We fly in from Singapore on a Silk Air flight served by slender Singaporean airhostesses dressed in pale green sheaths and fluttering false eyelashes. It takes two hours and forty minutes to get to Yangon, as Rangoon is officially named. Our first glimpse of the country from the air is of the Irrawaddy river spreading out like a fan of silver threads into the Bay of Bengal. Like everything else in Burma, which is now officially Myanmar, or Myanma, as the locals pronounce it, the name of the river is now Ayeyarwaddy.
“Mingalaba! Welcome to Myanma,” the girls at the newly built airport chirp and smile, while trying to figure out how to replace our SIM cards with local ones.
“We have got permission only one week back, so very sorry, we are still learning,” they say.
No one speaks much English, but everyone smiles and wishes us, “Mingalaba!”
“The Generals have tried to wipe out all traces of the British, and the first thing to go was English,” explains our guide. Strangely, there are no visible signs of the dreaded Generals, no pictures of them at the airport or on the public buildings, no statues or posters, no gun-toting soldiers anywhere. This invisibility makes them seem all the more sinister. We never ever see a picture of Burma’s most famous citizen, Aung Sang Suu Kyi, either but her smile lingers in the air wherever we go.
The Burmese are made up of a number of hill tribes from different parts of the country, some of them from near the border with Thailand in the east and the south, some of them from closer to China in the northeast, and some having an affinity with our own Manipuri and Naga people. On the surface the unifying factor appears to be Buddhism. At every one of the towns we visit, landing first at Yangon and then going by air, via Mandalay, to Heho and then by tourist bus and river canoes to Lake Inle, there are pagodas gleaming in the sunlight like giant bells scattered by a careless giant.
At the entrance to each of the major pagodas is a pair of lion statues. When we go to the Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Rangoon, which is quite the largest and most splendid of them all, the guardian lions are also very large. The pagoda itself is like a giant mountain of gold rising out of the city. We observe an amazing feat of co-ordinated cleaning—volunteers, ten or fifteen in a row, wielding large, closely aligned mops, walk slowly around the circular courtyard sweeping the path clean for visitors. Acquiring merit by performing such acts is an important part of the Theravada Buddhism that is followed in Burma.
Nowadays you can take a lift up to the main platform of the Shwe Dagon Pagoda although the faithful walk up the many steps flanked on both sides by booths selling all the paraphernalia needed for worship. You circle around a Bodhi tree and find yourself in front of the grand spectacle of the pagoda, glittering with its gem-decorated umbrellas and Bodhi leaves that quiver and shake as they catch the last rays of the evening sun. There are many images of the Buddha in the main sanctums around the pagoda’s base, as well as smaller ones in white marble that devotees are allowed to bathe with tiny silver bowls of water. Devotees also ring bells with a wooden mallet to make a muffled sound, light large incense sticks, or place white paper umbrellas, lotus buds and chrysanthemums in vases near the altars.
Actually, the first place we visit in Rangoon is the dargah of the last of the Mughals, Bahadur Shah Zafar. It’s a pretty ugly kind of structure cobbled together with bathroom tiles, metalwork, rough cotton rugs on the floor, tube-lights and faded portraits of the emperor.
Downtown Rangoon reminds me most of Kolkata with its timbered colonial buildings amid lavish gardens and the many magnificent public buildings like the railway station, post office, general hospital and so on. We stay at the former British Governor’s residence, now a hotel set in an orchid-filled garden. We can see that many of the old bungalows have fallen down, or, as George Orwell put it in a short story, look haunted. A once beautiful city is more or less in a state of decay.
Our guide points to many old buildings once owned by the Chetties, as he calls them, and the Devi temple nearby, and explains how the community had to flee a decade or two after the British left, since the Generals did not want Indians around either. At one time, the Nattukottai Chettiars of Tamil Nadu were so powerful, they owned a third of the land in southern Burma. Indian communities came in as clerks and teachers occupying positions in the British-run cities of lower Burma. There were also people in the police, the army and medical services who enjoyed a high degree of comfort until the Japanese attack during World War II. Many people perished as they walked back to India through the jungles of the northwest.
