Over the Christmas holiday, I took my younger daughter Kirsty to Burma (Myanmar), where I visited 11 years ago.
Last time, we took the classic route: Rangoon, Mandalay and Bagan. This time, I added Inle Lake and the beach but skipped Mandalay, which I found not quite as romantic as Kiplings’ poems. (lovely line though, ‘The dawn comes up like thunder’. . .)
I had wanted to visit Inle Lake ever since I saw pictures of this unbelievably beautiful sight. And it didn’t disappoint me. On the serene waters, there are patches of floating vegetations – rather, let’s say gardens – and there also is also a busy fishing life: fishermen operate fish canoes efficiently with one leg! After enough sightseeing, our resorts on the lake front, with its cottage on stilts and manicured gardens, was a great place to retreat to.
The highlight is Bagan in central Burma. It was rather magic to bike around the dry plain, dotted with thousands of ancient temples and monuments. The best way to get around. Last time, since the girls were so small, aged at 3 and 1 then, we took a horse cart instead of bikes.
The New Year was spent with friends on a stretch of unspoiled beach called Ngwe Sung, five hours’ bus ride northwest of the Rangoon. Free BBQ from our resort fed us, a bonfire warmed us and above us, a velvet sky spattered with stars, brighter than anything I’ve ever seen, made us dream.
But what made Burma such a special place is its people, warm, kind, friendly without being pushing or noisy. Everywhere we met people who went out of their way to help us. At one bus station, the ticket man insisted in taking us to a Chinese restaurant. I didn’t really crave for home food but I found the sight of the Chinese family crowding over a TV and watching CCTV news was endearing. Then the bus man returned, urging us to not miss the bus – he obviously took us as his responsibility.
Many Burmese actually don’t like China as they feel that our country is taking away plenty of resources without offering much in return. The Chinese have indeed come up in Burma like thunders with their hands in many pies. The Burmese I met politely made the point that it is China they don’t like, not Chinese people. Almost everyone holds unrealistically high expectation of America, hoping that Burma will become more open and democratic so that it can become good friends with America therefore doesn’t need China any more.
Compared to 11 years ago, many aspects of life in Burma have remained the same except two: one is the price. Before, everything was embarrassingly cheap. Now thanks to inflation and different exchange rate, price has gone up.
Another major change is the much relaxed political atmosphere. Our last trip was a mixture of work and pleasure. At one point, my ex, a fellow journalist and I, wanted to interview some dissidents. To find them, our friend Andrew Marshal, a journalist who has written a lot about Burma, advised us to go to the giant old tree by the eastern gate of Shwedagon Paya, the main pagoda in Rangoo. When we turned up, it dawned on us what an absurd idea it was. Should we just utter “sesames” in front of the tree? Quite incredibly, by asking around, we did manage to track down the dissidents. When we met up for dinner, they were nervous and constantly looked over their shoulders to see if they were being followed. In those days, you couldn’t even mention Aung San Suu Kyi’s name in public. Now the regime is gingerly loosening its iron grip. The day before the New Year’s Eve, there was a rock concert/political rally in which the lady appeared in front of a roaring public.
I hope this the dawn of a new ear which will see the ‘Golden Land’ shine once again. If you have not been there, I highly recommend pack your bag and go soon, before the tourists flock in. For now, it is one of the few under explored and authentic places in the world.