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Myanmar — The country formerly known as Burma remains an exotic destination

Published: Sunday, Feb. 6 2005 12:00 a.m. MST

Reclining Buddha, noted for its extremely large size, is a popular pilgrimage site in Yangon.

Carma Wadley, Deseret Morning News

YANGON, Myanmar — When I told people I was going to Myanmar, the first question I got was: Where is that? And the second was: Why?

The first one was easy. Better known by its old name — Burma — Myanmar is located in southeast Asia between India on one side and Thailand and China on the other.

Why we were going there was a little harder to explain. After all, Myanmar has a repressive military government; Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner has been under "house arrest" off and on for a decade or so; our government is among those that have imposed economic sanctions on Myanmar because of its human rights policies. So there were lots of reasons not to go.

But in recent years, Myanmar has become more receptive to tourism, and there are people who feel this is a way to encourage change. A statement from a tour company says it well: "While we abhor Burma's repressive military regime and are committed to the Burmese people and their struggle for democracy, we feel strongly that a return to isolation could be devastating and that compassionate, well-informed travelers can have a positive impact on the future of this proud nation."

I had heard it was a beautiful country, with interesting culture. Plus, there's always the appeal of getting to a place before a KFC or McDonald's dots every other street corner.

So it was that I set off with a group of traveling buddies for a two-week sojourn in Myanmar/Burma.

Our trip took us to the capital Yangon (once known as Rangoon), to the archaeological site of Bagan (once Pagan — not such a change), on a cruise on the Ayeyarwady River (this one was harder; I still tend to think of it as the Irrawaddy), to the beautiful city of Mandalay (no name change) and to the culturally rich area around Inle Lake (we also saw it listed as Inlay — but that might be just a pronunciation guide).

It was a limited time, but over the course of two weeks, we were able to see and do a lot that gave us first impressions and lasting memories of the country. Among the things we learned:

WE ARE WELCOME HERE. Our personable and knowledgeable guide, May, made us feel "warmly welcome" with her gift of pink roses and her gracious smile.

Myanmar (pronounced "me-an-ma" as if it has a "w" on the end instead of an "r") is a popular destination for French tourists; Germans also come in large numbers, as do the Japanese and Australians. American numbers are more limited. But we encountered no anti-American feelings. The people everywhere were warm and friendly and bore us no ill-will for our government's policies. We never felt restricted in what we could do or say; there wasn't an oppressive feeling like you used to encounter in Russia, say, before the demise of communism.

It was also nice to be in a country where hands were not out for every little thing. People were happy to have their pictures taken — without the reimbursement that is expected in many poorer countries. Nor did packs of little children accost us at every stop, expecting a handout.

Sadly, as more tourists come that will probably change. Already a few children were asking for soap and shampoo — the little bottles from hotels are popular. There is a fine line between giving them something they can use and turning them into beggars who drop out of school to work the streets. "Please don't ruin our children," the cruise director on our ship told us. We hope it's a message they can continue to teach.

Something else that has changed: The government once required tourists to change $200 U.S. dollars into Foreign Exchange Certificates to use for any purchases (and anything leftover could not be changed back). That no longer happens. We could use both the local currency kyat (pronounced "chat") or U.S. dollars at stores or on the street. (No credit cards or ATMs, however.)

A TIME OF ITS OWN. We flew into Bangkok for an overnight stay and from there to Yangon, just under an hour flight. When we landed in Yangon, we turned our watches back 30 minutes. But some suggest we were really turning them back 30 years. If so, it was certainly part of the charm.

The majority of the Burmese people still wear the traditional longyi — both men and women. It is a long tube of cloth that is folded and wrapped around the waist. Men tie them at the front; women lap and tuck at the side. But it is a versatile garment. Men can turn them into shorts, jackets, tote bags and more with a few different folds.

Women and children often wear thanaka powder on their faces. This is made from a powder that comes from ground tree bark (most grind it themselves) mixed with a little water and brushed on the face. It serves as decoration as well as a cooling agent and protection from the sun.

The cities are bustling, busy places with cars and motorcycles — however, no honking is permitted. That is certainly a welcome change from the traffic noise of cities like Bangkok or Beijing.

In the countryside, horse- and cow-carts are more common. Much of the labor — from road work to construction to plowing fields — is done by manpower (or water buffalo power, as the case may be for farming).

While hotels offer all the modern amenities a traveler could want, there is still a sense that the country remains close to its roots and honors its history.

That history goes back thousands of years. Archaeological evidence supports habitation in the area as early as 2500 B.C., but recorded history does not begin until the first millennium A.D. when the Pyu peoples arrived. Other groups came shortly after: the Mon, Bamar and the Shan. Although they each established separate kingdoms, there was much contact and cultural intermingling. The three were finally consolidated in the 11th century, with Pagan established as the glorious capital.

This golden age was short-lived, however. The Mongols, under Kublai Khan, invaded in 1287, and for the next 200 years, splinter groups tried with limited success to establish separate kingdoms.

