Travelogue : Myanmar
Also known as Burma Sep 95

The Kite and its String. Indeed, the Ayeyarwaddy river is the string controlling the "kite" that is Myanmar. Thinking of a kite is a good way to envision the country: it is roughly diamond-shaped, with long, narrow Tanintharyi as its tail. For millennia, the names of the nation and the river have been synonymous.

"The first inhabitants of the world." That is what the name Myanmar means, and it is what the Myanmars symbolically consider themselves to be. According to the history-mythology of the country, Myanmar's kings were descendants of the Buddha's family. They called their people Brahma. The word has taken many forms in past centuries — Mramma, Bamma, Mien, Burma, Myanmar — but always with the same meaning. Even today, Burma, now called Myanmar, is still half-hidden from foreign eyes, a remote and little known country; but still the biggest country in Southeast Asia.

Myanmar is far from the easiest or most comfortable country in Asia to visit, but it has some magical sights, incredibly friendly people and offers a glimpse of a bizarre society that has withdrawn from contact with the late 20th century. Because of the government's clampdown on outside influences it is one of the least Western-influenced countries in the world. Many people mistake this for quaintness, but don't let this blind you to the political realities which created this situation.

| Rangoon | Mandalay | Amarapura | Inle Lake | Ywama | Pagan |

Golden Land

Myanmar has suffered internal strife from dictators, rebels and guerrillas, and is now synonymous in the West with the suppression of democracy and the use of slave labour. The refusal by the country's junta to allow an elected government (National League for Democracy, 1990) to take power and its imprisonment of pro-democracy leader (and subsequent Nobel Peace Prize winner) earned it international condemnation. Myanmar is now cementing economic bonds with South-East Asian nations, who believe constructive engagement is a better form of diplomacy than sanctions. Meanwhile, ceasefire accords have been signed in the no-go zone of the Golden Triangle, the biggest opium producer of the world.

The official rate of exchange bears no relation to reality. As soon as you exit immigration at Yangon airport, you have to buy US$300 worth of Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC) at the official rate. These are used to pay officially-approved hotel rooms and make accommodation seem extortionate. However, if you travel throughout Myanmar, you'll have to pay in FECs only about half the time; free market kyats are good for the rest. Accommodation at the free market exchange rate is a bargain. Costs will vary depending on whether you use officially-approved hotels and transport or take the increasingly available opportunity to arrange your own.

Travel in Myanmar tends to be uncertain and uncomfortable. Many visitors are tempted to take internal flights because of the restricted 28-day stay regulation, but the terrible safety record and 'flexible' notion of schedules of Myanma Airways and, to a lesser extent, Air Mandalay can be a deterrent. Not many visitors use buses for long-distance travelling because they tend to be extremely crowded and the government bus line is so slack it refuses to take a stab at the arrival times of its buses. Pick-up trucks with benches have recently begun to appear, and although they can be equally uncomfortable when crowded, it is possible to charter them. There is a daily express train between Yangon (Rangoon) and Mandalay; forget the ordinary-class trains which are dirty, slow and unreliable.

Almost half of Myanmar is covered by forest, but if timber concessions (and smuggling) to Thailand and other Asian countries continue at current rates, widespread deforestation is inevitable. About 15% of total land is cultivated, mainly with rice. Myanmar used to be the world's largest exporter of rice but exports have diminished considerably. Two thirds of the population is employed in agriculture and less than 10% in manufacturing. According to UN standards, Myanmar is now one of the 10 poorest countries in the world.

Yet it presents travellers with a kaleidoscope of vivid impressions. As you travel around in Myanmar, you will notice that Buddhism determines every aspect of life. Buddhism is the soul of Myanmar. You'll see monks and nats everywhere...

Rangoon - Yangon

RANGOON is probably the first place to visit on your trip. There are many traces left off the British domination. The centre is marked by its colonial background: wide, straight avenues and severe Victorian façades, which once were the pomp and circumstance of the British empire.

