Burma bazaar

Burma bazaar

Burma bazaar

A Burmese letter holder on my grandfather’s table; Burma teak pillars and lacquer work trays that I admired as I walked through the streets of an ancient and amazing Chettinad; wove my images of Burma since childhood. George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm brought out the other side of Burma from behind the Bamboo Curtain. Burma or Myanmar was on top of my travel destinations for years, until 365 Tours came along.

An hour’s flight from Bangkok, and we landed in Rangoon (now Yangon). So near and yet so far and certainly so very familiar! You could well be driving through a quieter version of Calcutta in the 1950s. A huge old city on the banks of the Yangon River, Rangoon has many facets to it — the rain-stained colonial buildings on the waterfront, the famous Strand Hotel and the still in good shape GPO mark its colonial past. The sad and crowded Indian and Chinese quarters, and the busy main streets where pavement hawkers sell cockroach and grasshoppers (all dry and crackling) in what look like vegetable baskets, bring you to the ‘real’ Myanmar.

Bejeweled Paya
Rangoon’s jewel is the Shewdagon Paya. Thanks to the fact that they had no friendly visits from Mohammed Ghori or Ghazni, this dazzling gold, diamond, ruby and emerald studded pagoda stands in awesome glory against the Rangoon skyline. It is said that there is more gold plastered onto the Shewdagon than in all the vaults in the Bank of England! This 2500-year-old, 322 feet tall solid zedi (cone shaped stupa) symbolises the very soul of Burma. The sight of the huge diamond, twinkling in the evening sun against a perfect blue sky, is a sight that has left me spellbound forever.
The Bamboo Curtain has certainly kept Myanmar behind it. It is a country untouched by the Internet, credit cards, STD or ISD. Very few people dress in western clothes. Men and women are seen in beautifully woven longy’s (lungi) and attractive headgear, which indicate their tribe. The longy is Burma’s national dress. The women (even in the big cities) still decorate their cheeks and foreheads in traditional paste called Thanakha.

In Yangon, I was looking for 43, Halpin Road. It was the childhood home of a friend who was born in Rangoon. A home that they had to flee overnight when the generals did an ‘ethnic cleansing’ of Indians in the late 50s and early 60s. This was when I saw the fabled Bamboo Curtain in action. As we drove past the homes slowly, looking for number 43, my Burmese driver was nervous and asked me not to get down from the car. “Take your pictures quickly from the window,” he said, for fear of us being put into the cooler without questions asked.

For me, the visit to the Tomb of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor was significant. It was the year of my trip to Samarkhand from where Timur’s great great grandson Babar came to conquer Hindustan, to be its first Mughal Emperor. From Babar to Bahadur Shah, the circle was complete.

Beautiful Bagan
For 250 years before the Mongols poured into the Burmese plains in 1287, the Kings of Bagan built over 4400 temples on the banks of the mighty Irrawaddy River. Today, about 2230 temples still grace this Unesco World Heritage site. Bagan is in an amazingly peaceful and quiet city, spread over a large area but still feels like a small village. A balloon ride over Bagan, as the sun rose over the banks of the mighty Irrawaddy, was certainly the most magical 45 minutes of my trip to Burma. A bird’s eye view of all the stupas at one go, with the Irrawaddy and the mountains beyond, was an unforgettable experience.
While Ananda Paya is probably one of the finest, most beautiful and well preserved, the Buddha within takes you by surprise. It’s sheer proportion, height and beauty are breathtaking. The peace within engulfs you.

The village with its antique and craft shops with outstanding lacquer work is extremely charming. Lunch by the riverfront, a walk or a tonga ride through Bagan and a puppet show telling you the stories from the Ramayana and the Jataka tales are a must. Burmese cuisine is a wonderful amalgam of Indian and Thai. They have a good variety of vegetarian food and of course a feast for the non-vegetarians. A trip to Bagan almost surely ends with a glorious and surreal sunset from atop the Shewsandaw Paya.

Our aircraft circled the tiniest airstrip and the cutest little airport I had ever seen. We were landing at Heho in Eastern Myanmar amidst emerald green rolling hills and patches of sunlight yellow mustard fields. This is the entry point to Myanmar’s most magical and best-kept secret — Lake Inle. As you drive out of Heho towards the beautiful countryside, you can never figure out where this lake begins and where it ends. 

At picturesque Nyaungshwe we took a motorboat to ride into the heart of Inle. Surrounded by the Shan mountains, this unique ecosystem has a spectacular community of villages dominated by Intha tribes whose lives literally float on Inle’s serene waters. Spread over 13.5 miles in length and 7 miles wide this shoreless lake has floating homes, shops, villages, farms, flower gardens, schools, temples, craft and industry besides hotels and restaurants!

Embossed silverware, Tussar like silk fabric woven out of the sap from lotus stem, hand-rolled cheroots in exotic lacquered bamboo holders, bell shaped Burmese gongs, hand-painted parasols made from Mulberry paper and much more abound the waters as you sail by this enchanting lake. The most amazing is the way they grow vegetables and flowers on weed soil that floats on the lake.

The Mandalay Jail  
The road to Mandalay was strung with excitement, history and visions from a million stories I had heard and read. Mandalay Jail was where the British imprisoned our national leaders, Gokhale, Bose and Lala Lajpat Rai. Founded in 1857 this bustling metropolis was the capital of the last Burmese Kingdom.

There’s a lot to see in Mandalay. From the last King Thibaw Min’s Glass Palace with its 230-feet-wide moat still intact, the views of the city from Mandalay Hill, the Mahamuni Paya (where the 13-foot-high seated bronze Buddha is covered with a six inch layer of real gold and only men are allowed to go into the inner chamber where the Buddha sits), the world’s longest Teakwood Bridge (1300 yards long and 200 years old) and the monasteries at Amarapura, the Mingun Bell — largest hung uncracked bell in the world (90 tonnes of bronze) near the paya in Mingun, and the world’s biggest book written on 729 marble slabs are some of the attractions. Mandalay is also a center for crafts and home to the world famous Mandalay Marionettes, a puppet show company known as much for its skills as for its political satire.

For me, Inle’s charm, beauty and serenity encapsulate the Burmese way of life — walking the Middle Path, as the Buddha taught. A country, where even today, Buddhist monks beg (bhiksha) for their daily meals and Pali is still the written and spoken language taught at school. A country where men and women are equal in life as in their poverty, and where people show amazing grace in the face of ‘unseen’ oppression.

The goodness of its simple, artistic and kind people, their complete acceptance of what comes their way and their immense faith in karmic balance, are symbolised in the ironic fact that ‘The Lady’ and ‘The General’ lived on the opposite banks of the same lake in Rangoon.