An­cient world un­touched

See Myan­mar now, writes Rex Jory

Sunday Mail - Travel/Escape - - HOFFMANN TRAVEL -

IT was break­fast time at the Mana­gan­dayon Monastery in cen­tral Myan­mar, for­merly Burma. A solemn line of more than 1200 bare-footed Bud­dhist monks, their heads shaved, filed silently into their com­mu­nal din­ing room. Some of the monks were only five years old.

We were among a small crowd who watched and pho­tographed this amaz­ing pro­ces­sion, which has been tak­ing place for cen­turies.

We strolled around the monastery’s out­door kitchens where pork was hacked into pieces by ma­chete and dumped in open wicker bas­kets and soup was mixed in gi­ant caul­drons.

It was a priv­i­lege to be given ac­cess to the monastery, one of the amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ences dur­ing a fort­night in Myan­mar, one of the last un­spoiled hol­i­day fron­tiers in Asia.

Yet some­how you get the feel­ing that it can’t last. Ac­cess to Myan­mar’s as­ton­ish­ing bounty of re­li­gious, cul­tural and ar­chi­tec­tural trea­sures, like the shuf­fling march of the robed, bare-shoul­dered monks, will even­tu­ally be re­stricted and even banned. Gates and doors will close.

In the past cou­ple of years Myan­mar has opened its bor­ders to the out­side world af­ter more than two decades of po­lit­i­cal iso­la­tion.

Visas are still es­sen­tial and travel is re­stricted in some ar­eas.

If you are think­ing of a mildly ad­ven­tur­ous and ut­terly fas­ci­nat­ing Asian hol­i­day, a river cruise in Myan­mar is an al­most ir­re­sistible op­tion. But do it now.

At the moment Myan­mar re­mains es­sen­tially undis­cov­ered. Like Viet­nam and Cam­bo­dia 20 years ago, it is not yet top of mind on the well­beaten in­ter­na­tional tourist path.

The amaz­ing tem­ples and pago­das, the vil­lages and the de­cay­ing Bri­tish colo­nial build­ings of Yan­gon (pre­vi­ously Ran­goon) and Man­dalay re­main un­touched and ac­ces­si­ble.

But progress and ar­chi­tec­tural re­de­vel­op­ment are grad­u­ally tak­ing hold in the cities and vis­i­tor ac­cess to many of the del­i­cate cul­tural sites, both in the cities and ru­ral ar­eas, will have to be re­stricted or even barred.

Part­ner Liz and I re­cently spent two weeks on a pri­vate trip to Myan­mar vis­it­ing Yan­gon and Man­dalay and for eight days cruis­ing down the Ir­rawaddy River from Man­dalay to Prome. We booked through Phil Hoff­mann Travel’s Ade­laide of­fice.

On day three I wrote in my travel di­ary: ‘‘ To­day we re­alised that we had un­par­al­leled ac­cess to some of the world’s cul­tural trea­sures.

‘‘ Kutho­daw Pagoda, site of what is called the world’s big­gest book, was vir­tu­ally empty.

‘‘ We had the place al­most to our­selves. We had un­lim­ited ac­cess, to the ex­tent that we could get into the ‘ book’ pago­das and touch some of the 700 en­graved mar­ble slabs or pages. ‘‘ There were oc­ca­sional signs say­ing don’t touch the in­tri­cate wood (teak) carv­ings but any­one could and many did. It won’t be long be­fore ac­cess is lim­ited, oth­er­wise ev­ery­thing will be de­stroyed by kind­ness.

‘‘ If th­ese tem­ples and pago­das were in, say, Ja­pan, they would be crowded, over­crowded, and en­try would be con­trolled.’’

The longer we trav­elled the more prophetic th­ese words be­came. Lim­it­ing tourist ac­cess in Myan­mar is not only in­evitable, it is nec­es­sary.

In Man­dalay we were among a sprin­kling of tourists able to join lo­cal Bud­dhists and place gold leaf on a huge statue of Bud­dha. Be­cause this rit­ual has been fol­lowed by de­vout Bud­dhists for cen­turies, the statue – known af­fec­tion­ately as Lumpy Bud­dha – has be­come dis­torted and bloated by its gold leaf cov­er­ing.

Ev­ery day on our leisurely river cruise we left our teak ship, Pan­daw, to go ashore where we were given in­ti­mate, al­most un­su­per­vised, ad­mis­sion to sim­i­lar price­less cul­tural or re­li­gious rit­u­als or ex­hibits.

In Ba­gan we vis­ited a 42sq km UNESCO World Her­itage site that con­tains some­thing like 3000 listed mon­u­ments. We were in one of only four buses at the huge Ananda tem­ple.

We made the fright­en­ing climb up an an­cient brick ex­ter­nal stair­way to get stun­ning views and pho­tos of the sur­round­ing tem­ples and pago­das.

For the moment the coun­try re­mains one of tourism’s slum­ber­ing giants.

Now is the time to go, be­fore Myan­mar re­alises and ex­ploits its enor­mous po­ten­tial. De­tails: Phil Hoff­mann Travel on 1300 889 953 or pht.com.au

CHARM: Myan­mar is one of the world’s last un­spoiled hol­i­day fron­tiers.

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