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What is it that makes me want to go there? March 2011


W H Y B U R M A ? !

W h a t ! w a s ! i t !

Welcoming* smiles* from* the* crowd* of* devout* locals*visiting*the*Pagoda*at*the*end*of*the*day* with* their* children;* making* offerings* of* fruit* and*flowers;*washing*the*Buddha;*and*praying* for*abundant*blessings,*energises*us.*


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Today,* even* after* fifty* years* of* neglect,* with* many*decaying*edifices,*broken*footpaths,*and* whirring* generators* to* combat* frequent* power* failures,* there’s* no* mistaking* the* remaining* strong* British* influences,* mixed* with*sidewalk*vendors*and*food*stalls*at*every* turn.**


In*Yangon,*we*visit*the*Schwedagon*Pagoda*to* watch*the*sun*set*and*to*see*the*sixty*tons*of* glistening* pure* gold* covering* the* ‘bell’* of* the* main* stupa* change* colour.* And* then* in* Mandalay,* It’s* not* too* much* of* a* burden* sitting* on* the* top* deck* of* ‘The* Road* to* Mandalay’* cruiser* in* the* openIair,* taking* of* the*breakfast*buffet,*and*looking*out*over*the* river*to*the*pagodas*atop*37*hilltops.* *


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Inle*Lake*is*famous*for*its*unique*leg*rowers,* conical* fishing,* and* lotus* fibre* weaving.* We* observe* all* these* and* so* much* more* as* we* come*and*go,*travelling*85*kilometres*sitting* on* cushions* in* wooden* armchairs* in* our* longboat*over*three*days.*The*first*day*turns* out*to*be*long,*but*totally*engrossing.*We*go* up* a* river* to* a* littleIvisited* complex* of* old* pagodas* on* top* of* the* hill;* it’s* only* when* I* can* barely* lift* my* nip* of* scotch* before* dinner* that* night* that* I* realise* how* exhausting!*But*wonderful!* !


At* 3,000* feet* In* Nyaungshwe* where* it* is* so* much* cooler* than* sweltering* Yangon,* we* experience* the* oneIinIfive* day* local* markets,* where* the* colourfully* dressed* local* hill* tribes* come*to*buy*and*sell*their*vegetables,*flowers,* bamboo* and* tobacco.* In* other* places,* it’s* the* workshops*that*appeal*and*difficult*to*get*Pam* and* Juanita* away* from* the* jewellery* and* lacquer*ware.*


Greenery* grows* out* from* ornate* stucco* carvings* of* spirits* and* legendary* animals.* Heads* have* been* taken* from* most* of* the* Buddhas* inside.* A* little* further* on,* our* guide* leads* us* away* from* the* columns* lining* the* covered*stairway*and*along*a*dirt*pathway*up* the* hillside.* He* wants* us* to* walk* among* and* appreciate* the* hundreds* of* weatherworn* stupas*from*the*17th*and*18th*centuries.*


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I’ve*always*carried*an*image*of*people*walking* over* a* long* bridge* seemingly* on* tall* stilts* above*the*water*as*stereotypical*of*Burma.*I’m* about* to* be* surprised.* The* sun* is* fast* falling* towards* the* horizon* as* we* approach* Mandalay.*Little*do*I*expect*to*be*walking*out* on* that* old* bridge,* made* of* teak* from* the* Royal*Palace*in*the*19th*century,*before*rowing* out* into* the* lake* to* the* watch* the* sunset* beyond.*Magical!* *


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There’s* a* lot* to* be* said* for* seeing* the* countryside* from* the* comfort* of* a* cruise* vessel.* The* ‘Road* to* Mandalay’* of* Orient* Express*is*no*exception*of*course.*We*use*the* vessel*as*our*hotel*and*base*at*both*ends.**We* are* totally* spoiled* in* upgraded* ‘state* rooms’* with*large*picture*windows*allowing*us*not*to* miss* a* moment* of* life* along* the* banks* or* the* many* different* craft* passing* us* along* the* mighty*Irrawaddy.


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Up!before!dawn,!we!drive!over!dusty!roads! in!an!rickety!old!wooden!bus!that’s!been! built!on!the!chassis!of!an!old!World!War!II! Chevrolet!Jeep!to!watch!the!sun!rise!over!the! pagodas,!aloft!in!a!hot>air!balloon.!I!can!still! hear!the!whoosh!and!lick!of!flame!as!the! British!pilot!turns!on!the!burners.!We!float! for!nearly!an!hour!taking!in!the!surreal! landscape!and!at!times!coming!low!enough! to!look!inside!a!ruin!and!see!a!statue!of! Buddha.!


