By hook or by crook to the Golden Rock
IT WAS a premiere in more ways than one. We were the first ''foreign independent travellers'', or non-package tourists, from Hongkong to be granted the new 14-day visas to Burma.
Like many premieres, our 12 days in Burma were not to run smoothly. But the hitches afforded the best insights into the shy Burmese people and the transition the country is going through.
The Myanmar Global Travel Agency staff, who organised the visas, laughed, calling us their ''guinea pigs''. Then, in Rangoon, after three days of fierce negotiation with fledging travel agents, we found it was also a first for our guide - he had never been a guide before.
Relatively few Westerners have been to Burma in the five years since martial law was declared, so the country and its people are remarkably unspoiled by tourism. In village streets you can happen upon entranced actors whose wild dance-drama tells Buddhist stories.
They are hired, with their orchestra and stage, to play and pay homage to the spirits outside homes and so encourage the residents' good fortune. The whole village turns out to see the show.
The new visa allows ''unpackaged'' travel to any part of the country apart from the border areas, where anti-government insurgents are operating.
New, supposedly non-government travel agencies have been licensed by the government specifically to handle foreign travellers, but even these ''independent'' agencies still want to squeeze you into packages for fascinating but well-worn routes.
Our goal was southern Burma, closed to foreigners since the imposition of martial law in 1988.
A supreme reverence for Kyaik-tiyo's Golden Rock shrine in the south has always attracted Buddhist pilgrims but the shrine had been off limits to foreigners.
Now open to all, the Golden Rock is being listed on the package tours of the official Burmese travel agencies.
Further south, is Moulmein, the third-largest city after Rangoon and Mandalay, and similarly fabled by Rudyard Kipling for its beautiful pagodas.
Moulmein is, as yet, unpackaged.
Hoping to reach the Golden Rock and Moulmein as independently as possible, we investigated transport possibilities.
Taxi drivers hanging around Rangoon's bigger hotels, such as The Strand (the best for taxi touts), bargained on the day rate for a four-day trip to the south. They then reneged because they were not ''registered'' to go south.
The government's Myanmar Travel and Tours and an independent agency flatly refused to organise a trip south because of a troublesome permit. We were luckier with a third agency. The permit, which must be approved by the Department of Defence and the police, was suddenly possible with Golden Land Travel.
Golden Land's manager backed off sending us as far south as Moulmein for about 25 different reasons, ranging from lack of security to bad weather. He promised a permit to one of our goals, the Golden Rock, only about five hours' drive from Rangoon but the permit application ''would take time''.
Meanwhile, we could explore up-country with Golden Land. Certainly many of the most interesting destinations in Burma can be visited on a round Rangoon-Mandalay trip. We were mindful of time constraints - the list of destinations goes on but the visa does not.
We decided we would miss too much by air and worried about time spent on boats. A romantic river journey up the famous Irrawaddy River to Pagan or Mandalay would have to be another trip. An alternative was the Rangoon to Mandalay express train which takes 121/2 hours.
The most flexible and simplest thing to do was hire our own vehicle for a round trip, switching to local transport whenever we wanted. As it turned out, changing vehicles was something we did not always choose.
We left the elegant decay of Rangoon and headed for Pagan.
Travelling by van, we took in smokey roadside cafes where both tea and coffee were loaded with condensed milk and the cakes were just as sweet. We watched the colour of the fertile landscape change from corn, rice, peanuts or sesame, to the big red squares of chilli drying by the road.
Hospitable villagers welcomed us for pit stops or urged us to stand in front of them for a better view of the wonderful and crazy street theatre.
Our van, ironically emblazoned with the words ''Ancient Beauty'', made sure we mixed with the locals. Engine problems were usually fixed in minutes by the driver. On the way to Pagan, we had hours to lie around the countryside, and to try communication with herders and their Brahmin cows.
Our guide was embarrassed by the unscheduled stops. Ancient Beauty's driver-mechanic, was proficient at sucking petrol out of the wrong part of the engine. But one time he flagged down a local bus on its way to Pagan.
