Burma - The Cultural Bridge
We need to be a little bit careful. Burma is the former English name for the country that is now better known by its local name, Pyidaunzu Thanmada Myama Nainngandaw, or Republic of the Union of Myanmar…just an acceptable Myanmar for short. This is a country that has teetered on the brink of economic breakdown for more years than it might care to recollect.
Yet, since its declaration of independence in 1948 and despite the civil war that raged across the country, seemingly without end since then, rather than imagining that you might be entering a maelstrom of malevolence, or even violence, this is a nation of people that is remarkably proud of its long and colourful heritage, that is unfailingly respectful to all visitors and unerringly welcoming, from the second you step off your charter flight from Heathrow.
However, it is worth bearing in mind that all unnecessary chit-chat between local Burmese and overseas visitors is frowned upon seriously by the authorities. In fact, an order was issued by the Myanmar Tourism body that local officials must protect all visitors, since 2001 and do whatever they can to limit any contact with local people.
Naturally, hotel staffs are allowed to make conversation. Shop and market workers need to relate with their customers. Tour guides and officials at religious, historical and cultural venues are all taught to engage with their audiences. However, as a visitor to the country formerly known as Burma, you must be prepared to accept that, even should you invest in a Burmese phrase book, or even learn a few pertinent expressions of the language, a response should not necessarily be anticipated and that the respondent is, emphatically, not being rude to you, when you are ignored.
Poor in wealth, rich in culture
Tourist revenues are so important to Myanmar. In fact, the country opened its doors to foreign visitors as long ago as 1992, whereas its borders had all but been ‘out of bounds’ to everybody prior to that time. It is not to suggest that it is any easier to make border crossings from Myanmar to any of the countries with which it is linked, as they are most definitely off limits to all visitors, regardless of country of origin. If you fly or cruise into the country, you must exit similarly.
While most of the country’s income is made from its rice paddies, a clue does exist in some of its national treasures that can be viewed at the five-storey National Museum at Dagon, in the Yangon Division, of an altogether more valuable resource. Still mined in the country’s Mogok Valley, rubies, including the extremely rare pigeon’s blood type, sapphires, jade and both Irrawaddy fresh and Andaman saltwater pearls are among the most precious natural resources that have attracted much unwanted attention (from criminals and raiders, hence many of the border issues), as well as various governments.
Partly due to the fact that Burma has been operated under military rule for more than half a century, some of which has allowed cruel practices to proliferate, related to slave labour, observers and Human Rights officials have declared that buying precious items from Myanmar is unacceptable. As all of the mines are owned nationally, it has always believed that the military junta has been receiving the bulk of the profits. As a result, many of the French jewellery producers have boycotted gems and stones from this part of the world and some governments have disallowed their importation under any circumstances.
In mentioning the Irrawaddy River, unless you actually see its impressive size, you would scarcely comprehend its importance to the country. For a start it is over 1,300 miles in length and reaches virtually north to south through Myanmar, having its source at Damphet, in Kachin State. Two additional sources of the watercourse come via the Mali and N’Mai Rivers, both of which have been dammed successfully, to provide hydroelectricity to the country. Although it was feared that the Irrawaddy dolphin (orcaella brevirostris) might be negatively affected by this development, local environmental reports suggest that the rare mammal has been spotted in breeding groups once again.
Rudyard Kipling referred to this amazing river in his poem, ‘The Road to Mandalay’, as the river is what he regarded as the main highway, so popular was its practicality for moving goods and people both up anddown the country. The delta, which empties into the Indian Ocean, is no less than nine separate divergences across and is quite spectacular, when spotted from the air, especially following monsoon rains, when it empties golden silt into the ocean. It is an area of remarkable biodiversity and contains both mangroves and freshwater swamp forests. Naturally, the wildlife is equally varied and ranges from crocodiles to no less than five species of sea turtles, plus leopards, Bengal tigers, wild dogs and otters, as well as a wide range of birdlife.
