x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Myanmar: out in the open

Gill Charlton answers the call of the freed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to end a 15-year-old tourism boycott.

Floating vegetable gardens on Inle Lake, Burma. November 2010. Photo credit: Gill Charlton.
Floating vegetable gardens on Inle Lake, Burma. November 2010. Photo credit: Gill Charlton.

As our group emerges from Heho Airport in the Burmese highlands, smiling men wearing longyi, traditional long skirts, take our hands and start massaging our fingers. If this had happened anywhere else, I would have snatched my hand away. But in this gentle Buddhist land closed to outsiders for so long, it seems a charming welcome. The masseurs move on from hands to arms to necks. Money is not mentioned but of course we pay. We think it is an ingenious way to earn a dollar.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, is one of the poorest countries in the world, ruled for 50 years by a secretive and repressive military regime. In contrast, its people are among the most likeable, engaging and hospitable I have met in my travels.

In November, the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was finally freed from house arrest and her party has called off its 15-year call for a tourism boycott. "We want people to come to Burma - not to help the junta, but to help the people by understanding the situation: political, economic, moral - everything," says Win Tin of the National League for Democracy.

We asked a Yangon-based travel agent, recommended through friends, to put together an off-beat itinerary that would take us through the tribal lands of the once-independent Shan and Arakan kingdoms in eastern and western Myanmar, only recently opened to visitors after tribal leaders signed uneasy truces.

From Heho we drive south to Kalaw, a former British hill station where pretty Edwardian villas are scattered across lightly wooded hills. This western shore of Inle Lake is the preserve of the tough, hardworking Pa-O tribe, whose women wear black tunics and fiery-red headcloths to symbolise their descent from a female dragon.

The landscape is strangely reminiscent of northern Italy but with pagodas instead of campaniles. Large, half-timbered and clay-tiled farmhouses are shaded by glossy trees, the fields are braided with tomato and grape vines and there are sunflowers everywhere.

Now that farmers are allowed to sell their produce freely (instead of through the government) they are doing very nicely. Village markets are so bounteous that it comes as no surprise to hear that, over the last five years, the Pa-O have built their own cement factory and run hotels.

The army keeps a low profile in areas that are "behaving" themselves (there are still pockets of resistance where foreigners aren't allowed). The barracks are hidden away on vast wooded estates. At the start of a tree-lined drive, a regimental motto, in English, reads: "Move, Shoot, Communicate", which appears to sum up the military's attitude to the local population.

We needed special permission to visit Loikaw near the Thai border, where many dissidents continue to fight against the regime. Loikaw may be the capital of a province but feels more like a large village with quiet shady streets lined with handsome teak houses and little traffic.

We have come to visit the famous long-necked Padaung women. As we walk across the fields to their village several tiny women appear. They only reach my shoulder, but their necks are three times longer than mine, caught in brass coils that weigh a hefty eight kilos.

"We are used to it," says one of the women on her way to help harvest rice. "The first small coil was put on when I was about eight and the number of rings was slowly increased. I have 28 rings now, a few more than the others."

She tells me the practice has all but died out. Young people don't want to be different. The coils are easily unwound because the brass is soft. Most old ladies abandon the practice as sleeping is not easy. The Padaung weave bright blue headcloths and striped white tunics on handlooms that they fetch to sell us for a few dollars. We buy.

These Padaung women are the lucky ones. Many relatives have been forced off their land and live in camps across the Thai border, prey to gangsters who treat them like zoo animals to make a tourist buck.

Back in town, we come across a group of small orphaned girls filing down a dusty street dressed in pink robes with shaved heads. It is a tradition to give to monks and nuns on a regular basis and orphans like these will always find a place in a convent or monastery.

The novices stop at the gate of each house and launch into song, their sweet voices drifting through the misty cool air. They are singing for the health and prosperity of the householder who, on queue, comes out with a bowl of uncooked rice and spoons a few grains into each girl's wicker basket.

