All that glisters

Sat, Oct 3, 2009, 01:00

Burma is one of the world’s poorest countries, run by the generals who keep Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. It’s a risky place to travel to, but worth it, writes TONY ALLWRIGHT

MYANMAR MAY NOT be every tourist’s first port of call, but this southeast Asian country, better known as Burma, has much to recommend a visit, assuming you have the perseverance and paperwork to obtain a visa.

Its nearest embassy is in London, where you can post your passport. Alternatively, you can visit a Burmese embassy in person, as I did. Flights to Burma are few, but there is a daily service from Bangkok, so you could stop there a few days while arranging your visa at the local embassy.

Once you have filled in countless forms, provided copies of your passport and travel details, furnished three passport photos and paid the requisite fees, the process is rather simple and, I found, courteous.

Rangoon airport, though small, is very new, spacious and all glass and marble. Immigration and customs work fine once you’ve filled out even more forms and had stern uniformed officials minutely scrutinise your papers.

Once you’ve cleared customs you will find a small official tourist office with helpful English-speaking staff. They can fix you up with hotel accommodation, maps, advice about what to visit, a car with English-speaking driver and numerous local tips.

Foreign mobile phones don’t work – you need to buy a local Sim card – but the internet does, just about and very slowly, but not Skype, all subtle reminders that you’re in a totalitarian state where communication must remain controllable. And don’t photograph anything military or you’ll lose your camera.

Unlike the airport, Rangoon city, 20km away, is ramshackle. Clearly there has been no maintenance for the 47 years the generals have been running the place. It reminded me of Lagos, in Nigeria, in the 1970s or Hong Kong in the 1950s: dirty, broken paving stones, potholed roads, rust-bucket vehicles, formerly gracious buildings from a bygone colonial era, hawkers selling food on the street – after dark every pavement transmogrifies into a restaurant – mothers washing their naked toddlers in the drains, laundry hanging out of the windows to dry (in the rain), coolies asleep on makeshift beds (their only home).

The only things in good condition seem to be huge and magnificent gold-clad pagodas – hence the country’s Golden Land moniker. Everyone seems very friendly and eager to talk to a foreigner – of whom there seemed to be very few.

With hard currency, everything becomes extraordinarily cheap. You quickly learn to avoid the banks, as private money-changers give you three times as many kyats (pronounced “cha”). My downtown hotel, the Panorama, cost €20 a night for a huge room. A typical dish in a restaurant will set you back a couple of euro; another euro will buy you a pint of the local beer, called Myanmar.

Via the airport tourist office I hired an ancient car with English-speaking driver for a full day’s sightseeing for €40, including tip.

Myanmar is the size of France, with 48 million people, 90 per cent of them Buddhists. It is divided into 14 provinces, most with their own language and culture, so you’ll need a lot of car days to see much of the country.

Alternatively, a day trip out of Rangoon can delight. The pagodas that dot this city of four million and the surrounding area are magnificent places of reverence, in immaculate condition and wonderfully illuminated at night, all funded privately by people with very little to spare. To see the statues, paintings and other icons and the devout worshippers, deep in prayer, almost makes you want to convert to Buddhism.

Burma’s three war cemeteries are well worth a visit, an uplifting reminder of the ultimate sacrifice made on our behalf 70 years ago by others from the nations of the world united in determination to halt Japanese imperialism.

For golfers Rangoon also has three lovely courses, with green fees of about €25, and you can also drop in for a meal and a drink.

Although Rangoon is no culinary capital, you can eat well at bargain prices throughout the city – and that Myanmar beer is wonderful.

If you talk privately to the people – and a surprising number have quite good English – you quickly learn that there is a visceral hatred, said to be shared by 90 per cent of the populace, for the military junta that governs them, backed up by 600,000 armed men in uniform.

Citizens believe that spies and informants are everywhere, much as the Stasi infiltrated East German society under the Soviets. So citizens welcome illicit activities such as black markets not just as acts of economic necessity but as symbols of political defiance. Apart from currency and the usual DVDs, these include roadside sales from rusty oil drums of unlimited petrol for a 50 per cent mark-up, as the state will sell you only nine litres a day at its official filling stations.

