Ancient world untouched
See Myanmar now, writes Rex Jory
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.