We were visiting the country of “The Lady” — as Aung San Suu Kyi is known in Burma (renamed Myanmar). On March 30, 2016, the junta that had ruled it for five decades handed over power to Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) which had swept the elections.
A year may not be a very long time to bring about any remarkable change in the system of governance, as the extended military rule has left deep imprints on the Burmese society. Our initial surprise was the ease with which we were able to get the visas. We had applied online and received our visas just three days later.
We landed in Yangon on a Saturday evening, and were allowed entry within minutes. We did notice, at the airport and along the road into the city, that there were no blown-up images of “The Lady” anywhere. But three things did strike us immediately. The first was the ubiquitous sarong, known locally as longyi, which we in Pakistan know as ‘lungi’. Men and women, by and large, wear this traditional dress. Men tie theirs in a neat knot at the front, often tucking in their shirt, while women fold the cloth over and secure it at the side.
The second thing we couldn’t help but notice was the quintessential yellowish paste on the faces of some men but generally on all Burmese women and children. We later discovered that this paste is made from the bark of the Thanaka tree, and is used as a cosmetic. Applied to the face, it makes an effective sunscreen that also tightens the skin and is an excellent mosquito repellant.
We also saw piles of thickly-cut branches of the Thanaka tree on sale together with flat grinding stones, as most people in Myanmar seemed to prefer making their own paste.
The third was the Burmese script. Everyone speaks at least some English but the Burmese language dominates. Signs and billboards are either only in Burmese or in both languages. It is a Brahmi-style syllabic alphabet. We were told that the modern language was most probably adapted from the old Mon or Pyu script in the 12th century. Burmese calligraphy originally followed a squarish format but the more cursive font took hold from the 17th century.
We had landed in the thick of the Water Festival, the Maha Thingyan, which lasts four days beginning Friday, and ends with people celebrating the Burmese New Year. Although April is considered a fairly dry month, with little or no rain, we found ourselves in the midst of a mild typhoon. When we stepped out the following morning for sight-seeing, it was pouring, with gusty winds.
Armed with umbrellas, we boldly ventured out to take a walk around the downtown area that boasts a number of late 19th-century colonial buildings. These grand structures, constructed by the British, have different architectural vocabularies, e.g. Victorian, Queen Anne, Art Deco, British-Burmese and Neoclassical.
Myanmar borders with Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Laos and China. Yangon, being a port city, has always been a combination of different communities, each leaving their mark on its architecture and culture. Sadly, decades of neglect has caused most structures to decay and crumble.
We soon realised that it was impossible even to hold on to our umbrellas. So, we beat a retreat back to our hotel by taxi. In the short while we were on the road, we got to see hundreds of young people, most of them packed onto open mini-trucks, enjoying the Thingyan festival. It seemed that the entire city was out in the rain: people with towels on their heads were standing in the trucks, throwing buckets full of water onto the pedestrians and even the cars that passed them by.
Toy guns, water-filled balloons, and hoses were also being used. It was a unique and joyous sight. Unfortunately, as we later learnt, the revelry resulted in the death of about 300 people, and injured over a thousand across the country that weekend.
Yangon was developed as a port in 1755 by King Alaungpaya who also named the city. The word ‘Yangon’ means ‘end of strife.’ When the British annexed the country in 1886, they changed it to Rangoon.
The city was laid out on a grid plan, with the Yangon River on the west side. To this day, there are spacious parks and serene lakes in the city that are a pleasure to view. Our hotel, the Kandawgyi Palace, which was built of teak wood, stood majestically on the Royal Lake that had beautiful lotus flowers blooming on its surface.
We had plans to visit Bahadur Shah Zafar’s tomb and also the ghost capital of the country, Naypyidaw, about 370 kilometres north of Yangon. But we only had time to walk around and see the sun set at the spectacular Shwedagon Pagoda.
The Shwedagon, which was built in 588 BC, is about 325 ft tall. Its ornate and gold-covered complex is spread over 114 acres in the very heart of the city. Until the 14th century, it was maintained in turn by 32 kings and queens. Situated on a hill, the gold leaf covering it, the diamond orb at the top decorated with over 4,000 diamonds, and the vane with 2,000 gems, the pagoda simply dazzles the visitor.
We walked around and watched throngs of worshippers as the setting sun cast its magic on the numerous smaller gilded pagodas all around, each with its own idol of the Buddha, as the magical LED lighting came on in a programmed sequence.
Nevertheless, it is Bagan — a plain in the Mandalay region in the middle of Myanmar, covering about 16 square miles along the east bank of the Ayeyarwaddy River — that we found truly enchanting. It is arguably one of the largest, most exciting, and well-preserved archeological sites in the world.
The monuments in Bagan were erected from the 11th to 13th centuries A.D., when it was the seat of the Myanmar dynasty. Fifty-five kings are said to have ruled over this kingdom during the course of 12 centuries. Of the 10,000 structures built, almost 3,000 stupas, temples, pagodas, monasteries, etc. are still standing, each one more fascinating than the other.
We also drove to Mount Popa, accompanied by our tour guide Daw Ngu Thet Thet Khaing, who spoke very good English. She told us that after completing high school in Bagan she had to go to Yangon for college.
I took up the challenge to climb the nearly 800 steps to the monastery on top of Mount Popa — a vertical outcrop about forty stories tall. It is known as the home of the Nats — or spirits — and is the most important site in the country for Nat pilgrimage.
Along the stairway were monkeys on the lookout for food offered by the pilgrims. The 360-degree panoramic view from the top was truly breathtaking. After staying there for some time and observing the prayers by Buddhist pilgrims, we came down the 800 steps. All along there were vendors selling food, flowers, toys, souvenirs and offerings for the pilgrims, not unlike the bazars around our shrine.
As Myanmar opens itself up to the world, it is inevitable that more and more tourists as well as businessmen shall visit the country, and foreign investment shall be made. Change will happen, affecting the people and also the facilities. One hopes that their hard-won democracy continues to flourish and the country’s traditional culture is not overwhelmed by the rapid development that is on view.