Myanmar: Friendly, But Not Free

Myanmar: Friendly, But Not Free

By Sony Stark

The Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar - photos by Sony Stark
The Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar – photos by Sony Stark

Despite the fact that Myanmar (formally called Burma) is run by a brutal military regime called the Junta, I found the Burmese people friendlier than the last 5 countries combined. Strict US sanctions frustrate and discourage the economy, but it doesn’t affect how locals treat American tourists.

We were welcomed into the homes of many and after earning their trust, offered limited opinions on political oppression, Aug San Suu Kyi and the growing drug trade.

The Burmese are a self-sustaining people – they cultivate their own food, practice their own religion, and carry on their own family mores but the government or SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) responds with “ethnic cleansing” of those who openly oppose their rule.

Why Go?

Many of our hosts were extremely careful to say how they feel. Suppression also regulates commerce, hotels, communications, some tourism and roads and if you’re not aware of all this you’ll miss armed guards patrolling bridges, a thriving gray market and a lack of local newspapers.

89% of the population are Buddhists who practice non-violence but some Sangha Monks are abandoning peaceful alternatives and joining rebel fighters for change. As a result, universities have reopened and foreign investment is easing. The outlook appears positive, so, why go to Burma?

Because it’s not the government you’re visiting; it’s the people and, as mentioned, friendlier than most. Human rights tragedies are also less likely to occur with an international community watching and tourism by and large benefits the people far more than it does the government.

Old Temples in New Bagan

For those benevolent souls who do come, the archaeological region of Bagan (close to the Irawaddy River) is the country’s #1 tourist destination. 800-year-old temples and pagodas, some in ruin, many restored, are concentrated so densely commercial aircraft can see them. A pony cart ride (always barter for the best price) or a bike rental in the late afternoon gives you a sense of the size and grandeur.

Pony cart in New Bagan
Pony cart in New Bagan

It’s an awesome place to view sunsets and learn about Buddhism. Our tour guide Joe, a lively soul with a gentle demeanor, set the mood by offering insight about Buddhism at the Pyathada and Shwesandaw temples.

The setting sun silhouetted hundreds of golden stupas and eased us into tranquil meditation while a sense of spiritual nirvana melted over us. A sensation that even a hardcore atheist could appreciate. This was one of the few times I’ve been able to let loose tension and anxiety while gripping a 30 pound camera.

Respite at Treasure Resort

There are many affordable guesthouses in New Bagan but SAS put us up in one of the most glamorous and plush accommodations, Treasure Resort. Under new management, the hotel was built in the newest section of town off Nyaung U main road and reopened in February ‘05, providing the locals with a stable trickle of tourist dollars.

The resort is crawling with German and French travelers. It has bamboo tile, teak columns, a resplendent swimming pool and it’s within walking distance to lacquer factories and a cluster of handcraft shops. Joe assured us that dollars spent in cottage industries, like his own were helping the neediest keep food on the table, an important buying prerequisite for me.

Monkeys at Mount Popa

Surrounding the flat volcanic-laden plain called Myingyan is a solitary peak that has no business being there. It’s called Mt. Popa and translated in Sanskrit means ‘flower’. After Bagan, It’s the second major pilgrimage site for hermit monks or yeti.

Old Bagan Temple
Old Bagan Temple

At the peak stands a worship center, more stupas and monasteries. The climb up is long and strenuous and nuisance monkeys drop food and defecate along the pathway.

This could be tolerable if shoes were permitted but the religion requires visitors to navigate barefoot, a painful endeavor that even the hardiest of veteran shooters need assistance with.

A 12-year old Burmese girl offers to tote my tripod to the top and gently grips my arm, all the while repeating “careful” and “slow please”. She makes this climb with foreigners 20 times a day clothed from head to toe and never breaks a sweat. She’s gifted with remarkable generosity, a trait that will earn her a place among the highest Buddhist spirits or nats.

An eco-friendly overnight stay at ‘Popa Mountain Resort’ has landmark views of the monastery amidst natural springs and wooded hillsides. Joe strategically picked this oasis as our restroom break with hopes of some of us returning for our honeymoons here.

Candles at Ceidanargyi

Back in Bagan, locals prepare a special temple dinner at the Ceidanargyi Pagoda. It’s a feast and celebration like I’ve never seen before. Candles dot every crevice of the pyramid structure while torch-carrying shirtless tribes parade between our tables singing in foreign tongue.

A 12-year-old Burmese powerhouse
A 12-year-old Burmese powerhouse.

UNESCO does not permit lit candles on 1000-year-old structures because they damage the surface so special oil-lamps fuel the air for an hour. If you remember the b&w war movie ‘The Burmese Harp’ you’d appreciate the sound of the saung gaup or 13-string boat-shaped harp.

It was played so beautifully that I bought the CD for our documentary. This was a spectacle that even my camera couldn’t do justice to, so I left it behind on the bus. The rare treat also afforded students to try curry rice (htamin) with prawns, green mango salad (thayet sein thou) and tasty mohinga (noodle soup), staples at a Burmese table.

Marionettes in Myanmar

Puppet theater in Bagan is what karaoke is to Japan and concerts are to the US. They attract demographics of all ages and are part of the art culture.

Puppet shows reenact the history of Myanmar through colorful marionettes manipulated by a dozen or more skilled string masters. There are even strings attached to each eyebrow on a puppet. Our repertoire included horses, monkeys, Brahmin astrologers and of course a villain and heroine.

Puppet show our last night
Puppet show our last night.

Serenity at Shwedagon

Bagan is a two-hour plane ride from Yangon to the south but if you can afford a sampler of the city’s capital the Shwedagon Pagoda is not to be missed. Kipling is quoted as calling it ‘a golden mystery… a beautiful winking wonder’.

It’s the most sacred Buddhist site in the country and takes several hours to enjoy. After passing the sacred Banyon tree, our circular tour took us past statues, shrines and images that drip with superstition, worship and revelry for Buddha.

It’s too overwhelming to write about its ostentatious design and history so I’m not even going to try. I’ll forewarn photographers though to pull your eye away from the viewfinder every so often and look up.

One side of the Shwedagon Pagoda
One side of the Shwedagon Pagoda.

I missed a rare round rainbow phenomenon at noontime centered around the top stupa. Burmese wait all year to catch this short 10-minute auspicious natural event to pray for good health and good fortune.

More to come…

Still pending is a rare four-day overnight to a Dalit Village in India, a Mekong Delta excursion in Vietnam, Hong Kong Feng Shui, China’s Forbidden City and of course The Great Wall. Articles sure to please the most discriminating gonomad in all of us!

Like this article? Share it with your friends!