Discover the real Burma

Newly opened Burma is 2013’s must-see spot. But beyond the main sites of its flourishing tourist circuit lie even brighter – and unknown – gems

7 mins

Skulls of barking deer and monkeys decorated a carved wooden arch over the Akha village entrance.

“Ah, a spirit gate,” announced Sai Win, my trekking guide. “Humans and their domestic animals live on one side, the forest beyond belongs to spirits and wild beasts.”

Safely on the inside, almost-naked children made mud pies while women with long black skirts and pendulous earlobes filled buckets from a communal hosepipe. A cockerel was crowing and fat sleepy sows suckled piglets underneath stilt-raised huts of bamboo and thatch. The scene was similar to numerous other villages our route had taken us through over the past few days.

However, I was curious about a lone, unstilted shack strangled by tangles of undergrowth, out beyond the village confines. Sai explained: “That is the house of a woman with twins. The belief is that more than one child in the womb is beastly and interferes with the natural order. The father is not allowed to hunt with other men; the mother and babies must live beyond the gate with the wild beasts and bad spirits.”

I was aghast, but Sai had not finished.

“As recently as the 1970s it was normal for women and their twins to be buried alive.”

So much for the exotic romance of trekking through the so-called ‘tribal areas’ in Burma’s eastern Shan State – the first leg of my off-the-beaten track Myanmar mission. From Shan’s teak treks, I would then meander through to the ancient Buddhist sites and colonial histories dotted along the tourist-free Mandalay-Bagan waterways at the country’s core.

Opening the doors

For years, I had yearned to visit Burma, but this would have been to reject Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s pleas. Soon after the release of ‘The Lady’ from house arrest in November 2010 and an end to the tourism boycott, Wanderlust editor-in-chief Lyn Hughes came to Burma and wrote the magazine’s first feature about the country since 1994. Now, as a dazed nation emerges, blinking, into the glare of being travel’s hottest destination, I aimed to discover parts of Burma beyond the classic sites.

Organising such a trip proved trickier than I’d expected. First I found that little-reported clashes between government forces and rebels meant that parts of Kachin State and the far north of Shan State were off limits. Next I had to abandon plans for a voyage up the River Kaladan from Sittwe to Mrauk U, on account of the vicious fighting between Muslims and Buddhists that broke out in Rakhine State.

On the other hand, arranging my trekking in eastern Shan State – near the borders with Thailand, Laos and China’s Yunnan province – had been more straightforward, despite advice on the Foreign Office website that suggests exercising ‘extreme caution’ in this area. Kengtung (also known as Kyaing Tong) is the main town in this ‘Golden Triangle’, which has a ferocious recent history of warfare between insurgents, the Burmese army and opium lords. Thankfully, it is now enjoying more peaceful times.

Here I found pagoda-dotted streets buzzing with cheap Chinese scooters, and markets where the local Khun people were briskly bartering with Ann, Wa, Akha and Palaung tribes down from the surrounding hills. A few small hotels and restaurants have opened, shyly serving the trickle of tourists now arriving from the outside world.

I was reminded in many ways of hill towns in northern Thailand. One key difference is that here it isn’t backpackers who are advancing the frontiers of travel, with higher-spend tourism following in their wake. Instead, the movements of foreign travellers to this region remain under close government scrutiny.

Currently, trekking among the hilltribes is forbidden other than with an official guide. And, for the moment, it is not permitted to stay overnight outside Kengtung – though Sai told me that a programme of carefully orchestrated ‘community-based tourism’, whereby villagers may be licensed to open their homes as guesthouses, is being considered.

Red tape and red roads

As our jeep lurched up into the hills from Kengtung on a series of day hikes, I needed no fewer than 25 copies of permits to present to a variety of uniformed officials manning barriers on the dirt roads. Sai handled all this for me, and also advised: “If you wish to bring gifts to present to village headmen, boxes of paracetamol are most appreciated.”

