ASIA’S UTOPIA

With a new gov­ern­ment in place, Burma of­fers a unique ex­pe­ri­ence to trav­ellers with its faded charm, undis­cov­ered her­itage and nat­u­ral beauty

Friday - - Travel -

In Ami­tav Ghosh’s novel The Glass Palace, the king of Burma muses on the royal fam­ily of Siam, a coun­try once con­quered by his own. It’s 1885, the Bri­tish have ex­iled him to gen­teel poverty in In­dia and he reads a news­pa­per re­port of a royal tour of Eu­rope by the Si­amese king. His neigh­bour is be­ing put up in Buck­ing­ham Palace, fêted by the Ger­man em­peror and greeted with re­spect in France while he, monarch of Burma, land of gold, lan­guishes.

Burma – now known also as Myan­mar – has great beauty and ter­ri­ble luck. While Thai­land, Cam­bo­dia and Viet­nam have surged ahead, Myan­mar has strug­gled to be free of the iso­la­tion that re­sulted from mil­i­tary rule. So it is won­der­ful to fly into Yan­gon at a time when the coun­try’s demo­cratic fig­ure­head, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been in­stalled in gov­ern­ment, in a newly cre­ated post of state counsellor. The po­si­tion is meant to give her prime min­is­te­rial-style power, a so­lu­tion to a con­sti­tu­tion con­cocted by the regime that pre­vented her from be­com­ing pres­i­dent be­cause her Bri­tish-born sons do not have Burmese pass­ports.

There is op­ti­mism in the air. The Lady has fi­nally beaten the gen­er­als. Our guide says he be­lieves the sun is ris­ing for Myan­mar.

The coun­try is en­chant­ing and largely un­de­vel­oped, though the Chi­nese have been do­ing some­thing about that. Yan­gon, what used to be Ran­goon, is a fas­ci­nat­ing mix of faded colo­nial blocks and bru­tal new tow­ers. In­fra­struc­ture has been ne­glected, pave­ments are crack­ing, traf­fic is ter­ri­ble. Yet the po­ten­tial is im­mense.

For all the traf­fic jams, it is easy to imag­ine the past. Bri­tish vis­i­tors walk these busy, grimy streets and see the faded ev­i­dence of colo­nial rule. That’s prob­a­bly one rea­son the gen­er­als moved the cap­i­tal to Naypy­itaw, a fea­ture­less, pur­pose-built, would-be metropo­lis in the cen­tral south. The par­lia­ment meets there now but there is no rea­son for any­one else to go. Not when there is so much to look at here.

We wait for late af­ter­noon and the tem­per­a­ture to fall to walk to the Sh­wezigon Pagoda, the most prom­i­nent of thou­sands of pago­das and stu­pas erected across Burma over two mil­len­nia. Bur­nished by tonnes of gold and topped by a mas­sive di­a­mond, this pagoda speaks of the na­tion’s min­eral wealth.

Monks stroll by in ma­roon robes. Here and there are girl nuns, heads shaved like their brothers’, in pink. Who knows whether it will last but there is an en­gag­ing cour­tesy shown to tourists. The post­card sell­ers do not pester, would-be guides take a po­lite no for an an­swer. They’re mildly cu­ri­ous about vis­i­tors.

We stay the first night at the Bel­mond Gover­nor’s Res­i­dence, a con­verted colo­nial house in the em­bassy area, set among gardens, lily ponds and a swim­ming pool the size of a small lake. The rooms are of hard wood, taste­fully fur­nished, cool amid the heat. The hu­mid­ity is ex­haust­ing, and tem­per­a­tures touch 50°C in June, be­fore the rains be­gin.

Thank­fully we are head­ing for the rel­a­tive cool­ness of the Ir­rawaddy river – named by the Bri­tish – the great nat­u­ral artery that pro­vides ir­ri­ga­tion for crops and the high­way for the coun­try’s teak. Our steamer – a Rhine cruiser trans­ported here more than 20 years ago – is named af­ter Ki­pling:

The Road to Man­dalay. We join at Bagan, a sky­line de­scribed by Marco Polo as ‘one of the finest sights in the world’ – some 2,000 me­dieval stu­pas and pago­das rise through the morn­ing mist at the river bend.

There are not many tourists, even at the fa­mous pago­das of Ananda and Su­la­mani. This would be a World Her­itage Site were it not for the machi­na­tions of the junta. With a tragi-comic id­iocy, the gen­er­als thought they would in­crease tourism by con­struct­ing an ob­ser­va­tion tower, ho­tel and golf course in the mid­dle of this his­toric plain. The Burmese peo­ple did not aid the cause: in their earnest­ness, they crowd­sourced as many as 1,000 new tem­ples and made am­a­teur­ish restora­tions to many of the old ones. It’s a bit botched for Unesco, which is try­ing to find a so­lu­tion by giv­ing sta­tus to in­di­vid­ual tem­ples.

