x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Myanmar's balancing act

Returning to Myanmar after the recent parliamentary by-elections, Amar Grover finds optimism in a country on the brink of change.

Boatmen at Mawlimyine, a sleepy town with a few-colonial era monuments. Photo by Amar Grover for The National
Boatmen at Mawlimyine, a sleepy town with a few-colonial era monuments. Photo by Amar Grover for The National

Flying into Yangon, I gaze down at the same profoundly rustic landscape as I had seen during a youthful trip back in 1995. Mostly there were simple farmhouses wrapped in shady trees while the plains were dotted with pointy gilded or white-washed pagodas glinting in brilliant sunshine. Yet on the ground much has changed. The military junta has, at least on the face of it, stepped back a notch, senior western politicians have dropped in to cautiously praise a nominally civilian government, and earlier this month there were landmark parliamentary by-elections. This week, the EU suspended sanctions against the country. There hasn't quite been a fully fledged outbreak of democracy but there has been a great upsurge in optimism.

Twenty-first century Burma (officially Myanmar since 1989) still exudes a distinct "lost-in-time" charm. And while as a nation it has suffered decades of despotic rule, its admirably calm people remain firmly steered by Buddhism.

Its lure is proving irresistible to tourists. According to official government statistics, just over 391,000 tourists (two-thirds from Asian countries, especially China and Thailand) came last year, up 25 per cent on 2010. No one doubts another substantial increase this year.

Following the National League for Democracy's (NLD) adjustment of its tourism policy from a blanket to a targeted boycott, British tour operator Explore Worldwide re-launched Burma trips last year. "They flew off the shelf," says James Adkin, Burma Product Manager, so more promptly followed. From this autumn, the company will have around 90 trips during the tourist season.

Responsible operators, he notes, embrace that targeted boycott and so avoid using hotels and related businesses which are either government-owned or linked to cronies. Large-scale, all-inclusive package tourism with its preference for luxury hotels (which tend to have government or crony links) is discouraged. Yet it's been estimated that around 12 to 15 per cent of even the most conscientious tour's cost will find a way to government coffers through, for example, entrance fees and taxes. Perhaps there's curious consolation in the fact that operators are free to minimise doing business with the regime; the real money lies in other sectors.

Though Britain's colonial thrills-and-spills are long gone, much of the UK's interest in Myanmar seems rooted in that shared heritage. Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda, which Rudyard Kipling described as "a golden mystery", remains the country's most revered and wealthiest temple around which swirls modern Yangon's traffic. It's as good a place as any to get your bearings. Thousands visit daily to pray around the great 100m-tall stupa topped by a vane studded with thousands of diamonds and rubies. In February, for the first time in two decades, the government allowed exuberant celebrations here to commemorate the Buddha's enlightenment. It seemed like one more portentous milestone on the current liberalising road.

At nearby Chaukhtatgyi, where a pale 66m-long Buddha with unnervingly doe-like eyes and a slightly effeminate face reclines in the shade of a hangar-like building, we are charmed by an almost eccentric attention to detail. A sign notes 51 precise measurements, from the circumference of an eyelash (9.5mm) to the half-metre breadth of his pupil and the length of a foot (9.75m).

Together with 16 other travellers (mostly British, a couple of New Zealanders and one Austrian), I am on a three-week "Myanmar in Depth" itinerary. Broadly, the country's main attractions are bookended with the road less travelled. And herein lay another change; as Claire, one of our group who, like me, had visited many years ago, puts it, "Now we can go farther and stay longer."

Yangon's sprawling suburbs give way to paddies dotted with white oxen and villagers in broad-brimmed hats. Children frolic in canals and streams. People lounge in the shade beneath their stilted huts, or in cafes on tiny stools beside low tables. Gaudy advertising hoardings scream Stallion lubricants for cars, Godzilla mosquito repellent and (a feature of many Burmese hotel rooms) Ka Ka Kafe's "3-in-1" coffee mix.

