Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Travel: Myanmar ~ The land of the golden smile

The south-facing, smiling Kassapa Buddha at the Ananda Phaya at Bagan, Myanmar

AT THE heart of Myanmar lies a golden smile. In November 2011, we glimpsed it on the glorious Buddha images across the land. But the smile equally lit up our young guide in Yangon, as it did children at play among the famed Bagan ruins. 

The days since our return have been packed with positive political news from Myanmar. Cause for celebration? Not yet. Because sub-texts shadowed our six days in the country, yet unspoilt by mass tourism, making it difficult to share our experience in high-definition black-and-white.

Burma (renamed Myanmar in 1989) shares borders with China, Laos, India, Bangladesh and Thailand. It has been my dream destination since I was a child. I'd read of fabled royalty decked in rubies and jade, of the Mon civilisation, of the Bagan kingdom dating back to 1057. I knew Myanmar had natural resources such as petroleum, timber, lead and coal.

I was aware of how the military junta had ruled since a 1962 military coup. But since March 2011, Myanmar has been a unitary presidential republic, led by former general Thein Sein. Its administrative capital shifted from Yangon to Naypyidaw, 320 km north, in November 2005.

We fly into Yangon from India. The first impressions are clean streets, disciplined people, and crumbling colonial buildings reminiscent of north Kolkata. Right-hand driven, ancient Nissans and Toyotas rattle past our bus. We see little evidence of littering, road rage, or the traffic chaos of Bengaluru.

What's Yangon's population? Few at bustling Bogyoke Aung San Market know for sure. Myanmar's last official census was held in 1983. Guesstimates say 16 million live in the former capital, out of 58-80 million across Myanmar. 

 A detail of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon

In the footsteps of karma-driven locals, we seek solace at the 2,500-year-old golden Shwedagon pagoda, which soars almost 100 metres above Yangon. Its history? Burmese merchants Tapussa and Bhallika visited the Buddha shortly after he attained enlightenment. He gave them eight hairs from his head, which they gifted to their king at Okkalapa (now Yangon.) He enshrined these relics in a 20-metre pagoda. Since the 14th century, the pagoda had been rebuilt several times. It dazzles at night with a ceremonial vane and bud, bejewelled with 3,154 golden bells and 79,569 diamonds.

Monks chant, drums roll, lamps flare and dim as a procession winds past various lamp-lit shrines, heralding the full moon. Smiling gently, beatific worshippers offer lotus blossoms and squares of gold leaf with reverence. 

It was at the Shwedagon that Aung San Suu Kyi, the global face of Myanmar, made her first public speech on August 26, 1988, to an audience estimated at between 30,000 and a million, catapulting her into history. Standing by its monument to martyred students from 1988, I tune into another tale — of a struggle for a three-year Myanmar passport.

Amidst the smiling Buddhas, tucking into green tea salad, or learning of age-old thanaka cosmetic paste, we cue in to proliferating child trafficking and human rights abuses. Our bus cannot pause for a moment outside 54 University Avenue, Nobel laureate Suu Kyi's residence. We are forbidden to record images of the army or the police. 

 The landscape at Bagan by day

Do shadows constantly mask facts? It is tough to tell in this nation of 85 per cent Therawada Buddhists. In historic 41 sq km Bagan in central Myanmar, on the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy river, 500 km north of Yangon, we glimpse the ancient capital of Burman and Mon rulers between the 10th and 13th centuries.
Bagan's green landscape is dotted with 2,217 temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins, the largest Buddhist site globally. Following a devastating earthquake in 1975, UNESCO has restored over 200 monuments. India sent in over $20 million worth of conservation aid. But UNESCO has refused to recognise Bagan as a world heritage site, citing government restoration as unscientific.

Ananda Phaya, built in 1105 AD by King Kyanzittha, is one of Bagan's four surviving temples. At its entrance, vendors sell local crafts — including lacquerware, sand paintings, and woven longyis. They include children of four or six, peddling their own drawings on ruled notebook pages. “Only $1,” they plead, hungry-eyed, “only 1,000 kyat.” 

The temple houses four giant gold-covered Buddhas facing the cardinal directions, architecturally fusing Mon and Indian styles. Eight monks, locals say, told their king of how they meditated in the Himalayan Nandamula Cave temple. With the aid of Indian artisans, they replicated the symmetry of Bengal and Orissa architecture. Later, the king executed the monks to ensure no future copies. Within the temple, niches celebrate Buddha's life in stone. Jataka scenes are embossed on terracotta tiles. In the plains around, hardy Israeli desert trees ensure that bird droppings do not ruin the restoration. 

