Myanmar 2007: Buddhists and Dictators
The brutality and callousness shown recently by the ruling military dictators of Myanmar belies the deeply pacific and humane values of its people. It’s a country of spectacular gold domed Buddhist temples, 50,000 monasteries and half a million saffron robed monks. I planned my trip weeks before the political turmoil erupted late in 2007, mindful of the regime’s human rights violations. On balance, I decided in favor of visiting because contact between locals and foreigners benefits both in many ways and much of the revenue from tourism goes to service workers. Having made the decision to go, I had to rethink the trip after the brutal crackdown of the Buddhist monks’ demonstrations for better economic conditions. With so much international attention focused on Myanmar, I decided it would be safe.A few observations sum up the political and economic situation in Myanmar. First, traffic regulations require cars to be driven on the right side of the road, but the steering wheel in most cars is also on the right side, symbolizing the government’s blindness to oncoming events. Second, government agencies such as museums accept only new foreign currency notes, mostly dollars, in payment for services and reject old notes or those with unfamiliar serial numbers. They do this despite the sinking dollar’s faster depreciation than the local currency, which is also losing value because of the high domestic inflation rate. Third, the bureaucratic requirements for every formal transaction such as entry to a museum, riding a ferry are daunting including forms in triplicate, passport and visa details etc. This cumbersome procedure is reminiscent of India until a decade or two ago and could be a legacy of British rule in both countries, especially as Indians initially staffed Myanmar’s bureaucracy.
Myanmar is a fairly big country covering an area of 677, 000 sq kms with a population of 59 million, making it sparsely populated at 87 per sq km. Most of it is flat and fertile with navigable rivers running through, most notably the Ayeyarwady, which is 2000 km long. Mountains to the north border Bangladesh, India, China, Laos and Thailand. Myanmar has abundant agricultural and mineral resources. About two-thirds of its cultivated land produces rice, the main staple. Its forests have historically been famous for many rare wood varieties. Infamously, it is the world’s second largest producer of opium. It supplies 90 percent of the world’s rubies and also exports other gems such as jade and sapphire. Its current geo-political resource lure stems from its oil and gas reserves. Myanmar’s main trade partners are China, Singapore, Thailand and India. It has a high rate of literacy and also enjoys the privilege of ranking as the most corrupt country in the world, tied with Somalia for that signal achievement.
Lonely Planet, published in 2005, has its income per capita at $1733, I guess for 2004 or 2003. People seemed well-fed in the cities and rural areas. There was no evidence of the searing poverty of Mumbai slums or the Bihar countryside. According to IMF data, the economy is growing at 5 or 6 percent per annum, but inflation is high at about 35 percent. Difficult economic and political conditions have led to substantial emigration. Registered migrant workers from Myanmar in Thailand number in excess of 600,000 and millions more work there illegally. The exchange rate is awkwardly managed. The official rate has been fixed for many years at 6 Kyats per US$, but the readily available parallel rate adjusts to market conditions. For tourists, most transactions are in dollars (US or Sing) or Euros except for taxis and local restaurants.
Burma, as it was named by the British, achieved its independence in 1948 and, after brief periods of democracy, it has been ruled by a succession of military regimes since 1962. One of these regimes renamed the country Myanmar, an older name for the region (Myanma). Everyone I spoke to preferred Myanmar to Burma, which is based on the largest ethnic group, the Bamars. In fact, although Bamars constitute two-thirds of the population, there are seven other indigenous sub-nationalities and Chinese and Indian immigrants in significant numbers. Myanmar is considered a more inclusive name for the country, yet the Western press insists on calling it “Myanmar also known as Burma”, which is like saying “Zimbabwe also known as Rhodesia”. Almost 90 percent of the population is devoutly Buddhist, although with Hindu and animist elements. For that reason, Myanmar has 50,000 Buddhist monasteries and 500,000 monks. Local lore has Emperor Ashoka dispatching the first missionaries to the region, but my reading of history suggests that it was probably the Third Buddhist Council during his reign. Ashoka’s sent “Dhamma” embassies west to the capitals of Alexander’s successors.
I talked to a Myanmaran of Indian origin on my way from Chiang Mai in Thailand to Mandalay in Myanamar. That contact snowballed into meeting several others that provided me with various services—car, currency exchange, jewelry, hotel, etc. These immigrants were completely assimilated into Myanmar. They knew of their Indian origin but had forgotten their ancestral home and language. Many had intermarried and taken local names and adopted Buddhism as their religion, although some kept their family names and most retained their original religions (Muslim, Hindu and Christian). Indians migrated after the final British conquest in the mid-1880s and became the majority population of Yangon by 1930. Chinese immigration was also encouraged during that period. Both communities were depleted by politically supported substantial out-migration during the 1960s. Nevertheless, some estimates show the Indian population at 3 million.
