In the new Burma, there’s no need for guilt
By Andrea Sachs,
Daw Su Su Nyunt squeezed my cupped hands, causing the grooved skin to bulge with definition. Using the fleshy road map as her guide, she read my future.
“Foreigners and foreign countries are good for you,” she said, peering at my life through a pair of broken eyeglasses. “2013 is good for travel, not only in Burma but in other countries.”
Su Su, who works out of a tiny cube on a traffic island in Rangoon, has been making predictions about love, health, careers and travel since 1990. She doesn’t need much fodder — just your birthday, including the day of the week, and $10.
With these aids, she initiated a one-on-one with the cosmos, which whispered my personal forecast in her ear: I would meet someone special in July or August, move to South Korea to work for an NGO in 2015, and suffer from hypertension after age 50. And I should eat more peas.
Despite Su Su’s convictions, and my eagerness to embrace her vision of my future, I know that my tomorrow is uncertain. And I’m not alone: Burma’s is also hazy.
The country wears a cloak of mystery and mystique intensified by images of golden stupas rising out of dense jungles and Buddhist monks silhouetted in the morning mist. Over the centuries, Burma has been a tug toy among invaders (the Mongols), colonists (the Brits) and occupiers (Japanese), yet none of the marauders could dull the sheen of the Golden Land. The aspirational destination shines bright in our imaginations, a wounded yet beautiful starlet dogged by darker forces.
For nearly 50 years, a military junta ruled the Southeast Asian country, which it renamed Myanmar, affixing to its chest a scarlet letter that repelled conscientious travelers. Many tourists avoided Burma altogether, while others would try to minimize the money flowing into the government’s pockets by patronizing only independent enterprises. The joy of visiting Burma came with a taint.
But in 2011, a nominally civilian government assumed control and unspooled a string of reforms. Pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, released from house arrest, won a seat in parliament, as did other members of the once-banned National League for Democracy. Some political prisoners gained their freedom. The National League for Democracy, with Suu Kyi’s blessing, lifted its travel boycott with the caveat of practicing responsible tourism. (Note: Parts of the country, such as areas along the Chinese border and in Rakhine and Shan states, are closed to tourists or require a special permit.)
Although the guilt of traipsing around Burma hasn’t completely disappeared — the ruling party still maintains ties to the military — it has abated. The scarlet letter has been temporarily removed.
So in late January, I packed a duffel for Burma, leaving any emotional baggage behind — no tortured conscience, no sputtering excuses, no apologies. A firm believer in engagement, not isolationism, I hoped to connect with a people and a place previously cut off from the rest of the world. My campaign: to embrace Burma, not to shun it.
I also had Su Su on my side. According to my astrology guru, this is my Year of Travel. Perhaps 2015, when the country holds elections, will be my Year of Repentance. Or, depending on the results, my Year of I Did the Right Thing.
Pagodas and palm readers
Thousands of miles from the Beltway, and I’m still stuck in traffic.
In Rangoon, the former capital and home to an estimated 5 million people, cars and buses jostle on roads resembling a child’s doodle on a placemat. Drivers converse, or curse, with their horns. Pedestrians freeze mid-crossing, aware that in the pecking order of street life, they occupy the lower rungs.
A year ago, the city’s roads were less congested. Unable to afford the $50,000 price tag for a used car, residents had to rely on buses and bikes (motor and pedal) and their own two feet. Then the new government lowered the cost to $10,000, creating a sticky conveyor belt of metal and exhaust.
Fortunately, progress hasn’t usurped nature or recreation. One early morning at Lake Inya, an artificial body of water created during British rule (roughly 1825 to 1948), a group of women exercised with long bamboo poles while runners sweated along the trail snuggling the shores. Butterflies fluttered among bushes of acid-pink bougainvillea.
Compared with our company, my guide, Win, and I were sloths. We moved in fits and starts, stopping to chat with a trio of Dutch women (part of the baton-wielding crew), resuming our walk, then pausing again to talk to an elegant Burmese woman gazing at the misty water. She spoke of her good fortune in life, measured by the success of her family: her husband, a former Royal Air Force serviceman, and her sons, a globe-trotting mariner and a university student. After we parted ways, she turned back to the lake, a proud matriarch surrounded by silent beauty.
Until this point, Win and I had barely touched on the political situation. Only the sight of Suu Kyi’s stately white house on the opposite shore of Lake Inya sparked the once-taboo topic.
“Now she is very busy to save us,” said the 43-year-old, who relocated to Thailand after the Saffron Revolution in 2007, the nonviolent anti-government protests that the junta swiftly and aggressively quashed. Win openly explained his need to flee the tyranny for gentler arms: “The government killed Buddhist monks and people. This is never very good for the future of our country. I had to find democracy.” Last June, encouraged by the peaceful and progressive changes at home, he returned to Burma hoping to find democracy waiting for him.
So far, he’s withholding his full endorsement. He acknowledges the positive advances. After then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and President Obama visited, “a lot of English-speaking tourists came. It gets better every day,” he says. But he’s wary: “I know the political situation is not very sure.”