We discover the country backwards, taking a series of hopping flights to Lake Inle in the northeast, then looping back to Mandalay and Bagan, once famous kingdoms along the Irrawaddy river in Central Burma.
Inle Lake is the most beautiful of places. It’s as vast as a sea with the Blue Mountains of the Shan range in the distance and small villages built on stilts around the edges. The people live on the water, travelling up and down in motorised canoes, or propelling themselves by means of a paddle that they use standing up with their right leg. They live on fish and the produce that they harvest from their floating gardens tethered into the soft ground using bamboo poles. They are known as the Intha, or ‘sons of the lake’.
The Inle Princess Resort is at the far end of the lake. It takes us an hour to get there and we have to cover ourselves with raincoats, hoods and umbrellas to keep out the lashing rain. We are rowed to the village of the long-necked women, the village of silversmiths, and those who make textiles for the area. It’s also a region that sends its most beautiful girls to the bars and strip clubs of Thailand, for even though it seems a peaceful and enchanting valley, it has been the target of the mysterious Military who come hunting for the lovely village girls. So, between the bars of Bangkok and the Generals, we can only suppose that the local people have a hard time living here.
Our guide tells us another strange story about the Intha. During a burial the Intha lower their dead into the lake in wooden coffins which have small holes drilled into them. “Small eels enter into the holes and slowly consume the dead person,” he says, “But gradually they get so large they are not able to get out of the coffin. Then the Intha raise the coffin, take the eels out and have a grand feast.”
Naturally, when we are invited to have lunch at an Intha house, run by a charming lady called Anne, we are very relieved that there are no eels on the menu. We sit at circular tables on mats, while the cooks serve food fresh and hot from a large clay oven. Besides dhal soup, fresh salads of beans and greens, chicken and freshwater prawns so large they remind us of the eels, we also have cutlets of boiled potatoes and cabbage, prawn-flavoured sago wafers, rice in wooden bowls and banana fritters.
There are also a large number of cats, the Royal Burmese cats being bred again in a village here. Some live in our resort also and are truly beautiful creatures, dark chocolate brown with jade eyes and the softest of furs. At the Pagoda of the Jumping Cats, the ones sporting tiger stripes are trained to jump through a series of hoops, which they do somewhat ungraciously.
The Mandalay Hotel is a big property, boasting very modern rooms, a swimming pool and souvenir shops. The view from Mandalay Hill is stunning when all the pagodas are lit up at night. We visit the main pagoda with its giant image of the Buddha covered in gold added layer upon layer through the centuries. Only the face has been left free of the gold leaf and seems very peaceful. The bazaars surrounding the main sanctum seem just like the ones at Madurai, full of markets and shops selling all manner of foodstuffs and souvenirs.
A young man approaches me and asks whether I will give him US dollars for two hundred Indian rupees that a visitor has foisted upon him. I agree, since it is just a matter of exchanging it for four dollars, but he then becomes nervous, and says the Military might be watching, so we go to the bus and he furtively hands over the rupees. This is the only time I witness the fear that ordinary Burmese experience regarding the reach of the Military.
The next day starts very early. We have to catch a private cruise boat that will take us down the Irrawaddy to Pagan, a ten-hour journey. Some of us lounge on the decks and read, others go down to the air-conditioned lounge and start a game of cards. We have a continental style lunch in the dining room-cum-lounge. Everything seems very peaceful, when all of a sudden the ship’s engine stops abruptly. We now drift across the Irrawaddy towards a bank, where the Captain drops anchor. Two of the deck hands swim across with towropes and attach the ship more firmly to the soft earth by means of metal pinions.
It’s only very gradually that we learn that one of the propeller shafts has broken and the ship’s engineer cannot repair it. The card players, so engrossed in their game, are blissfully unaware of the crisis. We have to wait for a tugboat that arrives a good two hours later. It’s only then that we start moving.
But by 7pm another crisis occurs. As we pass the mouth of another big river, the Chindwin, the tugboat also loses its propeller. The Captain is now quite desperate with worry since it is still two hours away to Pagan. There are no lights to be seen anywhere and a storm threatens. He orders stiff tots of rum to be served to all of us!
