Rise and shrine

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 September, 2010, 12:00am

There's a retro charm about Myanmar that is perfectly summed up by a book at the Innwa English-language bookshop in Yangon. Apart from the wonderful Cook and Entertain The Burmese Way ('Do not discount the food by an undue amount of conversation ... and especially not stimulating or absorbing conversation'), I also come across Betty Crocker's 1985 book Microwaving For One Or Two - on the 'new arrivals' shelf.

Here is a place where the grand Victorian-era buildings of the British empire are still standing, water-stained, majestically oozing decay and sprouting greenery between bright new residential and office blocks festooned with satellite dishes the size of small cars.

Below them, chickens peck through the streets, decades-old cars and minibuses held together by spit and prayer jostle for space with rickshaws, advertising hoardings boast the latest from the English Premier League on ESPN, red-robed monks go door to door in search of food, and a man on a horse trots past a man on a mobile phone.

With its mixture of anachronistic and 21st century technology, Victorian-era architecture and modern influences, yes, there's a touch of the 'steampunk' about Myanmar.

Potential tourists are understandably torn when it comes to visiting Myanmar, given its years of military rule and history of human rights abuses. Nevertheless, it is an beautiful country that would certainly enjoy the same status as its neighbours as a tourism destination were it not for its brutal regime.

While Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos - the golden tourism triangle of Southeast Asia - all succumbed to French rule in the 19th century and still exhibit that influence today, Myanmar was ruled by the British (as Burma) from 1824 until independence in 1948. Hence the excess of Victoriana. Myanmar is Vietnam strained through Jules Verne.

Flying in to Myanmar on a day threatened by low clouds the colour of dishwater, the flat landscape merges with the sky until it's hard to separate the one from the other. Great brown rivers snake through flat green, alluvial flood plains and fields studded here and there with what look like the upper section of a child's golden spinning top.

These are the Buddhist stupas (or paya) that are such an essential part of life in a country where, as a travel guide points out, the people 'seem unable to see a hilltop without wanting to put a religious monument on top of it'. And painting it gold, to boot.

Spend just a few days in Myanmar and you begin to understand the why the huge sign on the road to and from the airport says 'Welcome to Myanmar - The Golden Land'. Indeed, not content with covering the stupas and the monasteries in gold or gold leaf, they also paint themselves and it's common to see local women and children sporting a beautiful pale golden paste on their faces.

This is thanaka, a powder from the crushed bark and roots of the thanaka tree that's been in use in Myanmar for thousands of years and doubles as a cosmetic and a sun block, and smells like sandalwood. Tourists are offered pots of this by the hawkers who flock around the major sites selling everything from old Burmese money and hand-made postcards to thanaka-scented fans and truly appalling hats.

Yangon, our base for a three-night stay, is the former capital of the country: the government relocated it north to little-known Naypyidaw in 2006 but it is still the country's largest city and commercial centre, with a population of 5.5 million.

It is said to have the largest number of colonial buildings in Southeast Asia, with downtown Yangon especially redolent of the old days of the British empire when the colonial rulers created tree-lined avenues in a grid layout that maximised the cooling breezes off the river and furnished them with stolid examples of Victorian architecture such as the High Court, the Office of the Secretariats, the Rowe & Co department store, St Paul's English School and The Strand Hotel (built in 1901).

Some of these buildings are still in use today - the yellow-and-brick Rowe & Co building, for instance, is an immigration office where, as one local told me rather Kafka-esquely, you can lose whole days waiting - and sit cheek-by-jowl with minor temples and brutalist office blocks. Elsewhere in the city they are tucked behind fences and razor wire, once-impressive administration buildings collapsing in on themselves.

All around Yangon you can see the former mansions of wealthy British traders slowly rotting into the ground. Some say that the decamping of the government to the north will only serve to increase the decay while others see potential in them as the tourism sector expands.

Yangon, like all major cities is a bustling, hustling metropolis of strange sights, sounds and smells - the whiff of durian at the kaleidoscopic Chinese night market takes some getting used to, trust me - but not far from the city centre, perched serenely above all this, is the Shwe Dagon Pagoda, the most sacred shrine in Myanmar.

An enormous 98-metre-tall golden stupa that sits on Singuttara Hill, it dominates the city skyline and is said to contain relics of the original Buddha. In a country where it's easy to overdose of stupas, this is one of the jewels in the Myanmar 'crown' and is an important symbol of national identity.

Started originally between the 6th and 10th centuries, the stupa has succumbed to earthquakes many times and the current structure dates from 1769. It is solid, covered in 11 tonnes of pure gold and topped with a spire that is gold-plated, silver-plated and studded with diamonds and other precious stones. At the very tip rests a single, 76-carat diamond. All the rain that runs off the stupa is collected in underground vaults and, every year, gives up about 230 grams of gold.

The best times to visit the pagoda are sunrise and sunset. We arrive just before sunset and stroll, shoeless as is demanded, around the perimeter admiring this towering edifice just as the natural light fades and the beautifully arranged artificial lights come on and bathe the area in a golden glow. It is nothing short of spectacular.

Swallows flit in and out of the altars and temples surrounding the stupa, making a happy twittering as they swoop under the eaves looking for insects in the humid night air.

It makes for a surprisingly spiritual atmosphere, even for the defiantly secular among us. Here and there people light offerings, while saffron-coloured nuns and red-robed monks potter silently across the marble floor.

At dinner that night in the Trader's Hotel, where we are served a typical Burmese meal complete with Myanmar beer and pork curry with pickled mangoes. Eun Young Lee, the hotel's senior sales manager who has lived in Myanmar for some years, is confident that the country has major tourist potential, especially beyond Yangon in the old hill station areas and places to the north such as Bagan and the Inle Lakes.

Her confidence is shared by Regina Salzmann, general manager of the beautifully restored Strand Hotel where we spend the night. She is convinced that, very soon, Myanmar will be uttered 'in the same breath' as Vietnam.

She's probably right. In our three days there we cover many miles of what one blogger has called 'bad roads through beautiful landscapes' and what our guide, as we hit yet another pothole in our ancient, colourful and thankfully air-conditioned disco-bus, calls 'a free massage'.

Journeying to the Kyakhat Monastery in Bago, 80 kilometres northeast of Yangon, we watch 800 young monks file into a communal dining room to eat their last meal of the day - a meagre lunch - in complete silence. We visit the enormous reclining Buddha at Shwethalyaung, the Kambawzathardi Golden Palace and take a short ferry boat ride across to the peeling and oddly cartoonish Yele Pagoda island at Thanlyin during which the boat boys massage all the men's calves for tips.

And we marvel at the local buses that take something like 25 people at a time, some hanging off the back, waving at us as they speed along the roads, honking and swerving and overtaking on bends that would give Michael Schumacher nightmares.

On our final day we lunch luxuriously (and, remembering the monks, a little shamefacedly) at the stylish Padonmar (Lotus) Restaurant near the former Governor's Residence, and eat our fill of beautiful Burmese curries and vegetable dishes that will set you back an expensive (in local terms, anyway) US$8 to US$10 a person.

It's not perfect by any means but that's very much part of its charm. The people are friendly, the infrastructure is improving and, in a further sign that it is becoming more firmly fixed on the world tourism map, most of the increase in travellers in the first seven months of this year comprised independent travellers - up 53.4 per cent to 89,645.