He looked toward Suu Kyi’s house, a cradle of possibility and promise. “I believe her,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of Burma believes her.”
Our conversation continued at another lake, Kandawgyi, and on another path, this one patrolled by a family in charge of collecting the entry fee. The littlest toll agent, about 2, posed for a picture — a “Toddlers and Tiaras” head tilt, hand to cheek, cherubic smile. She was a pro, probably conditioned by many Westerners’ requests for a photo.
We completed the entire boardwalk, with a detour at a Buddhist temple, then drove to the other side of the lake, from where we’d heard the strangled croaks of karaoke singers. The 110-acre Kandawgyi Nature Park is an escapist’s flight of tropical trees, flowers and elephant statues — the ideal place to picnic and belt out Burmese standards. At the water’s edge, Win prodded me to step out onto a platform and take a photo of Shwedagon Pagoda in the distance.
I imagine that all of Win’s tour-goers snap the same photo of the golden stupa reflected in the lake’s unbroken mirror. But I’m not sure that everyone knows that Win is a Wednesday-born.
When you meet a local, he or she probably won’t grill you about which day of the week you were born on. But it’s a handy bit of information to have. For example, at Shwedagon Pagoda, Win showed me a pillar of spiritual animal sculptures designating each day of the week (Wednesday earns two mentions, one for morning and one for evening). I wanted to know: Was I a lion, a tiger or a rat? And to go even deeper into the universe’s personality chart: Was my dominant trait funny, garrulous or stingy? I needed professional help to find the answers.
Palm readers and astrologers congregate around Rangoon’s temples and parks, eager to reveal your future for a few kyat. Win initially dissuaded me from a session, warning of a potential scam. The clairvoyant, he said, would discern a negative fortune and then request more money to reverse the bad luck. But I ignored his advice when I saw Su Su’s serene moon face through an open door near Sule Pagoda. She seemed honest and professional with her desk, computer and astrology charts pinned to the wall. Plus, according to a storefront sign, she had a B.S.C., which I assumed was a bachelor’s certificate in the science of cosmology.
Su Su won even Win over. When she opened up the floor for questions, he asked her whether Wednesday mornings (me) and evenings (him) make a compatible love match. They’re “good friends,” she said, wise to his line of inquiry.
A sacred site
I had a cushy journey to Golden Rock in Mon state: a five-hour drive from Rangoon, with leisurely stops at temples in Bago, at a World War II cemetery outside Rangoon and at a Chinese restaurant with views of rice paddies; an open-air truck ride with a prime seat beside the side railing; and a sprightly hike to the top carrying a feather-light bag.
Other pilgrims, however, often endure more arduous trips to one of Burma’s most sacred Buddhist sites. Setting out from ethnic tribal villages, they may spend 15 hours in a cramped public bus and six hours trekking along a steep forested trail leading to the giant nugget. Their backs may bend under the weight of camping gear and fidgety children. Their feet, especially those of hermits and monks, may be bare.
Still, over the past decade and a half, the trip has improved significantly for all adventurers. Eight years ago, the road from Bago to Kinpun village, the entry point to the rock, was as rough and rutted as an elephant hide; now, cars skate over the smooth pavement. And about 15 years back, visitors could reach the boulder and pagoda atop Mount Kyaiktiyo only by foot. Today, hefty trucks run guests up the serpentine road, though some still prefer the traditional approach.
“They like to visit the forest,” said my guide, as we watched figures disappear into nature’s waiting arms. “They like to feel the trees.”
A more recent change is also occurring: Slowly and steadily, more Europeans, Americans and Australians are showing up at the rock. I wasn’t the lone Western cowgirl.
During my trip-planning stage, I would have thought otherwise. I’d unearthed scant information about the attraction; my (granted, outdated) Lonely Planet guidebook ignored it entirely. Even my travel agent, Marcia Selva, who has visited Burma about 25 times over 16 years, has never ventured to the site. On the day of my visit, though, I could take credit only for being the sole Canadian-born, Massachusetts-raised Washington resident. I identified Swedes, Norwegians, Germans, French and an Italian woman, who frustratingly yelled at the rushing mob, “The queue is over here,” pointing behind her.
But I don’t want to overstate the Western contingent. I still saw dozens of cheeks and noses covered in thanaka, the yellowish cosmetic paste Burmese wear as sun protection and decoration (the pressed leaf pattern is particularly popular). We all stood together, plain and powdered faces, waiting for the truck.
The roofless vehicles depart from a covered loading dock in the center of a village that knows its customers. Strolling vendors sell sun hats, many frilly with lace and fake flowers, and bottled water. Locals cook up fried bark that tastes of crispy onions and offer samples of homemade fruit jams. Outside simple huts, craftsmen array their bamboo wares, including storage shelves and toy guns with wire triggers that emit a loud pop when squeezed. Inscribed on the firearms, curiously, were the letters “USA.” There were also some phrases in Burmese script.
“I’ll shoot you if you don’t love me,” Win translated for me. “All the women in the village will be widows.”
