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Burma in a bubble

I had no idea what to expect as my plane descended into Rangoon. Night concealed the Burmese landscape. The darkness increased the suspense. I would have preferred a more gradual introduction by land. The prolonged conflict in Burma’s extremes meant the only way in was to fly. Inside the terminal I was asked to recount several generations of family history. The Military Junta remain suspicious of foreigners, especially from the west. I was welcomed to Burma with a thorough search of my person and bag.

The next morning the city was awash with activity. Old Chinese and Indian vehicles spluttered and roared along wide streets. Markets spilled out onto narrow pavements already crowded by people.

Barefooted monks collected alms in single file lines as businessmen crammed onto beaten city busses. I watched people’s daily routines from a tea shop set into a decaying Victorian building. The faces I saw outside may have embodied a mixing pot of Asia. The city they inhabited still felt distinctly British. A lot of Rangoon is still comprised of buildings built by the British. Without the years of decay it would look as it did when Rudyard Kipling visited in 1889. Other features which have defied time are the gilded pagodas and stupas of which Burma is famed. The largest and most ostentatious of these is the Shwedagon Pagoda. Its needle projects in an eruption of gold from the city skyline. One hundred intricately spired halls and pavilions surround the bell shaped main stupa. This huge centrepiece is plated by 8,688 solid gold slabs and topped by 2,317 rubies and 5,449 diamonds. It is a treasured icon in a country containing 40 million Buddhists and a reminder of Burma’s once great wealth and influence.

I left Rangoon and headed north towards the 2nd city of Mandalay.

The scenery quickly changed into a patchwork of lush rice paddies. Each interjected by clumps of palms and stilted wooden huts. The road was sealed but visibly lumpy which made the bus ride feel like a tube train going down stairs. As we approached a column of black smoke in the distance I found out why. A team of five men were widening a section of road by hand; all they had were shovels, rakes and the kind of roller that’s commonly found in the tool shed of a local cricket club.

A barrel of tar was partly encased by flaming tires to melt it for application. This gave off an acrid smoke yet all the men had for protection was cloth tied over their mouth and nose.

It took all day to cover the 400 miles to Mandalay leaving me tired and hungry. I found one of the city’s vibrant markets which at night occupy closed sections of city streets. I sat at a long bench beside a food stall and was handed a bowl of stewed goat and rice. I copied the local diners by adding a range of unfamiliar vegetables from pots that lined the bench. Obviously a novelty, I was treated with curiosity and repeatedly served different dishes to try. To their delight I enjoyed it all. The goat was especially tender and I left with my stomach leading the way back to my guesthouse. The next day I made my way to Mandalay Hill to take in its commanding vistas of the otherwise flat city. A large golden Buddha watches over the city from the top, its arms outstretched towards the city fort. The long, square fort was once the royal centre of Burma and protected the Royal Palace until it’s destruction in WW2. The high teak battlements and wide moat now serve to house a replica palace alongside army barracks. This isn’t all that’s changed in Mandalay. Unlike Rangoon, the colonial footprint has been replaced by ugly Chinese style blocks. Traditional wooden buildings have also disappeared in the flood of crude concrete and metal.

To get a feel for how things were I visited the U Bein Bridge which was just a short ride out of town.

Simple teak trunks rise out of the river to support almost a mile of undulating boards. As the sun descended over the paddy fields it set them on fire with a dazzling blaze of crimson tones. A bus load of elderly Germans were snapping away from boats on the river. I joined a group of novice monks who were sat on the bridge in quiet contemplation.

My first few days in Burma had opened my eyes to its treasures. A glorious heritage and proud people remain in a bubble. Detached from the world by a reclusive regime, uncertain of its’ future. I felt privileged to experience this country and had only scratched the surface by the end of my visa.

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