For anyone used to the frenetic bustle of most major Asian cities, there is an eerie calm about Yangon that is at first a little disconcerting.
Not only is there is hardly any traffic, but most of the buses and trucks are so old they appear to have emerged from some automobile Jurassic Park. Through the window of my taxi, itself a decrepit 20year-old Toyota, I could see only a few sarong-clad pedestrians strolling along the tree-lined boulevards quaintly shading themselves from the sun with brightly coloured parasols.
In another throwback to the past, Yangon is surprisingly low rise. There are no towering skyscrapers and glistening malls that characterise so many contemporary Asian cities. Traditionally nothing should be built higher than Yangon’s iconic landmark, the Shwedagon pagoda, whose golden spire is clearly visible from most parts of town.
My taxi driver spoke excellent English and even passable Thai. A university graduate, he said he had worked as a manual labourer in Thailand for five years. "Did you know that 50 years ago this was the most developed nation in Asia?" he asked. When I confessed my ignorance he added with a grin, "We are living in a very rich country – if it wasn’t for our generals maybe Thai people would be coming here to work instead of the other way around."
This kind of talk is dangerous in Myanmar; people have gone to jail for saying far less. But then again, in the course of numerous trips to the country, I have yet to hear a single Burmese utter a word of praise for their military rulers. It is equally true that I have also never met a person who says that foreigners should not visit their country in the belief that it will somehow support the regime. The ordinary people seem genuinely happy to welcome visitors and are unfailingly courteous and friendly.
Along the road into the centre of town I caught a glimpse of grand old villas from the British era; some had been transformed into restaurants or offices, but many others were gently crumbling with decay and neglect. Although Yangon has the largest number of colonial buildings to be found in any Southeast Asian city, most of them appear to have not had so much as a new coat of paint since the British departed in 1948.
1 was headed for a notable exception to the rule, the sumptuously restored Strand Hotel. Fondly known as the Grand Old Lady of Rangoon, it first opened its doors in 1896 and is still the place to stay. Located by the river in the heart of the old administrative district, it is also the perfect base for exploring the city.
To my mind, wandering around on foot is the best way to appreciate the charms of this laid-back metropolis of four million people. The alternative is to hire a car and driver but at the risk of missing a thousand details, smells and sounds that make up the tapestry of life on the streets. Laid out in a grid pattern by the British, the town is comparatively easy to negotiate and if I got lost I was confident that almost anyone could direct me back to the Strand.
Leaving the hotel, I walked in the direction of Sule Pagoda, probably the only 2,000-yearold temple in the world surrounded by a traffic circle. On the way I passed by grandiose administrative buildings, remnants from the time when Rangoon, as it was then known, was one of the brightest jewels in the crown of the Raj. Until recently, when the capital was moved far inland to Naypyidaw, it was forbidden to photograph many of these fine old buildings as they housed government ministries. Now they are empty, waiting to be transformed one day into hotels or trendy shopping centres.
In contrast to the austere lines of the old buildings, the sidewalks are littered with a jumble of teashops and outdoor snack vendors. On every comer there are the ubiquitous stalls selling a selection of aromatic Burmese cheroots and freshly prepared betel nut concoctions that seem to appeal to both men and women alike, judging by the giveaway bright red stain on their lips.
By now it was late afternoon and I hailed one of the powder blue tuk tuk like contraptions that pass for public taxis in Yangon and negotiated a fare to Shwedagon pagoda. In the early evening, the city took on an almost festive air, shops sparkling with lights and more people out on the streets. As we approached I could see the glowing silhouette of this hallowed temple ahead "glistening with gold, like a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul," as Somerset Maugham once described it.
One hundred metres high, topped with 5,448 diamonds, 2,317 rubies and plated with 60 tons of gold, Shwedagon is one of the most revered holy sites in all of Asia, containing among other relics, eight hairs of the Gautama Buddha. Whether one is religious or not there is an atmosphere of divine rapture here that cannot be denied. This is the golden heart of the Burmese psyche, a mystical well where its people can refresh their spirits and find solace for their woes. I sat quietly in one of the niches and let the waves of sound from hundreds of softly chanting worshippers flow over me until 1, too, felt an enchanting sense of wellbeing and calm envelop my mind.
The next morning I was up early for the 60-minute flight to Bagan in central Myanmar. We took off from Yangon in bright sunshine and passed briefly over the delta of the Ayeyarwady River where it spills into the Andaman Sea. It was here that tropical cyclone Nargis wreaked havoc on the fanning and fishing communities in the low lying tidal areas in May 2008. With images of devastation splashed across the world’s media many tourists cancelled their travel plans, yet key destinations in the interior, including Bagan, were completely unscathed.
From the air as we descended to land, the sheer size and scale of Bagan became breathtakingly apparent. Over 4,000 ancient temples lie scattered across a wide plain fronting the banks of the Ayeyarwady, making this one of the world’s greatest archaeological and architectural wonders. Dating from around 1044 AD, and built in an incredible burst of energy that lasted over 250 years, Bagan is quite simply the most stupendous concentration of religious structures to be found anywhere in the world. What is perhaps even more remarkable is that due to Myanmar’s relative isolation and the lingering effects of Nargis, the number of tourists arriving here has dried up to a trickle and the occasional visitors now have the privilege of experiencing this unique site virtually on their own.
Taking advantage of this exceptional situation I spent the next three days exploring the vast plain, by bicycle or horse cart and sometimes just on foot. Some of the most famous temples such as Ananda Pahto, with its golden corncob pinnacle and four massive standing Buddha statues are awe inspiring, but equally delightful is the serendipitous joy of chancing upon a lovely mural in an isolated shrine well off the beaten path.
