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Burma aka Myanmar

Story, Audio & Photos (c)Russell Johnson


When is the last time you heard a travel writer suggest that you should not go somewhere? Myanmar, the Southeast Asian country also known as Burma, is in the news again.and the news is not good. Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who fairly won election as President in the early nineties but was blocked by the country's repressive military regime, is still being held under house arrest. Last week, thankfully Myanmar did not take over the lead of ASEAN, which was due it because of its position in the alphabet. It says it still needs more time to "democratize." But the rest of the world is rolling its collective eyes.

Myanmar was one of my stops on a development project funded by the Asian Development Bank and UNESCAP, among others, for countries touched by the Mekong River. We thought you'd like to know something about this sad but enchanting place

Myanmar used to be called Burma. Yangon, formerly noon as Rangoon, is the lushest, jungliest capital city I have seen in Asia. The verdant beauty, however, hides a steamy, former British colonial outpost, the capital of one of the poorest, most repressed nations on earth.

Our taxi driver points with pride to the University which, for most of the past few years, has been closed because of student revolts. It has reopened but students have to sign pledges not to protest. We have just bought the $200 of FEC that you must buy when you enter the country. FEC are overpriced chits that you use to buy khat, the country's currency. FEC supports SLORC. SLORC, which sounds like something being swallowed by a dinosaur, stands for the State Law and Order Restoration Council.otherwise known as the ruling party. (That has since been changed to the State Peace and Development Council, the SPDC. )The khat you buy with FEC hadpictures of SLORC generals with either enormous hats or tiny heads. As I have never met these men up close, I can't tell which.

Welcome to Myanmar. You are indeed welcome if you don't get involved in politics. I was there a few years ago on an economic development project for the Mekong River region funded by the Asian Development Bank. That was a time when other nations felt that "constructive engagement" would do more to democratize the country than boycott. In actuality, it was probably just as much an excuse for doing deals there. But the political plight of the country and its pro-democracy heroine, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi are in the headlines again and the rest of the world is losing its patience. I know, exotic is a cliché, but Burma really is different, one of the most unusual places I have ever visited.

 Shwedagon Pagoda is covered in exotic dance of sound and light. It was built to house eight of Buddha's hairs. Youth hang out in the temples, probably the only places they are afforded some privacy. The normal, everyday Burmans you meet are charming and innocent. It might be one of the poorest, repressed countries in the world, but these people are anything but dour.

Women powder their cheeks, foreheads and noses with a white powder made from ground tree branches.for both beauty and sunscreen.

But, despite the calm, there are spies about. We were warned keep our voices down in restaurants. A westerner who works in Burma tells me that he knows his employees are spying on him. An Asian news service recently reported that a man was jailed for listening to the BBC.

But controversy and tourism have made Myanmar visible and some say that will foster change. For many the years the country was closed to the world, stuck in a post WWW II time warp. There is real charm in that for visitors. It is hard to find a place less touched by the cultural white noise of the west. Myanmar/ Burma has become an "in" destination for well-heeled, been everywhere travelers.

There are still a few tiny remnants of British Empire here, like Big Ben signaling a hall full of Buddhist novices to begin their lunch. There are sooo many monks here: You see them in the street, in the temples. You see nuns with saucer-like hats that carry rice. Theravada Buddhism is the main belief in Burma.

But monasteries are sane sanctuaries in a country that is otherwise filled with superstition and oddball spirits. SLORC generals said to seek guidance from astrologers.

And, rising out of the plain, is a mountain with a fairytale palace perched on top inhabited by some rather bizarre fairies. People make pilgrimages to Mt. Popa from all over the country to give their offerings to the Nats. Nats are eclectic spirits represented by flamboyantly dressed statues.

The King of Nats, Thagyamin, descends to earth like Santa to find out who is naughty or nice. He records the names of the nice in a gold-bound book and the naughty in one covered with dogskin. Nats can bring you good luck or wreak misery. Every year thousands make pilgrimages to Mt. Popa to make peace with one or more of the 37 Nats.

With the pilgrimages come celebrations called pwes. One pwe we stopped at featured a bull race. Men hitched two bulls to a cart and sprinted them over a course of about 100 yards. I nearly got run down by one of the beasts trying to take a picture.



I visited Bagan, with temples as far as you can see. Some are quite stunning. You may have never heard of Bagan but it is one of the world's great ancient cities. Most of Bagan's temples are in rubble -- some trashed by Kublia Khan in the 13th century when the place was abandoned -- but some, like Ananda, have been restored perhaps overly so.

Mandalay is supposed to be the center of Burmese culture. It was romanticized by Kipling and later Noel Coward with the song "The Road to Mandalay." It now symbolizes, however, what is happening as Myanmar develops its tourism industry. Big hotels are sprouting, built by foreign chains. Remindful of those ugly dominoes that dot Miami beach, these eyesores share hills with old temples. The generals have been accused of making deals with foreign corporations and kicking people off land to make room for tourism development. Now, word is, that one of the reasons they have made peace with notorious druglord Khun Sa, is that they want to develop his Golden Triangle, bordering Thailand, for tourism. Right now, you wouldn't want to go near there.

One of the newest attractions on the road to Mandalay is a boat trip called Road to Mandalay, a luxury riverboat run by the same people who run the Simplon Orient Express trains in Europe. On the day I visited, there were several dignitaries aboard, including a princess who wore a wide hat. I don't know what she was princess of and I was too polite to ask.

I stood in the air-conditioned lobby of the boat at about 10 o'clock in the morning watching a woman in a long evening dress. She looked like Groucho's foil Margaret Dumont in the old Marx Brothers movies and spoke with an English accent. I nicknamed her Mrs. Twickingham Tweedledee. Hope that paints the picture. Mrs Tweedleham had an expensive Leica camera and was pointing it out the closed sliding glass door at some colorful indigenous folk standing outside. She wouldn't go outside. I wouldn't either, dressed like that.

There were wry smiles on the faces of her subjects. I love luxury cruises and the Road To Mandalay lives up to its reputation as that. But, isolating yourself from a place and the people you visit, whether it is through the windows of a posh ship or an air conditioned tourbus, can be a pretty empty experience. You can't really go to a place like Myanmar and isolate yourself from its people, its politics and its strange music.

If you are thinking about going to Burma, read, rent the movie Beyond Rangoon, which depicts an occasion that makes Tianenmen Square look like a church picnic.

Make a careful decision. Lonely Planet offers some sane advice: Don't go someplace unless "the people" want you there. Aun Sun So Ky urged people not to support the government's Visit Myanmar Year a couple of years ago. Many feel that she is the voice of the people.

Some take the position that foreign visitors will help break the xenophobia of places like Myanmar, long closed to the world and beyond its scrutiny.

I must confess that Myanmar is one of the most fascinating places I have ever been. I want to go back, but not until it cleans up its act.