Myanmar, at the Crossroads of Time

By Patricia Cotti

Myanmar, once known as Burma, is South East Asia’s second largest country after Indonesia.  It was called Burma by the British but Myanmar is favored by the current government since it reflects all the ethnic groups in the country, not just the Burmese.  It is surrounded by India, China and Thailand making it a cultural crossroad. 

Inle Lake - Myanmar.jpg

The repressive military government has cost the nation years of censorship and political sanctions.  Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Prize winner and Democracy leader, was released from house arrest in 2010.  In 2011, the military government bowed to the crippling international pressure and sanctions and released its grip on the nation.  The country opened its doors.  There has since been an onslaught of tourists and feverish movement to meet the demands of increased tourism. 

The country is a cultural paradise and a treasure trove of Buddhism.  Thousands of golden temples and pagodas dot the hillsides, mountains, cities and riverbanks.  The gilded domes sparkle in the sunlight.  Men, women and children wear traditional longis, wraparound sarongs.  Older women still smoke cheroots, cigars.  Smiling faces reveal red stained teeth which is evidence of years of chewing betal nut.  Faces are covered in tree bark paste called thanaka, a kind of beauty product/sunscreen.  Yes, it is still a land where time has stood still-but not for much longer! 

Yangon is Myanmar’s capital.  It was formerly known as Rangoon-a British corruption of the name.  Hawkers, street food vendors and crowds fill the sidewalks.  We even encountered a democracy demonstration.  Rangoon sits on a tributary of the Irrawaddy River.  In former times, it was among Asia’s busiest seaports.  It was a key British colonial seaport to export teak to be used in shipbuilding.  The city architecture is little changed from the days of the British Raj (1851).  The telegraph office, the customs house and district court are now decrepit, moldy, mildewed reminders of times past.  The Strand Hotel, built in 1901, has been restored to its former colonial luxury.  It has high vaulted ceilings, paddle fans and teak and bamboo furniture.  It all evokes a time when the East India Trading Company dominated the area.  One can easily conjure memories of a time when George Orwell was a police officer here and Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling arrived by steam ship to begin a long journey! 

The  Shewedagon Pagoda is probably the most revered complex to the world’s Buddhists.  The main stupa is covered in 60 tons of gold leaf while its spire reaches 326 feet to heaven and is topped with diamonds and precious gems.  The complex consists of some 100 golden pagodas, shrines and statues of Buddha.  Devout Buddhists flock to this complex.  Protocol requires that you remove your socks and shoes when entering Buddhist holy places. 

Pagan is the sleepy town that contains Myanmar’s most enduring images.  It is a flat, dry, dusty plain with some 2,200 Buddhist temples spread across some 16 miles.  These are the remains of an estimated 13,000 temples built some thousand years ago by kings and merchants to gain favor in the next life-a kind of karma insurance.  The view of this plain is breathtaking from every high point.  It is Myanmar’s most visited and iconic site.  Horse drawn carts provide the transportation to the various temples.  During my stay in Pagan, there was a celebration for the initiation of youngsters into Buddhist monasteries and nunneries.  There were colorful processions of the initiated, their parents and followers accompanied by exuberant joyful music, costumes and feasts.  The entire community participated in the joyous event. 

Mandalay is considered the center of Buddhism.  Over 30% of the population of this city is either a Buddhist monk or nun.  These monasteries and nunneries shelter, educate and function as a welfare network for the young, outcast, orphans and poor.  It was common to see the young people in early morning moving through the sleepy city with their begging bowls.  Individuals donated food which when pooled was the daily food ration for the community.  On Mandalay Hill, we visited the world’s “largest book”-more than 700 marble slabs inscribed with Buddhist scripture within individual small pagodas.  Nearby, in Mingun, is the largest ringing bell-90 tons. 

Heho is the site of the U-Bein Bridge, a long rickety teak pedestrian bridge.  It was a beautiful sight at sunset when the sun set behind the bridge and left a silhouette of the pedestrians in the disappearing light. 

Kalaw was established in the early 1900’s by the British as a hill town retreat from the lowland heat.  It was a stop on the British railroad system.  Currently, it is a good stop to mingle with the members of Burma’s hill tribes.  The villages cling to the hillsides.  The houses are made of bamboo.  The surrounding valleys are beautiful.  Hikers were a common sight. 

Inle Lake is a unique community.  Inle Lake houses more than 200 villages with homes constructed on stilts over the water.  Floating gardens have been cultivated out of water hyacinth and silt from the lake.   There is only one way to get around Inle and that is by open air narrow long boats with chairs and nosy, smelly diesel engines.  Fishermen still wear baggy trousers and row by pushing the oar with one leg.  Women sit cross legged on the prow of the boats.  Lines of laundry hang outside of houses on stilts and water buffalo wallow in among the water hyacinths.  Try to visit the nearby Indein Ruins, now a derelict archaeological site, not unlike Angkor Wat, with ornate carved pagodas.  They are being “restored” but, unfortunately, with fresh cement and gold paint-just another reason to visit soon. 

Myanmar is still an unspoiled destination inhabited by a gentle warm people.  The accommodations were more than satisfactory and surprisingly comfortable.  The food was tasty.  Rice was accompanied by fresh vegetables and fish.  The people still produce high quality crafts like lacquer, carved wood and silver at modest cost.  Bring plenty of new crisp dollar bills as credit cards are not accepted-yet! 

This was a very wonderful opportunity.  I’ve been told that Myanmar now is what Asia was in the 1950’s.  It was a very experiential opportunity to visit an authentic culture before it is changed by the outside world.  Myanmar is on the tourist radar.  Now is the time to go! 

Kelly O'Brien