"… quite unlike any land you know about!"

Travels in the Union of Myanmar

Since 2003 I have made three visits to Myanmar, following a short trip in 1997 and my very first visit way back in 1977. I have since come to love this country and her people for reason I really don’t know–but I guess it might have something to do with the fact that it is one of the few countries left in the world that also allows you to travel back in time.

Maybe no good news for people who live there, but marvellous for me who am hopelessly nostalgic when it comes to travelling. It is also one of the few places on Planet Earth where men folk generally don’t wear trousers. And as with the Scottish kilt, the ultimate question is: what is under the longyi?

On my last visit in December 2006, I was met at Yangon International Airport by Win, a young Myanmar national. I had met Win through the wonderful modern invention called Internet. Win is, for obvious reasons, not his real name, but a name I thought was appropriate because I understand it means bright.

He took me downtown in his 20 year-old Toyota, used cars I understood were all imported from Japan, Thailand or Singapore. Hence the steering wheel is on the wrong side as they drive on the left side of the road in Japan. So they used to do in old Burma, but they changed in 1970. The then military administration of Ne Win decreed that traffic would drive on the right side of the road because he apparently had been advised by his soothsayer, who had said, "move to the right". The present government does not allow import of new cars, and on the market very old cars sell for almost the same as new ones in Western Europe.

Win helped me book into Central Hotel. At 30 US dollars a night I was offered a clean, spacious room with hot and cold water, including a view across the road to Bogyoke Market. In the Bogyoke Aung San Market, first built in 1926, and situated in the heart of Yangon, there are nearly 170 shops and stalls selling luxury items, handicrafts, food stuffs, clothing, jewellery, fashion and consumer goods–and a cup of tea while you are conducting your bargaining skills.

No credit cards or travellers’ cheques accepted a sign told me. Despite the lack of cards and cheques, Myanmar hardly even has a proper cash economy. With a weak currency and the largest local note having an equivalent value of less than one US dollar, most people prefer to keep their valuables in gold, stacked up in a safe installed in the owners’ bedrooms. Wallets are of no use, as larger transactions require bags of money. I realised this very quickly after Win helped me change my hundred-dollar bill into the local currency kyat. A hundred dollar bill converted into a stack of kyats enough to fill my camera bag.

Thirty dollars, incidentally, is what the kid (usually boys) serving you coffee around the corner might expect as a monthly pay–tolling long hours and treated badly by his boss. Like everywhere else in the world, children like to play in Myanmar too, but poverty forces many–if not most–children to start work at very early age. Despite a compulsory education law, almost four in ten children never enrol in school, and only 25 to 35 percent complete the 5-year primary school course. Many families cannot afford to pay the numerous fees for primary school education, which together impose substantial costs.

According to Unicef, primary school enrolment rates today are increasing, and more schools are being constructed. Those who enrol in school, usually start at the age of five. Kindergarten is the first year of the 5-4-2 system of schooling. Unesco emphasize that much concern has been voiced about the inclusion of the kindergarten as an integral part of the primary cycle. The curriculum is overloaded and the hours are long. The emphasis is on study, memorization and on individual performance. Interaction with others and inter-personal relationships are largely ignored resulting in an inadequate exposure to intellectual and psychosocial stimulation through exploration and play.

Children in Myanmar face some of the worst poverty in Asia. According to Save the children government spending on health dropped from 1 per cent of GDP in 1990 to 0.2 per cent in 2000 and public investment in education is also declining. Nearly 75 per cent of families live in rural areas where many homes lack clean water and sanitation facilities, despite the fact that most areas of Myanmar have abundant water resources.

Unicef says that even though progress has been made in improving children's health through child immunization and nutrition initiatives, Myanmar continues to have high infant and under-five mortality rates, with half of all child deaths attributable to preventable causes.

Talking to people around the country is difficult, but when sure nobody is listening most people portray a universally unpopular, deeply corrupt regime. People told of worsening poverty, a collapsed education system and a health care system that could deal only with those who paid. Tuberculosis, malaria and Aids were rampant, many people claimed. Apparently 1.4 percent of the country’s population are HIV positive, and according to a recent health survey by Johns Hopkins University Medical School, the government's budget for its Aids programme in 2004 was $22,000.

The name "Myanmar" comes from the two words "myan", which translates "swift", and "ma", which translates "strong". It also refers to a resident or citizen of Myanmar, or more specifically, a person from the majority Bamar ethnic group. Myanmar is also one of the least developed countries in the world, thanks largely to an oppressive military government since the early 1960s.

