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On The Road to Mandalay

by Walter and Cherie Glaser

Burma, now known as Myanmar, is undoubtedly an interesting destinations to visit now. It is yet unspoiled, and the fact the tourists have been less than welcomed by the military dictatorship until recently means that the about-turn which is now taking place in this regard is a quantum leap. But try to ignore the dictatorship. Burma is an absolutely fabulous destination, the people are friendly, the country is safe to travel in and tourist facilities are improving daily.

Our first pleasant surprise is with Myanmar Airways, the country's national carrier. Until not so long ago, flying with any of the airlines from that area was rather like a game of Russian Roulette. But today, modern, well equipped aircraft (often flown by expatriate pilots) ensure that our flight is both comfortable and interesting.

Landing at Yangon (formerly Rangoon) airport, we head for Passport Control and then to the desk of the Burmese Central Bank. Having booked on a cruise up the Irrawaddy, the documents we had been given before departure clearly stated that we would have to change US $200.00 per person into local currency. Yet, at the Bank of Burma, the large sign announces that US $300 is the minimum.

My wife speaks to the official at the counter and explains that we have the requirement for only US $200 to be changed. That doesn't make him blink an eyelid. With a smile he points to his sign and says "As you can see, the minimum is US $300." With this my wife gets a little upset reaffirming that, since we were booked on a cruise and all meals and charges had been pre-paid, the US $200 is a much more reasonable figure.

"I think we can overcome this small problem," says the official, "perhaps you have a small gift for me?" In the 40 years that I have been married I have never seen my wife speechless, but now it is all happening. Her mouth opens but not a sound comes out.

"What sort of gift do you have in mind ?" I say, stepping into the verbal breach. "Perhaps some cigarettes" replies our Burmese friend. Neither my wife nor I smoke, but a quickstep to the Duty Free counter handily located only 10 yards away has me waltzing back with a carton of cigarettes in a plastic bag. Had I been a US citizen I would be liable for instant execution on my return home, charged with corruptly bribing a foreign government official. But as I'm not, I figure I'll take the risk and slide the bag under the counter's metal grid.

Suddenly, it is perfectly normal to only change US $200 per person. Everybody, except my wife who is still trying to regain her composure (she has led a much more sheltered life than I), smiles and we step out on to the Myanmar street, where a our guide is waiting. From that point on, every moment in Myanmar is to be a sheer delight.

Having watched China's tilt towards a market economy, and the economic disasters that North Korea encountered by sticking to isolation, Myanmar's socialist military rulers have now realized that it's not so clever to cut the country off from the rest of the world. Consequently, "things they are a-changing" -- new hotels are being constructed, most with foreign capital and expertise, and a latent tourist infrastructure is slowly emerging.

Yangon, with its five million friendly, smiling people is just coming out of a 30-year time warp. The ghost of the British empire is still very strong, and its turn-of-the-century colonial architecture unmistakable. As we sightsee around the city, we pass mansions that were once home to administrators and planters born in London, Manchester or Edinburgh. In the city, the colonial blueprint on the design of hospitals, Customs House and Government Offices is unmistakable. There are a surprising number of churches, most of which are still in use by the 4.5% of the population that practices Christianity, and the wide, garden-lined streets are reminiscent of those one can find in most countries once occupied by the British Colonial Empire.

Advertising billboards, a recent phenomenon, are going up everywhere. Amusingly, we see one for OMO detergent -- and butting straight on to this is another for the local counterfeit product, unimaginatively called OSO. Every single thing apart from the spelling on the two posters is identical! But not all the posters are commercial. In the town center is one that, in lurid colors, is unmistakably close to those you might have seen in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution. Soldiers and workers march under a waving red flag while the text, if you can read Burmese, will exhort you to follow the party and increase production of whatever you happen to be doing!

We visit Scott's market, the largest in Yangon. Exquisite lacquerwares, basketry and gold-thread-embroidered cushion covers and caps are clearly very labor-intensive, yet amazingly cheap. Our guide tells us that the average wage for the people who produce these is 75 cents per day. Apart from handicrafts, there are Government-registered jewelry shops, a few food stalls, sandal vendors, souvenirs of various types and lots of clothing stores offering garments at priced ridiculously low by Western standards.

For lunch, we return to the Strand Hotel, a jewelbox of an establishment where we are staying. It and the Inya Lake Hotel, owned and operated by Hong Kong's New World Hotels, are by far the two best hotels in Myanmar at the moment. Several well-known international hotel chains currently have properties under construction.