On this end-of-sea­son trip, fewer than half of The Road to Man­dalay’s 40 cab­ins are oc­cu­pied. There is a small swim­ming pool and a din­ing area serv­ing first-rate food. There’s In­ter­net too. As we pull away from Bagan, I train my binoc­u­lars on the tem­ples and stu­pas, vil­lagers wash­ing clothes at the wa­ter’s edge, fish­er­men casting nets from nar­row boats. The sun sinks, and we watch flocks of white cat­tle egrets in ar­row for­ma­tion across the river to roost. Some swifts swoop low, chas­ing flies.

Then, in the deep dark­ness of the river at night, the crew sets up a ro­man­tic drama in cel­e­bra­tion of a fes­ti­val of light. Some 1,600

The boat’s RES­I­DENT doc­tor has SLIPPED into a lo­cal vil­lage for a pop-up SURGERY. He dis­penses medicines, ad­vice and SPEC­TA­CLES along the boat’s route, sup­ported by the COM­PANY and DO­NA­TIONS

lanterns, con­structed from co­conut leaves and bam­boo, float past on the cur­rent, each a small bea­con of hope for a coun­try fac­ing a demo­cratic fu­ture for the first time since in­de­pen­dence in 1948. The ef­fect is mov­ing.

We, sadly, are not. With the snow melts of the Hi­malayas yet to start and mon­soon rains some weeks off, this huge, wide river is run­ning shal­low. We watch as two tugs ma­noeu­vre a barge from a sand­bank. A cou­ple of men with mea­sur­ing sticks call out the depths of the shift­ing shoals. We will have to moor well south of Man­dalay and drive rather than ar­rive in the his­toric city by boat.

We fill the time we would have spent on board with ex­cur­sions to mar­kets, small farms and lo­cal in­dus­try. We learn the mys­ter­ies of lac­quer and watch how gold leaf is made: a group of young men rhyth­mi­cally pound the pa­per-thin lay­ers, press­ing it thin­ner and thin­ner. Down an­other street in Man­dalay, we come to the stone ma­sons’ area, where more young men work at large blocks of mar­ble, carv­ing out stat­ues of Bud­dha. There’s none of the hard sell you ex­pect, but still I re­turn fes­tooned with jew­ellery and silk scarves.

Mean­while, the boat’s res­i­dent doc­tor has slipped into a lo­cal vil­lage for a pop-up surgery. He dis­penses medicines, ad­vice and spec­ta­cles along the boat’s route, a scheme sup­ported by the com­pany and through do­na­tions from pas­sen­gers.

In Man­dalay, the cel­e­brated Sa­gaing hill gleams with stu­pas, tem­ples and pago­das. The air is sweet with jas­mine and swifts cir­cle high above. Here are the joy and peace that have been the an­ti­dote to the mil­i­tary force of the 20th cen­tury. We visit the great palace walls and the one re­main­ing hall, which was trans­ferred to a monastery in the 19th cen­tury, thus avoid­ing the fate of the rest of the palace com­pound – de­struc­tion by Al­lied bomb­ing in the war.

The other great at­trac­tion of Man­dalay is the U Bein Bridge – said to be the long­est wooden bridge in the world – a rick­ety teak struc­ture across a lake that pro­vides a lo­cal mar­ket­place and so­cial gath­er­ing point. Be­neath it, young monks play foot­ball.

Back in the boat, we do a lit­tle yoga, get a mas­sage, med­i­tate and have sup­per. We fly back to Yan­gon for a fi­nal night at the Res­i­dence be­fore the long flight home. I leave with fin­gers crossed for Myan­mar, hop­ing that the unique char­ac­ter and beauty that have en­abled it to sur­vive such a trou­bled past will help it with­stand the con­se­quences of im­mi­nent mass tourism. Yan­gon, a city with street ven­dors cook­ing at ev­ery cor­ner, has just got its first KFC. What fol­lows?

Burma’s most prom­i­nent pagoda, The Sh­wezigon is a sight to be­hold with its bright gold fa­cade topped by a di­a­mond

The Bel­mond Gover­nor’s Res­i­dence is a lux­ury ho­tel in the em­bassy area, housed in a colo­nial prop­erty and set among gor­geous gardens

In Man­dalay, it’s a treat to watch gold leaf be­ing cre­ated, tes­ta­ment to the coun­try’s tryst with the metal, also seen across Sa­gaing hill

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