The best of... Burma
Burma, or Myanmar as it is now known, is one of most fascinating destinations in the Far East, a country relatively new to tourism as a result of decades of isolation imposed by its military dictatorship. It is a culturally rich land with a long history and a diverse ethnic mix. Hannah Busby shares with us the highlights of her trip to Burma.
The opportunity to visit a country that has been so isolated from the Western world and that has not yet been affected by mass tourism was something that really appealed to me. The tour completely exceeded my expectations. I enjoyed every aspect of it but here are my top five highlights:
Burma is often known as the ‘Golden Land’ and it is not difficult to see why. Even as the plane was coming in to land in Rangoon, I could see the landscape below glistening, as the sunlight reflected off the hundreds of gilded stupas dotted around. There is no single place that encapsulates this sentiment more than the Shwedagon Pagoda.
Standing at 98m tall, the Shwedagon Pagoda is not quite the tallest in Burma. However, its imposing position on top of a hill means that you can see it from almost anywhere in Rangoon. I have seen many temples, but none that quite compares to this one. It is said to house relics from all past Buddhas and is consequently the most sacred site in the country. The main stupa is gilded with over 40 tonnes of gold, and the umbrella at the top is encrusted with thousands of precious stones, including a 76-carat diamond at the very top. People from all over the country have contributed to the gold and jewels that adorn this pagoda, as they believe it will gain them merit and hopefully lead to a good reincarnation.
The stupa and the complex that surround it are majestic. However, this is not a mere tourist attraction – it is very much a living, working temple. Pilgrims from all over the country and the world come to pray here, as do the local people of Rangoon. It is great to come here in the late afternoon. This way you get to see the pagoda in the daylight and then, as it gets dark, it gets lit up and takes on an even more magical appearance.
With almost 90% of Burma’s population being practicing Buddhists, the rites of passage and traditions of Theravada Buddhism continue to thrive and are visible for all to see. One of the most apparent beliefs is the high regard in which monks are held. It is common practice for boys to be ordained in to the monastic order as a novice – a rite of passage that not only accrues merit for his parents but also enables him to become a man. Many boys will only join the order for a few weeks, while others will stay for the duration of their schooling, and others will become fully-fledged monks and continue to practice within the order for the rest of their lives.
Each morning, it is possible to see monks carrying out their daily ritual of collecting alms. This gives normal people an opportunity to give generously, an act that illustrates respect and also helps obtain merit. It is considered such an important part of everyday life that some neighbourhoods set up their own almsgiving stations, which they take turns to man. The monks collect the food before returning to their monasteries, sharing the food and eating. This all takes place in the morning, as monks are not allowed to eat after noon.
On two occasions I visited monasteries as the monks were lining up to eat. The first of these visits was an unscheduled stop. Our tour leader wanted to show us one of the monasteries where he had spent some time as a monk (he had joined the monastic order 4 times, the longest of which was for 2 weeks). This was a great opportunity, as he was able to show us around and introduce us to the head abbot. The second occasion was to Mahagandayon Monastery in Amarapura, not far from Mandalay. This is one of the largest monasteries in the country and is much more regimented compared to the one we visited in Rangoon. Here we watched as people offered alms to the thousands of monks and novices that all file into the dining room to eat. For the people who organise the food, this is a great privilege. For the tourists who come to watch, it is a sight to behold, partly due to the visual impact of seeing so many people in matching saffron robes, and partly due to the tremendous discipline apparent here.
Watching the sun set over Pagan
From quite a young age I had heard about the temples at Angkor and, when I finally got to see them for myself, I fully appreciated how impressive they are and why they are a must-see of any trip to South East Asia. However, I only learnt about the temples of Pagan very recently. With over two thousand temples and stupas, most of which were built in the 11th - 13th centuries, Pagan has around double the temples of Angkor and only a tiny fraction of the tourists, making this a very special place.
Each of the temples is quite exquisite in its own right. They represent a variety of architectural styles depending on the period they were built, some are huge and others are only very tiny, some have been restored whereas others are crumbling after a number of earthquakes over the centuries, some still have gold gilding and some have ornate frescoes painted inside. Regardless of what state they are in, all are important religious sites and are treated with the utmost respect.