You may like to print out these black and white pages for ease of reading

! What!is!it!about!Burma!that!made!me!want!to!go!there!in!the!first!place?!! ! I! have! a! couple! of! good! Burmese! friends! who! speak! both! passionately! and! sadly! about! their! ‘beautiful’!country.!That!may!have!had!a!bearing!on!it.! ! I!possessed!a!compelling!sense!of!the!‘unknown’;!the!thrill!of!discovering!for!myself!the!romance! of!Rudyard!Kipling!and!the!old!Road!to!Mandalay!with!plains!and!hilltops!covered!in!pagodas.!I! wanted!to!see!the!remnants!of!‘Days!of!Empire’!in!Old!Rangoon.!Take!tea,!or!down!a!cold!beer! under!whirling!ceiling!fans!in!the!vaunted!Strand!Hotel!in!Yangon.!The!thought!of!riding!in!a!hot> air!‘Balloon!over!Bagan’!to!look!down!on!the!thousands!of!stupas!literally!blew!me!away.! ! Overall,! it! was! probably! the! chance! to! taste! of! a! ‘forbidden! fruit’;! travelling! to! a! country! with! much>publicised! human! rights! issues,! and! arguments! for! and! against! travel.! I’m! more! a! proponent! for! going! there;! meeting! the! people;! and! trying! to! understand! the! situation! for! myself.!I!know!from!my!recent!experiences!in!other!countries! with!questionable!human>rights! records!like!Cuba,!Libya,!East!Timor!and!even!China!that!local!people!feel!a!sense!of!reassurance! and!renewed!hope!for!the!future!through!contact!with!a!friendly!foreign!visitor;!there’s!also!that! important!reassurance!that!they’re!not!forgotten.!! ! For!all!of!the!‘romance’!and!sense!of!adventure,!I’m!not!anything!if!not!practical.!I!had!the!chance! to!travel!into!Burma!with!the!perceived!‘safety’!of!a!respected!western!travel!operator,!Orient> Express,!staying!at!the!Governor’s!Residence!in!Yangon!before!floating!down!the!Irrawaddy!on! their!much!talked>about!river!cruiser!‘The!Road!to!Mandalay’.!This!in!itself!conjures!in!my!mind! such!romantic!memories!of!bygone!days.!! ! Arrival'in'Yangon' ! Having!walked!a!mile!between!flights!at!Bangkok!Airport,!I!sit!and!catch!my!breath!in!the!short! Thai! flight! on! to! Yangon! wondering! what! lies! ahead.! To! my! surprise,! Yangon! International! Airport!is!sparkling!new;!the!Immigration!is!quick!and!efficient;!and!my!bag!is!on!the!carousel! when!I!reach!it.!The!Customs!officers!in!crisp!starched!whites!suggest!I’m!in!Asia!of!old!as!I’m! waved!through!without!a!second!glance!and!see!my!name!on!the!Orient!Express!welcome!paddle! through!the!glass!doors.! ! Tall! palms! stand! sentinel! outside! with! a! tropical! smell! in! the! air.! A! feeling! of! exotica! and! the! unknown!excites.! ! The!road!to!the!city!through!built>up!areas!reminds!me!a!little!of!Delhi,!but!with!a!fraction!of!the! traffic!and!none!of!the!masses.!Our!hotel!in!the!diplomatic!enclave!of!Yangon!is!the!Governor’s! Residence! with! large! red! umbrellas! back>lit! in! beautiful! tropical! gardens! and! around! the! pool.! We!are!welcomed!with!chilled!papaya!juice!and!ushered!to!our!rooms.! ! Excitement! of! being! in! a! new! city,! a! new! country,! has! us! out! of! bed! and! walking! miles! for! our! first! up>close! glimpse! of! the! Schwedagon! Pagoda,! the! most! sacred! of! all! shrines! for! the! local! people!of!Myanmar.!!Alarms!set!for!six,!and!on!the!road!by!seven!to!beat!the!heat!of!the!day,!and! back!for!breakfast!by!nine.!! ! Yangon!!It’s!an!amazing!feeling!to!be!walking!in!the!tropical!heat!in!a!city!that!is!so!British!with! its!grid>plan!and!buildings.!!!