We pause at Taukkyan War Cemetery, an immaculately maintained memorial for more than 6,000 British (and Commonwealth, mostly Indian and Pakistani) soldiers. Farther down the coast at Thanbyuzayat stands another similar cemetery and a decaying monument to an altogether darker episode during the Second World War when Japanese troops enforced the construction of the so-called "Death Railway" linking Myanmar and Thailand. The monument is now fenced, but not entirely sealed off, and its statues vandalised. You can't help feeling that officialdom would rather today's visitors forget about the short preserved section of track and rusting locomotive.

It's at nearby Mawlimyine that we have our first taste of low-key provincial Myanmar. It's hard to equate this sleepy coastal town with a one-time British colonial capital then called Moulmein, but a clutch of colonial-era buildings endure. St Patrick's Church remains the tallest and I notice its belfry is now topped with a traditional pinnacle, as though it's a stupa.

Down by the waterfront, a promenade lined with beautifully shaped bullet wood trees and a handful of simple restaurants gives way to a bustling market area. After threading my way through cheek-by-jowl stalls selling everything from fruit to fish, tea to trinkets and myriad other pastes and powders, I head up Kyaikthan Road towards a hillside bristling with stupas.

A lengthy covered walkway climbs gradually at first and then by steep steps to the great soaring golden spire of Kyaikthanian pagoda. Young shaven-haired monks have just ended their daily morning ritual of seeking alms, their lacquered bamboo bowls half-filled with rice, donated handfuls at a time by townsfolk for whom this venerable tradition remains part of everyday life.

Up I stroll, monks flitting in and out of shadows to modest compounds of potted plants and mildewed flagstones. From a nearby radio comes a soft, almost melancholic song with a woman's plaintive voice tinged with wistfulness. Just below the summit I pop into a small monastery. Its sturdy teak piles, muscular floorboards and lofty walls hide a dark interior of Buddha statues and sacred relics. It was here in 1878 that a Burmese queen took refuge when the mother-in-law of its last notorious king, Thibaw Min, set about massacring his rivals both real and imagined.

The stairs veer left, climbing to a broad terrace dotted with shrines and halls. Built on a scarlet-coloured octagonal plinth, the great golden pagoda positively lords it over the low-rise town. It's also a fine spot for sunset. Just to the north the sluggish, silty Salween River, which rises in Tibet, finally meets the coast, while to the south stretches Bilu (or Ogre) Island, its distinct smudge of green merging with the Andaman Sea.

Next morning we board a boat for Bilu and chug across the channel for nearly an hour. Fishermen wave to us from little skiffs. At the island's southern end we alight at a rudimentary jetty and hop aboard two utterly rustic vehicles, one a fantastically weathered Chevrolet from the Second World War. Built originally as dinky trucks and then adapted as buses, they were still widely used as such even in Yangon until 2008. Now they've become a novelty, much-loved by tourists who can dabble as we did for a couple of hours, bumping jauntily along Bilu's potholed roads.

We've come for a glimpse of rural life and crafts. Pausing at one hamlet of stilted houses, a woman demonstrates hat-making using dried and hardened bamboo leaves. The sturdy pith helmet-like design, used widely by villagers tending fields in hot sunshine, is stitched together in minutes with skill; some varnish would make it waterproof. At another village young men make simple pipes. Here I am shown a ragged 1970s Dunhill "Smokers Catalogue", whose images of pipes still inspire some of their rustic imitations.

Most bamboo and timber huts are stained brown with preserving oil because the monsoon rains are tumultuous. Here and there women prepare jaggery - a raw sugar staple made from sugar cane - by stirring a thick paste in vats heated by smouldering rice husks. Our curiosity coaxes a visit to her hut: shoes off by its steps, the family bedding neatly folded against its walls, a pride-of-place portrait of her monk-son and a small projecting altar with offerings of rice on the side.

