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Published: March 16th 2007
Looks like the halo's slipping....
Nga Phe Kyaung (or 'Jumping Cat') Monastery, Inle Lake
Burma still wears its traditional longyi
- a sheet of cloth sewn into a cylindrical shape and worn around the waist running to the feet - even as its neighbours abandon their sari and sarong for diesel jeans and miniskirts. Refreshingly, its holy men are revered more than Becks or Bono and you can't buy a McDs, use a moby or check your email without growing a beard.....but where else can you get to see cats being cajoled to jump through hoops by buddhist monks?? Superb! Supposedly, they had too much free time on their hands....
I suppose we should deal with the ethical dilemma of visiting Burma before we go any further: there are lots of reasons not to visit a place controlled by a military dictatorship, primarily its shocking history of human-rights abuses - including the use of forced labour and the killing of more than 3,000 pro-democracy demonstrators in 1988 - as well as allegations of corruption and heroin trafficking (only Afghanistan produces more opium). To fill you in a little, since gaining independence from Britain in 1948, military governments have ruled Burma from 1962 onwards, but a general election was called in 1990, in which the
National League for Democracy - led by Aung San Suu Kyi - won a landslide victory. Under normal circumstances, she would have assumed the office of Prime Minister; instead, the results were nullified and the military refused to hand over power. Over the ensuing 15 years, Aung San Suu Kyi (who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991) has been held under house arrest - more or less continously - and she has asked tourists not to visit.
Despite this, we thought that there were more pros than cons for including Burma in the trip: the vast majority of locals definitely want you there, tourism remains one of the few industries to which ordinary people have access - in terms of income and communication - and human-rights abuses are less likely to occur in areas where the international community is present. Furthermore, only a small percentage of independent travellers' dollars end up in the junta's coffers whilst the vast majority of our cash went straight into the pockets of local people: to privately-owned guesthouses and restaurants, to taxi drivers, to newspapers vendors, and so on. In contrast, those people who go on package tours - almost exclusively Germans, French
U Bein Bridge, Amarapura
At 1.2km, the longest wooden (teak) bridge in the world....monks commute across to their monastery at sunrise and sunset....
and Italians - are likely to contribute a far greater amount to the 'old Generals'. Now we've got that out the way, we can continue with the more interesting stuff....
A few vignettes about Burma:
* It's the world's largest exporter of teak and a leading producer of jade, pearls, rubies and sapphires.
* Despite the fact you've probably only have heard the term 'marauding' when listening to Archie McPherson wax lyrical about some fantastic wing-play (think Brian Laudrup or Christiano Ronaldo), Burma was home to 'Merrill's Marauders', an American commando-style unit who wreaked havoc behind Japanese lines in WWII. The Marauders, with only mules for support, walked from India over over the outlying ranges of the Himalayan Mountains into Burma and continued for 1,000 miles throughout extremely dense and almost impenetrable jungles and came up trumps, defeating the veteran soldiers of the Japanese 18th Division (conquerors of Singapore and Malaya) who vastly outnumbered them. Hardcore.
* Most of the local men chew betel nut, a popular cultural activity in many Asian and Pacific countries, indicated by the trails of bright red sputum lining the pavements and roads; we nearly got splattered a couple of times
by wayward gobs. The active chemicals are alkaloids which are comparable to nicotine in their stimulating, mildly intoxicating and appetite-suppressing effects. Unfortunately, betel nut is a known human carcinogen and there are vastly higher levels of oral cancer where it is consumed extensively; in some asian countries, oral cancer forms up to 50% of malignant cancers.
Anyways, our first stop was in Yangon - Rangoon until 1989 when the regime also changed the name of the country from Burma to Myanmar - which was rather quiet and peaceful for a capital city, a welcome change from the tourist-clogged streets of Bangkok. Yangon is home to the awesome Shwedagon Pagoda, with a stupa over 300 feet tall and at least 1,000 years old, the pagoda had (by 1995) accumulated 53 tons of gold leaf, and the top of the spire is encrusted with more than 5,000 diamonds and 2,000 other precious stones, shining bright as they say.....and the local monks weren't shy when it came to accosting you so they could practice their english. Supposedly school kids 'learn' english without speaking it as none of the teachers can speak it either, hardly an ideal situation....