Myanmar’s main tourist attractions are its Buddhist temples and stupas and some palaces. As you will see below, there are so many temples, each with several Buddha statues, that unless a visitor has a special knowledge or interest, it becomes difficult to distinguish one from the other after a few days. Some are, however, unforgettably huge. Ever the thorough researcher, I visited all the sites singled out by the guide book in Mandalay, Bagan and Yangon.
I started my trip in Mandalay, the last royal capital before the British conquest and only 150 years old. It lies on both banks of the Ayeyarwady with a steep hill on one side that gives a view of the Shan hills. It is the second largest city in the country, but much smaller than Yangon. The famous Glass Palace is an attraction, but probably not the city’s main one. By the way, the “glass” nomenclature is not because of the extensive use of glass in its decoration or construction. In fact, reflections from glass were used to measure and align the many buildings in the palace complex. The original palace was destroyed during WW II, leaving only the huge boundary walls, moat and the base of the central pavilion, which has been rebuilt. The most prominent building in the complex is the Lion Throne room with two audience halls. It is 200 feet tall and topped by a seven tier gold pagoda spire on the roof. The pavilion is upheld by several huge pillars and the interior is painted in intricate crimson and gold patterns, but the exterior is more plainly painted in the same colors and accented with wood carvings. It could convey the grandeur of the original, but that impression is marred by the new corrugated aluminum roof. Unfortunately, the rebuilding was done with forced labor, which leaves a bad taste. The adjoining Culture Museum building was closed during my visit because it was raining.
Near the palace, I found two interesting buildings, a former monastery and a temple. The Shwenandaw Kyaung was originally in the palace grounds, but luckily moved out before WW II, thereby avoiding destruction. It became a monastery for many years and is now a tourist site. It is a four tier pagoda made of wood and covered with carved panels inside and out, although the outside panels are weather-beaten. Many of the inside panels are in good condition and were originally covered with gold leaf. Some represent Jataka scenes. It was architecturally and aesthetically the most pleasing structure I saw on the trip. The Kuthadaw Paya had the mandatory huge gold stupa of course, a sight I got accustomed to, but its distinctiveness came from the entire 15 books of the Tripitaka (Buddhist canon) inscribed in Pali (ancient Indian script also used by Ashoka for his inscriptions) on 729 marble slabs about four feet tall and two feet wide. Each slab was housed in its own small whitewashed stupa. It took 2400 monks reading non-stop for six months to finish the book. Imagine how long it must have taken an army of monks to carve the slabs.
Mahamuni Paya is a large temple complex with many shops lining the covered access paths. Its main attraction is a large bronze seated Buddha possibly cast in the first century ACE. The bronze cannot be seen because it is covered with gold leaf placed by worshippers trying to earn merit. I was allowed to climb to the base of the statue where I had to jostle with people placing new gold leaf on the statue. I wondered what Buddha would have thought about his deification and ornamentation, a subject I will take up later. The temple also housed a few Khmer bronze figures from Angkor Wat, including two Shiva images. They were stolen by the Thais when they sacked the temple and stolen again by a Myanmar king who sacked Ayuthaya, then the Thai capital. Near the approach to Mandalay Hill was a shrine containing the Peshawar (Pakistan) relic. My guidebook said this relic was sent by Emperor Ashoka, but the shrine’s literature said it was King Kanishka, who lived many centuries later. I pointed out the discrepancy to the monks who asked for my opinion on the matter. Thinking it was unlikely that either of the monarchs sent the relic, I said I didn’t know, but it was more likely Ashoka than Kanishka because legend has it that he distributed Buddha’s relics far and wide.
I made a couple of forays just outside Mandalay. The first trip was to Amarapura, Inwa and Sagaing. The first stop was at an active monastery at a time when hundreds of robed young monks lined up with their bowls to receive food ladled by donors trying to earn merit. I’m not sure why tourists were brought to see this, but I was moved to see the young brave men that had challenged the military regime non-violently a few weeks ago. Mandalay has 60 percent of Myanmar’s monks and is known as the city of monks. They had been sent home after the crackdown and had recently returned. The trip’s remarkable sight was the approach to Sagaing, an ancient capital, and the view from the top of its hill. It is home to 500 stupas and more monasteries with gold spires reaching for the sky. Apparently, stressed monks come to Sagaing to chill out because of its peaceful location by the river.