I especially admire Rangoon's gold-encrusted Schwedagon Pagoda, on of the great wonders of the Buddhist World. Being the tallest structure in the entire city, it also dominates from the hilltop of Singuttara. Everyone in Myanmar dreams of visiting this temple at least once in their lifetime. The Schwedagon is surrounded by an incredible assortment of shrines, statues, temples, images and pavilions which display the artistic skills of painters, wood carvers and sculptures. From each angle you'll see gold, gold, gold... and the top of the pagoda is crowned with a jewelled vane and a diamond orb, which adds a considerable sparkle to the top of the pagoda. Therefore it is recommendable to visit the Schwedagon at the end of the day, at sunset. When the shadows are tall and the pagode seems to glow and the air is filled with lovely ting-a-lings from the hundreds little bells, you can feel the devotion. Take at least two hours to wonder around because there's very much to see.

Watch for the novitiation ceremonies when hundreds of family members dressed in their finest longyi present their youngest son to the monkhood. With shaved heads and draped with the ceremonial robes of the initiates, they are carried in gold palanquins to the attendant monastery. You'll also see a group of believers who are cleaning the marble platform with bamboo besoms.

Most important of all, when visiting pagodas, remember to take your shoes and socks off at every opportunity. Even at the most dilapidated, run-down, ruined pagoda, the no footwearing rule still applies. In the middle of the day, barefooting it can get a little painful as the paved area around a pagoda often becomes very hot. At major pagodas, there will often be a mat walkway around the platform. A no umbrellaring rule has also been known to apply - this means, don't point your umbrella at anything!

Descending in the direction of the river, in the middle of the British colonial district, you'll see the Sule Pagoda. It is much smaller than the Schwedagon but built in the same period. You must also go visit the legendary British colonial Strand Hotel at the waterfront. By stopping over for the night or just simply for a meal, you can get nostalgic over the British colonial era. The hotel has recieved a thorough facelift and the rooms are no more as reasonably priced as they were during the 1980's; still it's worth stepping into the teak-furnished lounge for a cup of tea or a Mandalay Beer from the People's Brewery. Indian waiters still hover over every table in the high-ceilinged restaurant. Mind also that all the rooms are still cooled by electric "paddle fans". For a moment you'll be under the impression that you are part of the high society at the beginning of this century.

Then we board a night train to MANDALAY, the 'Golden City'. Beside exploring the sights of this old palace-city by rickshaw, we've been to the former capital, AMARAPURA, city of immortality. This is a city whose inhabitants main livelihood is weaving cotton and silk into Myanmar's loveliest festive clothing. You can observe master craftsmen carve stone Buddha statues, sew kalagas or temple hangings, and fashion marionettes. Near this former royal city is Lake Taungthaman, an intermittent body of water which dries up in the winter and leaves fertile, arable land in its stead. It is spanned by the 1,2km long U Bein Bridge, constructed from teak planks. This rickety teak bridge stands today just as sturdy as it did two centuries ago. It takes about 15 minutes to cross, and during the hot season one is thankful for the rest-houses which line the bridge, providing shelter from the sun.

Inle Lake

From the little village Nyaungshwe, on the edge of INLE LAKE, we've been to the floating market, crowded with colourful local inhabitants in wooden boats. Mystical. Magical. Outrageously picturesque. These and many other words have been used in attempts to describe the fairytale land of Inle Lake and the amazing, elegant silhouettes of the Intha fishers who populate its shores and surface. Their homes are built over the water on stilts, its vegetable fields — kyunpaws — float on the lake's surface, and its fishermen stroll thier long, narrow boats with a unique leg-rowing motion that has made them famous. Perching precariously on the boat's stern with one foot, the fisherman adroitly twists his other leg around a single long oar — and thus maneuvers through the shallow lake water, keeping his eyes open to avert clumps of the tangled weeds floating just beneath the surface.

Inle Lake lies at an altitude of 878 meters above sea level. Overlooking the watery basin in which it lies are numerous lofty peaks — among them Taunggyi, or big mountain. At the mountain foot is the Shan State, a stunning beautiful agricultural region cultivated by the indigenous Intha ethnic minorities. Taunggyi was founded by Sir James George Scott, one of the most highly respected colonial officers in the history of British Burma. A devoted student of Myanmar history and culture, Scott, under the pseudonym Shway Yoe, wrote the book The Burman, His Life and Notions — generally regarded as the 19th century's finest work on Myanmar.

