Remembering Burma, the jewel of Southeast Asia

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Asia » Burma
March 4th 1974
Published: September 8th 2021
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It was a satisfying final night in Bangkok, sleeping in air-conditioning, and reinforced by a steaming hot shower in the morning. I took a final trip down to the Thai Airways office in the morning to finalise my claim. They agreed to pay me in compensation a lump sum of USD400, which while it may have been a true reflection of the value of the contents lost, was in fact far in excess of the inconvenience caused, so I was extremely happy with the outcome. Instead of lugging a suitcase around Asia, I had settled for a smaller, much lighter knapsack, and gone were all the ‘smart casual’ clothes I was never going to wear anyway.

We were delayed in getting the bus to the airport but had no complaints about the cost. There was a standard fare of 75 s’tang (around 4 cents!) to travel anywhere in the city. The regularity of buses had been good, and a 20 Baht map made navigation relatively easy. Our flight to Rangoon was delayed, due primarily to heaps of Burmese running late. On the advice of other travellers, I purchased a bottle of Johnny Walker at the airport for USD3.75 (around 17 Kyat equivalent) for later sale/bargaining. The flight to Rangoon took just under an hour, and we managed to score a couple of meals each, which killed most of that time. We encountered no significant hassles with Burmese customs, considering we had to make money declarations and we were carrying black market money we had purchased in Bangkok into the country.

We took a taxi ride into the Rangoon YMCA, which had a cover charge of 4 Kyat (a whole dollar!) each. We had to pay an additional 3 Kyat/night for a bed, which was no more than a wooden base. Toilet facilities were not much better either. We set out around 5pm for a stroll around the central city area with English girl Helen, who had teamed up with us at the airport and asked if she could stay with us for her Burma trip. It had been recommended that in order to cover everything in the strict 7-day allotment we get ourselves immediately up to Mandalay, so with this in mind, we went straight down and purchased tickets for the Mandalay express train the next morning at 7am. First observations were that despite the Burmese having a very low standard of living, they appear quite satisfied and were generally very friendly. The older people surprisingly generally spoke quite good English, but we were warned in notices at the Y to be wary of ‘do-gooders’. Rangoon was generally pretty dirty, and notable for women smoking cigars (cheroots) and the yellow paste (thanaka) caked on their faces.

We visited the famed Shwedagon Pagoda, which was huge, and covered in gold, with giant buddhas and excellent architecture. It makes you wonder if the living standards of the people would be increased if this gold could be melted down and distributed amongst the population! We later had supper at a stall, then met up with a local who took us to the Sule Pagoda, Chinatown, and a general tour of the city, surprisingly not requesting anything from us in return.

It was an early rise at 5am for the Mandalay Express, which wasn’t hard given the quality of the bed at the Y. The station was brimming with people at that hour, with long queues, people squatting, and of course, many beggars. There was no chance to have any brekkie before we arrived, and that at the station looked most unappealing. The Burmese countryside is dry, dusty and barren, with virtually no form of agriculture. No wonder the economy of the country is so run down. The land is flat, and the monotony was really only broken by the appearance of little villages, consisting generally of a few trees and dilapidated little thatched huts. We had an eerie view for a while as a low-lying mist covered all the visible land. The train was not comfortable, but at least the Burmese were clean to travel with. The only sign of any wealth in this country is in the pagodas.

By the time we reached Mandalay station some 15 hours later, we were ready for any sort of food. We had some super-hot concoction, which will remain nameless, at a railway stall but at least it filled a hole. We booked in at the Sabai Rest Hostel in the main street of Mandalay, which was at least very clean and with good toilet facilities. We needed a long hot shower just to get the grit off our faces and the dust off our bodies from the train trip. We were offered a really nice snack of multiple fruit by the owner and managed to flog off my bottle of Scotch for 60 Kyat plus a bottle of Mandalay beer, about a fourfold profit.

We managed to grab a good night’s sleep overnight and were up early at 7am to look around the place. We got our banking out of the way and made arrangements for both the steamer trip on the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay to Pagan as well as the plane flight from Pagan back to Bangkok, as we knew time was going to be tight. We found a great milkshake bar and experimented with several different flavours. The ‘banana sippers’ had to be right up there with the ‘es pisang’ of Indonesia.

In the afternoon, the three of us took the bus around the Grand Palace and up to the Mandalay hill. It was an exhausting climb up the 240-metre-high staircase to the top, but we passed some interesting temples, shrines, souvenir stalls, and the gem of the Golden Buddha Statue near the top. There is a pagoda at the top from where you could get a great view of the city but sadly, since it was so hot, we couldn’t get a cold drink anywhere, which was somewhat frustrating. That evening we splashed out on a big dinner of sweet and sour pork with many additions in anticipation of a bit of a famine on board the boat tomorrow.