! Old'Rangoon' ! The!British!rebuilt!a!fire–devastated!Yangon!after!the!Second!Anglo>Burmese!War!in!1852!and! renamed! it! Rangoon.! ! There's! a! 'mercantile! grandeur'! in! the! old! British! buildings! that! line! the! Strand! along! the! riverbank.! ! Before! coming! here,! I! had! no! idea! that! Rangoon! was! such! an! important! commercial! city! and! a! shipping! hub! for! Britain! for! a! century! from! the! mid! 19th! century.!After!exploring!the!streets!in!century!heat,!we!head!for!some!comfort!in!the!renovated! 1901!Strand!Hotel.!Settled!into!rattan!chairs!amidst!potted!palms!under!black>lacquered!ceiling! fans,! a! mild! curry! tastes! even! better! with! a! cold! Dagon! beer.! Yes,! the! feel! is! very! Asia,! and! yesteryear.! ! Today,! even! after! fifty! years! of! neglect,! with! decaying! edifices,! broken! footpaths,! and! whirring! generators!to!combat!frequent!power!failures,!there’s!no!mistaking!the!remaining!strong!British! influences! mixed! with! sidewalk! vendors! and! food! stalls! at! every! turn.! I! feel! an! uncanny! familiarity! with! Havana,! where! my! impressions! were! of! a! large! Spanish! city! with! buildings! colonnaded! to! protect! from! the! sun,! broad! avenues! decorated! with! statuary! and! bronze! urns,! plucked!out!of!Europe!and!transplanted!in!Cuba,!a!tropical!Caribbean!island.!! ! Sunset'at'the'Schwedagon'Pagoda' ! Before!our!siesta,!we!walk!in!the!century!heat!across!town!to!the!huge!Scott’s!Markets!to!get!an! idea! of! what! souvenirs! we! might! have! to! keep! an! eye! out! for! during! the! trip! up! north.! Before! dinner,! we! make! a! return! visit! to! the! Schwedagon! Pagoda! to! watch! the! sun! set! and! to! see! the! sixty! tons! of! glistening! pure! gold! covering! the! ‘bell’! of! the! main! stupa! change! colour.! Genuine,! welcoming!smiles!from!the!crowd!of!devout!locals!visiting!the!Pagoda!at!the!end!of!the!day!with! their! children,! making! offerings! of! fruit! and! flowers,! washing! the! Buddha,! and! praying! for! abundant!blessings,!energises!us.!! ! Inle!Lake!is!a!complete!‘unknown’!for!me.!Friends!from!Ken!Turner’s!surf!club!had!told!him!not! to! miss! it.! They! drew! parallels! with! the! mysterious! appeal! of! Dal! Lake! in! Kashmir.! Hill! tribes,! floating! markets,! fishing,! not! exactly! what! stirs! a! man! to! add! a! few! days! to! an! itinerary! of! ‘romance! and! discovery’.! You’ll! read! how! wrong! I! was.! We! probably! enjoyed! the! days! here! as! much!as!anything!else!in!our!holiday.! ! Inle'Lake' ! A!few!days!later,!as!the!sun!rises,!we!are!“In!the!Air!to!Mandalay’,!and!on!to!Heho!Airport,!the! gateway!to!the!Shan!State.!!It’s!a!slow!drive!over!paved!but!bumpy!and!twisting!roads!passing! bullock!carts!of!hay!and!trotting!horse!and!carts!to!reach!Nyaungshwe,!the!jetty>village!for!Inle! Lake.! At! 3,000! feet,! this! is! so! much! cooler! than! sweltering! Yangon.! We! click! immediately! with! our!local!guide,!Mr!Win,!who!quickly!switches!a!planned!visit!to!a!wooden!monastery!to!let!us! experience!the!one>in>five!day!local!markets!in!Nyaungshwe,!where!the!colourfully>dressed!local! hill!tribes!come!to!buy!and!sell!their!goods.!! ! We! leave! the! markets! and! scramble! down! from! the! jetty! steps! into! a! motorised! longboat! with! wooden!armchairs!lined!up!behind!each!other!like!four!little!dickie!birds!all!in!a!row.!We!head! off! into! the! shallow! lake,! skittering! through! narrow! water! channels! thick! with! hyacinth! and! reeds,!and!houses!built!on!stilts!above!the!gardens!floating!on!the!lake.!The!noisy!motor!is!cut!as! we!see!our!hotel!in!the!distance.!A!leg!rower,!who!stands!at!the!front!of!the!boat!using!an!oar! attached! to! his! right! leg! rows! us! silently! to! the! landing! of! the! Inle! Princess! Hotel,! beautifully! isolated! with! the! misty! Shan! Mountains! as! a! backdrop.! Peace! reigns.! Even! the! colourful! butterflies!stay!on!a!leaf!long!enough!to!let!me!photograph!them;!in!profile,!and!face!on.!! ! Inle!Lake!!is!famous!for!three!main!things.!Its!unique!leg!rowers;!the!conical!fishing!method,!and! lotus!fibre!weaving.!We!get!to!observe!all!these!and!so!much!more!happening!on!the!lake!as!we! come!and!go,!travelling!85!kilometres!in!our!longboat!over!three!days.!The!first!day!turns!out!to!


