Virtually untouched by tourism for the past 50 years, this enchanting Southeast Asian country is back on the traveller’s map.
oVisit now, says Sarah Marshall, before the crowds come.
Draped in colourful ribbons, with metal bells jangling wildly around their necks, a procession of twenty oxen is ploughing through the dusty dirt roads of a rural village in Bagan, central Burma. Their farm work, however, is over for the day. Instead, they’re carrying very important guests to a very important ceremony.
Shielded from the blistering sun by paper parasols, children as young at two years old are the guests of honour and focus of bystanders’ wide-eyed curiosity. All are male, although dressed in elaborate silk gowns and made up with kohl-lined eyes and pillar box red lips, you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
Most wear sullen expressions, some are confused, all are about to undergo an initiation ceremony which will allow them to become novice monks.
In Burma (or Myanmar as it was renamed by the ruling military junta in 1989) the Buddhist religion forms the backbone of everyday life.
Most males enter monasteries for a period of instruction - although for the majority of younger candidates this only lasts two weeks - and a large number of women choose to renounce goods, shave their heads and become nuns.
It’s a symbol of steadfast tradition in a country that’s changing remarkably quickly.
For many years, Burma was off the politically correct traveller’s map. But since 2011, when opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi gave tourists the green light to return, the number of foreign visitors has skyrocketed (there was a 55% increase in visitors last year).
The Nobel Peace Prize winner’s only proviso was that tourists try, where possible, to give money directly to people and small businesses, rather than contributing to inflated government taxes.
Tours are selling out quickly, and there are plans to provide 1,000 international standard hotel rooms in Yangon (the entry and exit point for most international visitors to the country) alone by the end of the year. For now, though, beds are in short supply, making an organised tour one of the best ways to visit the country.
Bagan, where plains decorated with more than two thousand (it appears no-one has an exact figure) temples have been given UNESCO world heritage status, is the religious heartland of Burma, described by Marco Polo as “one of the finest sights in the world”.
My first taste of the mystical landscape is at dawn, when I clamber in complete darkness to the top of one of the tallest temples to watch the orange sun burn through a thick mist shrouding the stone peaks.
You’d need a good week to visit every monument, but my expert guide, Myo, handpicks the best. Ananda, built by an Indian architect in 1105, is the most splendid temple - although the interior is currently undergoing a million-pound renovation after it was whitewashed by one of the military generals on apparent instruction from his astronomer.
Sadly, several temples have been damaged by similar ignorance; one has even been fitted with air conditioning, which, of course, destroys any paintings inside.
But while paintings may have faded, the strength of religious fervour is still vibrantly clear. Early one morning, I pass a truck packed with monks, some clinging to the roof and others hanging from windows. They all jump out and form an orderly queue in the street, ready to fill their cauldron-shaped alms bowls with rice prepared by locals. Hoping their good deeds will bring them one step closer to nirvana, the average Burmese person spends almost a third of their income on charitable deeds.
It’s easy to see how monasteries can offer a comfortable alternative to everyday living, providing residents with food, education and a roof. Often built from teak, with intricate carvings, many of the buildings are works of art.
I’m lucky enough to witness prayer time, as monks clothed in flowing red and orange garments settle into a trance and begin a looping, hypnotic chant. In the corner, a distracted novice monk is dismantling the wheels from a toy car; a reminder that beneath the robes he’s still just a small child.
My front row seat at this very intimate and reassuringly uncontrived performance was secured by a special gift to the monastic elders - a packet of tea brought from the Shan state, in the east of the country.
I’d purchased it just days earlier from a woman drying leaves in the former British hill station, Kalaw. A fertile, undulating landscape where oranges, jackfruit and tea are grown, the region is wonderful for hiking.
I trekked uphill to the small village where women dress in embroidered longyis (sarongs) and elaborate head scarves, and children with ripped clothes and dirty faces play happily in the sun.
People here have learned to be self-sufficient, making the most of natural resources. The same is true of nearby Inle Lake, where fishermen in wide-legged trousers and straw hats cast cone-shaped nets into the inky water. Long, thin wooden boats are piled high with vegetation dredged from the river bed and used to fertilise the island’s floating gardens, where ripe tomatoes and bulbous gourds hang from terraces.
A boat journey through the watery thoroughfares of local villages provides a snapshot of bucolic local life. Women wade into the water to wash their hair; men gut fish on the grassy banks, and the creaking of silk looms can be heard from small workshops.
It’s a far cry from the vibrant, noisy street scenes of Burma’s major cities, Yangon and Mandalay.
It’s the latter, on the Irrawaddy River, that I find particularly captivating. As I walk across the Ubein Bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world and one of the most famous sights in Burma, I encounter monks on their way to prayer, and women selling deep fried rats - and even bats.
A number of the country’s most important products are made in Mandalay, including marble effigies of Buddha in all shapes and sizes. The industry is concentrated in one street, coated white with dust. Elsewhere in the city, artisans specialise in crafting delicate puppets, or painstakingly hammering out gold leaf, used to adorn religious monuments.
Packets of gold leaf are sold in pagodas all over the country, including the grand Schwedagon pagoda in Yangon. Devotees carefully press the paper-thin pieces of gold onto statues of Buddha, draped with jasmine garlands, as part of a prayer ritual.
From dawn until dusk, life unfolds beneath the glistening golden stupa; people meditate in quiet corners, while educated monks even take the opportunity to practise English with tourists.
I meet Tazor, a 23-year-old monk who dreams of visiting the UK one day. He teaches English to children in the countryside and is desperate to develop his vocabulary.
He invites me to his monastery, where a somewhat incongruous poster of pink fluffy kittens hangs on the wall of his stifling hot shared dormitory. His other few permitted worldly possessions include an alms bowl, razor, sewing kit and a copy of the Oxford English dictionary.
“I love my country, but if The Lady ever died I’d have to leave,” he confides to me, affectionately referring to Aung San Suu Kyi. It’s remarkable he can even talk freely in public about the opposition leader; up until several years ago people were imprisoned for doing the same. But it signifies just how rapidly Burma is changing.
It seems the country has a bright future ahead, I tell him.
“We daren’t hope,” he says. But judging by the wide smile on his face, I suspect he agrees with me.
Travel facts - Burma
Sarah Marshall travelled on Explore’s 14-day Burma Highlights tour. Costing from £2,217 per person, the tour includes return flights; 13 nights’ hotel accommodation on a bed and breakfast basis; one other meal; transport and the services of a tour leader, driver, boatmen and local guides. For further information, or to book, visit www.explore.co.uk or call 0844 499 0901.