Is it a religious tradition, a tribal signature, or a new cosmetic? Stripes, circles and streaks of okra colour paste adorned the many faces as we were welcomed by the people of Yangon. This was our first introduction to the culture of Myanmar, previously known as Burma. Days later I discovered this form of facial art is a Thanaka treatment, a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground tree bark. Used by Burmese women for over 2,000 years, it is a sunscreen, although admittedly, by some, women, an anti-ageing mask, smeared on the faces of women, children and even some men.
Yangon is still under developed, although there are signs of western influence encroaching around the perimeters of the city with new concrete structures underway. Colonial buildings stand proudly in the downtown area, although some in need of a little more than a coat of paint. Previously known as Rangoon, a must-see is the 2,500 years old Shwedagon Pagoda, which enshrines strands of Buddha’s hair and other holy relics. This amazing structure is located west of the Royal Lake and is particularly spectacular at sunset creating a light display on gold shadows. A circular train will take you on a 3-hour journey into the suburbs and rural areas around the city. This slow route brings scenes of shanty villages, market areas and women working in the fields, waist deep in water. Seats are hard but carriages are air-conditioned and used by a handful of curious tourists.
Just an hour’s flight away is the unsung and un-crowded white powdered beaches of Ngapali. They are safe and clean. This strip of beach is enjoying the early stages of tourism. Sunbathing with clear views of the sea are quietly interrupted with local ladies offering fruit refreshment which they carry piled high on their heads with an air of grace. Small fishing boats bobble in front of the hotels with local sailors offering trips unobtrusively to the nearby fishing village. Serene and peaceful, sunlight dotting the sea like diamonds it’s a trip well worth £8!
The main road behind the hotels is well maintained, not busy and bordered with shack homes and little restaurants waking up to an increasing number of international diners. Thankfully, there is no sign of Starbucks or MacDonalds! Catching up with Western forms of transport, the area offers e-bikes as a way to explore. A strange concept. They have the pedals of a bicycle and a handlebar twist grip of a motorbike. The hotels have been designed to reflect a cultural style with dark teak bungalows buried amid greenery, except for the newer arrival of the Hilton with its luxurious, contemporary villas and high prices.
Temples, stupas and pagodas greeted us at our next stop. Bagan is a land that looks like pre-historic shapes of differing sizes, some hiding in the mist, others suddenly appearing behind trees clustered together or forming a skyline in the distance. The 3,200 monuments give a sort of eerie, supernatural feel, especially so at sunrise as they take shape or sunset when their silhouettes disappear into the darkness. Before the earthquake in 1975, these totalled 4,000, the larger and gold plated built by kings and the wealthy with smaller offerings by local people. Choose to explore by horse and carriage, a great way to get up close and personal. Many of the smaller monuments are tucked away near little bamboo villages and monasteries while inside the temples, impressive Buddhas stand bold and serene.
Take the riverboat or cruise to Mandalay from Bagan and allow the Irrawaddy River to showcase life along its shores; the fisherman with his family in a lone boat, two white oxen dragging ploughs in open fields and the golden spires of temples adding decoration to tree-lined river borders. A word of advice, the luxury cruises are exactly that, luxury and comfort while the day boat is very basic and can take up to twelve hours, depending on the river level. Although food is served onboard, you may wish to take your own.
During the British occupation, Mandalay was regarded as the playground for the rich. Today, the former royal palace which was bombed in World War 2, is now the residence for the military. The British turned the palace compound into a fort which is boldly visible with its four outside walls, each 2 kilometers in length and boarded by a moat. In the distance is Mandalay Hill – the perfect spot to enjoy the sunset, along with many others. It is 270m above sea level and was used as a watchtower for the king.
When in Mandalay, do visit Mahamuni Pagoda, the Golden Palace monastery and the location of the world’s largest book, Kudhodaw Pagoda. This is a huge complex of 729 marble slabs, each inscribed with Buddhist teachings. Not far from the city is U-Bein Bridge, one of the country’s most photographed sites. A popular time to visit is sunrise and a time when many villagers and monks commute across. The bridge is 160 years old and in 1851 was the world’s longest teak bridge at 1.2m. Originally it was built as protection for the palace and to provide easier access for the villagers to cross the shallow Taungthaman Lake.
Myanmar has caught the attention of many with the bravery of Aung San Suu Kyi, who was freed from house arrest soon after the 2010 election, after 20 years. Her political party has won enough parliamentary seats in the 2015 elections to form a government.
Her moving story was sensitively revealed in the film, The Lady. The movie explains how Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, was elected to head the country and then assassinated, leaving the nation to a long period of repressive dictatorship under a military junta. Known as Suu Kyi, she fled after her father’s death to England, where at Oxford, she married the professor Michael Aris, had two children, and settled down as a housewife. During those years, Burma disappeared behind a curtain of secrecy and paranoia. Many Burmese remained in exile, because being “westernised” might mean their imprisonment upon return. In 1988, Suu Kyi returned to Burma. A year later she was placed under arrest for speaking out against U Ne Win and his iron-fisted rule. In 1991, Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.
Under reforms introduced since 2011 by a new government, Myanmar has unblocked international news websites as well as YouTube. In 2012, it lifted pre-publication censorship for the press and allowed privately owned daily newspapers to publish. 2013 saw the dawn of international visitors and the start of tourism. Today, the mood in the country is one of optimism, excitement for a new future, and opportunities for its people. “Thank you for visiting our country” are words of welcome we heard many times. Burma is open, Myanmar unmasked
Refer to Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “Mandalay” written in early 1890, when the British poet was 24 years old. http://raysweb.net/poems/mandalay/