Sunday, April 5, 2015

Land, Sea, and Air: Visiting Myanmar, part 1

Pagodas are a common sight in Myanmar
A country long closed to tourists and consistently ranked among the world's worst for the oft-joined scourges of corruption and systemic human rights violations, Myanmar has seen plenty of positive changes in recent years. The Southeast Asian country's history is a complex and fascinating one, dating back beyond antiquity, with recorded evidence of modern humans living there as far back as 11,000 BCE. By the advent of the Bronze Age, around 1500 BCE, people in the area were cultivating rice, alloying copper to make bronze, and domesticating poultry and pigs – among the first humans in the world to do so.

Between 200 BCE and 100 BCE, the first city-states began to emerge in what is now central Myanmar. Hundreds of years later, by 800 CE, a number of city-states had taken shape across the land. In 849, a settlement was founded at Pagan – today called Bagan – by the Mranma people of Nanzhao. Over the next century and a half, Pagan grew in both grandeur and authority, reigning over competing city-states in the area, and it was during the two successive centuries that thousands of temples, monasteries, and pagodas would be constructed across the plains of the kingdom, many of which still stand today and comprise one of Myanmar's most compelling tourist attractions.

However, the kingdom did not endure. Repeated attacks and Mongol invasions eventually toppled the four-century-old empire in 1287. For 250 years after Pagan's collapse, the kingdom remained fragmented and splintered. Two sizable powers eventually emerged by late in the 14th century, and one kingdom, Ava, waged a series of unsuccessful wars for reunification. The other kingdom, Hanthawaddy, rebuffed Ava and entered its own golden era, while the weakened Ava kingdom declined.

An ancient pagoda stands tirelessly by the Irrawaddy River
(photo courtesy of Belmond)

Centuries of competing interests from Europe and other Asian nations seemed to endure in what was by then called Burma until the British took control following a trio of Anglo-Burmese Wars from 1824 to 1885. When the city of Mandalay fell to the British in 1886, all of Burma came under British rule, and in 1937 was named a separately administered colony of Great Britain. It was not a comfortable relationship at all, as many Burmese leaders openly advocated for self-rule, and as war overtook the world in subsequent years, Burma was a significant battleground and the Burmese army, while initially fighting with the Japanese, switched allegiance to the Allies in 1945. Following World War II, the Panglong Agreement was negotiated to guarantee Burma's independence as a sovereign, unified state, and it became so on 4 January 1948. Unlike other former British colonies, however, Burma did not become a member of the Commonwealth.

A military coup d'├ętat saw the control of Burma shift to a military regime in 1962 and the military has exerted control directly or indirectly ever since. However, democratic reforms appear to be underway in the last few years, and the military regime was formally dissolved on 30 March 2011. All this has led to a substantial opening of the country to visitors, and they have come to the long-isolated country in droves, seeking new and authentic travel experiences, and have been welcomed by friendly, gracious people and a rapidly strengthening tourist infrastructure.

So there's the very brief historical background. I had long had Myanmar (which formally changed its name from Burma in 1989) in my travel sights. It's not far from Malaysia, and I had heard only good things from friends and colleagues who had traveled there. So when the opportunity came to visit Yangon, Mandalay, and Bagan (formerly Pagan), I seized it. The trip would have me flying into Yangon, staying overnight, then taking an early-morning domestic flight to Mandalay, where I'd board a stately cruise ship and take a three-night voyage down the mighty Irrawaddy River to Bagan, then fly from there back to Yangon, spend another day and night, then return to KL. Sounded good to me! By the end of the six-day trip, I realized I had actually traveled by land (by foot, by trishaw, by car, by van, and by bus), by sea (or rather by river, in a range of vessels from relatively compact wooden longtail boats to a 333-foot cruise ship), and by air (twin-engine propeller planes and B737 jetliners)... hence the name of this entry!

Roughly the size of Texas, Myanmar is the largest mainland country in the ASEAN union, which it joined in 1997, though the aggregate land mass of Indonesia's many islands claim the top spot overall. Myanmar is bordered by Bangladesh and India (and the Bay of Bengal) on the western side, China to the northeast, Laos and Thailand on the eastern side, and the Andaman Sea to the south.Since it covers areas from around 10°N by Thailand on the Andaman Sea all the way to around 28°N in the Himalayas (indeed the highest point in SE Asia is in extreme northern Myanmar, the 19,295-foot Hkakabo Raza), the country is quite ecologically and geographically diverse, and limited development over the years has allowed much of the country to remain relatively undisturbed by humanity, something of an anomaly in the 21st century.