People will tell you they yearn for democracy and revere the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, recently incarcerated for a further 18 months on spurious charges to keep her out of politics. In 2002, Suu Kyi warned against tourists visiting the country, but last month she appeared to soften her stance by saying that visitors might help draw attention to oppression by the junta. The Department of Foreign Affairs has advised against all inessential travel to Burma in light of the political situation.

In the best traditions of nationalism and socialism, an evocative combination, the generals forbid most forms of foreign investment and retain major industry, such as there is, in the state’s hands. They prefer dealing with fellow totalitarian governments: China for mineral mining and timber exports, North Korea for secret tunnel building (and maybe even outsourced nuclear activity ). Thus you see none of the familiar multinational names, such as McDonald’s. Bureaucratic red tape impedes private enterprise except for very rudimentary businesses such as taxis, primitive restaurants and small shops.

But you will never be mugged in the street, as crime, like all important businesses, has been nationalised, and only the state machinery is allowed to rob, rape and kill.

Myanmar is a classic illustration of what happens when freedom and capitalism are suppressed: poverty and lack of development. It has an average GDP of just €850 per person, which only just keeps it out of the bottom 10 per cent of the world’s countries, poorer even than Haiti. (Ireland’s GDP last year was about €40,000 per person.) Yet it could be fabulously rich, with plenty of arable land, 1,900km of eminently fishable coastline, timber, metal ores, precious stones, hydrocarbons, hydropower and a young, bright population.

The people know that only one thing prevents Burma from emulating the economic development of their much-envied Asian neighbours, such as Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore: the iron hand of the reviled junta. They live in hope that one day democracy will arrive, even if it is, some will whisper, courtesy of an American invasion.

Where to stay, eat and go

Where to stay

Panorama Hotel. 294-300 Pansodan Street, Kyauktada, Rangoon, 00-95-1-253077, Notwithstanding the fact that this hotel has only two stars, you get a huge clean room with an en-suite bathroom for €20 a night. You can walk to the central railway station, the renowned Bogyoke market and the downtown area.

Summit Parkview Hotel. 350 Ahlone Road, Dagon, Rangoon, 00-95-1-211888, For a third star you get a bar, restaurant and pool – and another bargain price, at €27 a night.

Traders Hotel. 223 Sule Pagoda Road, Rangoon, 00-95-1-242828, yangon/traders. For those who love Shangri-La four-star style, comfort and indulgence, but still for only about €70 a night.

Where to eat

Lion World Restaurant. First floor terrace, corner of Shwedagon Pagoda Road and Anawrahta Road, Rangoon. Wonderful barbecued prawns and other seafood, along with spicy rice in various guises. A highlight is the continuous nightly floor show of singers and solemn fashionistas, interspersed with singers of Myanmar love songs.

Theik Di Shin Traditional Restaurant. Corner of Anawrahta and First Road, Lanmadaw, Rangoon, 00-95-1-223503. Delightful fish and meat dishes with lots of chilli. Well under €10 a head, including drinks.

Karaweik Palace Restaurant. Kandawgyi Lake, Mingalar Taungnyunt, Rangoon, 00-95-1-290546. If you want to push the boat out, try this magnificent gold-clad royal barge, its prows wrought like the mythical sacred hamsa bird.

Where to go

Rangoon and its surroundings have magnificent gold-clad pagodas too numerous to list. Hire a car and driver (at the airport) to take you around some of the more flamboyant. Remember to remove your shoes inside them. Don’t miss the 2,500-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda – a township of dozens of gold-clad buildings rather than just the central pagoda itself.

A visit to Taukkyan War Cemetery, 35km north of Rangoon on the PY1 road, is an uplifting experience, and a timely reminder that so many gave their lives to enable us to live in freedom and prosperity.

Go there

Etihad Airways (etihad flies from Dublin to Bangkok via Abu Dhabi. Air Asia ( flies from Bangkok to Rangoon.