 A buggy in Bagan, drawn by horses of originally Assamese origin

But post-dusk in wondrous Bagan, its buggies drawn by horses of Assamese origin, pitch darkness falls over the local town of Nyaung-U and its 12,000 inhabitants. Though our hotel has 24/7 air-conditioning and dial-up Internet access, reality bites. A small village nearby has just three LED lights. The town's lone hospital, constructed by the Russians decades ago, boasts of two doctors and a dentist. Monks ensure justice, in lieu of its single lawyer. The elderly refuse hospitalisation, fearing that the generator heralds the god of death. Around Bagan, most people — whether scholars, waiters or puppeteers — earn daily wages, according to reliable sources. 

But some are visibly more equal than others. A general's son-in-law has built a dissonant convention centre amidst the ruins, while another general has constructed a ‘duplicate' palace to perpetuate his own glory. All because Bagan was once the ‘Land of Victory.'

 A modern hotel complex amidst traditional dwellings on stilts at Inle Lake

These truths, however, blur on the idyllic freshwater Inle Lake in Shan State, 22 km long, 11 km wide, and 1,328 metres above sea level. Birds skim the water at shoulder-level as our five-seater motorised boat propels us towards our hotel on stilts. Over 254 recorded bird species thrive in these protected wetlands.
From the 18 surrounding villages, traditional fishermen bypass weeds and water hyacinth to snare carp. They stand upright on one leg, the other wrapped around an oar. Floating gardens of lake-bottom weeds, anchored by bamboo poles, bob with the tide, rich with tomatoes. Often crouched twenty to a boat, villagers paddle by.

Whether Intha, Shan or other ethnicities, smiles greet us. At the Five Buddha Temple with its gold-leaf wrapped, feature-blurred statues. At the world's only lotus silk handloom centre. At the floating market where flexi-tailed lucky fish ear-rings are a good bargain. At the once submerged Inn Dein pagoda complex. Or even from the briefly glimpsed brass-hooped, long-necked Padaung tribal women.

Reflecting on Myanmar as we glide over Inle, I wind back to a chance encounter on a Yangon Airways flight. With Eindra, a young woman of Burmese origin, whose family relocated to the US three generations ago. Her US-born 50-plus parents, both professionals, now yearn to return to Myanmar, to spend their golden years with their extended family.

Perhaps their lens on Myanmar is double-faced. Like the south-facing Kassapa Buddha at the Ananda Phaya. Solemnly meditative from one angle; from another, he smiles, reassuring worshippers that all sadness must pass. He seems in sync with the beautiful, tolerant people of Myanmar. For theirs is indisputably the land of the golden smile.

Changing face of Myanmar (updated November 2011
December 2: US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton concludes a 3-day visit to Myanmar, where she met both Aung San Syu Kyi and General Thein Sein. She carried letters to both from President Barack Obama. This is the first major US political move in a country isolated for over 50 years.

November 18: Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy (NLD) decides to contest all 48 seats in the forthcoming by-elections.

November 17: The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) clears Myanmar to chair the bloc in 2014, as a reward for recent reforms.

November 16: Suu Kyi meets President Thein Sein to press for the release of 6,300 political dissidents as promised by the State media. Only 200 are set free.


Military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) wins the first election in 20 years. The National League for Democracy, headed by Suu Kyi, boycotts poll.

November 6: Suu Kyi released from house arrest. The Nobel peace laureate has spent 15 years and 19 days of the last two decades in detention.


Military junta crushes peaceful demonstrations led by monks and students. Thousands imprisoned.


Over 3,000 shot dead during student demonstrations in Rangoon. Thousands arrested.


General Ne Win stages a coup. Myanmar has been under various types of military rule since then.


Burma gains independence from the British. 


July 19: Bogyoke Aung San (Suu Kyi's father) assassinated in the Yangon Secretariat, along with six other ministers. 

Fast facts
Tourist season: November to February 

Currency: Kyats. Approximately $100 = 76,000 kyat. A local meal costs about 3,000 kyats (less than Rs 200). 

Internal airlines: Yangon Airways, Air Bagan, Air Mandalay, among others. Airport security lax. But good in-flight service. 

Local special foods: Green tea salad. Mohinga (fish soup).

Main tourist sites: Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake, Bagan, Pindaya caves.

Tested travel agency: Mya Thiri Travels, Yangon. 

Warning: Credit cards, Internet and international mobiles do not work. Local handsets/ SIM cards can be hired at the airport for $50 each. 

(This article was originally published in The Hindu Business Line 'Life' supplement in December 2011)

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