It was a hot day in Thailand, when 14 of us from five countries met with our local tour representative in the air-conditioned Bangkok airport. We were preparing to board a Thai airliner for a flight to Rangoon. There we would start a five-day exploration of Burma, a country familiar to World War II buffs, but of which little is known or read about in recent years.
Our guide suggested that we go to the duty-free shop in the Bangkok airport and buy a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label Scotch and a carton of State Express of London - 555 cigarettes. This we did.While we waited for the plane my husband and I compared notes with young independent travelers (backpackers) to Burma and found that we were all prepared to do some bargaining in a country where consumer goods are few. Everything from lipstick to extra jeans had been stuffed into our knapsacks and suitcases.
With complimentary orchids pinned to our shirts, blouses or purses, we landed at Rangoon airport, a place designed to handle 25 to 30 arrivals at one time, not the 150 or so people who deplaned with us.
We opened our cartons of cigarettes, prepared to face immigration. It seems that on occasion they like to require smallpox vaccination certificates, an eventuality most of us were not prepared for. "Two packs of cigarettes were said to "smooth the way." I did see a few packs donated to the official, but quite honestly did not see him ask for them. I kept mine secure in my pocket.
That was the easy part. After picking up our luggage, we found ourselves in crowded, disorganized, seemingly stationary lines in a small, warm and humid room. One hour later when the last of our group emerged from this madness, we agreed that throughout the ordeal the officials had been polite, almost friendly - much to our surprise.
Dashing to our bus through a light drizzle (June-October is the rainy season), we were accosted by children with ground bark rubbed on their cheeks. (This is a Burmese make-up called tanaka - used as a decoration and sunscreen.) They asked for the small purple orchids we were wearing.
We traveled along roads populated with overloaded bicycles, horses and buggies, trucks and cabs, as well as privately owned cars, and passed European style estates and public buildings, decaying reminders of the British colonists. Our hotel, the Strand, is also a relic of pre-World War II British domination. The hotel is situated near the Rangoon River, which a few miles away flows into the Gulf of Martaban and on to the Bay of Bengal. We had picturesque views from our rooms and enjoyed overseeing the locals hurrying about their daily business.
The first offer to buy my liquor and cigarettes was made by "Paul" as I walked to the entrance of the hotel.
Air conditioning at the Strand (welcome by most guests in this muggy climate) is found in the sizable rooms where the air is further moved about by fans on the very high ceilings. For relief from the heat, the lobbies, dining rooms and bar depend solely on fans. (Actually, my husband and I found many similarities between the Strand and British-built Raffles, the grand old lady of Singapore, where we stayed many years ago.)
After a chance to rest and refresh, we were driven through the now-dark streets to dinner and a show. On the way we were fortunate to view from afar the spectacular Shwedagon Pagoda, built, according to legend, 2,500 years ago to house a few strands of Buddha's hair. (Actually, like so many ancient pagodas, it has been rebuilt many times. The present structure was started in 1769.) The 320-foot high dome, which is covered with 8,688 one-foot square plates of gold and embedded with 5,448 diamonds and other precious stones, is lighted at night, and in a city with little or no neon and nothing but dim street lights to distract, it can be seen for miles around. The only competition comes from Karaweik Hall. Situated on the shores of a lake and built to entertain tourists and other visitors, this restaurant-theater is a concrete representation of a royal barge for ancient Burmese kings. Upon our arrival it was aglow from decorative strands of lights that reflected in the water.
The Burmese food was simple but very good and the show that followed introduced us to dance movements, musical instruments and skills we had never seen before.
It was during dinner that we learned that unemployment was much higher than the government generally admits and that many couples, especially those living in the cities, now feel that small families with better-educated children are a good idea. But most of all, they feel a pervasive sense of helplessness about the future of their country.
The next day, after an American breakfast of eggs and bacon, we were off in our air-conditioned bus for a city tour and visits to the Chuk Htat Gyi Pagoda with its large (70 meter long) reclining Buddha, the Shwedagon Pagoda (the spectacle of the night before), the Bogyoke market and the Diplomatic Store.
The pagoda temples are beautiful and serene, always visited in bare feet. Although the summer sun made many of the stones much too hot for our tender toes, the beauty and serenity of these shrines, even the busy ones, seems to calm and cool the soul. The shops and stalls lining the approaches to these places are also well worth a peek.
We entered a small, dark store selling beaded and sequined tapestries at the Shwedagon. With little time, and not yet fully understanding the Burmese monetary system, I emerged hot and tired with no tapestry - this time.
The Diplomatic Store, a place to buy export handicrafts and imported goods, liquor, cigarettes, toiletries, to be paid for only with foreign currency, was a disappointment. There were few goods and what goods they had were over priced. The sign at the entrance excitedly exclaiming the arrival of automobile tires told its own story.
