Western mass tourism may be in its infancy for Burma, but a well-trodden route is quickly emerging. After exploring Yangon – the country’s biggest city – for a couple of days many head to Bagan for its spectacular Buddhist temples, then the former royal capital of Mandalay for its palace and finally Inle Lake, in Shah State and surrounded by misty mountains.
But with these main attractions fairly spread out and travelling by road relatively slow, most opt for internal flights to get between the different places. Once travellers had little option other than taking the government owned-Myanmar National Airlines, which has in the past been criticised for the state of its panes. However in recent years a number of private carriers have started up, proving extremely useful for tourists to visit the most popular attractions around the country.
I took three internal flights in Burma (now officially called Myanmar) with Yangon Airways, which has the reassuring pledge: “You’re safe with us”. On each occasion I was given a Yangon Airways sticker – the sort of thing children get when they visit the dentist – so apparently someone could guide me to the departure gate if they found me lost in the building. Boarding passes were handwritten and apart from the first flight I could sit wherever I wanted.
Two of the three services I took were punctual (the second was delayed for two hours as an airport was closed due to the mist). And even on the shortest journey (24 minutes), complimentary drinks and snacks were served by the attentive cabin crew.
Burma opened up to tourists again in the 1990s after two and a half decades of being closed to the world. The government, desperate for international money, billed the country as a “Golden Land” of pagodas and smiling people and ushered foreigners onto organised tours. What a place it must have been to visit back then.
Before travelling to Burma I read a fascinating book by Emma Larkin called Finding George Orwell in Burma, first published in 2004 as an attempt to find out more about the life of the writer in the country where he was a military policeman. While the American journalists did indeed follow in his footsteps and visit his favourite haunts, the account was as much about the propaganda, surveillance and censorship that existed in more modern times.
As Larkin travelled Burma, many officials were very friendly to her, but she found her movements were closely monitored and she was often followed. When a police officer asked where she was going to next, they actually went to check whether or not she had visited the church she had pledged to stop at. Some people were afraid to talk to her as a foreigner – or at the very least guarded at what they said to her, just in case it was a trap to get her to criticise the government.
Larkin describes a country where emails could take days to send as they needed to be filtered by a Military Intelligence (MI) system. The internet was relatively new during her visit, but websites were carefully monitored and at that time only certain people could access it.
The first tourists had to be understanding about the facilities on offer, as Burma “was struggling to adjust to the new realities, so the country had all the unique, off-beat crankiness of the old days but with the new efficiencies to sand some of the rough edges off a visit,” said Peter Popham in his book, the Lady and the Generals. Visitors had to make use of “beaten-up, recycled Nissans and Mazdas of tradition” and although the dual currency was abolished in 2012, it would be a further two years before ATMs arrived.
General Khin Nyunt attempted at the time of Suu’s first release to declare 1996 “Visit Myanmar Year,” which she rebuked by telling a British newspaper: “Make 1996 a year for not visiting Burma.” Many westerners were therefore put off from visiting the country.
But after Suu’s house arrest ended 2010 more holidaymakers came and enjoyed a “joyful adventure,” wrote Peter Popham. “Everywhere else in Asia was old hat,” he said. Reforms from 2012 restored democracy, ended surveillance and led to many countries ending sanctions. Burma was well and truly open to the world.
Bagan’s spectacular temples
With more than two thousand brick and gilded Buddhist temples scattered over an area of nearly 30 square miles, Bagan is an obvious place for tourists to visit. Landing at the town’s airport on a clear day, these structures stretching from the Ayeyarwady River are in view for as far as the eye can see.
Bagan emerged as a major power during the rule of King Anawrahta between 1044 and 1078 who moved it from one of several kingdoms to the main power in the land and Theravada Buddhism was established as the state religion. The Bagan Empire reached its peak under Narapatisithu, who was on the throne between 1174 and 1211.
But in 1287 a Mongol incursion destroyed Bagan – the only foreign invasion Burma suffered prior to the British arriving in the 19th century (a period of history I described in an earlier blog in this series).
Arriving at Bagan (officially Nyaung) airport is a blast from the past. The simple, single-storey terminal has no luggage carousels – bags are brought from the plane on carts and handlers place them in piles for their owners to collect. Its a challenge for travellers to keep up to date with departure times as (unlike the modern Yangoon international airport) there are no information screens.
Most of the temples are in ‘Old Bagan’, but there are relatively few hotels here so I stayed in ‘New Bagan’ where there are more accommodation options. Carrying a torch in the evening was essential as there is no street lighting and you need to be careful to dodge the pot holes along the crumbling roads when visiting a restaurant or a bar. It rained quite a bit when I was in Bagan and pools of water created an added hazard.
Given that the temples are spread out, one of the best ways to see a good number in a day is by hiring a bike. Riding is a slightly nerve-wracking experience, with scooter passengers honking horns and overloaded ‘utility trucks’ acting as make-shift buses rattling past. But riding a bike through Bagan does mean you get to see the fine temples which seem to be quite literally strewn on the road-side. Some have just a few visitors, yet most have some stalls selling drinks, snacks and souvenirs.
One of the largest of the Bagan temples is Ananda Paya, which was built between 1090 and 1105 and boasts a golden spire towering some 52 metres high. Built with a cross shape ground plan, it has four entrances and there are four enormous Buddhas.
When I visited it was New Year’s Day and it felt like Oxford Street in London on the last Saturday before Christmas such was the volume of people gathering for a festival. People had come to fill buckets with donated items – ranging from washing powder and cooking utensils to food and cash -which were distributed to the monks as presents. Groups of lads blasted fog horns and gathered wherever they could find a spare spot in the temple around booming ghetto blasters, listening to pop songs like Gangnam Style. Families cooked food under tarpaulin canopies outside. Others prayed in front of one of the giant Buddhas.
Shwegugyi Paya is a splendid temple in its own right – with a circular tower and the needle-like stupa poking through the roof – but what sold it for me was the spectacular view afford from climbing the steps to a wrap around observation platform. Whichever you look, the stupa-studded landscape is lined with wonderful temples, nestling beneath a canopy of trees. Witnessing views like this is a reminder of why Bagan is such a special place.
In the next blog, I continue my journey through Burma by visiting Mandalay and Inle Lake