Whilst visiting the individual temples is fascinating, actually climbing to the top of one of the temples and taking in the whole panorama is the real highlight. It is only when you get above the ground that you can really appreciate the scale of the place. At about 5:30pm, all the tourists in Pagan congregate at the top of temples and stupas to view the sunset. It used to be possible to climb any of the temples, but now this is restricted to just a few, so some do get quite busy. Our tour leader ensured we went to quieter ones. Once at the top, seeing the silhouettes of all the temples and stupas against the backdrop of the fiery sky, makes for a truly memorable experience.
A leisurely longtail boat ride on Inle Lake
For me, there was no better way to relax after a week of busy sightseeing than to sit back on a longtail boat and watch as the hustle and bustle of Inle lake drifted by. Unlike elsewhere in Burma, where the main (but not the only) attractions are temples, monasteries and buildings of historical significance, Inle Lake is all about the people.
The shallow lake is populated by people from a number of ethnic groups, such as the Intha people, known for their unusual leg rowing technique and the Pa O tribe identified by the brightly coloured headscarves they wear. Not only are there villages on the banks of the lake, but also located directly on the lake where people live in houses on stilts and farm crops on floating gardens. The floating gardens are formed using a bed of water hyacinth and reeds and anchored by bamboo poles. The nutrient-rich water makes for abundant harvests, as is obvious by the numbers of boats on the lake that are heavily laden with juicy tomatoes and other fruit and vegetables.
The lake is a hive of activity, perfect for people-watching fans like myself! Not only is it possible to see people fishing or tending to their floating gardens, you can also go into the villages and see various industries from cheroot rolling to the weaving of expensive lotus thread. The vibrant rotating market at Inle Lake was my favourite market I visited in the country. People from tribes who live in the surrounding hills come down to buy and sell, many wearing tribal dress. The gambling area of the market was particularly fun. Photography is prohibited here, as gambling is illegal. However, the locals are more than happy to let the Westerner have a flutter.
It could be seen as a bit of a cliché saying that the people were the highlight of my trip. It seems that people always come back from holidays saying wonderful things about the local people. I guess that, living and working in London as I do, one becomes accustomed to avoiding eye contact let alone conversation with strangers, and so holidays always do take me to more open and friendly environments. However, out of all the places I have visited, the Burmese people are by far the friendliest and most welcoming.
It is very humbling to think about what the people of Burma have lived through – the repressive military junta, combined with international sanctions, mean that people have little to no rights and are also generally very poor. The country is resource-rich, but does not have the investment to tap into the resources, resulting in terrible infrastructure, rationed electricity and ultimately a country that is the poorest in South East Asia. Not only this, but it is still recovering from the devastating effects of Cyclone Nargis that hit Burma three years ago. However, despite all of these things, the people are so honest, so witty and so hospitable.
The warmth of the Burmese people is, in part, because of the problems they have faced. There is a sense of people rallying together in the face of adversity. The ground agents we work with invest a large proportion of their profits into development projects. The tour leader was not only excellent at guiding but had also overseen the building of wells in villages, housing and educating orphans, and sending doctors to remote villages. But, it was the work that he and many others like him carried out following Cyclone Nargis that touched me the most. When the Burmese government disallowed international aid, it was the normal local people that worked together to get the country back on its feet. For many months after the catastrophic event, our ground agents loaded up boats with supplies and doctors and spent each weekend sailing up the Irrawaddy to provide basic supplies, medical attention and counselling to people.
Having said this, their help didn’t always go quite the way they planned. One lady had suffered a severe head wound during the cyclone. The doctors they had brought were not well enough equipped to deal with an injury of such severity, so they gave the woman some money to take her to hospital. When they returned to the village the following weekend to check on her, they found her with the same, untreated injury, and a new television set that she had bought with the money! This time, they made sure they accompanied her all the way to the hospital!
Our guide said that it is ok to walk into anyone’s house in Burma so long as they are not holding a funeral ceremony or having an argument. Being a somewhat alien concept to us, we awkwardly followed the guide as he took us into villages and into people’s homes. However, it soon became apparent that people were genuinely glad to have us in their homes. After years of isolation caused by sanctions and tourist boycotts, people now relish the opportunity to talk to people from the outside world.
During the trip we met so many people – old ladies smoking cheroots, tribes people who had never seen Westerners before and were enthusiastically taking pictures of us, a lady who let me shelter from the rain in her house while she fed me coffee and biscuits, young children who would run to wave at us and teenagers selling wares who would cheekily apply tanaka to our cheeks before we had a chance to realise what was going on. All the people I met seemed so happy to see us. Whilst the temples and other sights in Burma are spectacular, it was most definitely the people that made it a trip like no other.