The once plentiful supply of precious stones sold at this establishment at reasonable prices (the reason I urged the guide to take us here) is no more. Most of the quality stones are exported along with the incredible Burmese jade. It is said that one should never buy a gem on the streets of Burma as they are almost all fakes. A Frenchman in our group told of a French city famous for synthetic rubies. Their biggest buyer is Burma, he said. This was hard to believe, at first, as Burma is known for the beauty and quality of its rubies - the ones it nw exports. Then you realize that the market for fakes is the over-eager tourist looking for a good deal.
The Bogyoke Market, innumerable stalls under one large roof, is Rangoon's largest city market for locals and visitors alike. It contains an amazingly limited number of consumer goods. Interestingly, it was to be quite different a couple of days later at the city market upcountry in Mandalay. After our lunch of tasty fried fish and french fries, eaten back at the hotel (I would have preferred Asian food - you know, when in Rome . . .), my husband and I returned to Bogyoke with our guide, whom we had hired for a pair of jeans, to help us for part of the otherwise free afternoon.
To get there we took a cab that was typical of all the cabs I saw in the city - a tiny truck, not a car. We sat in the back in hunched positions on the small benches covered by an overhead tarpaulin. Thank goodness for the cover. The clouds opened up for a good 20-minute downpour.
It was a successful adventure. We were able to sell our liquor and some of the cigarettes plus a few personal items of clothing. Frankly, I don't know just how legal this is, but when done in moderation involving the aforementioned items, it seems to be okay and is the best way to get khat (pronounced jut or jat). This way you get about 36 khat per U.S. dollar whereas at the official money exchange places you get 7.
With some khat in my hot little hand and our guide along to help with the bargaining (he probably got a little cut from the dealer), we were off to buy a tapestry with every bead, sequing and piece of roping sewn on by the hand of a young girl. Even though we heard they are made in Mandalay, which we were soon to visit, we took the advice that we often give to other travelers: If you like something, buy it when you see it for you may never see it again.
After our return to our hotel, while my husband napped, I ventured out to explore by myself. I discovered that the National Museum closed at 3, so I spent the time taking pictures along a few of the busy streets. There were interesting dates and European names on the buildings. There were interesting faces, including a your girl with bright lipstick and heavy eye make-up - very unusual as it is strongly discouraged. There were monks, not only in the saffron colored robes I'm used to seeing in Thailand and other parts of southeast Asia, but bright pink ones too, going about with their begging bowls in search of their daily food to be donated by devout housewives and shopkeepers.
There was a woman, a very thin woman, who spoke excellent English. She told me a story of having just arrived from Dacca (Bangladesh) and having to wait for her working papers before she could obtain employment as a secretary. She needed money to help her until then. Her English was so good and her story so real, or original, the I was tempted to help. But I couldn't because I had nothing with me but my camera. I didn't even have an extra roll of film for her to trade in the market.
We left the hotel at 5:30 a.m. the next day and ate breakfast at the airport. We flew north to Pagan, a city on the banks of the Irrawaddy River. Approaching the city, my seatmate and I marveled at the precise rows plowed in the beautifully patterned fields. We concluded that the farmers must have tractors. Only as we got closer did we see teams of bullocks at work.
We were now in the dry zone - no more worry about daily cloud bursts. Knowing this, I wondered aloud at the fact that the Irrawaddy River had overflowed its banks. (The flooding was far more extensive in the mandaly area.) I learned that this great 1,250 mile long river, which flows the entire length of Burma south to the Bay of Bengal, flooded due to snow melt in the Himalayas.
Pagan is a city of temples. Only temples. It is the richest archaeological site in Asia according to some. Known as the city of "four million pagodas," it was the cradle of Burmese civilization. It claims ruins of 2,500-5,000 shrines (depending on the source), most built from the 11th to 13th centuries. Even a severe 1975 earthquake could not destroy most of them. For those that were damaged, restoration work is in progress.
The highlight of the morning was the climb to the top level of one of the largest temples. In truth, it was bad news/good news. The bad news was climbing on red hot steps and terraces in bare feet. The guide allowed socks, but I didn't have any with me. The good news was the view of hundreds of temples wavering in the mid-day heat and the refreshing breeze bearing the chanting of monks and students up from the school below. We found a shady doorway where we sat in silence, and, I think, left when we did lest we all become too comfortable and decide against descending those hot steps until evening.
Four o'clock and we were on our way to the Pagan Museum which is run by the Archaeological Department. It's very small, but well worth a look. Outside, but under cover, there are some wonderful Buddhas - all found in Pagan.
It was close to sunset, and our guide, whose hobby was photography, took us to an old monastery where, shoes allowed, we climbed a narrow, dark stairway to the rooftop. There, in a welcome stiff breeze, we happily clicked away, taking pictures of the multitude of pagodas delineated by the warm light of the sun sinking slowly into the Irrawaddy. In the foreground, bullock teams were heading home on dusty roads after a day in the fields.