But today we are enjoying our stay at the Strand, which is back to its former pre-war glory. The hotel is resplendent with polished teak, airy suites with ceiling fans as well as air-conditioning, the most luxurious rooms in Yangon and a smiling, helpful staff for whom no request is too difficult. This is one of the few places in town where one can get first-class, international-standard meals, making the Strand the favorite home-away-from-home for the knowledgeable visitor and resident expatriate alike.

This hotel has a fascinating history. The Strand was built and operated by the Sarkie brothers, the famous Hoteliers who also built Raffles in Singapore and the E&O Hotel in Penang. Constructed in 1902, it shone in the years when Burma was oil-rich and a favorite destination for its British Colonial masters. At that time it was the best address in Rangoon.

With the departure of the British and the advent of military governments in Burma after WW II, this hotel, like all the others in the newly renamed Myanmar, fell into neglect and disrepair. It was only in the last few years that a Hong Kong consortium, prepared to invest in Myanmar, decided that they would totally restore The Strand Hotel and also build the Inya Lake establishment. It is said that US $40 million was spent on the dual project and the management of the two hotels was subsequently split between New World, which runs the Inya Lake, and Aman resorts, which took over and runs The Strand.

Lunch over, we are taken to a lacquerware factory to see just how this traditional product is produced. Here production is quite different from the rigid lacquerware of Japan which is often coated over plastic moldings.

The Burmese weave a basket base, then coat this with multiple layers of a tree-sap-based resin until the article takes a solid form and all one can see is the beautiful, shiny lacquer surface. This is then polished and subsequently engraved and color-filled. Alternately the black lacquer is carefully decorated with wafer-thin gold leaf.

A Burmese specialty, flexible lacquer cups are seen in many of the shops here. This is produced by weaving horse-hair around a reed frame, and when this is coated with lacquer the resulting cup becomes both strong and flexible. Amazingly, the lacquer remains sufficiently supple to prevent any cracking or breaking. To see people ranging in age from 7 to 70 polish, engrave and then decorate items while each becomes an individual work of art, is interesting indeed.

The next day we take a tour of Yangon. The Kandawgyl Lakes, once known as the Royal Lakes, are close to the city and contribute much to Yangon's charm. Sitting out in the water is the Karaweik, housed in a concrete reproduction of the Royal Barge, a restaurant most people either love or hate. It is popular with photographers as it looks great in pictures, but we are warned that the food does not live up to expectations. What does, however, is the late afternoon reflection of the Shwedagon pagoda's spire on the mirror-smooth surface of the lake. I swear this has a personality of its own and is camera shy! The lake is like glass -- until you lift your camera to take "that picture." Immediately, a gust of wind appears from nowhere to ripple the surface and prevent you from clicking the picture you were prepared to give your eye-teeth for.

A word of explanation about Buddhist places of worship. When you see a doorless, spire-shaped building, often painted white or gold, this is called a stupa. It has no prayer chambers, nor does it contain Buddha images. If a building does so, it is referred to as a temple, and these can come in a whole variety of shapes and sizes. Both are referred to as pagodas. The Shwedagon Pagoda has a central stupa which is surrounded by a whole series of temples and smaller stupas.

From the center of Yangon to some of the suburbs, there is one landmark that rises above the horizon, gleaming like a golden beacon -- this city's definitive statement of Buddhist faith, and almost its raison d'etre. This is the Shwedagon Pagoda, a lyrical, stunningly beautiful tribute to man's belief in heavenly powers. Having settled-in at our hotel by the next morning, we decide to visit this magical pagoda.

"Please take off shoes and socks, then get ticket over there," says the Buddhist Monk in charge. We are waiting for the ancient, rickety elevator that will take us from the base of the hill to the top level. The ride costs locals next to nothing, but for the foreign visitor the charge is US $5. One could hardly get better value.

The Shwedagon Pagoda which, according to legend is 2500 years old, has been destroyed by earthquakes and subsequently rebuilt several times, its current shape finalized in 1769. As we approached, we had seen the gleaming spire rear up from behind monasteries and trees, its impressive, inverted golden cone reaching towards the sky. Squeaking and groaning, the ancient elevator now slowly clanks us up to a walkway-on-stilts.

We still cannot see the Pagoda, which is hidden by monastery buildings and outhouses. In these, Burmese women sell flowers, candles, small paper umbrellas and decorations for the devout to offer in front of the Buddha images. The stall holders, and nearly all women and children one sees on the street have their cheeks, foreheads and noses covered with a white powder which, our guide says, is Burma's natural make-up. This concoction is prepared from the finely-ground branches of a tree similar to sandalwood and acts as a sunscreen and beauty lotion all in one. To me is it reminiscent of the white chalky make-up geishas wear in Japan. It does however look quite odd to foreign eyes, especially when one first sees it.

