Thursday, July 26, 2007

Spring Break in Burma

By Peter McKenzie-Brown

Burma is a land of many colours. It is poor beyond imagination, making Thailand seem positively First World by comparison. It is ethnically diverse - about 135 tribes in total, and more than 100 languages and major dialects - yet we found the people almost without exception to be warm, friendly and hospitable.

The Burmese we met did not seem to have the refinement or charm of the Thais. However, given the oppression under which they live, we were amazed that they have such spirit. The day of their deliverance cannot come too soon. To gain powerful insights into the sorry state of that country, read From the Land of Green Ghosts.

The country has wealth in its minerals and other natural resources, plus its tourism potential. Unfortunately, however, the government is dysfunctional. In barely 50 years, the prevailing socialist regime has transformed Burma from the richest country in Southeast Asia into one of the poorest countries in the world.

Everywhere we looked we saw large billboards extolling what we called the country's "national creed." One of the "people's desires", for example, is to "Crush all internal and external destructive elements as the common enemy." Charming. Among the country's "four economic goals" is the following gem: "The initiative to shape the national economy must be kept in the hands of the State and the national peoples."

Yangon and Ngapoli Beach: By the state, of course, they mean the generals, who have looted everything lootable. A visit to the National Museum in Yangon (Rangoon) shows how little of value actually remains in the public trust. This institution would be better called the National Embarrassment.

That said, Yangon's amazing Shwedagon Paya is in a class of its own. Thailand has nothing comparable. The main pagoda of this great temple is covered with an estimated 60 tons of gold, and it is capped with a "golden umbrella," the top vane of which turns with the wind and is made of much precious metal plus 1100 diamonds weighing 278 carats, plus 1383 other precious stones. At the very top is a golden orb studded with another 4351 diamonds, on top of which is a single 76-carat diamond. Or so explains the Insight guidebook.

We also went to a tiny bungalow-style lodge at Ngapali Beach, on the Bay of Bengal. The beach is unspoiled and wonderful, although you can't walk outside the resort area without being reminded of the grinding poverty of the Burmese people. That is ironic, since this is a modest tourist destination. You would expect tourism - modest though it was - to help the local economy. Yet it was here more than anywhere else that the people looked sad and desperately poor.

Pagan and Mandalay: In many ways, Pagan (pronounced Bagan) was the most interesting part of the trip. The ancient city is located on the banks of the Irrawaddy River and covers about 40 square kilometres. About 2,000 temples, stupas and other monuments remain. Its civilization rivalled that of Angkor nearly 1000 years ago.

The ancient ruins at Pagan were anything but unspoiled, however. Tragically, much of the restoration of temples and monuments at Pagan amounts to archaeological vandalism. As we were leaving, we ironically passed the grand opening ceremony for a "restored" ruin. It was actually a new structure based on certain old architectural styles, constructed at an archaeological site where there once had been a pile of ancient bricks.

The Pagan zone suffered an earthquake in 1975, and many of the buildings were damaged. However, much of the art and architecture can still be seen - without the distraction of other tourists. We frequently were given access to ancient temples by ladies who, when we arrived, mysteriously appeared out of the shadows with a key. Their English was usually poor, yet they showed us around and quite effectively pointed out the most interesting features of the ruins.

We arrived in Mandalay on the first day of the New Year water festival (southeast Asia's mega-holiday). The tourist attractions were closed, and for five days the locals poured buckets of water on each other's heads, and tourists were part of the madness. We were totally drenched in a short ride on a tri-shaw (rickshaw). After that we just walked and got soaked. We decided it was time to move on, and cut our stay short. (The soaking of people with water is a purification ritual associated with Buddhist New Year throughout the Theraveda Buddhist countries in Southeast Asia: Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.)

Birds and Inle Lake: We are birders, and in most of these places we saw new species. Inle Lake hosted innumerable pond herons, and was one of the best places we have seen for waterfowl in general.

We spent our last four days at Inle Lake in the Shan State. That small poor town was really wonderful - as always, especially the people. We decided to trek into the mountains through some Pa-O (one of the many hill tribes) villages, and hired a guide to lead us. It was a 6-7 hour hike with a 30-minute stop for lunch in a village.

Spring Break: Then I had quite a bad accident. Just as we crested the mountain and were headed back downhill, I fell and broke my arm quite badly. Our government-certified, 32-year-old guide had no training in first aid, nor any provisions for such. Instead, he started to cry, and begged our forgiveness. Eventually he explained that the government holds him responsible for the welfare of the people he guides. As soon as they found out what had happened, they would throw him in jail and take away his license.

We hiked three hours down the mountain to a village where we caught a horse cart to our hotel, leaving our guide behind. In the room, Bernie performed first aid using such advanced medical technology as a toothbrush container for a splint, and we toughed it out for the night. The strangest part of that experience was our fear that police would burst into the room late at night, demanding to know who our guide had been when I broke my arm. Our paranoia was palpable. However, the police did not come, and nobody at Inle Lake found out about the incident.

The next morning we boarded our scheduled flight to Chiang Mai via Yangon. Once home, we headed for Chiang Mai Ram hospital. From the time I had my fall, it took 28 hours to get medical treatment. Repairs required a 2-hour operation.

Free Aung San Suu Kyi! Are we glad we went? Absolutely, because of the people we encountered and the remarkable places and artefacts we saw.

Would we go again? Maybe. The hardest part of the trip to describe is the dark reality of the country's wicked rulers. Oddly, though, that in itself was an interesting part of the experience.

Would we recommend it to others to visit there? Yes, because with a conscious effort to only use privately-owned and operated facilities, visitors can make a small difference in the lives of the people. I believe the American-led sanctions on the country only hurt the poor. They have had little impact on the generals and their cronies. In this matter, we differ from the view of imprisoned opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Myanmar and its people will always stay with us. We can only hope that democracy will come to that country and that one day these people will get to live in dignity and without fear. A good place to start would be to release Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest. She is a symbol of hope for the people.
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