be!long,!but!totally!engrossing.!We!go!across!the!lake!and!up!an!‘Indiana!Jones’!river!to!Indein! and!a!little>visited!complex!of!old!pagodas!on!top!of!the!hill;!it’s!only!when!I!can!barely!lift!my! nip!of!scotch!before!dinner!that!night!that!I!realise!how!exhausting!!! ! The! setting! here! on! Inle! Lake! is! indeed! very! much! like! the! Dal! Lake! in! Srinigar! with! a! great! expanse!of!water!mystically!surrounded!by!mountains!shrouded!in!haze.!But!I’m!not!travelling! in!a!gondola!for!one!person!with!a!strand!of!marigolds!around!my!neck!as!I!did!thirty!years!ago! in! Kashmir.! And,! I’m! not! staying! in! a! houseboat! smelling! of! the! sandalwood! from! the! carved! panels,!nor!eating!bowls!of!tiny!wild!strawberries.!Our!Inle!Princess!Hotel!bungalows!are!set!in! gardens;! large,! simple! and! very! comfortable.! We! enjoy! breakfast! and! lunch! in! the! shade! outdoors! and! I! seem! to! find! myself! always! choosing! the! delicious! local! soups! and! curries.! ! As! appealing!as!the!salads!look,!I!stick!to!my!resolve!and!simply!say!‘no’.!Travelling!around!the!lake,! there’s! a! palpable! industriousness! about! the! way! people! busily! go! about! their! daily! activities,! and!unspoiled!by!western!influences,!the!people!don’t!appear!to!have!a!worry!in!the!world.! ! Back!in!our!long!boat!after!lunch!and!shaded!from!the!sun!under!our!red!umbrellas,!once!again! we! move! swiftly! over! the! lake! surface.! Inle! Lake! is! seventeen! kilometres! long,! seven! wide! and! only!one!metre!deep!at!this!time!of!year.!At!any!time,!we!can!look!overboard!and!see!the!bottom.!! It’s!difficult!to!tell!where!the!lake!finishes!and!the!shore!starts.!We!glide!past!stilt>house!villages! and! huge! thick! tracts! of! cultivated! green! that! literally! ‘float’! on! the! surface! of! the!water.! ! Long! bamboo!poles!anchor!these!‘floating!islands’!to!the!bottom!of!the!lake!to!secure!them!in!the!wet! season!when!the!lake!rises!and!the!flows!would!carry!them!away.!! ! Indein' ! We! slow! and! putt>putt! on! through! reeds! as! we! enter! a! narrow! winding! canal! and! ride! into! a! canopy!of!a! denser!green!jungle.!What’s!ahead?! !We!twist!and!turn!slowly!past!locals!washing! themselves!in!the!river!(and!scrubbing!the!backs!of!their!buffaloes!submerged!to!their!heads),! passing! under! bamboo! bridges! in! little! riverside! villages! until! we! finally! reach! the! stepped! wooden!landing!stage!at!Indein!village.!! ! Market!day!was!yesterday!and!we!seem!to!have!the!village!to!ourselves!as!we!wander!through! empty!stalls!and!up!a!covered!stairway!to!discover!the!first!of!the!hundreds!of!crumbling!stupas.! Greenery! grows! out! from! ornate! stucco! carvings! of! spirits! and! legendary! animals.! Heads! have! been!taken!from!most!of!the!Buddhas!inside.!A!little!further!on,!our!excellent!local!guide!leads!us! away!from!the!columns!lining!the!covered!stairway!and!along!a!dirt!pathway!up!the!hillside.!He! wants!us!to!walk!among!and!appreciate!the!hundreds!of!weatherworn!stupas!from!the!17th!and! 18th! centuries! before! we! are! distracted! by! many! that! have! been! reconstructed! and! painted,! garishly!in!gold.!The!Indein!complex!is!so!unspoiled!after!centuries!and!should!be!preserved!as!a! UNESCO!World!Heritage!site,!but!for!the!time!being,!the!political!situation!precludes!this.! ! As!we!head!off!back!to!the!river,!the!sun!is!already!falling!in!the!west,!and!we!have!an!hour’s!ride! back!across!the!lake!to!reach!home.!Riding!back!to!the!lake,!workers!are!already!walking!home! along!the!river!banks!after!a!day!in!the!fields.!Some!even!ride!bicycles.!Others!stop!to!bathe!or! wash!their!clothes!in!the!river.!They!all!smile!and!wave!at!us.!! ! The!sun!has!gone!behind!the!mountains!and!night!has!descended!by!the!time!we!cut!our!motor.!! The! leg>rower! jumps! on! board! again! to! row! us! the! last! few! hundred! metres! to! our! hotel.! The! splash! of! his! oar! is! the! only! sound! breaking! the! stillness! of! the! now! dark! evening.! Who’s! for! a! ‘scotch’?!Considering!we!were!up!at!four!this!morning!for!the!pre>dawn!flight!out!of!Yangon,!we! are! still! amazingly! energised! by! all! we! have! experienced! today.! ! (We! may! die! tomorrow! however.)! Ken! utters! another! of! his! profundities! saying! “The! people! around! Inle! Lake! live! an! ‘Adam!and!Eve’!existence!compared!to!the!coarseness!of!the!West”,!and!I!have!to!agree.!Who’s! for!curry?! ! ' '