We finally made it down to the boat to pick up a berth around 9pm that evening to be greeted by an absolute swarm of Burmese people, with their children, vegetables, animals, and lots of other luggage. Sleeping space was clearly going to be at a premium on this voyage. Mossies and snoring combined to give us a zero night’s sleep, and finally in desperation, Helen and I quit the boat around 2am and headed back to town. Cups of tea, pancakes and conversation with a local guy Sein Win filled in the time for us until the steamer left at 5.30am.

We were joined on board by US travellers Gus, Mick & Jim, the latter an 11-year traveller who I had briefly met on the Mandalay Express. These guys were absolute characters and much joking and laughing with them helped pass the many long hours on the boat. It was an unbelievably slow, zigzagging voyage, due primarily to the shallowness and the number of obstacles in the Irrawaddy, but this gave us plenty of opportunity to take in the superb landscape, with the hills dotted with crumbling stupas, pagodas and temples on the western side of the river. The banks of the river were generally pretty bare and dusty, with only occasional clusters of huts, people or horse-drawn carts. But some of these little villages are very attractive in their own way and quite defy description.

Our fellow local passengers on board were particularly friendly, while at the same time somewhat bemused by the antics of the six foreigners, as travellers there were quite rare given the visa timing constraints. Our activities, which included lots of cards, were supplemented by animated conversation with plenty of gesticulations as we debated ‘the meaning of life’ and Jim’s “what, me worry” philosophy. Great sunrises and sunsets were becoming more commonplace but were still great to see.

The following day (8th March) marked our one month on the road, but already we had been feeling like veteran travellers! After docking overnight, the boat set off again at 6am against a backdrop of an absolutely brilliant sunrise. Furthermore, some of the scenes at the side of the river, with clear beach and scatterings of thatched huts and fishing boats could be straight off the cover of National Geographic! We reached the Pagan stop of Nguang U (4 miles from town) at 11am and took a horse-drawn cart into town. All up, we got excellent value on our cruise for a mere 7 Kyat (less than 2 bucks), even if it did take a day and a half to travel some 60 miles! (Editor’s Note – these days, you can do a cruise on what is now called the Ayeyarwady River from Mandalay to what is now called Bagan on an air-conditioned boat with half a dozen stops taking less than 12 hours, but it will set you back 50 bucks!).

Unfortunately, it was much too hot in the afternoon to even venture outdoors which was a pity as Pagan had looked particularly appealing. We booked into the Moemoe Rest House, and were offered a really comfortable room, with good facilities and a great meal as a package. Late afternoon, as the sun went down, we had an enjoyable, if a little murky, swim in the Irrawaddy.

The following morning produced yet another indescribable sight! We set off from the guesthouse around 5.30am with a guide in his horse and cart and sat for the best part of an hour on the top of one of the higher pagodas, taking in a full 360 degree panorama, the like of which I’ll likely never see again. Pagan contains over 2,000 stupas and pagodas (Editor’s Note – a stupa is usually smaller, and you are unable to go inside it, while pagodas are generally much bigger), many of which were in very poor condition, especially the stupas. Not only was the view of the crumbling ruins as far as the eye could see quite breathtaking, but it was accompanied by an eerie almost total silence for an extended period. There were none of the usual signs of mechanisation, people, buildings etc, in fact this could have been the outcome of a holocaust. And each of these ruins was individual and with its own character. All this with the serene Irrawaddy as a backdrop – just fabulous!

We explored the whole area for a couple of hours, but the heat finally drove us back indoors around mid-morning. The afternoon was highlighted by another swim in the Irrawaddy, and a general wander along its shores after it had cooled down a bit.

We rose once again next morning at 5.30am to climb a pagoda and once again take in the breathtaking sunrise of the ruins. Magnificent, but nothing will replace the memory of my first view of this panorama. After an early lunch, it was down to the airport for the flight back to Rangoon. We had a lot of hassles over obtaining the tickets and stamping the required currency form, and an absolute shambles over numbers on the plane, with serious overbooking by the airline. However, we finally had it all confirmed at a cost of 86 Kyat (round USD18), with the 1.30pm plane finally leaving Pagan around 4pm and arriving in Rangoon an hour later. Then it was back for a final night at the YMCA, with a large Chinese meal split six ways. An hour’s serious investigation convinced us Rangoon was a city with no beer, so it was a dry farewell to Burma!

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8th September 2021
Nice blog, Thanks for sharing.
8th September 2021

Thanks for bringing back memories of the Christmas of 1974...
when we spent a week in Burma.
8th September 2021

I guess a lot of our timeframes are pretty similar, Bob. You guys must be old farts too!
20th September 2021

Exploring memories
The research you are doing is amazing. I didn't get there until 2012 but it looked very much the same. I loved our 2+ weeks there.

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