Passing through a number of right-angled passages we suddenly find ourselves on the circular walkway that rings the main Pagoda. This is itself lined on both sides by equally exquisite minor structures. Smaller pagodas, stupas, temples, images, bells, monuments and pavilions range from white to polychrome. These are constantly being repainted and regilded by the devout. Worshippers and shaven-headed monks (the males in brown and burgundy robes and the females in pink equivalents) prostrate themselves in front of the Buddha images or circle the huge Pagoda in small groups, stopping to pray at these various "stations" along the route.

The exotic beauty of the Shwedagon Pagoda is enough to take one's breath away. If you had traveled to Burma from the other end of the earth and had seen nothing but this structure, it would be worth the whole trip.

The Golden Dragon, as this pagoda is known to the locals, rises 98 meters into the sky: a glorious, joyous and lyrical ode to the Creator, and a celebration of the beauty mankind can create.

In the Shwedagon complex there is a huge central stupa that is surrounded by all shapes of temples, as well as a multitude of minor stupas. Most of these have their own golden "crown," but are no competition to that of the main Shwedagon stupa. The base of this Pagoda is painted in gold, and halfway up the paint is replaced with pure, wafer-thin gold leaf which, untarnishable, gleams in the sun to make the structure a beacon. Above the gold-leaf covering, the gold becomes more solid, changing to 13,153 plates of solid gold measuring 30 square centimeters each.

Then comes the crown, and its just as well that this is out of reach of the dishonest and the avaricious! Bells of gold and silver are topped by a vane encased in gold and silver and also studded with 1,100 diamonds totaling 178 carats plus 1,383 other precious stones. The piece de resistance is a hollow, golden sphere, mounted with a single 76 carat diamond and also encrusted with 4,351 other diamonds weighing 1800 carats.

No wonder that, in 1586, the English visitor, Ralph Fitch wrote:

it is called Dogonne, and is of a wonderful bignesse, and all gilded from the foot to the toppe...it is the fairest place, as I suppose, that is in the world; it standeth very high, and there are foure ways to it, which all along are set with trees of fruits, such wise that a man may goe in the shade above two miles in length.

Yangon will enchant you with its kaleidoscope of impressions: from shaven-headed monks in dark brown or burgundy robes (they feel that the bright orange/saffron worn by their Thai brethren is too showy and flashy) to tiny blue vehicles used for taxis, all with pick-up van bodies that have bench seats in the back. These are always totally overloaded by their human cargo and at least a half-dozen youths who deftly manage to cling on to the back, though they seem to have no obvious hold on the vehicle at all.

There are other sights that stick in the mind. The 1920's-era hospital whose design has come straight out of a catalogue of Colonial architecture, the occasional cart drawn by Brahmin bullocks, teenage female monks in pink robes and with shaven heads that knock on every door, proffering their begging bowls for rice, signs everywhere offering rubies and sapphires which, if truth be known, could well be bought as cheaply in Hong Kong or Bangkok with less risk, the amazing friendliness and genuine warmth of the people, the obvious care and affection that Burmese mothers lavish on their children, the contrast between the tough attitude of the army and the warmth and sincerity with which the people apply the Buddhist teaching principles to their everyday lives, the real effort locals are making to learn at least a few words of English. All these are the facets that make up today's Yangon. I cannot help feeling that this city will be very different five years down the line, but today it still has an enormous amount of innocent charm. And that, no doubt, is the best way to see it.

Perhaps the two biggest clich»s in travel writing are "And as the sun sinks slowly in the West," and "And now, far too soon, our time has run out and we must leave beautiful ____." In our case the second statement is fairly accurate. The next morning we must make an early start for our flight to Bagan, also known as Pagan, the Irrawaddy River port at which we are to board our luxury river-cruise boat which will take us upstream to Mandalay, the town made famous by Kipling's On the Road to Mandalay, the song after which our boat was named.

Bagan is historically one of Burma's most important cities. The first Burmese empire made this city its capital in the 11th Century, when the hordes of Kublai Khan's Mongols overran this magnificent religious center, extinguishing the light of knowledge and putting an end to Bagan's power, the city was arguably the most significant center of Buddhism in the whole area.

The level of the city's importance can be gauged by the almost 13,000 pagodas and monasteries which rested here in their full glory. By the time the Mongols had moved on the population had been decimated and the capital had shifted. The temples and stupas fell into disrepair, further damaged by the earthquakes that are only too regular in this area.