Life'on'the'Lake' ! Whizzing!along!next!morning,!we!see!more!of!the!daily!activities!of!life!on!the!lake.!Standing!on! the! stern! of! his! long! boat,! the! conical! fisherman! drops! a! cane! cone! overboard! when! he! sees! bubbles!coming!from!the!bed!of!the!lake.!He!then!puts!in!a!spear!to!scare!the!fish!which!scurry! hitting! the! sides,! and! are! stuck.! Other! fisherman! spread! their! nets! with! their! leg! oar! in! the! mornings! and! come! back! in! the! afternoons! to! collect! the! catch.! We! see! others! standing! on! the! back! of! their! boats! beating! the! water! with! long! sticks! to! frighten! the! fish! into! their! nets.! And,! while!sitting!on!the!balcony!of!a!restaurant!for!lunch,!we!see!yet!another!fisherman!dredging!the! silt!in!the!bottom!of!the!lake!with!a!big!bamboo!basket!looking!for!baby!shrimp!and!small!fish.! Life!is!in!slow!motion!and!for!apparent!little!return!to!our!way!of!thinking,!but!a!livelihood!for! them.! ! Slowing! through! the! floating! gardens,! we! see! so! much! activity! with! men! and! women! working! their! plots! from! long! shallow! boats.! Women! crouch! on! flat! boats! in! the! middle! of! the! lake! collecting! water! weed! to! use! as! fertiliser.! Compared! to! the! impoverished! people! and! dusty! children!in!rags!in!dismal!conditions!that!we!saw!in!the!river!villages!along!the!Mekong,!all!on! Inle!Lake!appear!clean,!busy!and!smiling.!! ! On! this! second! day,! I! take! a! ‘when! in! Rome’! approach! to! dressing,! and! wear! the! cool! cotton! ‘longyi’! skirt! I! bought! in! the! markets! in! Yangon.! Sitting! in! the! front! of! the! long! boat! in! my! wooden!lounge!chair,!my!longyi!not!only!saves!my!legs!from!more!sunburn!but!also!provides!a! natural! airflow! that! cools! private! parts! hitherto! not! possible! in! trousers.! After! a! long! day! yesterday,! we! decide! to! confine! planned! visits! to! craft! shops! to! just! the! lotus! weaving! and! the! silversmith.!The!only!pagoda!we!visit!on!the!lake!is!the!Phaung>Daw>U!Pagoda!which!enshrines! five! golden! Buddha! images! carried! back! to! Myanmar! from! the! Malay! peninsula! by! the! 12th! century!King!Alaungsithu.!These!revered!images!look!more!like!balls!than!Buddhas!with!all!the! gold!leaf!put!on!by!devotees!in!prayer.!Amazing!how!these!poor!people!come!and!place!so!much! importance!on!placing!the!leaves!of!gold!on!the!Buddha.!Asking!Win!what!they!typically!prayed! for,!he!tells!me,!“Older!people!ask!for!good!health!or!for!success!in!business.!The!younger!people! come!looking!for!a!good!lover”.! ! Early!the!next!morning,!I’m!out!at!seven.!I!pass!some!bullock!carts!but!fewer!motorcycles!on!a! walk!into!the!local!village.!Continuing!along!a!country!road,!I!walk!through!the!fields!and!watch! farmers,! children! and! monks! going! about! their! daily! routines.! This! is! truly! a! step! back! in! time! and!gives!me!an!appreciation!of!the!primitive!way!they!live!their!lives,!and!get!by.!! !! On!the!way!back!to!the!Heho!airport,!we!stop!at!the!old!wooden!Golden!Peace!monastery!dating! back!to!1898!and!are!allowed!to!enter!and!walk!amongst!the!twenty!novices!sitting!on!the!floor! reciting!the!Buddhist!scriptures.!These!10!year>old!boys!will!spend!four!years!in!the!elementary! school!learning!the!difficult!Pali!script!(like!Sanskrit)!before!moving!to!the!next!level.!Outside!the! ‘school! hours’,! the! novices! are! like! all! other! boys.! They! love! football,! and! their! favourite! team,! Manchester!United,!is!plastered!on!the!dormitory!wall.! ! ‘On'the'Road'to'Mandalay’' ! Time! to! join! the! Orient! Express! ‘Road! to! Mandalay’! for! three! nights! for! our! 185! kilometres! leisurely!cruise!down!the!Irrawaddy!from!Mandalay!to!Bagan.!The!‘Road!to!Mandalay’!of!legend! is! Rudyard! Kipling’s! term! for! the! river,! now! known! as! the! Ayeyarwady.! It! cuts! through! the! centre! of! Burma! and! flows! 2,170! kilometres! from! glaciers! in! the! Himalayas! right! down! to! the! Andaman!Sea.!! ! Mandalay' ! We!fly!into!the!huge,!new,!elaborate,!but!empty,!Mandalay!International!Airport!with!only!two! international! flights! a! week! from! Kunming! in! China! at! the! present! time.! The! highway! into! Mandalay!city!is!also!modern!and!fast!and!quite!a!contrast!to!Heho!airport!this!morning!where!