In the 19th century, disputes with the British, who were establishing their Asian empire, led to an increasing British presence. By 1885, Britain controlled all of what was then Burma, and it was they who used that name.

By 1930, many Burmese began to push for independence. During World War II, they invited the Japanese in to drive the British out, but Burma suffered greatly under the Japanese occupation, and toward the end of the war sided again with Allied forces.

Independence came in 1948 — but not an end to turmoil. In 1960, the country came under control of the army, which has ruled ever since — putting down a pro-democracy uprising in 1988 and renaming the country Myanmar in 1989.

Through these turbulent times, one constant has been the Buddhist religion. According to legend, the first kings of Burma were literal descendants of Buddha. The form of Buddhism, still practiced by 80 percent of the country, combines an emphasis on reaching Nirvana through one's own diligence and self-control with a worship of nats — spirits that control various aspects of life and places. Daily offerings are made to these spirits to ensure good fortune.

ROAD TO MANDALAY. Although the Burmese have little use for reminders of British colonialism (one reason for all the name changes), for many of us, one reference to the country is Rudyard Kipling's famous poem about the place where flying fishes play "and the dawn comes up like thunder out of China 'cross the bay."

We didn't see any flying fish, but we did notice that the sun pops up bright and abruptly on the Ayeyarwady River, which flows to Mandalay.

This 1,350-mile long river/road is a major contributor to both the economy and culture of the country. It flows southward nearly the length of the country, splitting off into a handful of branches as it enters the Andaman Sea, and its flood plain is one of the country's major agricultural areas. Floods come each year with the rainy season, which means that all the houses and villages along the river are built on stilts.

Last year's floods were the highest they had been in more than 25 years, and while they undoubtedly caused some hardship, they also scoured away a lot of the debris and trash of villages, giving them a cleaner, fresher look than you find in many places where people live close to the land.

Many of the villages along the river are accessible only by water; no roads connect them with overland locations. Typical is Yandabo, a pottery village. The people gather clay from the river and make thousands of pots — turned on foot-powered wheels, stamped and decorated by hand, and then piled on top of each other in the center of the village, which is turned into a make-shift kiln as straw is piled over the pots and they are fired. The pots are then sold to a broker, who takes them by boat to markets downstream.

Mandalay itself is a beautiful city, barely 150 years old. Sitting on the banks of the Ayeyarwady, it was founded as the capital of the final Burmese kingdom in 1857. With a population of two million, it is second only to Yangon in size.

The name means "center of the world," and for many Buddhists it is an important center for study, at places such as the Kuthodaw Pagoda. Called by some "the world's biggest book," this pagoda is surrounded by 729 white marble slabs inscribed with the entire Buddhist canon; each slab housed in its own stupa. If you worked for eight hours a day, it would take some 450 days to read the entire "book," which was built in 1857 at the same time as the Royal Palace in Mandalay.

ALL THAT GLITTERS. Myanmar is also known as "The Golden Land" for very good reason. Everywhere you look, there are pagodas and temples with golden spires reaching skyward.

As we sailed into Mandalay, the Sagaing Hills reminded us of meringue, with all their white- and gold-tipped peaks.

Every city, town and village has its own shrines, its own reminders of Buddha. "Shwe" means gold in Burmese, and wherever you see that prefix, you know there's gold: the Shwemawdaw Pagoda in Bago, which at 374 feet is the country's tallest.; the Shwethalyaung Reclining Buddha, which is 180 feet long and has footprints that tell the history of the world — (it is only outdone by the Chaukhtatkyi Reclining Buddha in Yangon, which measures 230 feet long).

There's the Shwezigon Pagoda in Bagan with four gold Buddhas; and the world's largest lacquer Buddha, built in the 13th century and found floating down the river, rescued and gilded, in nearby Sale.

Many of the pagodas are covered with scaffolding a good part of the year. After every rainy season, the gold-leafing must be repaired.

But none of the glittering, golden shrines is more important than the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, the most sacred site in Myanmar. Said to house eight hairs of Buddha, the center stupa is gold plated (no yearly repairs are needed) with 8,688 sheets of gold — 61 tons in all — and decorated with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 sapphires, rubies and other gems as well as 1,485 bells made of pure gold.

Begun in the 5th century B.C., Shwedagon has been rebuilt and enlarged over the years, and now each of the eight sides of its base have another eight smaller stupas — some 64 swirling, golden tokens of belief in all.

Kipling called Shwedagon "a golden mystery . . . a beautiful winking wonder." Aldous Huxley commented on its "merry-go-round-style of architecture." Somerset Maugham described it as "glistening with gold, like a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul."

More than 10,000 pilgrims come annually to Shwedagon. As we sat with some of them in quiet reflection, watching the changing light of sunset dance upon the pillars, it was in the realization that gold was not the only thing that made this spot special. Devotion casts its spell in many forms — as does the land once called Burma now known as Myanmar.


E-mail: carma@desnews.com

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