He laughed at the jokey phrases; I grimaced at the violent connotations and the misperception of America as a land of gun-wielding Rambos. Wednesday-borns don’t always chuckle in harmony, but maybe, through continued exposure and exchanges, we can strip away the false imagery and reveal the true nature of our cultures. If only I’d brought a Bob Dylan compilation to share with Win.
Boarding the truck requires patience and an internal cooling system. The imperfect procedure starts with a mad scramble to the waiting vehicle and a climb up a rickety ladder, though some prefer to jump in from the opposite side. Then you wait in the heat, sticking to your seatmate, as the driver tries to pack more people onto the long benches. Just when you think they’ve reached the 40-person maximum, another two people wedge themselves into the space once occupied by your elbow.
Once we were on the way, though, the cool mountain air wicked off my sweat, and the jumble of bodies snapped into place like Legos. The truck rambled up the hill, teetering around switchbacks, storming up the steeps, groaning and grunting for 30 minutes or so. And then it stopped. It could go no farther. Now it was up to our legs — or porters bearing visitors on Cleopatra-style stretchers — to carry us to the finish line.
So, you may ask, what would compel one to travel such great distances, sacrificing essential electrolytes and personal space? The legend will tell you in its own words.
About 2,000 years ago, a hermit possessed a hair from Buddha’s head. The king requested the relic; negotiations between the parties ensued. The hermit finally ceded the tress, but only on the condition that a spirit lift from the bottom of the sea a giant boulder shaped like a hermit head, enshrine the hair in the granite and set the whole arrangement on a precarious perch. As a final flourish (to the shrine, not the legend), a pagoda was placed atop the rock like a party hat, and both pieces received the gold-leaf treatment. (Spoiler alert: Every three to five years, the attraction undergoes renovations that hide its golden face behind a bamboo mask. My visit coincided with the weeks-long project.)
“When I was 7,” admitted Win, as we stood beside a smaller golden rock representing the spirit’s boat, “I pushed the rock and felt it move.” Fortunately, Buddha’s hair has the strength of Super Glue and the ability to foil a child’s antics.
Despite the sacred nature of Golden Rock, the surrounding scene sizzled like a state fair. On a vast concrete terrace, visitors sprawled on blankets eating sticky rice and curry purchased from a row of food stands. Children chased electric toys and one another. Masseurs rubbed the knotted muscles of pilgrims, their hands slick with a blend of mountain goat oil and herbs stored in whiskey bottles.
Families snapped photos of each other and of me, considered a lucky charm and a novelty because of my Western physique. (I learned of my uniqueness at Shwemawdaw Temple in Bago, when a group from the Karen tribe requested a group portrait with me. I’m also in the photo album of members of the Mon race, including a young man who giggled and blushed when I flung my arm around his shoulder.)
Closer to the rock itself, the pageantry grew more solemn and spiritual. The air turned thick with burning incense, the curling smoke smudging the dark outlines of praying Buddhists. Bodies rose and fell, hands clasped, foreheads touching the ground.
The magnitude of the moment was intense. Even the sight of Golden Rock swaddled in bamboo matting couldn’t shake the worshipers’ veneration. The light of Buddha can shine through any renovation project.
On the beach
I felt so guilty.
No, not for that reason. My conscience was all red in the face because I was lounging on Ngapali Beach and not racing around the temples of the ancient city of Bagan or the floating villages of Inle Lake. I was acting like an irresponsible sightseer. But — excuse me, may I have another mai tai? — I got over it.
In my defense, my time on the two-mile strand in Rakhine state, on the west coast, was not completely self-indulgent. It was only 99 percent fluff.
In pursuit of my 1 percent of dutiful tourism, I left the pampered side of the beach — the one salted with resort chaise longues and peppered with restaurant chalkboards touting drink specials and fresh seafood — for the industrious side.
In the dimming afternoon sun, young Burmese men heaved nets onto bobbing boats, preparing for an evening run. Mothers tended to children, who often broke free to push a shell into the palm of a passerby. An older child wrote “my name is” in English, using his finger as a pencil and the sand as paper. He beamed at the American.
To pull out the old trope: Ngapali is Thailand’s Phuket 30 years ago. At this early stage of development, village bungalows outnumber hotels. Bikes, tuk-tuks and oxcarts dominate the main road, a single thread paralleling the beach. Silvery fish still sun-dry on blue tarps, as they had the day before and last year and a decade ago.
I cruised around on a rickety bike like Mister Rogers, waving to the neighbors. I stopped in at Ngapali Art Gallery, where the artist invited me into his studio. He handed me a bottle of water and directed me to the couch, across from a portrait of a Frenchman.
We talked about Kandinsky and metaphysics, and he shared his struggles as a Muslim and a minority in Burma. As the sky started to darken, he escorted me to my bike. He continued to talk, lamenting the cronyism that still pervades the government and the uncertainty that still hangs over the country. We shook hands, a strong shake between friends, and I pedaled off.
The next morning, I had to fly back to Rangoon, but I had one unresolved issue rattling around in my brain. After breakfast, I walked down to the shore, stuck a toe in the clear water and jumped into the Bay of Bengal.
Now, I had no regrets.
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