we! saw! women! carrying! containers! of! gravel! and! making! the! road! by! hard! labour.! Mandalay,! Myanmar’s!second!city!and!the!last!capital!before!British!rule,!is!an!intriguing!mix!of!ancient!and! modern,!developing!with!a!distinctly!Chinese!flavour.!The!old>style!elegance!of!the!past!remains! in!its!shrines!and!monasteries,!and!the!workshops!of!traditional!crafts!are!said!to!be!the!best!in! the!country.!Approaching!Mandalay!city!limits!at!peak!hour!though!is!like!so!many!other!Asian! cities!with!street!scenes!of!dilapidated!buildings,!street>stalls,!motorbikes,!pollution!and!general! mayhem.!! ! Images!of!golden!Pagodas!strewn!across!the!countryside!are!pervasive!in!most!people’s!minds!of! what!is!Burma.!I’ve!also!carried!an!image!of!people!walking!over!a!long!bridge!seemingly!on!tall! stilts!above!the!water!as!very!much!representative!of!Burma.!I’m!about!to!be!surprised.!The!sun! is!fast!falling!towards!the!horizon!as!we!approach!the!city.!Little!did!I!expect!that!we!would!be! walking! out! on! that! old! bridge,! made! of! teak! from! the! Royal! Palace! in! the! 19th! century,! and! rowing! out! into! the! lake! to! the! watch! the! sunset! beyond! it.! Magical!! And,! there! in! the! next! rowboat! is! Juanita,! who! arrived! earlier! in! the! day! to! join! Pam,! Ken! and! me! for! the! rest! of! the! itinerary.! ! Pre>monsoon,!and!the!water!level!in!the!Irrawaddy!is!low.!We!walk!down!the!riverbank!and!up! the! gangplank! for! a! royal! welcome! on! the! ‘Road! to! Mandalay’.! The! cabins! are! beautifully! appointed!with!large!picture!windows!that!will!let!me!sit!at!my!desk!or!on!the!bed!and!watch!the! world!go!by.!Time!to!wash!up!before!drinks!on!the!deck,!and!dinner.!! ! A!knock!on!my!door!at!6am!and!there’s!a!man!with!my!early!morning!cup!of!tea.!I!dress!quickly! and!join!the!others!for!a!walk!into!the!village!at!Shwe!Kyet!Yet!to!see!people!giving!alms!to!the! monks.! On! two! days! a! week,! Orient>Express! sets! up! a! table! under! a! big! tamarind! tree! in! the! village! and! the! staff! come! to! serve! the! monks! food! prepared! on! board.! Oh! to! be! a! monk! in! Mandalay!! ! Sagaing' ! It’s! not! too! much! of! a! burden! sitting! on! the! top