Myanmar Then and Now-Part One

More than twenty years ago, I went to Myanmar when it was still called Burma.  I flew there from Katmandu.  Compared to the cool, crystalline mountain air of Nepal, the hot, moist, Burmese air felt stifling, thick.  Day one, we left the Inya Lake Hotel and traveled to downtown Yangon to purchase tickets to Pagan.  We never left Yangon because the first of many revolts against the military government started.  Everyone strongly opposed going there by the night train and the last plane headed that way had been shot down.  Personally, I was willing to take the risk but could find no one else willing to go with me.  Everyone was under a 6 pm to 6 am curfew.  Unexpectedly, hundreds of hotel guests were confined to the hotel and its grounds, thankfully rather expansive.  This unusual circumstances provided unexpected opportunities.   To accommodate feeding everyone dinner, the hotel staff asked guests to share tables.  I shared a table with a man from South Korea there to build a sport shoe factory, two women from Germany headed to a medication retreat, and a gentleman with an English accent.  We shared life stories except the “Englishman”.  His sharing seemed a little “off”.  Later, when the rest of us chatted and put together what little he shared, we decided perhaps he was an arms dealer.  One evening guests experienced the privilege of watching the guests for an elaborate Burmese wedding, complete with traditional wedding clothing.

Although clean and orderly, this “one of the best hotels in Burma” looked more like photos of Russian army barracks than the hotels to which most of the guests were accustomed and absolutely nothing like anything else near Yangon.  Few cars roamed the streets.  The most common vehicles were small pickup trucks in which the bed had been transformed into an open air van complete with seats and a cloth roof.  The populace exuded an air of dejection.  Those who bothered to save money saw it devalued to nearly nothing.  The once elegant, ornate buildings showed signs of disrepair and decay.  A country which was once the world’s largest exporter of rice was rationing it as well as gasoline.

Unless you sleep twelve hours a day, curfews present challenges.  What do you do with yourself for all those evening hours after 6 pm hits besides eat a leisurely dinner.  I walked the glorious hotel gardens repeatedly and became acquainted with the hotel gardener who spoke perfect English and whose father had attended Columbia University.  His roses were as tall as I am.  He asked me repeatedly, ” How does my garden measure up to modern standards?”  When I offered tp send him horticulture magazines, he told me they would be confiscated as evil, foreign influences.  Paddle boats lined the lake’s edges.  Guests could use them free but  guests were told not to go far out because we might get shot at.  The luxurious villas of the ruling military elite lay readily visible on the distant opposite shoreline.

During the day, everyone rushed out to make the most possible out of the 12 free hours.  Mainly, I recall an overwhelming sense of gold, glitter, and glass tiles reflecting the tropical light.  At first, it induced a feeling of slight nausea, so much sensory input I felt slightly sick.  But I adjusted.  As if scattered, glittery golden temples were not enough, there rose the Shwedagon Pagoda, 99 meters covered in gold, real gold.  I spent an entire day there, wandering its environs and still missed some of it. Saffron clad monks, vendors selling “sacred” items and snacks, nearly a city within itself,  old, originally  built in 1372 and 344 feet high, repeatedly rebuilt after earthquakes and foreign raids.  Impressive is an understatement.

If Burmese history and culture interest you, I recommend three fascinating novels:

To Save Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan

The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason

The Glass Palace by Amitov Ghosh

All three focus on one or more of the ethnic groups that inhabit Myanmar and on their relationships with each other.  The latter two are historical novels and in particular Ghosh’s book provides a fascinating history of that part of Asia.



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