In Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Glass Palace, the king of Burma muses on the royal family of Siam, a country once conquered by his own. It’s 1885, the British have exiled him to genteel poverty in India and he reads a newspaper report of a royal tour of Europe by the Siamese king. His neighbour is being put up in Buckingham Palace, fêted by the German emperor and greeted with respect in France while he, monarch of Burma, land of gold, languishes.
Burma – now known also as Myanmar – has great beauty and terrible luck. While Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam have surged ahead, Myanmar has struggled to be free of the isolation that resulted from military rule. So it is wonderful to fly into Yangon at a time when the country’s democratic figurehead, Aung San Suu Kyi, has been installed in government, in a newly created post of state counsellor. The position is meant to give her prime ministerial-style power, a solution to a constitution concocted by the regime that prevented her from becoming president because her British-born sons do not have Burmese passports.
There is optimism in the air. The Lady has finally beaten the generals. Our guide says he believes the sun is rising for Myanmar.
The country is enchanting and largely undeveloped, though the Chinese have been doing something about that. Yangon, what used to be Rangoon, is a fascinating mix of faded colonial blocks and brutal new towers. Infrastructure has been neglected, pavements are cracking, traffic is terrible. Yet the potential is immense.
For all the traffic jams, it is easy to imagine the past. British visitors walk these busy, grimy streets and see the faded evidence of colonial rule. That’s probably one reason the generals moved the capital to Naypyitaw, a featureless, purpose-built, would-be metropolis in the central south. The parliament meets there now but there is no reason for anyone else to go. Not when there is so much to look at here.
Burma’s most prominent pagoda, The Shwezigon is a sight to behold with its bright gold facade topped by a diamond.
We wait for late afternoon and the temperature to fall to walk to the Shwezigon Pagoda, the most prominent of thousands of pagodas and stupas erected across Burma over two millennia. Burnished by tonnes of gold and topped by a massive diamond, this pagoda speaks of the nation’s mineral wealth.
Monks stroll by in maroon robes. Here and there are girl nuns, heads shaved like their brothers’, in pink. Who knows whether it will last but there is an engaging courtesy shown to tourists. The postcard sellers do not pester, would-be guides take a polite no for an answer. They’re mildly curious about visitors.
The Belmond Governor’s Residence is a luxury hotel in the embassy area, housed in a colonial property and set among gorgeous gardens.
We stay the first night at the Belmond Governor’s Residence, a converted colonial house in the embassy area, set among gardens, lily ponds and a swimming pool the size of a small lake. The rooms are of hard wood, tastefully furnished, cool amid the heat. The humidity is exhausting, and temperatures touch 50°C in June, before the rains begin.
Thankfully we are heading for the relative coolness of the Irrawaddy river – named by the British – the great natural artery that provides irrigation for crops and the highway for the country’s teak. Our steamer – a Rhine cruiser transported here more than 20 years ago – is named after Kipling: The Road to Mandalay. We join at Bagan, a skyline described by Marco Polo as ‘one of the finest sights in the world’ – some 2,000 medieval stupas and pagodas rise through the morning mist at the river bend.
There are not many tourists, even at the famous pagodas of Ananda and Sulamani. This would be a World Heritage Site were it not for the machinations of the junta. With a tragi-comic idiocy, the generals thought they would increase tourism by constructing an observation tower, hotel and golf course in the middle of this historic plain. The Burmese people did not aid the cause: in their earnestness, they crowdsourced as many as 1,000 new temples and made amateurish restorations to many of the old ones. It’s a bit botched for Unesco, which is trying to find a solution by giving status to individual temples.
On this end-of-season trip, fewer than half of The Road to Mandalay’s 40 cabins are occupied. There is a small swimming pool and a dining area serving first-rate food. There’s Internet too. As we pull away from Bagan, I train my binoculars on the temples and stupas, villagers washing clothes at the water’s edge, fishermen casting nets from narrow boats. The sun sinks, and we watch flocks of white cattle egrets in arrow formation across the river to roost. Some swifts swoop low, chasing flies.
Then, in the deep darkness of the river at night, the crew sets up a romantic drama in celebration of a festival of light. Some 1,600 lanterns, constructed from coconut leaves and bamboo, float past on the current, each a small beacon of hope for a country facing a democratic future for the first time since independence in 1948. The effect is moving.
We, sadly, are not. With the snow melts of the Himalayas yet to start and monsoon rains some weeks off, this huge, wide river is running shallow. We watch as two tugs manoeuvre a barge from a sandbank. A couple of men with measuring sticks call out the depths of the shifting shoals. We will have to moor well south of Mandalay and drive rather than arrive in the historic city by boat.
We fill the time we would have spent on board with excursions to markets, small farms and local industry. We learn the mysteries of lacquer and watch how gold leaf is made: a group of young men rhythmically pound the paper-thin layers, pressing it thinner and thinner. Down another street in Mandalay, we come to the stone masons’ area, where more young men work at large blocks of marble, carving out statues of Buddha. There’s none of the hard sell you expect, but still I return festooned with jewellery and silk scarves.
Meanwhile, the boat’s resident doctor has slipped into a local village for a pop-up surgery. He dispenses medicines, advice and spectacles along the boat’s route, a scheme supported by the company and through donations from passengers.
In Mandalay, the celebrated Sagaing hill gleams with stupas, temples and pagodas. The air is sweet with jasmine and swifts circle high above. Here are the joy and peace that have been the antidote to the military force of the 20th century. We visit the great palace walls and the one remaining hall, which was transferred to a monastery in the 19th century, thus avoiding the fate of the rest of the palace compound – destruction by Allied bombing in the war.
The other great attraction of Mandalay is the U Bein Bridge – said to be the longest wooden bridge in the world – a rickety teak structure across a lake that provides a local marketplace and social gathering point. Beneath it, young monks play football.
In Mandalay, it’s a treat to watch gold leaf being created, testament to the country’s tryst with the metal, also seen across Sagaing hill.
Back in the boat, we do a little yoga, get a massage, meditate and have supper. We fly back to Yangon for a final night at the Residence before the long flight home. I leave with fingers crossed for Myanmar, hoping that the unique character and beauty that have enabled it to survive such a troubled past will help it withstand the consequences of imminent mass tourism. Yangon, a city with street vendors cooking at every corner, has just got its first KFC. What follows?