Yangon – formerly Rangoon – is of course a completely different story, and has definitely seen its share of human disturbance. Today, well over 10% of Myanmar's 51 million people live in this, its largest city. With a fairly modern airport (which has undergone a continuing modernization and expansion program begun in 2003), Yangon is pretty easy to fly in and out of, particularly considering how poorly developed the country is as a whole.

I flew Malaysia Airlines, which offered surprisingly inexpensive fares to Yangon – why go with the low-cost airline when the full-service one is such good value, I say – and it's about a 2.5-hour flight. Curiously, Myanmar is 1.5 hours behind KL time. Not quite as bizarre as Nepal's time zone (2 hrs 15 min behind), but a bit unconventional all the same. I had applied online for my eVisa previously, so going through immigration in Yangon was a complete breeze, and a new stamp for the passport, too. Always fun.

First course of the meal service onboard Malaysia
Airlines to Yangon

A part of Yangon from the air

The impressive mural of Kandawgyi Lake at Yangon International Airport

The first night's stay was at the suitably posh Belmond Governor's Residence, a 1920s-era teak mansion in Yangon's Embassy District which has been restored and converted to a 49-room hotel spread out over the property's grounds. It was quite nice, though my own preferences tend to run towards more conventionally modern places. However, the room was spacious and comfortable, and the common area garden was very pleasant. The hotel hosted a cocktail reception there that evening at which I was able to meet some other guests who would be going on the cruise. As the ship and hotel are both run by the same company, staying at the Governor's Residence at least offered a pretty seamless experience. We had the unexpected treat of being served local wine. That's right, Myanmar wine. And as an added treat, it didn't even suck! Trust me, most "wines" attempted in the tropics are a train wreck. There are a couple of iterations in Bali that, at least when I sampled them some years ago, pushed me right into the arms of the frosty-cold local beers instead. But the Myanmar efforts are leagues better. We had a lovely Sauvignon Blanc and a blended red of Cabernet Sauvignon and Dornfelder, a German varietal. The red was pretty good, but I'd like to taste it after a bit of cellaring. That night, we enjoyed a delicious "curry table" buffet spread, comprising nearly all local dishes, presented in clay pots over traditional charcoal burners. Burmese curries tend to be dry, and the range of salads and curries on offer was really a great introduction to the local cuisine, particularly when paired with local wines and beers.

Teak floors and furnishings and a very comfy bed!

Fresh fruit and the sitting area in my room at the
Belmond Governor's Residence

The pool and main building at the hotel
Ready for leisure!

This is the Aythaya 2014 Sauvignon
Blanc – good enough for me to bring a
bottle back with me!

After a nice soak in the enormous terrazzo bathtub in my room, I caught a bit of sleep, but had to wake up extremely early, I think around 4:45. We got our breakfasts bagged to go, then headed for the airport to catch our 7am flight to Mandalay, Myanmar's second-largest city and its last royal capital, a city considered to be the heart of Burmese culture. Once we arrived at the airport, we ended up "donating" our breakfasts to children who were panhandling for money, but seemed quite thrilled to get the bags of food instead, and scampered off with them. Whether they ate the food themselves or sold it is something I'll never know, but we had backup breakfasts waiting for us in the lounge upstairs, though we only had perhaps 15 minutes or so to eat. While we did that, the TVs were all showing the breaking news of the awful Germanwings air crash in the French Alps, with live aerial footage of the catastrophic wreckage strewn over the mountainside, and of course at that time no clear idea of why the crash had occurred. It's exactly what you want to see when you're about to board a twin-engine prop plane in a third-world country only three years removed from the rule of a crushing military regime. Nevertheless, our capably piloted ATR-72 got us there safely in about 90 minutes, if that. And the service was better than on most American carriers, I must say. We got a boxed meal (that's the third breakfast of the day, for those of you counting), friendly flight attendants (three of them, no less, in a plane that seats only 72 and was not fully filled), and a choice of juices. Oh, and a nice little moist towelette. Go figure.

