By the old Moulmein pagoda lookin’ lazy at the sea….
There ‘s a Burmese girl a settin’ and I know she thinks o ‘ me
And the wind is in the palm trees and the temple bells they say
Come you back, you young backpacker, come you back to Mandalay…
I am currently in Myanmar, for the first time since May, 1978. This is a busier place now, yet there is much in this country that remains timeless, especially off the lightly beaten path.
In addition to returning to a place I last visited almost 35 years ago, there is also a wonderful déjà vu of being in a special place at a time of transition. To this I owe a debt of gratitude to my friend and work colleague, Bob Paquin who, last summer, advised me that Myanmar/ Burma is the place to go…..NOW.
Globalization is the dominant paradigm of our age. Precisely because of this, visiting places and countries just as they become open or more accessible has always had an appeal. I first felt it, perhaps naively, when visiting Cuba in 1974. This trip reminds me slightly of spending a month in China in 1983, Tibet in 1986, Vietnam and Cambodia in 1992, or Albania in 1995 as there is a tangible sense of visiting a place opening up and on the cusp of transition. While it is fully understandable that the people of Myanmar would want to modernize and be an integral part of the international community, being here now is an opportunity to experience something authentic and different, in a country where the effects of globalization are only now beginning to be felt.
Myanmar, since the lifting of sanctions, has suddenly become a popular destination. Its most obvious manifestation is a dramatic increase in accommodation costs and, to a slightly lesser extent, in transportation. There is a real squeeze on hotels, so booking accommodation at least a day or two in advance is prudent. That said, all of the other aspects of independent travel proved easier than I was anticipating. Air travel has been easy to arrange. Train travel is uncrowded and inexpensive, if slow. And in most towns, there are dozens of travel agents ready to arrange air transport, bus journeys, treks and other services.
Unlike some other destinations I listed above, travelers have been coming to Myanmar, albeit in limited numbers for a long time. On my long trip in 1978, Burma represented the great travelers divide of Asia.
Back then, there were a large group of travelers going from Europe overland to India and Nepal. To the east, in southeast Asia, there were a lot of Australians and others concentrating their travels in that region. Burma did not permit land entry into the country. In those days you were restricted to a “fly in – fly out” seven day visa. It thus required a certain financial outlay for the two flights. Those traveling on the cheap who were in Burma at that time were likely to be on an around the world trip. Thus I was fascinated to meet those, like me, on low budget long-term travel who had chosen to stay in the wooden beds in the dormitory of the Rangoon YMCA. With the seven day restriction, I made it to Bago, Mandalay and Sagaing, but not Bagan before time ran out. I recall the train journey to and from Mandalay as being excruciatingly uncomfortable, taking seventeen hours rather than the advertised twelve.
Back to 2013. I teamed up with Antoine, a great young French doctor Ii met at the departure lounge of Bangkok airport and we were to spend much of our time in Myanmar together. Yangon was much the same as I remembered, though much busier with traffic. I enjoyed visiting the Shwedagon pagoda, among the world’s most beautiful Buddhist shrines, both during the day and, even more magically, at night.
The following day we took a ferry across the Irrawaddy to the grubby town of Dalah, then hired a car to take us to Twante, sight of yet another superb pagoda, the Shwesandaw, but in a timeless rural setting. We also visited a simple pottery factory.
From Yangon we flew to Bagan, which is among the greatest archaeological sites in the world. We were four days there, exploring the temples by bicycle. In theory, balloon rides over Bagan were fully booked for the next two months. Still, we expressed our interest and the next afternoon we were fortunate to find that there had been a cancellation. The following morning we were up before dawn and were in one of the eight balloons that lifted off about fifteen minutes before sunrise. For most of the fifty minute ride we were flying fifty to one hundred meters above the temples. About two- thirds of the way through, the sun broke out, bathing the temples in a deep rich red light. This was my first balloon ride ever and it was awe inspiring to see the temples of Bagan from the air in this way.
We then went by ” fast boat” to Mandalay. This is a relative term in Myanmar. Anywhere else this would either be a regular ferry or even a slow boat. In total it took us 13 1/2 hours. Save for watching the sunrise, there was not really much to see on the boat journey. What we could see was mainly of flat fields and the occasional small village. As we approached Mandalay, after dark had descended, we could see the temple lights of Sagaing on the banks to our left. Yet as a method of transportation for getting from point A to point B, it was a thoroughly enjoyably experience.
Some places do not live up to their romantic name. Alas, this is now the case with Mandalay. I enjoyed returning to the temples of Mandalay Hill, but otherwise I found the city to be crowded, dusty, polluted and noisy. Poor Rudyard would turn in his grave if he were to visit the city as a somewhat older British soldier today…..