It never rains but it pours
Rainfall levels are spectacularly high in this tropical region, aided in no small part by summertime snow melt-water from the Burmese mountains region. Precipitation is at its lowest between November and April and, while there is a minor respite during July and August, May-June and September-October produce around 147mm of rainfall each month, which means that waterproofs might not go amiss, even if the temperatures seldom drop below 27 degrees Centigrade throughout the year, peaking in the high-30s around late-April and May. If you are not a fan of hot and humid, I would not advise Burma.
If you happen to visit earlier in the year, there is the Ananda Pagoda Festival, at Bagan, to take in during January, which happens to be a great time to travel to Myanmar. The pagoda festival season continues with the Mahamuni celebration in Mandalay during February. Ironically, April is the month for the Thingyan Water Festival, which is also New Year time in the country, just before the heavens discharge their contents in the following couple of months. Should you travel to Myanmar around September time, it is the turn of Phaungdaw Oo, at Inle Lake, to celebrate its spectacular pagodas. In October, the Festival of Lights, or The Thadingyut, takes place in various population centres, while November is always the preserve of the robe weavers, which is an art form that is worth viewing, for the amazing speed of the silk machine operators, the wondrous colours and the relative inexpensiveness of the resultant fine garments, which should last a lifetime, once brought home.
You have to remember that many of the former British names have been reverting (not always with the will of the people) to traditional Burmese. As a result, Yangon is the present name for what was Rangoon, which is a marvellous place to base yourself for your first trip to the country. Packed with natural wonders, the beautiful Inle Lake is within easy reach, as indeed are the regional centres of Mandalay and Bagan, mostly in the south-eastern corner of Myanmar.
Of course, you might wish to follow Kipling’s famous ‘road’ and take a cruise up-river, where you can experience the high-end quality and quaintness of the Orient Express on-board the vessel. For the less adventurous, an hotel beside the Bay of Bengal might offer the necessary respite and, from personal experience of the Amata Resort & Spa, on Ngapali beach, I can tell you that you will want for nothing. Even if you tire of being served hand and foot, the local village of Mya Pyin is within easy walking distance and its seafood restaurants provide just the right combination of oriental style and Asian spices to help you to appreciate Burmese food first hand.
An all-pervading sense of remarkable secrecy exists in Burma, which is not as oppressive as you might imagine it to be. It is almost as though the Myanmar of today does not want too many outsiders to know about the Burma of yesterday. The tourist business in the country is largely government sponsored. Interestingly, not far off three-quarters of a million people visited Myanmar in 2010, of which around a third flew into Yangon International airport, about ten miles north of the city of Yangon, which is in the delta area.
Five Burmese and 20 international airlines operate out of Yangon and the facility is being expanded at the moment to almost double its capacity. It is a fairly new airport, although it was developed from an original WW2 base. Separate floors dedicated for arrivals and departures help to reduce congestion. The other major airport is based at Mandalay, about halfway up the country from Yangon, alongside the Irrawaddy River.
Mandalay is a place of learning but it also contains some of the nation’s most popular sights of both historical and religious value, including the Kuthodaw Pagoda, which is also known as the world’s largest book, thanks to the Buddhist scriptures written on its 729 upright stone slabs. However, a visit to Mandalay is incomplete without seeing the Great Rakhine Buddha, whose face is washed ritualistically every morning, which attracts crowds by the hundreds. This statue is in the Maha Muni Sacred Living pagoda.
Travel - there are no direct flights to Yangon Airport from the UK. However, you can fly from Heathrow with China Eastern to Shanghai and then to Yangon (£239 ret), or Heathrow to Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific, then to Yangon (£329 ret). China Airlines, Asiana Airlines, Eva Air, Etihad, Malaysia Airlines and Singapore Airlines all fly out of Heathrow.
Accommodation - whether you wish to book through a travel agent or organise it yourself, to do so is easy and the range is from inexpensive motels to 5-star luxury hotels. Currency is the Kyat and room rates are fair. Tucan Travel offers great tour value, while Peregrine Adventures can tailor a trip to suit your specific requirements.
All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before you travel to Myanmar.