On board the Asian Wings ATR-72 to Mandalay
On the ground at Mandalay International Airport

Leaving the terminal... those threatening-looking morning rain clouds
were all bark and no bite, fortunately

We had been advised that the Irrawaddy River was experiencing, in some areas, its lowest water levels in 43 years, so our rather large cruise ship was unable to sail all the way upriver to Mandalay, and was instead moored quite a distance away. Indeed, some 35 other ships had gotten themselves grounded on sandbars in nearby parts of the river where the water was less than two feet deep. So we were given the option of an overland "tour" by bus, which would take hours, or a combination bus tour and voyage on a smaller river cruiser to rendezvous with our ship, which would take hours. There were only about a dozen or so of us on the bus in total, but we unanimously chose the latter. So we did some touring around Mandalay first during the morning, which was really good, then had a nice lunch at the relatively posh Sedona hotel in the city. The initial plan had been for us to have a half-day tour of Mandalay and then board the cruise ship and eat lunch there, but that was not to be. Though the meal at the Sedona was pretty good, after the cruise, I can say without a doubt that eating on the ship would have been better.

Before lunch, however, we had already seen a number of things with our guide leading us around from place to place. Interestingly, though Wikipedia hems and haws over the etymology of the name "Mandalay," saying the origin of the word is unclear, our Burmese guide had no such reservations, telling us the name was derived from a word meaning "center." And indeed, Mandalay is geographically right in the center of Myanmar.

We did so many things on the trip overall that I actually had to sort all my many photos by timestamps and use those to jog my memory as to what happened when! In Mandalay, one of the first things we saw was the world's oldest and longest teak bridge, perhaps a bit of a reach for a superlative, but still a pretty scenic little place. The U Bein Bridge is a footbridge that's 1.2km in length (about 3/4 of a mile) crossing Taungthaman Lake near Amarapura, another former Burmese capital not far from Mandalay. Named for the mayor who had it built ("U" is an honorific in Burmese), the U Bein bridge was built from reclaimed teak wood salvaged from the former royal palace of the Ava Kingdom. Some 1,086 pillars are were put in place during the bridge's construction from 1849 to 1851. Unsurprisingly, it's a popular stop nowadays on the tourist trail, mostly on day trips from Mandalay.

Colorful local boats with the U Bein Bridge in the background

Boats tied up at Lake Taungthaman

U Bein Bridge, purportedly the world's longest teak wood bridge

Another shot of those eye-catching boats on the shore

Following that, we paid a visit to a local village and went to a silk weaving shop. Though weaving shops are by no means unique or remotely new, seeing one in action was still fascinating, not least because there were no automated machines – everything was being made by hand and on traditional equipment. It was remarkable to watch these women at their foot-treadle looms, methodically weaving garments using a pattern and a brilliant array of colored silk threads, the flying shuttle rocketing back and forth across the countless strands of silk, interweaving them with a perpendicular thread. I really know less than nothing about silk weaving, so for me, it was just a blizzard of unfamiliar sights and sounds. Even a cursory bit of research showed me that a floor loom is a confusingly complex piece of machinery, and what I saw in use in Amarapura are considered the dinosaurs of the textile industry. The foot-treadle, flying-shuttle floor loom has long been replaced in modern industry by fully automated and powered devices. It was a treat to see these elegant garments still being made by hand.

A small village of Amarapura. Note the
conspicuous absence of litter – several
members of our group picked up on this, both
in the villages and towns, and along the
Irrawaddy River as well.

Setting the threads on the loom

I had no idea what this contraption did, but I snapped a picture anyway

One of the few men in the factory, again doing things that were a
mystery to me... but he had that wheel flying!

The complexity of the patterns was amazing

Count the threads!

Spools of silk and metallic threads on a loom

Next up was a visit to the highly venerated Mahamuni Temple, founded in 1785. It was the first of many, many times taking off my shoes and socks, as these are not permitted in any temple, monastery, or pagoda. (If you visit Myanmar, do yourself a favor and take a pair of sturdy, comfortable slip-on shoes. Even good flip-flops will do.) The nearly four-meter statue of the Mahamuni Buddha was cast in bronze and reportedly weighs over six tons. Each morning, a monk ritually washes the face and "brushes the teeth" of the Buddha, and it cannot be denied that this is a pretty impressive place. However, no women are permitted to enter the temple; curiously enough, we were told this blatant sexism is not a religious edict, but rather just a cultural custom. It's unfortunate for ladies, because this is a very important temple in the Buddhist religion, and a major place of pilgrimage. For male devotees, one of the customs here is pressing a little square of gold leaf onto the large Mahamuni Buddha statue here, covering every surface except for the face. Over time, the application of innumerable gold leaf squares has coated the statue with a significant thickness of gold, believed to range from two to six inches thick. In 1884, the pagoda burned to the ground, and after the fire, over 200 pounds of gold was recovered from the site. One can only estimate how much gold has accumulated on the statue since the subsequent reopening.