The second trip was to Mingun, about 11km upriver from Mandalay. I had planned to travel downriver from Mandalay to Bagan, but the ferry service was cancelled for lack of tourists. The two-hour trip to Mingun was my only voyage on the fabled Ayeyarwardy river. There wasn’t much to see except a few fishing villages with old simple boats and thatched huts, a scene that could have been seen hundreds of years ago. It was pouring rain when we got to Mingun, making tourism a challenge. Partly because of the weather, but mainly because of the political turmoil, tourists were so few that we were overwhelmed by hawkers for various curios and services trying earn their living. After a while, their intrusion became annoying, but this experience was light compared to what was forthcoming in Bagan. Anyway, the main sight was the Mingun Paya, a huge incomplete temple split apart by an earthquake, matching the size of the Anuradhapura stupas in Sri Lanka. The town also housed the largest uncracked bronze bell in the world weighing 90 tons, which I dutifully struck with a huge wooden mallet three times for luck. On the way back to the ferry, I chanced upon an artist, which led to interesting purchases of abstract paintings and political discussions that I will relate below.
My visit to Bagan is difficult to recount even though it is the main archeological zone of Myanmar with its heyday between 1057 and 1287 ACE when it was overrun by Kublai Khan. The number of temples and stupas is simply stupefying–no other word for it. The Bagan kings apparently built 4400 temples, but many have not survived. Nevertheless, over 2000 temples remain and new small ones are being built by families to earn merit. I was told that the cost of a small stupa was about $5000, which is a paltry sum if it actually ends up earning merit. An earthquake in 1975 damaged several temples, but most have been rebuilt. Some temples are quite large and have architectural and artistic merit, but none are in the same league as Angkor Wat or Bayon in Cambodia. Taken together, however, they do present a challenge to those magnificent structures. The sheer scale of the undertaking is staggering.
I visited at least 20 prominent temples in three days and got thoroughly confused. Each had a distinct architectural style, and some included Hindu features such as the central vertical spire like a pineapple. Among these were Ananda Pahto (1100) and Mahabodhi Paya (1215) which, as its name implies, was modeled after the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya where the Buddha attained enlightenment. One Hindu temple, dedicated to Vishnu, remained among the ocean of Buddhist temples. It could have been built in 931, preceding the main Buddhist era. Some temples had remnants of frescos and murals, mostly badly damaged. Ceilings were painted in patterns and murals depicted Buddhist legends and scenes from the Bagan period. Each of the main temples had twenty or thirty stalls at the entrance with several hawkers per stall offering the same curios to the same few tourists. The intrusion was excessive. Tourists were charged a $10 fee to enter the Bagan archeological zone. I wondered if a better arrangement would be to charge more and use those funds to build a central market to house all the stalls, like those in many Asian cities.
I traveled on to Yangon for four days, although I made a day trip to Bago, an old capital. Yangon is an old town (originally named Dagon), but a relatively new capital, acquiring that status in 1885 after the final British conquest. It was destroyed by a fire in 1841 and rebuilt some years later by the British who corrupted the name to Rangoon and made it the capital after the fall of Mandalay. It’s a fairly modern city of 5-6 million inhabitants with some reasonable sized high-rise apartment buildings and shopping malls, broad arterial roads and orderly traffic.
The city’s main tourist attraction is Shwedagon Paya, a huge gold bell shaped temple complex. The main stupa is over 300 ft high and serves as the city’s landmark. The amount of gold on and around that stupa is literally blinding in the sunlight even at 7:30 am in the morning. The Paya was originally built between the 6th and 10th centuries ACE, but has been rebuilt several times, the last effort being about 1769. It has withstood several earthquakes and pillage by a Portuguese adventurer and British soldiers (twice). Despite Bagan’s history and multitude of temples, Shewdagon has acquired the status of the most important religious site in the country. Legend has it that two brother merchants met the Buddha who gave them 8 hairs to bring back to Myanmar to be enshrined. On their return, the brothers, helped by the local king and animist spirits, found the hill where relics of previous Buddhas’ had also been enshrined and added Gautama’s hairs. Later, this Dagon stupa fell into disuse and Emperor Ashoka came to Myanmar and found the site with difficulty, cleared the encroaching jungle and restored the stupa. Anyway, for this Ashok, finding it was easy, but it took several of hours of walking around, talking to some people, taking pictures and striking bells to appreciate this very active temple complex. Interestingly, I was not asked to pay the foreigner’s entrance fee, I assume because I looked like many local devotees of Indian origin.