Nearly 90% of people
in Burma are Buddhists and every male is expected to take up temporary monastic residence twice in his life, once as a novice monk (samanera
) between five and fifteen years old, and again as a fully ordained monk (pongyi
) after the age of twenty. Burmese nuns shave their heads and wear pink robes, the men wear red or crimson, as you can see.
After a couple of lazy days in Yangon we took a one hour flight north to Mandalay - saving perhaps 15 hours in a bus, the roads in Burma are murderous - which was nothing to write home about (isn't that what we're doing??), although U Bein's Bridge in Amarapura was impressive; at 1.2km, the longest wooden (teak) bridge in the world which monks commute across to their monastery at sunrise and sunset....the local boatmen have also perfected a novel way of rowing whilst looking where they're headed, smart-alecs eh? More show-off rowers later....
Experienced travellers say that the only place in South East Asia that can rival the magnificence of Angkor Wat (in Cambodia) is Bagan (our next stop), and having now sampled both we would have to agree. The kingdoms of Bagan date
back to the early 2nd century but Bagan only entered its golden age in the 11th century - when more than 13,000 temples and pagodas were built, with 2,200 still standing today - until it was overrun by Kublai Khan in 1287 (those Mogols certainly got around). Both Angkor and Bagan are notable for their expanse of sacred geography and the number and size of their individual temples. For many visitors, Bagan is the more extraordinary of the two cities and this is because of the glorious views from the higher temples; the ruins of hundred-plus temples at Angkor stand alone and isolated in thick jungles whereas the thousands of temples of Bagan are littered across a vast dusty plain with unobstructed panoramas. Angkor is definitely more Indiana Jones (or should that be Tomb Raider?) but from what we hear it's rather less serene than it was in 1998, whilst you can still cycle around Bagan in peace and quiet and have any temple to yourself, local shepherds and their flocks excepted.....
Burma as a whole if firmly off the gap-year circuit - there is very little nightlife to speak of - so thankfully we didn't see the 'dreads
and piercings brigade' at every corner, and we were lucky enough to experience perhaps the best hospitality we've ever had in the region, small things that are now very rare in other places: for example, the provision of free water and tea in your room on arrival, spontaneous offerings of watermelon/bananas & honey/green tea, the free use of bicycles, guesthouse owners going out of their way to tune into Star Sports/ESPN so you can watch footy late at night, free, unsolicited pick-ups at airports, baby-sitting for young children so parents can chill out etc etc....Burma is definitely a friendly place for travellers, and locals involved in the tourist trade appear to 'go the extra mile', very refreshing compared to our recent experience in Thailand, long may it continue....
After all that temple spotting it was time for some R & R at Inle Lake, a freshwater lake located in the mountains of Shan State at an altitude of nearly 3,000 feet. Local fishermen are known for practicing a distinctive rowing style which involves standing at the stern on one leg and wrapping the other leg around the oar; the style evolved as the lake is covered by reeds and
floating plants making it difficult to see above them when sitting, whereas standing provides a better view. This unique style is only practiced by the men, women row in the customary style, using the oar with their hands whilst sitting cross-legged at the stern. The technique looked a tad hazardous to us Scottish stiffies, we'd probably pull a hammy within two minutes! The fisherman also have a rather peculiar (and entertaining) method of catching their prey i.e. they try to snare fish using a bell-shaped net before stabbing around madly....they didn't appear to be too successful but then we're hardly Paul Young. Inle Lake was home to 'Jumping Cat Monastery', a real highlight of Burma for cat-lovers. In a Pavlov's dogs fashion, the monks have ingeniously taught their cats to 'jump through hoops', is this a world first? Verry cool. Next up: Philippines
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