Half an hour later, the 20 or so would-be mechanics from the bus also gave up and took off. The bus returned for us as the sun was setting, we climbed aboard with Ancient Beauty in tow.
Bumping along on the top of a Burmese bus - invariably ex-World War II - is rough. But the view is fabulous. We arrived at Pagan under a sky bright with stars and wound our way through pagoda ruins lit only by headlights.
A day or three riding bicycles or the horse-drawn carts through Pagan's ruins is the way to learn some Burmese history. The 2,200 pagodas left on the Pagan plain, which once boasted 13,000 shrines, tell stories of love and politics from King Anawrahta to Kublai Khan, as rulers avenged, warred, won and converted the region to different forms of Buddhism.
The Mon architecture of the magnificent Ananda temple, built in 1091, is said to have so pleased the then ruler that he executed the architect to ensure it was never built again elsewhere.
Pagan is also the best source of the traditional red-and-black Burmese lacquerware. The souvenir traders, like the Balinese 15 years ago, appreciate lipsticks, jeans, T-shirts, sunglasses in exchange. One even asked for brands.
We sought out the old monastery at Mount Popa in a jeep-bus hired from our Pagan hotel for $290 (at the black-market rate) for the day. We were able to get a bed for the night at the monastery.
Inle Lake, the next destination, could best be reached by plane to Heho airport. The alternative car trip through seven hours of hairpin bends, plus the usual potholes, is exhausting. Without other nearby destinations, the Intha community and floating gardens on the lake are (even with their spectacular skill of rowing with one leg while standing on the other) too similar to other floating Asian towns to make the trip worthwhile by car.
Going from Inle Lake to the Golden Rock, we again covered too much ground. The travel agency should have warned us it would be another two days' travel - with time for essential stops only.
Once we reached Kinpun, the base camp for the climb to the Golden Rock, the experience more than compensated.
After an hour's uphill walk, a touch of ''Burma belly'' made the 10-kilometre climb to the shrine impossible. The word went out that a chair and bearers were needed. Four Burmese arrived with six-metre-long bamboo poles to which they strapped an armchairand then marched me quickly and steadily uphill.
They relieved their shoulders by switching the poles over their heads with amazing synchronisation.
The views of the tropical bush got better as we went higher. The bearers sweated while I slept. When it was almost dark, I awoke - having missed ''prime time'' at the rock, which glints and glows in the setting sun. Clouds swirled in the blackness of thevalleys below and the sky was smeared with red. The rock was just aglow and the first star hung above it.
Buddhist prayers were sung through megaphones on the hilltops and the men who had carried me for five or six hours asked only $70 between them.
Prices in Burma do not always start off so cheaply, and bargaining is essential. The hire car and guide was knocked down from $780 to $230 a day per person. We were not able to get away without the guide, which was just as well.
Flights into the country from Hongkong were $3,500, plus $500 for visas, and once in Burma flights are cheap.
The agency had promised to change money with us along the way - at a good rate. This was important because the black-market rate of 100 to 105 kyats to the US$1 is vastly better than the official rate of six kyats to the US$1.
We mentally wrote off the US$200 (about HK$1,500) the government insists you exchange at the official rate at the airport. This was a premium for travelling in otherwise cheap Burma and the only time you should change at the official rate.
We then discovered that every hotel you pay in kyats will deduct the payment from your foreign currency slip, which shows you have changed the mandatory US$200. It is a token gesture against black-market money exchange and not checked at the end of the trip.
We made the mistake of paying for the famous but delapidated Strand at $460 per night. It would not take kyats for accommodation because it was a government joint-venture hotel, but it accepted kyats for meals.
Those three nights accommodation at the Strand cost as much as the next six days travel per person with car, driver and guide.
Thai Airways flies to Burma via Bangkok. Cost: $5,660 for a standard economy class return. Visa: required.