I visited all the other temples in Yangon and Bago mentioned in the guidebook. Aside from the amount of gold, the size of some of the Buddha’s statues was unforgettable. Yangon and Bago both had reclining Buddha statues about 55 meters long. In the outskirts of Yangon on the way to Bago was a marble sitting Buddha statue 20 meters high and so on. Almost opposite that temple, an enclosure held three white elephants as a tourist sight, but also symbolic of the country’s management. Surprisingly few colonial buildings remained (City Hall, Customs House and Strand Hotel).
Many people in Myanmar are noticeably devout Buddhists, which may account for their calm and pleasant demeanor. Everyone I had any interaction with was unfailingly polite. I didn’t hear a single loud or angry exchange or see any sign of violence. Obviously, Buddhism hasn’t stopped them from waging wars internally and invading Thailand several times. It also hasn’t stopped the present military dictatorship from brutalizing peaceful demonstrators while simultaneously avowing to be Buddhists. Even dictators have to appease powerful special interests to retain power, however. For that reason, the military has built some new large temples. The Maha Wizaya Paya near Shwedagon is known as Ne Win’s Paya and the huge marble statue was apparently also built by the military. The government bestows grants to Buddhist organizations and even provides personal comforts to some senior monks.
The number of Buddha images of various sizes and poses is staggering as I’ve said before. I wonder what Buddha, a non-theist, would have made of his massive deification. My rather simple understanding of his advice is that each person has to seek his or her own salvation, not appeal to a deity for help. But what do I know? Anyway, if praying to a Buddha image helps people to get through the day, why not as long as they don’t hurt anyone else.
Ancient India’s influence on Myanmar is considerable and enduring. It transferred two religions, architectural expertise, artistic forms and, according to my guide book, the local language’s script. The national epic “Yama Zatdaw” is an adaptation of the “Ramayana”. Importantly for me, these influences came peacefully, brought by adventurous traders, monks and priests who persuaded the local population by preaching rather than subduing them by force of arms.
Although I did not initiate any political discussion, people I dealt with for any length of time such as guides, drivers, artists, store owners did not hesitate to voice their vehement dislike for the military dictatorship. At some stage in the conversation they would remind themselves that they could be jailed for what they were saying, but then went right on saying it. One of the artists I bought a painting from had been jailed for ten years for his communist activities. My guide in Yangon had been an activist, lobbying for his region’s political representation and had seen the inside of a jail a few times. Towards the end of my visit, Aung San Suu Kyi had met with the military leaders and members of the opposition, but my interlocutors were not convinced these gestures would lead to change. They took it as the military’s temporary bow to international pressure. Despite President and Mrs. Bush’s support for democracy in Myanmar, they didn’t think much of him. Incidentally, there was little evidence of any uniformed military except for the odd jeep driving by in Yangon. Uniformed personnel were stationed at the entrance to tourist sites, but I doubt if they were military and certainly did not carry guns.
Arts and Crafts
Myanmar is rich in arts and crafts including wood carvings, textiles, tapestries, puppets, jewelry and sand, water color and oil paintings. I bought a Bagan tapestry, silk scarf and cotton shawl, two water colors and four abstract oil paintings. Quite a haul! As usual, I started my search for abstract oils as soon as I got to Mandalay because they are hard to find in developing countries. The market for art is small and locals prefer religious paintings and tourists seem to like landscapes. Almost no one buys abstract oils. The hotel staff and guides and others had no knowledge of a gallery or painter. I thought I would have better luck in Yangon, a much bigger city.
During my visit to Mingun I chanced into a gallery for tourists to use the toilet. That led to a conversation with the owner who was a painter. I looked at his work and politely told him that I preferred abstracts. He offered to take me to a friend who lived nearby. I followed him along a dirt path for a few hundred yards, when he turned into a compound with two thatched huts. He woke up a man sleeping on a cot and explained to him that I wanted to look at his work. Immediately, younger people appeared, who turned out to be the somnolent painter’s sons, and started whipping out paintings for me to see. After a few minutes inspection, I decided to buy the first painting I saw. They quickly took it off the stretcher frame in the back thatched cottage, I assume the residence, and rolled it around a short bamboo pole. Their speed expressed anxiety to conclude the transaction, I suppose. The salient sign of modernity I noticed in the habitat was a TV and DVR player. I was later informed that the painter had spent 10 years in jail for his political beliefs.