But even the ancient remains of these once-magnificent structures have held a character and beauty of their own, and the time to observe this is at sunset. First it's time to board our boat. The logistics of bringing this vessel, to Burma are awesome. And, only a company like Orient Express, operator of the world-famous Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express, and some of the finest, most elegant resort hotels in the world, has the resources to handle such a giant task.

When the Burmese government decided to open the country to tourism, they approached some of the world's most experienced companies in each field to see if they were prepared to set up operations in Myanmar. In the case of Orient Express, other divisions in this group already ran the E&O luxury train from Singapore to Bangkok, so the Asian experience had already been gained. Another division ran the ferries that plied the channel crossings from England to France, so shipping experience was also in place. When, therefore, the management of the Orient Express group was asked if they would like to add a Burmese operation that would offer a luxury cruise from Bagan to Mandalay, they agreed.

Research showed that the best and most suitable river steamers would be similar to those that operate on the Rhine between Switzerland and Amsterdam. But the German shipyards that were building these ships were booked years ahead. The only solution would be to buy a second-hand Rhine steamer, refurbish it to the luxurious Orient Express standards at a cost of US $6,000,000 at other German shipyards, and then bring it out to Burma.

They did this, overcoming the fact that this shallow-draught river vessel could not handle ocean voyages, by chartering an ocean-going dry-dock vessel, lowering this into the water, piloting the fully-refurbished Mandalay into the "dock," pumping out the ballast tanks, and carrying the boat, piggy-back style, all the way to the mouth of the Irrawaddy River.

Obtaining Burmese officers from the country's merchant navy, and expatriate officers from the British ferry fleet, was a relatively easy task. To get a multi-lingual Burmese crew for cabin stewards, waiters, kitchen staff and the like was a more daunting task. It was overcome by advertising for English-speakers on the notice-boards at Mandalay University. An overwhelming response ensured an excellent pool of applicants. Every cabin steward, kitchen hand and waiter on the 60-cabin Mandalay has a University degree, and through an enormous lot of enthusiasm, drive and an eagerness to learn, young people who had never seen a box of tissues, a cocktail or a vacuum cleaner are becoming a fine and experienced crew.

Because of the difficulty of getting the right quality in meat, vegetables and other produce, most food items are, as for the Strand Hotel in Yangon, flown in from Singapore. On our voyage everything seems to operate very smoothly indeed.

It is now late afternoon and time to head for sunset among the pagodas on the Bagan plain. We arrive at one of these ancient stupas about an hour before sunset and climb the very steep staircase to the top. What a magnificent sight! The slanting sunlight illuminates the ochre colored plain -- temples and stupas dotting it all the way into the distance. Some of these are thousand-year old relics, the surface cladding long lost to the elements, brick bases still standing to proclaim the glory of the once-proud pagoda. Others, having been fully restored this century, gleam in the late daylight, the golden rays of the sun adding a richness that this time of day brings.

On a pagoda base nearby, a group of sunset-watchers, some Burmese and some foreign tourists, stand looking at the mighty Irrawaddy River that lazily snakes across the distant landscape, the sun's reflections turning the water to the color of burnished brass. All is at peace with the world, and even the hardened cynics among us experience a moment of serendipity and wonderment. Slowly the sun sinks, making the shadows cast by the stupas longer and longer. And when the sunset comes, it seems rudely abrupt. Suddenly the shadows are gone, and within minutes the light begins to fade. Nobody speaks as we climb down from that pagoda. It is a true hour of magic.

Back to the ship, and it's dinnertime just as we start our slow cruise up the Irrawaddy. Dinner is a comfortable, one-seating affair. The food is surprisingly good and the company interesting and extremely cosmopolitan. After dinner we go to the open top-deck where a cocktail bar does a brisk trade in coffee and post-dinner drinks. The night is warm and in the last glimmer of daylight the cooking fires of farm dwellings along the riverbanks glow in the deepening darkness. We stop and drop anchors for the night. The Irrawaddy has too many shallow sandbanks for trouble-free night navigation.

The next day dawns sunny and clear, and now we can see the farms and river traffic on this major Asian waterway. The river traffic is, in fact, surprisingly sparse. From time to time a raft of logs, with a small platform to hold the meager belongings of the two or three rafters that accompany the logs from the foothills of the Himalayas to the faraway ocean, drifts by. Ancient ferries that can only be described kindly as "rust buckets" are crammed with people in the manner that would give any sardine can an inferiority complex. Freight barges that seem to be about the same vintage as Noah's ark make their overladen way up towards Mandalay at about a third of our speed, or seem to race downstream, in reality going only marginally faster than the current.