Myanmar's prehistory begins with the migration of four groups into the country: the first were the Pyu from either present-day Tibet or India, then the Mons from what is now Cambodia, then came Mongol Burmans from the eastern Himalayas and later came Thai tribes from northern Thailand. The myriad of all the different ethnic groups are very evident in the capital Yangon.

Downtown Yangon’s complete absence of traffic is a thing of the past, today the myriad of second hand cars and buses from the time of the British strangle the city centre. But still, the city retains a charm and an intriguing mix of old and new–mostly old. Ancient wooden Chevrolet buses still pack in the commuters and rumble up and down the Colonial British grid-like streets. The air of neglect is being gradually, but only gradually, offset by development. Yangon’s famous Strand Hotel has been thoroughly revamped, and in the early evenings impromptu markets spring up on virtually every street corner.

However, many cities, towns, and institutions, are in the process of change. Yangon and Mandalay are in the biggest building booms in their histories. The middle class, even though they are hampered by the government and by an international US-led trade embargo, is growing stronger. The whole country is in the process of change. Now is the time to visit. Tourists have not yet overrun the place. The country is rapidly emerging from its wasting socialist cocoon of self-imposed isolation, and a visit to this land of golden pagodas now is like a trip back in time. Go before it is too late!

With its trade embargo, the Bush administration has allowed China, and to a lesser extent, India, to have a free hand in Myanmar to the exclusion of the United States and European countries. On numerous encounters in Myanmar, where most people speak with extreme caution to foreigners and almost always in anonymity for fear of jail, people joked sardonically that China was the "big daddy" and that soon it would "own" Myanmar.

"China is a good friend of the government, not of the people," said one woman to New York Times recently. "They are like brother and brother-in-law”. The geopolitical situation favours the Burmese military. China and India both want to support it, and the Asean nations have no teeth.

Cambodian strongman Hun Sen evidently has plenty of respect for China’s capacities. After sparring with other donor countries over his human rights abuses, he praised Beijing for having “respected Cambodia’s independence and integrity” – in other words, having handed over the cash no strings attached. “China is a very big country with 1.3 billion people. If the Chinese all urinated at once, they would cause a great flood. However, Chinese leaders do good things with their partners.”

According to an article in New York Times in December 2006, China’s National Development Reform Commission approved plans in April to build a pipeline that would carry China's Middle East oil from a deep-water port off Sittwe on the west coast across the country to Yunnan, China’s southern province. This would provide China with an alternative to the Strait of Malacca, which it now depends on for delivering its oil from the Middle East.


Though no date has been announced for work on the new pipeline, the military appeared to be getting ready to build the deep-sea port on the island of Ramree. In another sign of the importance of Myanmar to China, the chairman of the China National Offshore Oil Corp, Fu Chengyu, said in a speech that the company would focus its investment in the medium term on two countries: Myanmar and Nigeria.

Though a large Indian community stayed behind after independence in 1948, Myanmar is overwhelmingly Buddhist. Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda, rising nearly 100 metres from its base, is a pivotal point. One of the largest and most famous in the country, it is reputed to contain hairs of the Buddha and has survived earthquakes, fires and pillage. The Shwedagon is the greatest pagoda of its kind in the world, comparable in size and grandeur to the Angkor Wat of Cambodia and the Boro Budur of Indonesia.

A visit to Myanmar without seeing the sights of the Shwedagon, is like visiting Paris without seeing the Eiffel tower, Rome without the Sistine Chapel or Athens without the Acropolis. "Shwe" means gold and Dagon is a former name of Yangon. Hence, Shwedagon means the golden pagoda at the city of Dagon, It is believed to have been built nearly 2,600 years ago, that is, during the Buddha's lifetime. According to the legend of the pagoda, two trader brothers from Myanmar, by the names of Tapussa and Bhallika, led a caravan of bullock-carts to India and there they came across the Buddha who had recently attained His Enlightenment or Buddhahood.

Most Burmese are Buddhist of the Theravada stream. Central to their religious beliefs is karma, a concept that good begets good and evil begets evils. So monk hood is still an important part of a boy’s life. Because entering the monk hood is a major merit-generating act, most men spend part of their lives as monks. It is a traditional cultural requirement for every male Burmese Buddhist to become a novice in childhood for some time and a monk in adulthood. There is even a saying; "You must become a monk, before you can become a man." Such a cultural requirement does not exist for women. However, there is around one nun to every ten monks or novices in Myanmar.