My husband chatted with our "photographer" guide. It seems he had just bought a camera - a Pentex. Trouble was, he said, film was hard to get and even more difficult to have developed. He had to wait for someone to take it to Bangkok for him. We had heard a similar story from another Burmese.
The tour finished at dusk at the Ananada Temple. It is an exquisite edifice with a ground plan in the shape of a perfect Greek cross. The four inner sanctuaries, each with its own large statue of Buddha, face the four directions of the compass as tradition dictates. In the hallway surrounding the inner sanctuaries there are 750 alcoves with statuary in each one. Due to attempted thefts, bars have been put on all but the highest recesses. Not only do the wonderful artifacts in the alcoves and four Buddhas get your attention. So do the large number of wakening bats on the high ceilings. (Remember, we are barefooted!) All this in a dusky light - just a tad spooky.
After dinner we watched a colorful marionette show. Then, tired of wiping sweat from my face, I was relieved to grab a couple of bottles of soda water and return to our air-conditioned room where the temperature was 85 degrees, but felt cool by comparison. The secret was to lie very still.
Next morning we were off to Mandalay, by air, not by the famous road where the flying fishes play. There we had our first female guide. She came from Rangoon where she was the third oldest of 10 children. She not only preferred the climate in Mandalay, but also the freedom from family responsibilities and being forever subordinate to anyone in her family who was older than she, if only by a minute. We also learned from her that many Burmese were choosing not to marry. The combined family obligations were too demanding and expensive.
Mandaly was the favorite city on our tour. It is the most Burmese city - the center of Burmese culture with a wealth of monasteries, pagodas and handicrafts. The architecture is primarily Burmese.
First stop was a jetty on (you guessed it) the Irrawadddy River. Here was a village alongside and on the water with children and farm animals omnipresent. The local industry involved teak wood. There are many thousands (I thought I heard the figure 40,000) of elephants working in the teak forests to the north. Wood is cut and hauled to the river where it is floated south to Mandalay. Here the valuable water buffalo work dragging it from the river. These animals were the healthiest beings I saw in Burma. They are trained very young. The ones we saw were 10 to 13 years old and able to respond to many commands. They are state-owned and are used in place of much more expensive machines.
Our first religious site was the Shwe Nandaw Kyaung, decorated on the outside with intricate woodcarvings dark with age. Wood is so much more fragile than stone. Most buildings like this one last but a hundred years or so. Nepal, for example, historically used wood for most of its important structures and is now fighting hard with outside financial help to save some of what still survives. Rot, insects and fire are the most common enemies.
Before going to the Zegyo Market, the center of trade for all people in upper Burma, we stopped for a drink. We were just managing to keep a step ahead of total dehydration. At this small shop with two cats sprawled on the floor (they knew it was hot), where we enjoyed cold bottles of strange tasting pop, there was a soft ice cream machine! According to our guide, it had been smuggled in by way of the northern border from Ghina and the owner had to pay high taxes to keep it. None of us tried the ice cream.
The Zegyo Market was much like the Bogyoke in Rangoon in that there were many shops and stalls under one large roof, but there were so many more useful consumer products. An American nurse in our group looked over the drug store and found old, out-of-date medicines, as well as boxes and bottles that contained substances that would be prescription drugs in our country. Nevertheless, they had something. The explanation for the better conditions here was the "trading" on the Chinese and Thai borders.
A tour of Mandalay is not complete without visiting the neighboring villages to see the thriving craft industries. We saw lacquer ware, tapestries and marble statues of both religious and secular subjects being produced in homes and very small factories.
Driving down the tree-shaded streets with more horse-drawn buggies than any other form of transportation and lovely two story wooden Burmese homes on the sides, it would be easy to miss many of these workshops.
Another craft, silk weaving, was found in a busier atmosphere. That town was preparing for a major festival of fortune tellers.
Once again, as with the tapestries, young girls were responsible for much of the weaving. The resulting fabric is heavier than many people might expect. Pop music played in the background and many of the girls hummed or sang quietly along.
Our last day in Burma was spent flying back to Rangoon where we were scheduled to wait five hours in the airport for our flight to Bangkok. When met once again by our Rangoon guide, we pleaded to be taken to the nearby Inya Lake Hotel. This, the best hotel in Burma (even the lobby is air-conditioned), was built by the Russians in the early '50s and originally run by an Israeli firm. Although called a gift to Burma, many do not consider it such since they gave much rice to the Soviet Union in return.
Back at the airport and rady to board, we smugly watched a new plane load of visitors arrive on the flight we had come in on just days before. Each one had a duty-free bag in hand, undoubtedly carrying the all-important Scotch and cigarettes. Smug, because we were now self-styled "experts" on Burma. We had seen the decaying European style buidings, the picturesque and pagodas and the bustling market places. We had bargained and bartered and sold goods in the market. Most of all, we learned something, if only a little, about the Burmese - they are a very friendly people almost hidden from the rest of the world.