All this is interspersed with small sailboats that only handle the river traffic of any one particular section of the Irrawaddy. We see them sail down the river, but when they want to take the boat upstream and there is no substantial wind to rely on, they take it up by the centuries old method of harnessing two of the crew to a tow rope, the third member remaining in the boat to steer while the other two laboriously walk the tow path. Sometimes they are too far apart for us to see the rope, and it looks so strange to see one or two men walking along the riverbank in slow, measured steps, leaning forward at a 45-degree angle as if marching into a 200 mph hurricane.

When Sagaing, the river port for Mandalay, finally comes into sight, it is another experience long to be remembered. Adjoining the only bridge across the Irrawaddy, both banks of the river appear a symphony of symmetrical beauty as the inverted white cones of the pagodas that dot the hillsides point up into the sky. White, rather than gold, is the predominant color of the Mandalay temples, and the contrast with the green hillsides is quite remarkable. It is our last day on the cruise and we spend this taking a local boat to Mingun to see the base of what had been planned as the world's largest pagoda, and the Mingun Bell, the second largest in the world after the cracked and silent monster bell in Moscow.

Tonight, with our boat tied up on the dock, we have our last dinner on the Irrawaddy. Addresses are exchanged and farewells toasted. Tomorrow we will fly back to Yangon, and then to Bangkok and then home. By next week the trip will have faded somewhat in our memories, to be sharply revived when our photos come back from processing. By that time another batch of tourists will be taking the rickety elevator to the Shwedagon pagoda, and yet another lot will be sipping gin and tonic, watching the river traffic on the Irrawaddy from the deck of the Road to Mandalay.

Life must go on.

Best Time to Go
Between November and April it is cooler, then the weather tends to get more tropical. The Road to Mandalay operates a weekly service between September and May and is out of action June, July and August, when it is the rainy season.

The guide books will tell you that the official exchange rate is 6 chats, the local unit of currency, to the US dollar officially, and approximately 100-120 unofficially. This however is incorrect. Just very recently the Myanmar government has recognized the ridiculous position of the official exchange rate and has now brought the official rate to that of the black market rate, i.e. 110-120 chats to the US dollar, virtually wiping out the black market in the exercise. Consequently the exchange vouchers you will get at the bank on landing are valuable, in as far as you should get 100 chats to the US dollar in hotels and around 120 in official banks or from other money-changers.

Myanmar has to be one of the safest countries in the world for a tourist. Take plenty of film and loose, comfortable cotton clothing. Make sure you have good socks with you. You will have to take your shoes off in all the temples and nothing looks worse than a toe poking through the sock.

The best souvenirs to buy in Burma are silverware, silk, lacquerware and basketry. Semi-precious gemstones, especially rubies, can be a good buy in Myanmar but many say you can do at least as well, with less risk of getting a synthetic gem, if you purchase in Bangkok or Hong Kong. However, the reputable jewelers approved by the government, and especially those in The Strand and Inya Lake Hotel should be quite reliable and hassle-free.

Best Hotels
By far the best Hotel in Yangon at this time is The Strand, with the Inya Lake second, and the Summit Parkview third, but not nearly as good as the other two. We recommend making your choice among these three. There is a Holiday Inn in Mandalay which has only just opened, but by next year other good hotels should be springing up in various places around Myanmar.

If you're dining out in Yangon, we recommend The Strand Grill, The Strand Coffee Shop and The Inya Lake Hotel Restaurant. Expatriates and Consular staff also like the Green Elephant Restaurant, at 12 Inya Road, Yangon, but take mosquito repellent when dining there. The Green Elephant also has the adjacent Elephant House Antique Shop which is excellent for high quality souvenirs. However, bear in mind that the lower-priced items can probably be purchased at the market for approximately half the prices quoted here. Scott's Market is probably the best address in Yangon at which to buy your souvenirs. In Bagan the best restaurant is the Riverview Restaurant, with a beautiful view that overlooks the Irrawaddy. For reservations, from Myanmar ring (01) 60228. It has no street address but is on the riverside and everybody, certainly all the taxi-drivers and pony-cart drivers, will be able to take you directly to it.

Take Plenty of Film
Film is expensive in Myanmar and you will be wanting to take a lot of pictures. This is one of the most photogenic countries in the world.

Forget those old horror stories you heard about Burmese airlines. Air Myanmar and Mandalay Airways were both excellent with modern, well-serviced aircraft and expatriate pilots.

For Bookings:
Abercrombie and Kent
1520 Kensington Road
Oak Brook, Illinois, 60521-2141
phone (708) 954.2944
fax (708) 954.2814

Walter & Cherie Glaser are an international travel-writing team based down under in Melbourne, Australia.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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