English? Almost. Hand-lettered? Completely.
The grand Mahamuni Buddha image

Gold, gold, and more gold.
"You must have a Y chromosome to proceed beyond this
point. But on the bright side, you can stand outside and
hold your man's shoes while you wait for him."
And if you think this is rather sexist, just wait
until you see the metal detectors in the next entry.
We also got to see a procession here called the novitiation ceremony, a colorful tradition of Theraveda Buddhism in which a boy under the age of 20 is ordained as a monk, so that he may embrace the legacy of the Buddha and learn his teachings, and to determine whether or not he is called to this religious life. A boy may become such a novice on multiple occasions, and there's always great pomp and festivity (and expense) associated with each novitiation. Like many things on this trip, this was a privileged glimpse into a completely alien aspect of the human experience, something to which I had never been even remotely exposed.

The novitiation ceremony draws a sizable crowd of family and friends

Friends and well-wishers comprise the procession behind the boys

We then went to a goldbeating workshop. The young guys pounding the tiny bits of 22-karat gold into two-inch squares of gold leaf need never visit a gym, I reckon. Each worker spends basically the whole of a six-hour shift almost endlessly pounding gold bits encased in layers of parchment on a leather-wrapped block with a pair of 8- and 15-pound hammers (used in different stages of the process), a technique that I discovered has endured relatively unchanged, save a few minor innovations, since its advent 5,000 years ago by the Egyptians. It looked like exhausting work. We didn't spend much time there before moving on. After that, we visited the Shwenandaw Monastery, a grand teak structure built in 1880 by King Thibaw Min. Adorned with intricate carvings of Buddhist myths, the monastery is fairly well-preserved, though virtually all of the original exterior gilding has worn off over the years. Inside, however, there was still an appreciable amount of gilding remaining on the soaring columns and detailed ceilings high above.

Beating the gold. Note the little yellow bowl in
the lower right. It works as a timer: the small
"float" in the water has a hole in it; when it
fills with water and sinks, the worker
knows it's time to rotate the block.

The palatial Shwenadaw Monastery

Intricate carvings adorn virtually every surface

Inside the monastery

Now, by this time, I was starting to get a bit "tour tired," so I can say that the next stop was something I appreciate more in retrospect than I did during the actual experience, though there were a few pretty cool moments at the time, too. We visited the Kuthodaw Pagoda, which is home to the world's largest book. Despite what the name suggests, however, it's not just one really big book (as we think of books), but rather a large series of marble tablets, 730 of them to be exact. Each tablet is 3.5 feet wide, 5 feet tall, and about 5 inches thick, and has been inscribed in 80 to 100 lines of Burmese script on both sides, for a total of 1,460 pages, comprising the text of the Tipitaka – the entire Pali Canon of Theraveda Buddhism. Monks carefully edited the text, scribes meticulously copied the text onto the marble slabs (each slab's text, front and back, took about three days to copy), and stonemasons then chiseled out the script, completing about 16 lines a day. Each tablet is housed in its own little cave-type pagoda called kyauksa gu, which means "stone inscription cave" in Burmese. The work took nearly eight years from start to finish (October 1860 to May 1868) and represents a staggering collective effort. Initially, the chiseled script was filled in with gold ink, but much of that has disappeared, some eroding over time, much falling prey to looting by the British following their annexation of Mandalay in 1885. These 730 pagodas (729 comprising the Tipitaka, plus one detailing how it was all accomplished) are arranged in neat rows around a central golden pagoda, Kuthodaw. We also saw what appeared to be a photo session, perhaps for an impending wedding, taking place. The color and adornment of the garments worn by the couple are truly amazing.