When that painter learned of my hotel, he mentioned another more famous painter friend who lived nearby and had a gallery in his home compound. That evening I found the house and walked through the gallery, escorted by the painter’s son. I agreed to come back the next day to meet the painter and discuss a purchase. In the event, the son picked me up and took me on his motorbike to a studio few miles away, off the tarmac road and up a dirt path full of potholes filled with rain water. In the studio, the painter was busy at work on a mural which wound up and down the studio twice. It was about 6 feet broad and maybe 60 feet long. When he stopped, I described the two paintings I liked and said I would like to purchase one depending on the price. The price turned out to be pretty steep so I agreed to buy the small piece. I hopped on the son’s motorbike towards the house, unexpectedly followed by the painter on another motorbike. I guess he wanted to chat and maybe sell me the more expensive painting too. The chat was amiable and the political discussion forthright. I ended up buying two paintings and he threw in a third as a gift together with two books about him published in China where he sells most of his work. His painting is part of an international collage for the Beijing Olympics.
Lodging and Food
I didn’t expect much from hotels in Myanmar, especially after the fabulous hotels in Thailand, but my picks were fine to very good. In Mandalay, I stayed at the Sedona Hotel, a Singaporean joint venture. It was a large, rectangular box like structure with about 200 rooms and 10 guests, The common areas were very comfortable and luxuriously appointed with lots of marble, but the rooms were standard. It was situated at one end of the palace grounds with a good view of Mandalay hill.
The Bagan Hotel River View had a complex of teak bungalows built behind a fourteenth century temple near the Ayeyarwady. The few guests were all upgraded to suites, which were very comfortable. The restaurant was on the river bank lawn adjoining the temple, a great place to have a glass of wine and watch the sunset.
Yangon had a large selection of hotels. I chose the Savoy, a boutique hotel with only 25 rooms within walking distance of the Shwedagon Paya. It was a gem—immaculately maintained with museum quality antiques of various kinds everywhere and an inviting pool to swim off Yangon’s oppressive afternoon heat.
All the hotels offered breakfast as part of the room charge. The buffet offerings at the Sedona and Bagan River View were barely edible, but the Savoy’s made-to-order-breakfast was good. I ate virtually all my other meals outside the hotel as I was wandering around and also because I wanted to sample the local fare in restaurants recommended in the guidebook. It said that Myanmar’s food was similar to Indian, but I didn’t believe that after my boyhood exposure to their dried fish snack. The guidebook turned out to be more or less right. Vats of lamb, chicken, beef and fish etc. curries swimming in oil, apparently a preservative, are displayed at a counter. Diners are served their choice at their table with rice and a bunch of side dishes ranging from soup, raw and cooked vegetables, lentil preparations, balachaung and other condiments included in the price of the main dish, which is usually cold unless one happens to arrive when it’s brought to the counter. The curries use similar spices to Indian curries but not much chili, making them spicy but not hot. Even after eating at a variety of restaurants, I didn’t take to Myanmaran food. The only dish I ordered a second time was a lentil soup, like the British-Indian Mullagatawny, which was pretty good. To celebrate Divali in Yangon I hunted down a famous Indian restaurant specializing in Hyderabadi Biryanis, but it wasn’t up to much either.
Transport and Communications
I used many kinds of transport including planes, private cars, ferries, car taxis, motorcycle rickshaws, horse (tonga) and bullock cart taxi’s. All the airports were modern and well kept and passage through them was smooth. Yangon International airport was large but only a few turboprops and one jet was parked when we landed. Flights were always late and sometimes canceled, according to hotel staff.
Private cars and taxis were old. Car imports are restricted and heavily taxed. A twenty year old Nissan would cost about $20,000. When the driving rules were changed from left to right, no regulation was issued to limit car imports to left side steering wheels. As most used cars come from Japan, they have right side steering wheels. Although traffic was orderly in Yangon where heavy fines are imposed for infractions, outside city limits it was as anarchic as in India. Taxis in Yangon were so worn that most had holes in the floor. I worried that my foot may go through and scrape the road. As they don’t have meters, each fare has to be negotiated, which was awkward as few people speak English. The education system was changed a few decades back to replace English with Burmese as the medium of instruction. Nevertheless, most billboards and shop signs were in English, sometimes with the local language in smaller script.
The ferries were old as well. For the Mingun trip, we had to walk though several parked ferries connected by gangplanks to reach ours, which wasn’t easy for many. In Yangon, I crossed the river to get the view from the other bank. That ferry was large and also very old. The horse and bullock cart taxis were a throw back to my childhood trips in rural India where they were sometimes the only mode of transport available.
Using the internet to keep in touch was a challenge. The government had closed it for the first half of my stay, but was open by the time I reached Yangon. Even there I learned that access to Yahoo and Hotmail had been blocked for years. Taking the advice of hotel staff, I walked to a large internet café in a shopping mall nearby and they got me into Yahoo mail through a couple of other websites. It’s now impossible to restrict outside influences. The café was impressive with 30 or 40 computers and many more gaming stations. On my way in, there was a fashion show, complete with a runway and models prancing up and down.