These are exciting times in Myanmar, the country previously known as Burma. There’s a new(ish) president, Thein Sein, who seems sincere in wanting political reform. The Lady (as Aung San Suu Kyi is affectionately called) is no longer under house arrest and her National League for Democracy party now has 43 seats in parliament – not enough, but a beginning. And for those wanting to explore this beguiling, little-known country, The Lady herself has dropped her objections and welcomed us in.
Myanmar’s charms have been well documented, but that has done nothing to dent their power, and for the first-time visitor the much-touted places to visit – Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake – are on the standard schedule because they’re worth it. Yangon (a crumbling colonial city, much in need of some TLC ever since the military dictators built a new capital, Naypyidaw, miles away from any big centre) has wide, leafy boulevards and bustling streets filled with book sellers, cooks offering street food straight from the pan, and curio sellers. Wander round the city and feel its pulse. Go down to the river where the rice boats come in, then amble round Bogyoke Aung San Market and see the gem sellers sitting out in the alleyways, drinking tea, negotiating their sales. At the heart of the city lies the Shwedagon pagoda, glittering up on Singuttara Hill, a reminder that Myanmar is a profoundly Buddhist country. Said to hold eight of Buddha’s hairs and plated with more than 8,000 solid-gold slabs, at its tip shine diamonds, rubies, sapphires and topaz. More than 2,500 years old, it is the cultural and spiritual centre of the country; it’s where students protested against colonial rule in the 1920s, where Aung San Suu Kyi and her father, Aung San, made their most memorable speeches, and where the monks began their protest march in 2007. A glorious amalgam of the sacred and the commercial, the holy site features long rows of stalls selling religious and secular souvenirs, as well as smaller stupas (mound-like structures containing Buddhist relics) and shrines.
In Mandalay it takes time to feel the rhythm of the town, but it’s worth staying a while and exploring its dusty alleyways. See the long road where thousands of stone workers carve their Buddhas, venture into the craft workshops, and take the boat upriver to Mingun, a rural though touristy village, where there are the remains of what would have been the world’s largest stupa had King Bodawpaya not died in 1819 (a stupa, I learn, has no inner chamber, while a pagoda always houses at least one Buddha). Then there’s the old capital Inwa (formerly known as Ava), with its romantically crumbling pagodas, and best of all an elegant teakwood monastery dating back to 1834.
Bagan is a must, a mysteriously beautiful and rich archaeological site, with some 2,200 stupas, temples and pagodas strewn like blossom all along the side of the Irrawaddy river. Between the 11th and 13th centuries, when Bagan was the centre of Buddhist learning, there was a golden era of temple building. Today many are run-down, but the magic is still there. To see it at its best you should first waft in a balloon over the site at dawn; then hire a pony trap and clip-clop from site to site.
Inle Lake, with its extraordinarily deft fisherman (they use one foot to stand on and the other to fish with), its waterways, its mysteriously rising pagodas and its rich water-life is also, deservedly, on every traveller’s list of sights to see.
What few people tell you about, though, is that there is still a road less travelled, and how rewarding that is. Do as I did and ride the daily train from Mandalay to Hsipaw, taking in the vertigo-inducing Goitek viaduct as you go. On board, a Myanmar family shared their strawberries with me and made sure I had the best seat for the views. Hsipaw itself is an authentic little Myanmar town with just three hotels, but lots of local life. The one I stayed in, Mr Charles Guesthouse, was simple and clean, with a television set and en-suite bathroom. Mr Charles himself will organise everything you need for a one-, three-, five- or seven-day trek up through areas that are little touched by the outside world. You can wander through the fruit and flower plantations, take a boat upriver and trek to a monastery, visit a Shan village, see the locals in their traditional thatch and bamboo houses and eat at the local Chinese restaurant.
Authentic, too, is the town up in the hills Pyin Oo Lwin, where the British went in colonial times when it became too hot; a host of houses, many of them now hotels, bear witness to that era. Here, over dinner with an Englishman who used to work for the British Council and is now married to a Burmese woman, I learned that there were just 13 foreigners in the whole of the town. You could trek for days up in the hills, taking a cook, a guide and a porter, and sleeping in monasteries by night.
And then, when you’ve had your fill of Buddhas, pagodas and dusty villages, you should head for one of Myanmar’s best-kept secrets: Ngapali, a near-perfect, crescent-shaped beach. There are now some smart but low-rise places to stay (Sandoway Resort and Amara Ocean Resort are the poshest), but take time to visit the lively little fishing villages on their edges. For a few dollars (the best currency to take), a boatman will take you out to a nearby island, sell you some freshly caught fish and help you cook it for lunch. Don’t stay cocooned in your resort; eat in the little fisherman’s restaurants on the road running parallel to the beach – the menus all feature fresh fish and vast helpings of vegetables, and you’ll have all you want for something like $6 a head. But go soon; even while I was there I could see new buildings being put up all along the coast.