Kuthodaw Pagoda, resplendent in the late morning sun

Looking down the neatly arranged rows of kyauksa gu

One "page" of a two-sided stone tablet, representing over
a month's effort. There are 1,459 more like this one.

The Google Earth aerial view of the pagoda and surrounding area. The stones
and their little caves are arranged in neat rows within three enclosures:
42 in the innermost, 168 in the middle and 519 in the outermost.

Perhaps a pre-wedding photoshoot? Three parasols, two cameras, seven
pairs of bare feet, one beautifully dressed couple, and one stunning image.

Finally, rather exhausted and bedraggled, we were taken to lunch, where we relaxed and ate a leisurely meal at the aforementioned Sedona hotel. Then, well-fed and somewhat refreshed, we made our way by bus to the jetty not far away, getting our first eyeful of the sprawling Irrawaddy River, and boarded a 100-foot river cruiser – which was reasonably comfortable, but by no means fancy – for a three-hour afternoon voyage down the Irrawaddy. On board, I chatted with other passengers, enjoyed the free flow of juices, beers, wines, and champagne. There may have been some light snacks, but I honestly cannot recall.

We watched the scenery steadily unfold before us as we cruised lazily downriver, taking in the passing snapshots of life on the riverbank. Women strolled to and fro doing their chores, baskets balanced effortlessly on their heads. Men steered longtail boats down the river – some doing the family's fishing, others bearing cargo for trade. Children played and splashed in the Irrawaddy's waters and ran eagerly along its banks. Farmers rode astride carts borne by two-abreast plowing oxen, tendrils of dust rising in the afternoon sun. It was a remarkable landscape and a peaceful, languid lifestyle: perhaps it would be seen as a pastoral throwback to a simpler time elsewhere, but here, it's nothing more than life as it has long been; seemingly a land in which time has forgotten to move forward. People were quick to smile and wave, particularly when they saw my camera trained in their general direction; this was emblematic of the general graciousness and friendliness of the Burmese we continued to encounter during our travels down the Irrawaddy River.

Eventually, we crossed under the grand Irrawaddy Bridge, over a mile long and newly opened in 2008, and not long after, as the sun was making its inexorable descent towards the horizon, caught our first glimpse of the luxurious ship to be our home for the next three nights, the 333-foot Road to Mandalay, named after the Rudyard Kipling poem written about the great Irrawaddy River. Enjoy the photographic journey. The next entry (click here to read part 2) will cover the actual cruise and our riverside "ports of call"!

Drying laundry adds splashes of color as we make our way to the Irrawaddy
to board our transfer boat for our three-hour journey downriver

A black-and-white rendering of a lone boat on the vast river with the
fixed-arch Irrawaddy Bridge looming in the background

Not built to last: these bamboo dwellings must effectively be rebuilt
by their occupants every 3-4 years on average

Passing under the four-lane Irrawaddy Bridge

A bucolic scene of riverside farmland

Burmese villagers returning home in the afternoon's waning hours

By around 4:30 pm, the sun was sinking ever
closer to the horizon

Beasts of burden: a pair of oxen pulling a loaded cart. You can see where
the Irrawaddy has unceremoniously claimed shoreline; it's not uncommon
for people living at the river's edge to periodically relocate their homes or
even entire settlements to allow the Irrawaddy an ever-wider berth

Life on the river

Another one of those lovely riverbank scenes with
mankind living and working in harmony with
animals and nature

No smoking allowed: this straw house would easily go up in a great fireball,
but at least the cart-borne solar panel and TV aerial (!!) would remain.
Note the makeshift steps carved into the hillside.

A nice shot of a local family at the river's edge

A blaze of golden sunlight carpets the Irrawaddy as a longtail boat
putters steadily downriver, striving to reach its destination before sunset

Irrawaddy Ferry Service: My guess on this one is that the motorcycle rider
"chartered" a lift on the longtail boat to get from one village to another

At around 5:30 pm, as the first hues of the impending sunset's pink and
orange began to tease the low-lying clouds near the horizon, we arrived
at our cruise ship, Belmond's Road to Mandalay, indeed
a welcome – and welcoming – sight for sore eyes


Anonymous said...

Lovely photos and wonderful scenery at Burma :)

agata Bas said...

Very nice to read ! Glad I found your blog.


Steve K. said...

One of your best blog entries. Love the pix of the silk weavers. So much color!