We can see the lights of a small town in the distance. The Captain slowly guides the cruise boat, now followed by the tugboat, to the edge of the bank using the diminished power of the engines.
Our guide is extremely resourceful. He swiftly organises transport. It’s now a matter of docking the cruise ship close enough to the bank for us to walk across. Two planks are tied to make one long thin plank that stretches from the lower deck to the bank. The whole village has gathered to watch the drama unfold. We walk the plank one at a time and scramble to safety. It’s actually more difficult to scramble up the bank of the river, since the sides are wet and slippery. “Lipstick? Make-up? You give lipstick, please,” the local women ask in Burmese.
It’s then a long slow drive to Pagan, or Bagan as it is now called. The Aureum Palace is a magnificent resort. In the morning the famous brick-faced pagodas rise like prayers to the sun. The Japanese have planted forests of flowering trees all across the plain, so it’s very green now. There used to be four thousand pagodas here, but many were washed away after an earthquake devastated the area in 1975. Some of them are still in the process of being rebuilt by Unesco, which has declared it a world heritage site.
Among these the most magnificent is the Ananda Pagoda. When we enter the courtyard, the ancient spires rise up like the peaks of the Himalaya. Inside, there are four thirty-one-feet-high standing Buddhas back-to-back, each in a different niche. The most beautiful of them has been carved by Indian craftsmen from Bihar. As you stand under the statue, it seems to stare down with a look of sadness. Then, as you move backwards, the corners of the Buddha’s mouth curve upwards. Finally, he is smiling at you as though full of the joy of being alive and you step away from the temple with a lightness of heart and step that is indescribable. It’s the smile of the Burmese people and it touches your heart.
There are no direct flights to Yangon from India. However, all the metros are connected to Yangon by one-stop flights on various Southeast Asian airlines, including Singapore and Thai. Round-trip fares begin from about Rs 25,000.
Several travel agencies arrange Myanmar tours, but I travelled from Chennai on Destinations Unlimited’s weeklong tour:
Day 1: Yangon. City tour, including a sunset visit to the Shwe Dagon Pagoda. We spent the night at the Orient-Express group’s elegant Governor’s Residence (governorsresidence.com).
Day 2: Yangon-Heho-Inle. We flew to the town of Heho, where we visited a Shan paper and umbrella workshop. From Heho, a one-hour scenic drive led to Nyaung Shwe, the gateway village to Inle Lake. The lake is of course one of Myanmar’s most spectacular sights, with villages built on stilts over the lake. This night was spent at the Inle Princess Resort, set picturesquely on the lake (inleprincessresort.net).
Day 3: Inle Lake. The day took in a visit to the lake market, followed by an orchid farm. Next was the weaving village of Inpawkhone. The day also included a spa treatment at the resort.
Day 4: Inle Lake-Mandalay. A flight to Mandalay. First stop after lunch: the Zaygyo Market; next: a tour of crafts workshops. Our hotel was the Mandalay Hill Resort (mandalayhillresorthotel.com).
Day 5: Mandalay-Bagan. We boarded the RV Yandabo, a luxury ship that runs the Ayeyarwaddy (rvyandabo.com). The cruise to Bagan took 12 hours, and included a halt at a pottery village. The night’s halt was at Bagan's fabulous Aureum Palace Spa Resort (aureumpalace.com).
Day 6: Bagan. All day in Bagan, highlights being the colourful Nyaung Oo Market, a horse carriage tour and watching the sunset from one of the upper terraces.
Day 7: Bagan-Yangon. We flew back to Yangon for one final day in the city. Activities included visits to the immense Bogyoke Market, the National Museum and a gemstone workshop. Our last night was at the historic Strand Hotel (ghmhotels.com).
Costs & contact
Destinations Unlimited offers this luxury tour for Rs 1,38,000 per person. The price includes pretty much everything: airfare, hotels, most meals, guides, domestic transport, visa fees, insurance, etc. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org