I took as my literary companions High Endeavours, Miles Clark’s biography of two amazing adventurers, Miles and Beryl Smeeton; and George Orwell’s Burmese Days. They were perfect. Every time I found things less than comfortable, I was reminded of how Beryl Smeeton always travelled third class (“In First Class you only ever meet the same sort of people,” she said, “while in third class they’re so much more varied”) and of how discomfort enabled her to truly experience a place. And each time I was in danger of being swept away by the beauty of the pagodas and the outward appearance of tranquillity and spirituality, George Orwell’s venal magistrate, U Po Kyin, swam into my mind, reminding me how pagodas were often built not out of religious fervour, but as a hedge against the fate in the hereafter that might otherwise await their sponsor for all the bad deeds he’d committed on Earth. Up in Bagan, that magic, mysterious pagoda-strewn landscape, King Narathu built the vast Dhammayangyi Temple in 1170 to atone for smothering his father and murdering his brother. All over Myanmar they are still building new pagodas – a testament perhaps to all the atonement that still needs to be done. Near to the Shwedagon, the late General Ne Win built the Maha Wizaya Paya pagoda in the 1980s, hoping, no doubt, to compensate for all those he’d had killed and imprisoned. Most of these pagodas are brash and glittering to Western eyes, the Buddhas encircled by flashing neon lights.
The sweetness and charm of the Myanmar people is one of the country’s great attractions. The default position seems to be one of wishing to help, whether it be airline staff rushing to relieve one of baggage, or the hotel staff trying to anticipate one’s every need. It’s all because, as one of my guides tells me, “the government doesn’t help us, so we have to help each other”. When the devastating floods came last year, commercial boats stopped their tourist activities and hurried to the aid of their fellow countrymen. But, as yet, the country has little of the sort of sophistication that can be found elsewhere in Southeast Asia. For some this will be an essential part of Myanmar’s charm; it is culturally still intact, its ancient traditions relatively unpolluted. I met a Dutchman on U Bein Bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world. He was gazing out at the sight of men fishing in the waters, and the girls sitting at the edge with caged birds, offering one the chance to gain celestial credit by paying to set them free. He had visited Myanmar some eight times already, but he was here for what he thought would be one last time “before the hordes come and it becomes another Thailand”.
There are few truly luxurious hotels. The Governor’s Residence in Yangon is an enchanting exception, set as it is around water, with a jungly garden and delicious food. In Bagan, the Thiripyitsaya Sanctuary Resort has spectacular views over the Irrawaddy River, comfortable bungalows and an air of grandeur. In Mandalay, the Rupar Mandalar Resort has a lovely outdoor restaurant, but the rooms, though spacious and comfortable, are dark and one hears everything one’s neighbours are up to. The most beguiling looking hotels in more remote places, such as the Kandawgyi Hill Resort and Thiri Myaing Hotel (formerly known as Candacraig) in Pyin Oo Lwin, have rooms that are extremely simple and cost very little, but since they were originally private houses, the noise as people come and go means a good night’s sleep is rare. At Ngapali, Sandoway Resort has comfortable cottages (there are no personal TV sets, but there is a cinema where you can clock in for the news); be sure to ask for a sea view.
But always there are compensations. There are plentiful supplies of fresh fruits and juices, myriad vegetable dishes, and with every meal you get green tea and often fresh fruit thrown in as a gift. At Mrs Popcorn’s Organic Garden, near the Bawgyo Pagoda in Hsipaw, I ordered just three cups of tea. What came were three cups of English Breakfast Tea, three cups of green tea, fresh bananas and pineapple, some delicious biscuits and some cake. I was billed just for the tea, which came to about £1.
But speak to the locals, to those who know and love the country, and they may well beg you, as they did me, to make it clear that Myanmar isn’t yet as developed as other countries are – which is, of course, precisely why many people long to see it. Travel round the country and you can see people still living out a largely agrarian life, tending to their animals and their land as they and their ancestors have done for centuries. During the long years of military dictatorship, there were few foreign tourists and last year, when things first began to open up, Myanmar had just over 300,000 foreign visitors, compared with Thailand’s 19 million. So go now if you want to catch a glimpse of something fragile and precious; but don’t bleat about the delays, the potholes in the roads, the dust and the lack of swanky places to stay. There are few cultures left that are so intact, few countries so unspoiled. Myanmar is a wonderful place for the adventurer, for the seeker of tranquillity and enlightenment, for those deeply interested in exploring a rich and ancient culture. But as for the hedonist or the sybarite? Not Myanmar, not yet.