! deck! in! the! open>air,! taking! of! the! breakfast! buffet,!and!looking!out!over!the!river!to!the!pagodas!atop!37!hilltops.!A!short!sightseeing!before! sailing!takes!us!out!again,!this!time!across!the!river!to!Sagaing,!which!is!regarded!as!the!spiritual! centre! of! the! country! with! all! its! Buddhist! monasteries,! convents! and! temples.! Some! of! the! convent! buildings! are! in! beautiful! colonial! style,! and! the! whole! experience! comes! alive! seeing! nuns! in! their! pink! and! gold! habits! walking! in! single! file,! shaded! from! the! sun! under! bamboo! umbrellas.! We! make! a! stop! at! the! Zeyar! Theingi! Nunnery! with! 163! Buddhist! nuns! and! are! invited!into!the!dimly!lit!kitchen!(in!fact,!I!think!the!only!light!in!the!whole!big!room!came!from! the! doorway)! to! watch! them! grating! the! carrots,! and! other! chores! for! preparation! of! the! day’s! meal.! ! We!visit!the!most!important!Soon!U!Ponya!Shin!pagoda!on!top!of!the!highest!hill,!that!enshrines! a!17th!century>style!Buddha,!in!plain!clothing!with!the!most!typical!hand!gesture!of!‘touching!the! earth’.!Unfortunately,!as!at!the!Schwedagon!Pagoda!in!Yangon,!a!recently!added!halo!of!flashing! LED!lights!spoils!the!serenity,!to!our!tastes.!!Covered!staircases!trail!up!the!mountainsides!for!all! these!hilltop!monasteries,!to!let!the!monks!go!up!and!down!twice!a!day!to!receive!their!alms!of! food!from!the!people.!! ! What! would! a! trip! be! without! some! shopping?! Juanita! came! ready! to! buy! jewels.! Pam! wanted! lacquer!ware!and!silk.!I!need!nothing!at!my!stage!of!life!but!after!seeing!the!workmen!embossing! elephant! shapes! into! a! sheet! of! metal! by! vibration,! I! walked! out! of! the! silversmith! with! a! wonderful!white>bronze!pot!with!elephants!embossed!in!the!side.! ! There’s!a!lot!to!be!said!for!seeing!the!countryside!from!the!comfort!of!a!cruise!vessel.!The!‘Road! to!Mandalay’!of!Orient!Express!is!no!exception!of!course.!We!use!the!vessel!as!our!hotel!and!base! at! both! ends.! ! We! are! totally! spoiled! in! upgraded! ‘state! rooms’! with! large! picture! windows! allowing!us!not!to!miss!a!moment!of!life!along!the!banks!or!the!many!different!craft!passing!us!