It was hot and dry as we walked through canopied teak forest to the echoing chatter of birds and monkeys, and contoured round rice paddies on red-earth footpaths connecting remote settlements. Women – some puffing on long wooden tobacco pipes – greeted us, selling bead necklaces and headdresses hung with silver coins.

“Where are the men?” I asked at a place called Pinthuk. “Getting drunk on rice spirit!” was Sai’s translation of one cackled reply.

“Hunting deer and wild pigs,” corrected a teenage boy as he showed us a musket, homemade for the purpose using copper piping and a chunk of teak for a butt.

More improbable was the Ann tribal village on a steep hillside where the headman’s hut sported a satellite dish, with people gathered inside to watch a Chinese TV show. Power came from a 2KW microgenerator about the size of a football, placed in the stream.

That village was known as Ho Lam, but not all settlements have ‘names’. Instead they  are identified by a combination of their tribal and spiritual affiliations. Animism – the sense of nature and spirits pervading everything including animals, plants and even inanimate objects – is the prevailing belief system. A few villages are also nominally Buddhist (as is most of Burma), while others were evangelised by American Baptists a century ago. A stone pagoda or tiny wooden chapel are the giveaways, but as Sai, a social anthropology graduate, explained: “The souls of these people are rooted in their animist ways. Other religions are more like the clothes they wear.”

Going downstream

Encounters with these tribal people in far-flung hills made me feel that we had travelled an immense distance from Burma’s mainstream sites. The best way of approaching such places was by treating them as the flesh on a skeleton itinerary made up of the typical Yangon/Inle Lake/Mandalay/Bagan quartet. Our route to Kengtung, for example, was a short propellerplane hop over the mountains from Heho, near serene Inle, where tourists glide through floating vegetable gardens, and leg-rowing boatmen harvest sweet-water shrimps.

And almost without exception visitors arrive by plane in Yangon (Rangoon), the former capital and largest city. Here they’re mesmerised by the mirage-like golden Shwedagon pagoda shimmering above colonial mansions with stucco balconies.

Mandalay, a WWII-blitzed city of sighing buses and raspberry-robed monks, has less immediate appeal – despite the allure carried in its name. The main attractions are away from the city: horse-drawn carriagerides amid the ruins of moated former royal capitals; sunsets on Mandalay Hill or U Bein’s teak bridge over Taungthaman Lake.

The road less travelled

This was all happily lapped up, but it was on an overland journey between Mandalay and Bagan that I was treated to our next glimpses of a rarer Burma. The dawn was pink as our driver Thiri steered us over the giant three-span steel Yadanabon Bridge across the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River. Beyond, sashes of morning mist isolated the pagoda-crowned mounds rising from the floodplain like little volcanoes of gold. The landscape looked incredibly fertile, swept in silty swathes of sesame and soya, melons and peanuts. But the farming methods looked antiquated: pairs of white bullocks yoked together to drag wooden ploughs, and rows of singing women bent double, planting by hand.

Pausing at teak villages, we watched families making jaggery cane sugar from palm sap, and girls rolling green cheroots by hand. And for intimations of just how alive Buddhism is in Burma, men and women in longyis (traditional sarongs) left votive offerings of rice and fragrant flowers at innumerable roadside shrines. New pagodas were being constructed from brick and white plaster, and we passed a workshop where muscly men were beating out the gold leaf that adorns spires and statues.

Buddha bounty

We stopped for a couple of nights at Monywa, a little trading town on the Chindwin River, a coffee-coloured tributary of the Ayeyarwady. Cows lounged under a huge mango tree in the main square, while rascally shaven-headed child monks raced around on rusty bikes.

A motor canoe crammed with monks and sacks of rice negotiated the swirls and eddies to drop us on the west bank. Here I hired a clapped-out jeep and driver for an hour-long bone-rattle up Phowin Hill. I’d read a few snippets about this cave-pitted sandstone outcrop, but nothing had prepared me for it.

There were thousands upon thousands of sensuous Buddha statues, intricate murals about the Buddha’s life and beguiling geometric patterns adorning natural fissures and caverns. It was staggering.