One morning our guide, Ko-Ko (who was from the Intha ethnic group near Inle Lake but now based in Yangon), casually mentions there's a chance of seeing "the Lady" later in the trip. "And I'm sure you all know who I'm talking about" he continued, beaming with a mix of pride and emotion. "The Lady", as Aung San Suu Kyi is reverentially known, is on the campaign trail across Myanmar and our paths might just cross later near Mandalay. A palpable air of excitement sweeps the bus. Few serious politicians have managed to occupy the moral high ground and capture the populist heart with such integrity and spirit. It was not to be but, as Ko-Ko said later, the fact such an encounter was possible, that she was even campaigning, was cause to cheer.

Virtually every hut and home we see has an altar, and Buddhist-inspired stickers and mementos are common. One of Myanmar's commonest sacred emblems is a golden pagoda atop a golden rock. It might look fanciful but that depiction is usually of Mount Kyaiktiyo, the setting for one of the country's holiest and most popular pilgrimages, which lies among hills near the mouth of the Sittang River.

You're unlikely to forget the journey here. Leaving our bus at the base of the hill, we clamber aboard a throaty open-topped lorry and squeeze onto wooden benches, and its spirited driver sets off for the forested shoulders of Mt Kyaiktiyo, swinging round dozens of blind bends while the wind flattens our hair. The almost wild exhilaration of this first stage of our "pilgrimage" is tempered by the second. Alighting at the road's end, we see the path snaking up the mountain; a stiff climb lies ahead.

The old and the infirm can hire litters with four porters to carry them to the summit. Yet most pilgrims believe their karma, not to mention waistlines, will benefit from 40 minutes to an hour of unrelenting exertion. There are stalls, of course, offering snacks and drinks, plastic baubles, lurid cards and meditative booklets. A handful even sell life-size toy daggers and machineguns painted with the word "Rambo".

Near the summit, herbalists have laid out peculiar assortments of dried roots and twigs along with pungent ointments and dark vials. There are sinister-looking basins of brown-black liquid ringing mounds of herbs garnished with dried centipedes, monkey skulls and crowned with an antelope's head. This, explains Ko-Ko, is a balm for aching limbs and joints - a case, surely, of the cure being worse than the condition.

Yet for all this weirdness and exertion, Kyaikitiyo is a very Asian mix of faith and a great day out. Families and couples throng the main paved terrace with its various shrines and prayer halls. On one side stand rows of souvenir stalls, simple restaurants and cafes. There are well-dressed townspeople from Bago and Yangon, upcountry folk from remote villages with sleeping bundles and, of course, small groups of tourists. "Golden Rock", the pagoda perched atop a house-sized and seemingly gravity-defying boulder balanced on the hillside's edge, remains the focus.

Dazzling by day, it is perhaps more beautiful when spot-lit at dusk. Whatever time you visit, there'll be ranks of women lighting incense and praying by a low wall facing the shrine. Beside them lines of men - and only men have this privilege - await their turn to cross a small gangway and squeeze into any available foothold. Peeling small squares of gold leaf from backing paper that flutters away like confetti, they gently apply it to the boulder.

It's a wonder the gilded rock hasn't rolled off with this kind of weight gain. Ko-Ko takes us down some steps and from one acute angle, when the lights gleam through an underside crevice, you can see how finely it's balanced. According to legend, a single Buddha hair relic was entombed within the stupa a thousand years ago, and only this keeps it still and steady.

I can't help thinking that this is rather like Myanmar itself, where, despite sanctions and boycotts and even elections, true freedom still hangs in the balance.

If you go

The flight

Return flights with Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) to Yangon from Abu Dhabi via Bangkok cost from Dh2,940, including taxes.

The tour

The 21-day 'Myanmar in Depth' tour by Explore Worldwide (www.explore.co.uk; 00 44 1252 379 598) costs from Dh11,350 per person, including accommodation, some meals, sightseeing, the services of local guides, all sightseeing as mentioned in the itinerary, and local transport. International airfare not included.