Bewitched by Burma


Go Burma:A river cruise through some of Burma’s most sacred sights and stunning scenery – it’s experiential overload says Manchán Magan

IN BURMA AN informer is called “the handle of the axe” – the weapon used to attack the tree is made of the tree itself. No, I can’t start a travel article like that. How about, there is a uniqueness to the quality of light in Burma that is impossible to define – diffuse, muted, venerable. No, too general. Perhaps I should talk about all the precious minerals – the silver, rubies, sapphires, jade and gold, or the potency of cultural influences – Indian and Hindu from the west, Chinese and Thai from the east, Tibetan and Himalayan from the north; all fused with more than 100 indigenous tribal groups and then embossed with the legacy of British colonialism.

Why is Burma so hard to discuss? Even the name is tricky: is it Burma as the UK and US claim, or Myanmar, the UN-recognised name given by the military junta in 1989? And how has it survived as a hidden realm, still cut off from the rest of the world in the control of a tyrannical regime despite decades of international sanctions and the denial of World Bank assistance?

Sorry, I’m struggling here. I’m only now recovering from Burma’s assault on my mental circuit boards. The potency of its culture sideswiped me, not to mention the lingering immediacy of its past.

Maybe I should just start with the facts. I travelled with Orient-Express Hotels, Trains and Cruises down the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) River, the snaking stretch of water coursing north to south through Burma, past temples, palaces and pagodas from lush forest to arid wilderness. To some, the notion of a luxury cruise through the heart of a lost semi-mythic empire, might seem a touch Kublai Khanian, something from a fever dream, but that is what Orient-Express do now.

They’ve taken the concept of their London-to-Venice Orient-Express train, a moving metal sliver of art-deco decadence, and replicated it in various ingenious ways around the world – dropping exclusive haut-style and luxury into remote destinations, in the form of trains, ships or hotels. I’ve visited their lodges in the bottom of a remote canyon in Peru, and taken one of their trains into the Andes, but their enterprise in Burma is on another level.

Basically, they’ve taken a beautifully restored Rhine cruiser and hauled it, Fizcarraldo-like, across half the world and then dropped it into the Irrawaddy River, where they cruise mainly between the fabled destinations of Mandalay and Bagan, with occasional seasonal expeditions up through the green-clad gorges into the mountains to Bhamo in the far north.

The ship is called The Road to Mandalay. Any description of it could hardly do justice to the sheer incongruity of seeing this massive white river cruiser, with richly-oiled teak decking and a glinting blue plunge pool moored amidst paddy fields outside the eponymous city. The contrast with the simple bamboo and teak huts on either side of the river and the plodding buffalo carts and heaving labourers yoked to wooden ploughs is akin to what English galleons must have looked like to the Algonquin Indians as they pulled into Chesapeake Bay.

IT’S NOT SOmuch about wealth versus poverty, or sophistication versus simplicity, because just beyond the ship is a sight that humbles even it, that makes of it a tiny grasshopper compared to the glorious Sagaing Hill rising up behind – Burma’s most sacred hill, garlanded with over 600 monasteries and a thousand soaring pagodas clinging to its craggy, densely forested slopes. It is here that most of Burma’s 27,000 Buddhist nuns live, as well as a fair proportion of the country’s 650,000 monks. The sheer abundance of gold dripping from temples, stupas (Buddhist icons) and pagodas eclipses the ship, especially at night when the roofs of every temple and stupa are lit up, transforming the hill into a shimmering UFO.

Mandalay is an experiential overload in itself: Burma’s spiritual and cultural capital, her last royal city, where the great King Thibaw Min surrendered to some pasty British lackey 130 years ago, thereby ending the rule of kings that stretched directly back to the Buddha’s time, wiping clear the certainty of thousands of years of culture. Of the great Royal Palace of Mandalay all that now survives is the Shwendaw Kyaung, a gnarled black teak temple, long stripped of its gold leaf and glass mosaic panels, but still alluring with its panels of writhing spirit carvings in an inky kerosene finish. The fact that King Thibaw’s meditation couch is still there, sitting in the open air as though the king had just gone off for a second in 1885 and could return at any moment, is eerie.