The honor of the primary destination for Inle's visitors is reserved for the village of YWAMA, about 12km away on the lake's shore. Narrow boats outfitted with motors ply the route between the two communities, carrying 10 passengers for about 30 kyats a piece. Ywama is the site of a daily floating market which, unlike its distant cousin in Bangkok, has thus managed to retain its authentic flavor far from the madness of over-tourism. The women make cheroots, (unique Burmese hand rolled cigars — the tobacco and the herbs are kept together with maize-leaves), tailors sell beautiful longyi, the national costume — a simple piece of textile, no button or zip — similar to a wrap around skirt worn by both men and women, young girls sell a yellowish paste, called thanaka. The women offen use this thanaka to make lovely figures on their faces. This pulp is made of wood and is used to protect their skin against the sun, the Burmese version of sun block. Vendors sell an exotic selection of vegetables and fruits as well as betel nuts, the slightly intoxicating nut of the areca palm.


We move further on to PAGAN. Pagan has been called the richest archeological site in Southeast Asia where over 13,000 temples and pagodas were constructed during the Golden Period from the 11th to the 13th centuries. Today the 2000 remaining monuments reflect the legacy of this Golden Era. Its only rival between India and China is the great temple of Angkor in Cambodia. Pagan's vast complex is a mixture of distinct architectural styles. In the deserted plain of temples, quiet rural roads lead us to the many multi-tiered pagodas. They soar to the sky, their spires tipped with gold flicker in the mid day sun. Visit the classical temples of Pagan: the bell shaped Shwezigon Pagoda, Kubyaukkyi Temple, Htilominlo Temple with its lovely 11th century mural paintings, and Ananda Temple with its elegant Buddha statues facing north, south, east and west. Especially the Ananda Temple is a place of worship.

On your way you can visit a lacquerware factory and meet the families who have been making horsehair lacquerware for centuries, its secret passed from generation to generation. Watch young girls wrapping horsehair around bamboo frames, artists etching elaborate designs in traditional colors of black, blue, green, red and exquisite gold on pieces that take up to 8 months to produce. No where else do you see lacquerware making like this in Myanmar!

"Pagan (is) in many respects the most remarkable religious city in the world. Jerusalem, Rome, Kiev, Benares, none of these canboast the multitude of temples, and the lavishness of design and ornament that make marvellous the deserted capital on the Irrawaddy... the whole space is thickly studded with pagodes of all sizes and shapes, and the very ground is so thickly covered with crumbling remnants of vanished shrines, that according to the popular saying you cannot move foot or hand whitout touching a sacred thing." — Shway Yoe (Sir James George Scott), The Burman : His Life and Notions, 1882.

Even so famed a world traveler as Marco Polo marveled at the treasures of Pagan, whose name he knew as "Mien" :

"The towers are built of fine stone; and then one of them has been covered with gold a good finger in thickness, so that the tower looks as if it were all of solid gold; and the other is covered with silver in like manner so that it seems to be all of solid silver... The King caused these towers to be erected to commemorate his magnificence and for the good of his soul; and really they do form one of the finest sights in the world; so exquisitely finished are they, so splendid and costly. And when they are lighted up by the sun they shine brilliantly and are visible from a far distance." — The Travels of Marco Polo, 1298.

Ooh yes, the people of Myanmar are very friendly and helpful. The women are very beautiful while the men have a lovely slim figure. And there are just no words to describe the magic of this mysterious country...

Link of interest:
Myanmar Related Travel and Tourist Web Sites around the World
Myanmar, the internet travel guide — A travelogue by Peter M. Geiser
Myanmar, General information — By Koenraad De Boeck
Copyright notes:
This is a non-profit web page. All the establishments mentioned in this travelogue are places I've been to and which I would like to recommend to people who like to travel around in Myanmar. This travelogue is written by / most of the photographs are taken by Joël Neelen. I would like to thank Lotte, who joined me on this trip. © September 1995. All Rights Reserved.