We are the only tourists in town and everyone is pleased to see us. We visit weaving workshops and the market tailors to make up traditional skirts, and dine at a local riverside restaurant. Burmese food is a robust version of Thai cuisine, with its spicy fried fish dishes, stir-fries and chicken curries, river prawns, vegetables and fresh salad leaves. Nearby Inle Lake is one of the highlights of a visit here. Only a few feet deep, it fills a long wide valley and is famous for its floating vegetable gardens and rowers who propel their wooden skiffs by wrapping a leg around the paddle.

Our long-tail boat passes forests of ancient tumbledown pagodas on the lakeshore and large teak monasteries built over the water. Inside, golden Buddhas are seated on carved, jewel-encrusted thrones. The Burmese style of Buddha image is the most beautiful in the world. Their faces are lit by wide serene smiles that seem to say: "Don't worry, all will be fine."

There are not many motorable roads across the country and most are not in good shape so we fly west to the former kingdom of Arakan, now Rakhine, on one of the new private airlines. From the fishing port of Sittwe we putter upstream for several hours on a renovated river steamer to reach Mrauk U. Great rafts of bamboo are being poled down to the coast and everywhere there are men fishing with nets from small canoes.

I first visited Mrauk U in 1995 when there were just two motorised vehicles, old Jeeps, serving a town of 60,000 people. Not much has changed since. There is some electricity and the market is awash with things to buy, but most people still get around using a pony cart or a bicycle with a homemade sidecar. Scattered across the town and in the hills beyond are hundreds of pagodas and bell-shaped stupas dating back more than 600 years when this was one of the most important kingdoms in Asia. Unrestored and little visited, these temples have far more atmosphere than the more famous ruins in Pagan on the Irrawaddy.

The highlight is the maze-like interior of the Shit-thuang temple, its walls lined with brightly painted bas-reliefs of everyday life: court ladies, folk heroes, acrobats, fighting bulls, sinuous dancers and a beautiful heron holding a fish.

We hire a long-tailed boat to explore further upriver and visit the spider-faced Chin, who have only recently come into regular contact with the outside world. As everywhere here, their villages are spotless, their teak houses surprisingly large and handsome, and their children lively and healthy.

As a border tribe, Chin women were often abducted and sold into slavery. To put raiders off, the women started tattooing their faces using different patterns for different tribes. The government stopped the practice in the 1960s, but the older women are proud of their delicate spider-web tattoos (which also cover their eyelids) and their faces do have a strange, other-worldly beauty.

Like the Padaung, Chin girls were tattooed around the age of eight using a mixture of ash and tree resin. "I don't remember the pain being too bad," says one old lady. "But the design took two whole days and cost five kyat, which was a lot of money." They sell us tin necklaces and give us coconuts and bananas.

The village is looking to hire a schoolteacher. A woman in charge of a large ledger says: "We want to hire a proper teacher for our children but he will cost 500,000 kyat a year [around Dh287,000]. We contribute 50 dollars [Dh184] between us."

With the new four-star Princess Hotel downriver (it opened in 2009), it won't take long for this village to raise the money and secure a future for at least some of the children who wave goodbye as we cast off.

While Mandalay, despite its evocative name, has become a noisy, grid-locked city with a strong Chinese flavour, Yangon, once called Rangoon, has slipped back to being a sultry port town from an earlier age since the government decamped to its extravagant new capital, Abode of Kings, 500km upriver. There isn't a policeman in sight as we stroll the tree-lined streets and visit temples with more pure gold than many central banks.

"Just seeing foreigners gives us hope," says my taxi driver. "It makes us feel we're part of the world - and the money is most useful, too."


If you go

The flight

Return flights with Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to Bangkok cost from Dh3,025 return, including taxes. Bangkok Airways (www.bangkokair.com) from Bangkok to Yangon for7,070 Thai baht (Dh843), including taxes.

The stay

The Yangon-based A&K Myanmar (www.akdmc.com;00 951 391 6050), organises tailor-made travel countrywide and can obtain special permissions for remoter tribal areas. A two-week tour of the Shan states, Yangon and Arakan cost US$3,200 (Dh11,753) per person, including all meals, private transport, best available hotels, and the services of a tour manager and local guides.

When to go

October to March, when it is dry and cooler in the steamy lowlands.