Although evidence is scant, archaeologists reckon that most of the work was done during dynasties thriving between the 14th and 16th centuries. Almost anywhere else this site would be a tourist highlight with turnstiles, tickets and touts. Here we found ourselves quite literally the only visitors as we went from cave to cave, checking for snakes coiled in the cool before flicking on a torch to see what each revealed.

An Orwellian reminder

Back in the car we continued next day to the Chindwin River’s confluence with the Ayeyarwady. I was reminded of George Orwell’s fictitious Kyauktada from his anti-imperial novel Burmese Days. Orwell was (as Eric Blair) an officer in the colonial police in 1926-7 at Katha, a teak-logging town further upstream. I found strong redolences of this era at Pakokku, another river port with crumbling colonial bungalows. Even the ‘brittle dried fish tied in bundles’ that Orwell described, were still for sale on the quayside.

Pakokku might have come to your attention in 2007, as the obscure backwater where brave monks from the town’s Myo Ma Ahle monastery staged a non-violent protest against local people’s hardships resulting from huge hikes in fuel prices. This sparked the so-called ‘Saffron Revolution’ that spread nationwide and was eventually suppressed by a military dictatorship prepared to open fire on its robed and unarmed citizens.

Were the ensuing sanctions and pressure heaped on the regime from around the world a catalyst for today’s moves towards democracy? This was a question we debated with a wizened monk and a local tourism student while waiting for a ferry downstream to Bagan. They told us that any conversation with foreigners, let alone a candid political discussion, could have landed them in prison a couple of years ago.

As for the student’s T-shirt with Suu Kyi’s portrait on the back: “I would have been target practice,” she laughed.

Final port

‘The Irrawaddy flowed huge and ochreous, glittering like diamonds in the patches that caught the sun. The spire of a pagoda rose from the trees like a slender spear tipped with gold,’ wrote Orwell. These days, he might have to add the luxury river cruisers transporting dollar-rich tourists to Bagan, the Ayeyarwady-side plain where 3,000-plus 11-13th centuries temples and pagodas might as well have been invented to satisfy Westerners’ cravings for oriental fantasy.

We were greeted at the Bagan quay by a graceful and erudite guide, proud of her country and its spiritual riches. After staying at a soothing riverside hotel with an infinity pool, the following dawn I took a hot-air balloon ride, to absorb these fairytale kingdoms one last time.

So the curtain of history is lifting on the mysteries of Burma. But beyond the classic sites, there is still the edgy excitement of brushing with people, places and ways of life unused to foreign visitors. That is two reasons to visit this beautiful but still burdened country with – as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi urges – our ‘eyes open’.

Martin Symington is a freelance journalist and author of Bradt’s Sacred Britain as well as a number of guidebooks including the DK guide to Portugal

The author travelled with Audley Travel. A two-week tailormade itinerary, including four days in and around Kengtung, a three-day overland journey between Mandalay and  Bagan, plus stays at both of these and at Yangon and Inle Lake, costs from about  £3,900pp based on two sharing. This price includes international and internal flights, B&B accommodation in good or 'best available' hotels, guides, permits, private transfers and all transport.

Burma or Myanmar?

What’s in a name? A certain amount of historical, cultural, ethnic and political sensitivity, in a nutshell. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – moral arbiter on such matters as far as many in the West are concerned – continues to refer to her country as ‘Burma’, the name invented by the colonial British on account of the Burmans being the dominant ethnic group.

‘The Lady’ holds this position because she does not accept the decree by which the military rulers changed the country’s name in 1989 to the Union of Myanmar (pronounced ‘mee-an-ma’). Ostensibly, the reason for the change was to reflect the country’s ethnic diversity. The UK continues to recognise ‘Burma’, with most of the UK travel industry following suit. So does the USA, officially, despite President Obama making a point of using both names during his historic November 2012 visit.

I found, however, that almost everybody in this country refers, unreflectingly, to Myanmar – not Burma. This is the case even among adulatory supporters of The Lady. Likewise with various other changed colonial names, such as Yangon (Rangoon) and the River Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy).

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