Almost as impressive as the temples is the landscape in which they are situated. The views across the broad Ayeyarwady River with the low mountains framing the horizon on the far bank are ever changing. At sunset the water turns the colour of molten copper and silver with the silhouettes of fishing boats and river ferries tracing luminous paths through the current.
Although the views of Bagan are reputedly best at sunset, my own preference was for the dawn when a thin veil of mist wreathes the temples and an unearthly calm prevails over the timeless scene. As the day wanes, birds chase dragonflies floating in the soft breeze and the hollow ringing of the oxen’s bells can be heard as they are taken out to forage.
After the idyllic and deserted temples my next destination was Inle Lake, an elongated body of water high on the Shan plateau. The flight from Bagan took me eastwards over Mandalay to a small airport that goes by the comic name of HeHo. I had arranged a car and driver to meet me and soon we were slowly negotiating an extremely potholed highway in the direction of the lake.
After about ten minutes in the car I noticed something odd. Although vehicles drive on the right in Myanmar, most of the cars, including ours, are second hand imports from Japan with the steering wheel on the right. This obviously makes overtaking a hazardous maneuver to say the least. My driver Htin, a cheerful young Shan man, told me not to worry as he said the car in front would indicate when it was safe to pass. I contented myself with looking out the side windows at the orange groves and holding my breath every time we overtook.
At regular intervals along the way we slowed to a halt in front of primitive roadblocks, usually consisting of a large bamboo pole laid across the way. But, instead of surly soldiers asking for our papers, we were held up by gaggles of pretty Pa-0 girls (the second largest ethnic group in Shan) looking chic in their black tribal smocks, fashionably topped with bright orange headdresses. Htin explained they were collecting funds for a new temple in their villages and, after he threw a few crumpled notes into their outstretched bowls, we were allowed to pass. I extracted my own toll by snapping photos of the girls that occasioned much giggling and nudging on their part.
Access to Infe Lake is through the village of Nyaungshwe, a laid back settlement made up of elegant teak wood houses and a curious monastery with oval windows, in which novice monks gracefully pose in their burgundy robes, much to the delight of passing photographers.
Dramatically set among rising hills on all sides and at an altitude of nearly 900 metres above sea level, the lake is 22 kilometres long and up to 11 kilometres wide. The Intha people who live on this glistening body of water have developed their own unique lifestyle specially adapted to their aquatic environment. With an amorphous shoreline that shrinks and expands with the seasonally changing water levels, the Intha have built their villages on stilts over the lake and exclusively use flat-bottomed canoes to get around.
Abundant in fish, the lake provides almost all the Intha’s requirements, supplemented by vegetables, fruit and flowers they grow on floating islands made up of densely packed reeds, water hyacinths and soil. The people of the lake also distinguish themselves by using an odd leg-rowing technique that allows them a free hand to manipulate their fishing nets.
I took a boat across the lake to visit the village of Indein where by chance the Phaung Daw Oo pagoda festival was taking place. The most important annual celebration of the Intha people takes place every year in October when sacred Buddha images are transported in a flotilla of boats from village to village around Inle.
The lake that day was a glassy calm; the sky and water merged perfectly in a giant canvas on which fishermen and their boats hovered like faint brushstrokes in a Chinese watercolour. As we passed I could see the unusual cone shaped traps they were using to catch fish all the while perfectly balancing their delicate canoes.
On the far bank we entered a wide canal lined on either side by tree shaded footpaths. Boatloads of tipsy revellers from the festival careered past singing in unison and waving woven palm fronds. For the festival, the sleepy village of Indein had become a huge outdoor party, replete with food and drink stalls trembling with music and thronging crowds of country folk. I noticed bands of Pa-0 men and women with their striking headdresses and many other tribes I could not identify.
In the late afternoon a light sprinkling of rain began to fall and our boatman suggested we make our way back. By the time we reached the lake a strong wind had picked up churning the surface with choppy wavelets and the rain was pelting down hard. We forged on over what had become a storm-tossed inland sea; I put my trust in the boatman with his lifetime of experience navigating these waters. Almost on cue, as we reached Nyaungshwe the clouds parted and the winds died to a breeze. I was drenched to the bone and thinking only of a hot shower and a warm bed.
After a few more days exploring the lake I returned to Yangon. Although I had only a couple of hours in the city before my outbound flight I Shwedagon, the spiritual heart of this fascinating, beautiful yet ultimately tragic country. I made an offering at one of the temple’s many shrines and hoped for a better future for Myanmar and its long-suffering people, a destiny that they so richly deserve.
WHEN TO GO
The best season to visit is from November to March when the climate is both cool and dry. March to May is the hottest period followed by the southwest monsoon from June to October with its frequent heavy rains.
Air Bagan is Myanmar’s top domestic carrier servicing all the major destinations in the country. Bangkok office Tel: +66 2235 5752-3, www.airbagan.com. Hiring a car and driver through your tour operator is recommended for all land travel.
WHERE TO STAY
The Strand offers colonial splendour in the centre of Yangon. Taste a Strand Sour cocktail at the bar or afternoon tea in the graceful lobby lounge. Tel: +95 1 243 377, www.ghmluxuryhotels.com
The Governor’s Residence, an elegant teak mansion in the diplomatic quarter, has been transformed into an up market retreat with luxurious rooms and an excellent restaurant. Tel: +95 1 229 860, www.governorsresidence.com
Set in the heart of the historical site with views of the temples from the terrace, Aureum Palace Resort is Bagan’s top accommodation choice. Tel: +95 1 502 648, www.aureumpalacehotel.com
Inle Princess Resort offers tranquility amid exuberant gardens. Known for its superb cuisine and wine cellar it also boasts the only spa on the lake. Tel: +95 81 29055, www.inleprincessresort.com