Travelling in Myanmar is slow. Realising a lack of cross country infrastructure, Win and I decide that during a two week journey we have to choose between exploring the west coast or travel up the east valley towards Inle, Mandalay and Pyin-oo-Lwin. Even though I had been to those places before, we decided to go east as facilities were better. That would leave the west coast to be my priority on my next visit to Myanmar. There will definitely be a next time, and that very soon.

Win managed to get tickets for Heho the next day, even though several travel agents claimed all flights were sold out. The airfare would be 73 US dollars for me, and 40,000 kyats (about 32 dollars) for him. Nyaungshwe is the town at the northern end of Inle Lake in Shan state, about one hour and 20,000 kyats away from the airport of Heho. We flew Air Mandalay, and even though the company apparently is not a government enterprise, the in-flight magazine told us the major political task of the government: to avoid disintegration of the union, avoid national solidarity to be dissolved, and continue the national sovereignty.

Inle Lake is the second largest natural lake in Myanmar, located in the middle of the greatest depression in Nyaungshwe valley between the two parallel mountain ranges running north to south in the southern Shan State. At 875 metres above sea level, Inle Lake is still surrounded by high hills that help to keep the waters calm and the lake area misty. The Lake itself is shallow, and holds villages built on stilts where villagers keep poultry, pork and all sorts of domestic animals.

The majority of the people living in the area are said to have migrated from Dawei, in southern Myanmar, in the late 1300s. Most are involved in fishing for the local carp and other freshwater fish that are abundant in the lake with cone shaped nets. The Inthas are renowned for rowing their flat-bottomed boats from the stern with one leg, so that they can watch for shoals of fish, and avoid the large clumps of water hyacinth and low-lying islands that are scattered about Inle. At the southern end of Inle Lake in central Myanmar, the village of Nampan provides colourful life on their regular market day every five days. On Christmas Eve we rented a long tail boat for the whole day for 15,000 kyats–or 12 US dollars.

The next day, Win and I made for Mandalay by air from Heho. On my previous visit to the area I travelled by bus between the two towns, and that took more than 12 hours through a long night and on a long and winding road.

Mandalay is Myanmar’s second city and the capital before the arrival of the British. The Chinese presence is very evident in Mandalay. Even more now, than on my last visit in 2003. You can see it everywhere, from the [ugly] architecture, to who runs the businesses to the fact that you can use the Chinese currency renminbi for shopping. Chinese construction companies–in return for favours to the ruling junta–have constructed the new airport in Mandalay, situated more than 50 km south of the city. It has three or four walk-on bridges, but only one or two flights a week that can actually use the bridges. All domestic airlines use French built ATR72s that are too small for these bridges.

The Ayeyarwady is one of the great rivers of Asia and serves as the economic lifeline of Myanmar. It is navigable by steamers to Bhamo and by launches up to Myitkyina. For many centuries it was Myanmar’s principal communication route.

Of all the journeys one can make in Myanmar, the cruise down this great river is probably the most popular. It is a tranquil cruise with just a few stops. Low, distant banks were offset by occasional hamlets set back even further and other boats passed infrequently. Yandaboo is a village on the Ayeyarwady River in central Myanmar. It gives its name to the Treaty of Yandaboo, signed in 1826. Today it is a rarely visited small village with no road access to the world. Dependant on the riverine economy this village is famous for the production of terracotta pottery made from riverbank mud. The Mandalay to Bagan boat stops at the village, and you can see the pottery making process at various stages.

It’s not only a trip for its own sake. The ancient city of Bagan is one of Asia’s great archaeological sites, and is situated by the riverside on a vast plain broken only by hundreds of pagodas in all shapes and sizes. Sprawling across a vast dusty plain, the ancient ruins of Bagan in Myanmar are unhidden. As there are no trees to obstruct the view, one may gaze over forty square miles of countryside, upon literally thousands of temples. Bagan also happens to be a very peaceful place to relax, where transport basically is by foot, horse cart or bicycle. The setting is completely rural and the immediate towns are more like overgrown villages.

About two hours drive southeast of Bagan in Myanmar at the base of Mt Popa is a solitary peak topped by gold stupas. Perched on a distinctive outcrop amidst a sharp range of hills, the temple here is known for the worship of nats guardian spirits who are either good or evil. To reach the top, you need to remove shoes and socks and climb the 777 steps to the summit with excellent views across the countryside. Popa means "flower" in Sanskrit, so Mt. Popa means a mountain of flowers.

Should you go or should you not? This is a standard question considering the present political situation in the country. “This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about,” Rudyard Kipling wrote in his 1889 description from his first meeting with the country. That still applies today. Burma is the realm of dreams.

[February 2007]