This sense of timelessness is evident everywhere in Mandalay: in the Mahamuni Pagoda in which worshippers frantically murmur devotion before a massive golden Buddha, rubbing tiny sheets of gold-leaf into his already obscenely swollen body. The air of piety is as thick as the layer of gold built up by the countless millions of penniless, but impassioned, devotees who have come to gild the Buddha over centuries.

The less monumental artefacts are equally affecting: U Bein’s wooden bridge – a tall spindly teak bridge that stilt-walks across Taungthaman Lake on 984 teak posts – captures the eye with its complex geometric pattern and the crimson-robed monks rattling across the 250-year-old bridge boards in leather sandals and on bikes, their begging bowls bobbing against their lean bodies. It’s hard to pinpoint precisely what is it that burns these scenes into one’s memory banks, what lulls one back through the centuries – the Canaletto light reflected on the oyster-coloured water and egg-blue sky, the sounds of the heavy-teak oars whining in their rope locks, or the far off echoes of cymbals, gongs and pagoda bells.

THE JOURNEY BYriver from Mandalay to Bagan takes 24 hours – a day and night cocooned in luxury. Looking out from my teak-panelled, jade-walled superior cabin at river life floating by was bewildering: flotillas of rice-laden barges, sand diggers camped on river islands, forgotten stupas, their white masonry crumbling, their ancient green-glazed tiles glistening in the sun, and then long empty expanses, suddenly relieved by a thatched hut shaded under palm trees and an array of blouses, rugs and longyis in motley colours drying on the bank.

The journey felt like it would spool on endlessly; a hypnotic dream interspersed only by calls to the diningroom or the top-deck buffet where the head chef, a veteran of some of the world’s best kitchens, would describe the dishes he had prepared.

Meals memorable as much for their taste as for the global span of ingredients: French cheese, Norwegian salmon, Spanish veal, Australian beef – all shipped in by refrigerated containers, with weekly air-lifts of more delicate items.

The element that most struck me on previous Orient-Express holidays was the breadth of knowledge of the guides they use and their capacity for analysis. Anything I wanted to know about the culture, sociology, psychology of the country could be answered; from how to make a perfect Burmese green tealeaf salad (it’s about the quality of the dried shrimp) to why the military regime has endured. (The latter answered in such a way as to avoid imprisonment if overheard by any handle-of-the-axes.)

FOR A LUXURYtrip, it was remarkable how much direct engagement with local people was encouraged and facilitated, including a long cycle ride through scrubland visiting bamboo villages, and helping out with Buddhist alms giving.

The ship’s destination was Bagan, a former centre of Buddhist spirituality and learning, where 13,000 temples, pagodas, stupas and other religious structures were built on a broad plain beside the river, between the mid-11th century and Kublai Khan’s arrival in 1289.

Only a few thousand structures still survive, but they are still breathtaking, especially when seen at dawn from a hot-air balloon – 42 square kilometres of temple upon temple stretching out amidst acacia trees hammers home Asia’s cultural superiority to Europe. Its only equivalent on earth is Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

To ensure they sucker-punch you with experiential overload, Orient-Express top and tail the river cruise with a stay in the capital, Rangoon, but in no ordinary hotel: rather, they have restored a Burmese teak mansion, the Governor’s Residence.

It’s a former palace of the Shan provincial governor, set in lush gardens and surrounded by an elegant pool – it’s all deep-cushioned armchairs, fine porcelain, lotus gardens and hushed splendour.

As one of the last undiscovered realms, Burma definitely deserves a visit.

The only question remains as to the ethics of it – whether tourism helps highlight the human rights abuses or legitimises them; whether the weapon used to attack the tree can be made of a foreign tree.

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