for several days of praying and volunteer work in hopes of atoning for their sins. The temple ground was buzzing with life as people streamed in with offerings and prayers for the new years ahead.
Navigating into the city center, we were surprised to find Thingyan celebrations taking on a different dimension. Locals, young and old, took to the streets, splashing one another with bucket loads of scented water. On the boulevards, teenagers grooved to loud pop music blasting through the amplifiers. Pails of water rained down on us like a monsoon as we basked in echoes of laughter, cheers and well wishes. It was the best introduction to the country we could possibly wish for.
A Time of Change
After years of isolation, Burma (or Myanmar as it was renamed by the government in 1989) is now welcoming tourists again. Political reforms have been taking place since a new civilian government replaced the military junta in November 2010. Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and her political party, the National League of Democracy, lifted the boycott of tourism in 2011.
During our visit, elections signs were all over the place – symbolic of the new era. For decades, military ruling deprived citizens of basic democratic rights like freedom of expression and even the freedom to vote. Now things seem to be looking up.
The Burmese are hopeful about their future, which we discovered while chatting with a local taxi driver. ‘Things are finally changing in Myanmar,” he said, with a sparkle in his eyes. “We’ve waited for so long.”
Miss Nway Nway, from Myanmar Travel, is also optimistic about what the future holds for their country. “We are still struggling, but I’m sure in a few years’ time we will be as strong as our neighbors.”
When I asked Nway about the elections, she broke into a wide smile. “I know who I’m voting for!”
For now, Burma is still on the road to recovery. An air of dusty nostalgia hangs around every corner, locomotives trot on 1960s’ engines, while people ride on run-down trucks and water buffalo carriages. Men saunter in longyi, their mouths blood red from chewing on betel nut; women’s faces are painted with thanaka, a white natural sun protector made from acacia tree bark.
Traveling here is an adventure: there are few ATMs, little internet access, non-existing phone signal, and a refreshing lack of global brands and hotel chains. For first-time travelers, it can be overwhelming; but once you’ve adjusted to the old-world atmosphere, Burma’s charm is irresistible.
At first glance, Yangon’s chaotic air and big-city vibes can be deceiving: Its city center is a busy commercial district, with haphazard traffic flooding wide streets that crisscross markets and decrepit office buildings.
Wandering into the alleys, though, I was surprised to find quiet rows of knick-knack stores, antique shops, and eateries where locals sipped lager and slurped mohinga noodles. Old-fashioned barber shops and handicraft stalls line the five foot ways while upbeat folk music echoed through the streets.
But Yangon’s biggest charm is the constellation of gilded Buddhist temples and pagodas strewn all over the city. It didn’t matter how chaotic and raucous Yangon is; once inside the sacred temple doors, I felt a soothing sense of peace.
Indeed, Buddhism lives and breathes in every corner of the country. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Bagan, 370 miles (600km) north of Yangon, and the epicenter of Burma’s Buddhist kingdom.
Flying to Bagan was like descending into a lost world: thousands of ochre stupas sprawled across a dusty plain, amidst Acacia trees and whirlpools of brown earth. Wispy clouds hung low, shrouding the landscape in a dreamy setting.
Almost 800 years ago, this enormous holy ground was the center of a massive Buddhist kingdom. During its heydays, over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries were constructed here. Today, approximately 4,400 remain, along the banks of the broad Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River.
Unfortunately this magnificent site has been declined UNESCO World Heritage status repeatedly. Buddhists believe that building new monuments or restoring existing ones help them gain ‘merit’ for their next life, and this restoration effort has sadly deprived Bagan of the title it rightfully deserves.
Over the following days, we explored Bagan on bike: paddling through the dusty dirt roads, into the jungle that engulfed the stupas, past streetside drink stalls.
Everywhere we went, we found pagodas – from towering spirals peeking above the tree canopy to tiny enshrined altars hidden in thorny shrubs. Besides a handful that receives clusters of visitors, most of them are abandoned and left in silent contemplation.
Our favorite spot to watch sunrise was on the steps of Lawkananda Pagoda. The orange yolk would slowly ascend above its shimmering domed structure, high above the Ayeyarwady River. We watched children frolic in the water, fishermen float by on their dugout canoes and ladies chat, giggle and barter by the sidewalk.
To escape the heat, we headed to Inle Lake, a world away from the desert plains of Bagan. Hemmed in by beautiful Shan hills, the placid lake melts into the sky, blurring the horizon into one. Coconut trees sway on the shore of the lake, while emerald hyacinth and purple water lilies bob on the water surface.
The Intha tribes have long called this home, their wooden stilt houses sprinkled across the lake. At just 13 miles (21km) long and seven miles (11km) wide, Inle supports a substantial population of 70,000 Inthas in and around the lake, all of whom rely on the water for a living. Fishing is their most common form of livelihood, followed by growing fruit, and tourism.
We explored the lake on board a motorized canoe, weaving past dozens of fishermen fishing with conical rattan nets. At Inle, fishermen have long practiced a unique rowing style that involves balancing on one leg and wrapping the other around the oar. There are even annual leg-rowing festivals held to crown the fastest team.
Everywhere was a hive of activity. We whizzed past boat-fuls of Intha villagers, smiling and waving at us; children having their daily baths; men scrubbing their water buffaloes; and women washing their laundry by the banks.
At the lakeside village of In Dein, we wandered around its market on foot. Many tribal folks adorning colorful headdresses from the nearby village of Pa-O had come to sell vegetables, rice, antiques and Buddhist relics. Ladies haggled over spices and fish while men sipped local firewater at liquor dens.
On our last boat ride, I asked our boatman to turn off the engine for a few minutes. We immediately slipped into a world of tranquility, with the sound of the Inthas reciting sermons in the distance. It was easy to feel the romance of old-world Burma in the air, mythical in every sense of the word.
Road to Mandalay
But perhaps more than anywhere else in Burma, it’s the mention of Mandalay that epitomizes exotic Asia, as the famous English writer Rudyard Kipling described in his poem, “The Road to Mandalay”.
To follow in Kipling’s footsteps, we took to the road on a ten-hour train journey. The voyage was not nearly as magical as I imagined — the train’s old-school engine barely cranked up any speed as dust and hot air blasted through the windows and mice wriggled between our worn-out seats. Locals found my squealing rather amusing; we ended up engaging in interesting conversations with the locals until the train pulled in at Mandalay.
Despite the urban madness of Mandalay, this is where the religious heart of Burma lies. Out of the 200,000 monks in Burma, 80,000 of them live in and around Mandalay. It is home to several of the country’s top sites, such as the enormous gold-leaf covered Buddha statue Mahamuni Paya, and the pre-WWII Shwenandaw Kyaung teak monastery.
But we only found Mandalay’s charm in the outskirts of the city. While feasting on a view of hilltop golden stupas and the shiny Ayeyarwady River on Sagaing Hill, we met Javana, a monk who shared his stories eloquently in English. The subject inevitably moved to politics.
“Burma has a complex past, and there are things that cannot be forgotten so quickly,” said Javana.
“But I have faith in our country.”
As I stood staring at the stunning vista before me and looked back at the people we’d met on this journey, I felt an overwhelming sense of optimism for this country. Despite spending decades under the shadow, it’s now time to rise again. For Burma, the golden age has just arrived.
This article was originally published in WildJunket Magazine Spring 2013.