“This is Burma,” wrote Kipling, “and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.”
(Article by Katie Scuoler, Photography by Eugene Lee)
Isolated from the rest of the world, Burma (Myanmar) retains a sensual, sultry charm. In the summer months the heat hangs low and hazy, trapping the smoke of cheroots, traffic fumes and the heady sweetness of incense. Men dress in longyis (long sarong style skirts). Women’s faces are smeared with thanaka (tree bark). Through browned teeth, men chew betel-nuts, spitting dollops of blood red juice onto the earthen ground.
Down on the banks of the Irrawaddy in Yangon, men ferry back and forth loading up dilapidated 1940s flotilla ships with an assortment of wares, the loads measured out in coloured sticks. Women chatter in groups, metal lunch-boxes in hand, in the early morning mist on the way to the mines. The much heralded new asphalt roads quickly give way to pot holes. Ox-drawn carts clatter through narrow streets leaving plumes of dust. Entering Burma is like stepping back in time. Those who do enter tend to stick to a kite shaped tour of the ‘big four’: Yangon, Bagan, Inle Lake and Mandalay…
Taking a Tour of The Big Four:
In downtown Yangon (Rangoon), the decaying mildewed facades of grand colonial buildings straddling wide avenues hark back to the days of British rule. Today Yangon is a vibrant mix of Burmese, Shan, Chinese, Mon and Indian communities. Across the city Hindu temples nestle next to mosques, churches and pagodas in a surprising show of religious liberalism.
Dominating the skyline, the shining glory of any trip to Yangon is the Shwedagon Pagoda. Clad in an estimated 60 metric tons of gold plates, and encrusted with over 5000 diamonds and 2000 other precious gems, the Shwedagon Pagoda is breathtaking. The pagoda is crowned by a single fist sized 76 carat diamond; pagoda proud monks guide you with pin point precision to the best vantage points to capture the diamond in its many colours. Rising 328m tall, the citizens of Yangon live out their lives in its shadow. Believed to house eight hair relics of the Buddha, it is the most sacred Buddhist site in Burma. Dotted around the vast complex are smaller temples, where the faithful worship, make offerings to Deities or simply stroll. Pretentious and showy as the superlatives might sound, the Shwedagon Pagoda is anything but. Revered and loved by the people, the Shwedagon Pagoda exudes a beauteous serenity. It catches your breathe and slows your heart.
The capital of the first Myanmar Empire, Bagan is one of the richest archaeological sites in South East Asia with structures dating from the 11th – 14th centuries. Whilst the temples do not rival those of Angkor Wat in scale, with 4000 stupas scattered across a dusty plain spanning 40 square miles, Bagan offers unrivalled vistas and uninterrupted panoramas.
At sunrise and sunset the landscape is especially captivating, taking on an ethereal charm. Following a huge earthquake in 1975 some questionable restoration has taken place, however, this hasn’t dented the magic of Bagan. Low tourist numbers mean that you often have temples to yourself, enabling you to survey this stunning forever-scape in undisturbed serenity. Most people hire an authentic horse-cart with driver for 10,000 / day to take them round the temples, although if you can stand the heat cycling around the ruins is a magical experience.
Located in the Shan Province, Inle Lake is a great placid sheet of shallow water rimmed by mountains. Inhabited (mainly) by the Intha people, they live out their entire lives in the lake. Villages are built on stilts. At the big floating markets every Wednesday goods are traded between boats. Crops are cultivated on floating gardens. Children are ferried to school by boat. The landscape is stunning and earthworldly, made even more so by the mesmerising leg-rowers, fishermen who propel the boat with one leg curled around the oar. Inle Lake is like another world.
For many backpackers it serves as a calm start or ending point for treks into the mountains to visit the diverse ethnic minority groups in the surrounding areas. On the western shore is In Dein Temple, the site of hundreds of pagodas and ruins amid overgrown vegetation. Here you can live out your Indiana Jones fantasies. Like a perfectly choreographed piece of film, an old woman smoking a cheroot emerged from the ruins.
Immortalized by Kipling and later Sinatra, Mandalay is one of the most alluring place names in the world. Home to 60% of Burma’s estimated 500,000 monks, Mandalay’s streets are awash with red robes. Rumour has it that Chinese investment in the red, green and white trades – namely rubies, jade and heroin – is fuelling a boom in the city. However, seemingly playing a game of ‘musical palaces,’ it is the ancient cities of Ava, Amarapura and Sagaing that entice many visitors. Clattering through dirt tracks on horse cart en route to Ava amid plumes of dust, you experience the real ‘off the beaten track’ travel that is hard to come by elsewhere in South East Asia.
Watching ox-drawn carts in the dusty fields you get an insight into ‘lived in’ Burma. Yet belying its poverty, Burma’s truly is the land of gold. At the Mahamuni Paya every day the devoted re-cover the central Buddha statute with gold leaf, with the inches of gold leaf giving the statute a lumpy, alien like appearance. Burma is a fascinating contradiction; as a result of the military junta most of the population is forced to live in abject poverty, yet devout Buddhist faith and belief in re-incarnation mean that what money people have is lavished on the temples. Deferred hope maybe.