Monday, 28 January 2013

Burmese Days

My past four days in Myanmar have been more or less as hectic as the preceding two that I wrote about. We spent two in Bagan, once the seat of the ancient Burmese Empire, and two in Mandalay, the former political capital and current 'culture capital'. I really loved Bagan; we stayed in the old town, surrounded by ruinous temples that we could explore during the day. Travelling by horse-cart along dusty roads from temple to temple felt like stepping back in time. Unlike the Angkor temples in Cambodia, those in Bagan receive far fewer visitors, making it a very special experience for us. On our first day we watched the sun set over a hazy horizon of red sand against which stood the silhouettes of temples for miles and miles around. It was one of many beautiful sunsets we've enjoyed over the week, owing to the mostly flat topography of the country. The best of these was from a boat looking out onto U Bein bridge, the world's longest teak bridge, near Mandalay. A notable thing about Myanmar is that despite, for obvious reasons, it's small number of annual tourists (around 300,000), it has many record-holding sights to impress visitors- besides the world's longest teak bridge, there is the world's largest book, in Mandalay- spelled out on stone slabs, each set in a pagoda, which are lined in rows surrounding a gold stupa. Then there is the world's largest Buddha image- measured by density I believe- which is also in Mandalay. This Buddha statue is coated six-inches deep in gold leaf left by a century of pilgrims, giving it a lumpy texture and huge, clumsy features like a giant.

Other lasting impressions of Myanmar have been the abundance of gold stupas, the smiles and friendliness of the people, the red teeth of men sucking beetle-nuts who spit the blood red juice across the streets in slashing arcs, and the inescapable dirt that leaves greasy hair and black feet from a day spent walking barefoot around temples. On more than one occasion I would walk around temple grounds and have every person there staring at me, but I never felt unwelcome, and several Myanmar people whom I talked to told me that I was welcome to come back to the country again and again. The issue of tourism in a country run by military dictatorship is double-edged; on the one hand, the benefits to impoverished people that it will bring, and on the other the inevitability of putting money into the pockets of the corrupt government, one that is currently detaining over 2,000 political prisoners and using repression, torture and rape as means of controlling its populace. I am sure that tourism in Myanmar will continue to rise since the National League for Democracy ended its tourism boycott in 2010- personally, I would love to visit again some day- but as for the political situation, it is impossible to know.

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