along!the!mighty!Irrawaddy.!We!enjoy!breakfasts!and!lunches!on!deck!under!shade,!but!I!find!no! time! to! curl! up! in! the! comfy>looking! rattan! chairs! with! my! half>read! George! Orwell! book,! ‘Burmese!Days’.! ! The'Kingdom'of'Bagan' ! A!few!loud!blasts!of!the!ship’s!horn!have!me!up!on!deck!to!watch!our!arrival!in!Bagan.!Crumbling! stupas!(often!referred!to!as!pagodas)!emerge!from!low!growth!on!top!of!the!sandy!cliffs!along! the!riverbank,!and!they!become!more!in!number!and!get!larger!as!we!manoeuvre!around!a!large! sandbank!to!come!into!the!shore.!! ! The! remains! of! the! first! Myanmar! Kingdom! is! scattered! across! a! vast! arid! plain.! What! we! see! positively! exudes! antiquity! and! mystery,! complexity! and! fantasy.! The! Kingdom! of! Bagan! was! founded!in!in!the!9th!Century,!but!the!King!built!Buddhist!shrines!and!royal!palaces!in!the!11th! Century.! Marco! Polo! visited! Bagan! in! the! and! left! calling! it! the! ‘Golden! Land’.! 250! years! later,! Bagan!was!invaded!and!sacked!by!the!Mongols,!but!3,300!pagodas!still!stand!today,!undisturbed! by!any!traces!of!modern!interference!except!for!tourism!and!some!government!offices.!!! ! We!don’t!over>do!visits!to!Pagodas.!However,!our!very!good!guide!from!the!Road!to!Mandalay! takes! us! to! the! best! preserved,! 11th! Century! Ananda! Temple.! It! showcases! four,! 31! feet! tall,! standing!Buddha!images!in!sandstone!and!wood,!two!of!which!are!original.!Hundreds!of!smaller! original!statues!depicting!the!life!of!Buddha!stand!undisturbed!in!wall!recesses.!As!interesting,!is! the!Gubyaukgyi!Temple,!in!which!we!view!by!torchlight!the!magnificent!original!paintings!that! were!restored!by!UNESCO!before!1993!when!Burma!turned!inward.!! ! Perhaps!more!‘fun’!is!our!ride!in!horse!and!carts!through!the!dusty!landscape!of!low!growth!and! tall!palm!trees!to!see!more!of!the!pagodas!close>up.!When!the!rains!come!next!month!the!fields! will! burst! forth! into! green! with! peanuts,! sesame! and! maize! crops! truly! painting! an! amazing! scene.! We! find! the! Aureum! Palace,! a! new! hotel! strategically! located! right! in! the! centre! of! a! particularly!dense!landscape!of!stupas,!and!stop!to!enjoy!a!shandy!by!the!pool.!The!sun,!mostly! hidden! in! haze,! deprives! us! of! even! a! hint! of! sunset,! but! the! centuries! old! pagodas! looming! ominously!all!around!us!in!the!dusk!more!than!compensate.!! ! ‘Balloons'over'Bagan’' ! Up!before!dawn,!we!drive!over!dusty!roads!in!an!rickety!old!bus!that’s!been!built!on!the!chassis! of!!an!old!WW!II!Chevrolet!Jeep!!to!watch!the!sun!rise!over!the!pagodas,!aloft!in!a!hot>air!balloon.! We!watch!the!British!pilot!supervise!the!boys!using!a!big!fan!to!fill>out!the!balloon!and!I!can!still! hear!the!whoosh!and!lick!of!flame!as!he!turns!on!the!burners.!We!float!for!nearly!an!hour!taking! in!the!surreal!landscape!and!at!times!coming!low!enough!to!look!inside!a!ruin!to!see!the!Buddha! image!sitting!there!looking!out!on!the!world.! ! Time!to!go.!This!time!we!choose!to!stay!at!the!Trader’s!Hotel!in!the!centre!of!busy!Yangon.!The! food!is!excellent!here,!and!inexpensive.!I!can’t!believe!that!we!had!Indian!for!lunch!two!days!in!a! row.!It!was!so!good.!And!the!Peking!Duck:!wow!!I!suppose!the!Shangri>La!group’s!‘touch’!on!the! property!ensures!this!good!standard.!And!it’s!just!around!the!corner!from!the!markets!where!we! lose!Pam!and!Juanita!to!the!jewellery!stalls!again.! ! I! leave! Burma! still! pondering! the! thought! of! the! ‘generals’! benefiting! from! the! proceeds! of! tourism,! but! I’m! of! the! firm! belief! that! the! people! are! benefiting! more! with! greatly! expanded! employment! opportunities,! money,! and! a! very! welcome! contact! with! visitors! from! the! outside! world.! !

A Selection of Shorter Stories

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The Burma Book  

What is it about Burma that made me want to go there in the first place? I have a couple of good Burmese friends who speak both passionatel...

The Burma Book  

What is it about Burma that made me want to go there in the first place? I have a couple of good Burmese friends who speak both passionatel...

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