Introduction It is still true to say that Myanmar, until recently known in both English and Burmese as Burma, is a country of a different age, where time itself moves at a different speed; a country of quiet eccentricity and gentle charm. Today the country is on the threshold of great change so at last its citizens have the opportunity to join the modern world. The easy indicator, the mobile telephone and internet café are much in evidence. The change of regime, the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, the relaxation of sanctions by America and the European Union have all had a huge impact on the numbers of visitors to Myanmar in the past year or so. Hotels that stood empty for years are now jam packed and it can be difficult to find rooms in Yangon during the high season. To visit Myanmar is still a delight for the genuine traveller, but tourists who expect an air-conditioned bus to whisk them from clinical airport to sanitized hotel room may even now find it not quite so. The drive into the capital, Yangon (formerly Rangoon), is a feast for the eye: men and women dressed elegantly in longyis (sarongs) go about their business; elders, sitting in front of their criss-cross mat houses—as U Thein Sein the President tells us “more than half of the city’s population lives in a house built from bamboo or wood”. Survey the scene, maroon-robed monks wander quietly along the road while a gang of chattering children follow behind, endlessly tying and retying their longyis. But the true enchantment of the country is experienced with the first glimpse of the hauntingly beautiful Shwedagon Pagoda. Its golden spire towers over the city like a glittering flame, inviting all who look to make a pilgrimage up the long stairways to its marble terraces. Kipling was right: ‘This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.’ Sipping your rum sour, a delicious concoction of fresh lime and Mandalay rum, under a swirling fan in the Strand Hotel bar or on the terrace of one of the new hotels, the spell of Burmese calm will begin to fall. Perhaps there is more ozone in the air; more likely it is the aura of Buddhism which permeates almost the whole of Burmese life. One of the great charms of visiting Myanmar is the melting of tensions as one is inexorably drawn into the Burmese way of relaxation; even the most jaded are not exempt. Adding to this air of different calm, or rather not distracting from it is a lack of tourists. For although the tourist numbers have now escalated enormously as a result of the endorsement to visit Myanmar by both Aung San Suu Kyi and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the country is large enough to absorb the new influx. In the past few years all facilities have greatly improved.
No longer is it necessary to queue for hours to get air or rail tickets, there is now a crop of good and efficient travel agents in Yangon with offices around the country, plus the majority have websites and are on e-mail. Until recently the Burmese authorities had looked around at their neighbours and witnessed the impact an influx of tourists had wrought, and opted to remain secluded. It appears, however, that they would now welcome a significant increase in the tourist industry. Foreign and Myanmar hoteliers and property developers have built some beautiful hotels. A host of excellent restaurants have opened in recent years. Yangon is a handsome city, with a history spanning more than two millennia, though it was the capital for just 120 years—newly built Nay Pyi Taw usurping its role in 2005. The city was rebuilt on a grid plan in the 1850s, its wide, tree-lined boulevards are bordered by fine stone and brick buildings—some of the finest in Asia. In the 1880s Yangon was renowned as ‘Queen of the East’. Such were her prospects, forecast the 19th-century colonialist and writer, Sir George Scott, that her trade would outstrip that of Calcutta before the end of the century and ‘hitherto the progress made will compare with the most vaunted American city successes’. How wrong he proved to be. Today, Yangon bustles without urgency, numerous high-rise buildings, endless traffic jams or vast shopping malls like other Asian cities. This is now bound to change and the traffic jams are already in evidence, as are supermarkets and internet cafés. The majority of shops are small, selling everything from antique lacquerware and silver-backed dressing table sets, left over from colonial days, to plastic buckets and second-hand Dorothy L Sayers novels. There is no forest of television antennae cluttering up the skyline but many buildings sprout satellite dishes. Flashy billboards promote products ranging from mobile phones to health tonics, but there are still some stylish handpainted movie posters. Visually Myanmar is unique: in no other land is the eye so constantly delighted by scenes of casual, almost unintended beauty. There is no better way to enjoy this picture than to travel by train. Myanmar is an agrarian society, and from the anonymous vantage point of your compartment, you can absorb the essence of the country: a background of soft browns, wooden ploughs following patient oxen across broad fields, the dazzling green paddies, noble tamarind trees, and above all, white and golden pagodas gracing hills and plains like a cascade of jewels. Myanmar’s chief beauty, however, lies in her people, who exude style, grace and vivacity. Both men and women wear the traditional longyi with blouse or shirt, the jet-black hair of the women often adorned with fresh flowers. The person and clothing alike are washed obsessively often, and a finishing touch to the toilette is frequently provided by patterns of powdered, fragrant thanaka wood on ever-smiling faces.
The intrepid traveller will soon want to venture beyond ‘metropolitan’ Yangon. To the north, on a bend of the Ayeyarwady River (formerly Irrawaddy River) you discover Bagan, once the capital of Myanmar and a marvel of the Buddhist world, now an arid plain thickly studded with pagodas of all shapes and sizes, their magnificence a testament to Bagan’s former greatness. The Ayeyarwady is and always has been Myanmar’s main artery. Its banks have provided sites for royal capitals, and boats laden with cargo have plied the river from the Ayeyarwady delta port of Pathein to Bhamo near the Chinese border for centuries. Countless soldiers travelled her length during the three Anglo-Burmese Wars. Perhaps the most bizarre of war vehicles was a steam vessel named Diana, a 60-horsepower paddle wheeler with a funnel nearly as tall as a mast. She was the first to be used by the British forces and ‘the very sight of her created more consternation than a herd of armed elephants’. Some 160 kilometres (100 miles) upstream from Bagan, the Ayeyarwady glides past ‘the gilded spires of Mandalay and the pagoda-sprinkled heights of Sagaing’. These places, with their romantic names, have all hosted capitals, and the buildings they have to show today document their magnificent past. Of Myanmar’s last great palace, the Gem City of Mandalay, little remains except the crenellated outer brick walls and the 70-metre- (230-foot-) wide moat where, 140 years ago, the royal barges, each manned by as many as 60 paddlers, floated among the lotus blossoms. South-east from Mandalay, high up on a plateau in the Shan Hills, sparkles Inle Lake, a place of dazzling beauty and possessed of its own separate, magical quality. It is inhabited—literally, since their homes float upon the lake itself—by the Intha people who are renowned for their delightfully eccentric leg-rowing. Here there are no great ruins or former capitals, just breathtaking scenery. Market day in Nyaung Shwe, the small town on the northern shore of the lake, is a visual delight—the costumes of the local minorities, with vibrant colours and sparkling jewellery are, as Sir George Scott suggested, reminiscent of ‘wind-stirred tulip beds or a stir about of rainbows’. So here we have a brief glimpse of Myanmar as the traveller will see her, an enchanted country of enchanting people imbued with other-worldliness and an inherent sense of style. What is the source of this special Burmese timelessness? The answer seems to lie in the arrival and influence of Buddhism and its interaction with the country’s geographic and ethnic circumstances. It is easy to be misled by the apparent gentleness of this Buddhist country which nonetheless abounds with contradictions. Myanmar has a bloodcurdling history and even today the country is unsettled. However long the visit, the traveller will quickly absorb and delight in some of Myanmar’s magic, and wonder at its contradictions. Relax with the Burmese in a land of long-suffering acceptance of one’s fate, a land of making do. Here, in their softness and fluidity, even the colours and contours of the countryside conform to the ideals of Buddha’s Middle Way.