Sunday, March 30, 2014

March 24th – Back in Burma

It's been a year since my last visit to Burma, and already I can see big changes – the roads are busier than ever (to the point of almost gridlock), more modern buildings are being built, and the people have got more interested in the tourist dollar. But, thankfully, some things never change – the devotion to Buddhism is as strong as ever (something which gives the people a gentle, caring demeanour, and has endowed the country with an amazing array of dazzling temples to visit), while the wonderfully friendly people continue to be Burma's greatest asset.

Today I joined the ship's tour to historic Bago, one of the country's old capitals, that's about a 2-hour drive from the port on the river, upstream from Rangoon. As we battled the traffic along the bumpy roads, our journey was broken up by a visit to the Kyakatwine Monastery, where we got to see the novice monks in their saffron robes line up to get their lunch (they're not allowed to eat after 12pm). The sight of these shaven-headed, barefoot youngsters is always a photogenic sight, and it was fascinating to see them wolf down their meals – some serene and monk-like, and some cheeky and child-like.

Next we went to a poignant war cemetery from the Second World War, where over 6,000 Allied servicemen were buried – most of them in their early 20s, died fighting the Japanese to take back this remote part of the British Empire. The British pulled out of Burma, 3 years after the end of the war.

On reaching Bago, we went into temple overload, visiting the shimmering golden Shwemawdaw Pagoda (a smaller, but still impressive version of Rangoon's Shwedigon); then visiting Burma's largest reclining Buddha, the Shwethalyaung Buddha (as big as it's impossible to pronounce); and then the four-faced Kyaik Pun Pagoda, which looked like it had just been completed yesterday, rather than in the 15th century. As ever in Burma, the size, opulence and expense of these Pagodas when compared to the general poverty of the people, seems a little incongruous, but maybe the people prefer to be rich in religion rather than material things. I guess that it suits the Generals if people concentrate on religious devotion rather than on political and economic matters.

Our final stop was at Bago's teeming market – this was aimed at the locals rather than tourists, so we weren't being seen as big dollar signs. Instead, people seemed genuinely pleased to see us, and gave us bright smiles whenever we called out hello or "mingalabar" to them.

A fabulous, hot, and exhausting day – this is why we come to Burma, "The Golden Land".