Reflections of Myanmar before Democracy (2015)

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“Hello! Are you English?” An exuberant monk of Shwedagon Pagoda asked hopefully; teeth stained red with beetle, ancient head shaven, dyed crimson robes wrapped around his body. He smiled with delight when we replied.

The monk, sitting on cool marble slabs in the shade of one of many temple ornate overhangs, was an interesting, friendly sought of chap that seemed to be unafraid of the demonized military Junta, or of the slow, but significant democratic change happening in his country.

Now in his seventh decade, he still remembers the British and a time when Rangoon University was the envy of the region. He remembers the civil wars, the repressions, and other “dark times.” These are memories that remain in Western consciousness, too, though without the vivacity of his experience, and certainly without the tempering of time.

Cloistered within the giant temple complex, something more than faith encircles everything. He points to the mid-day sun: “Every day the sun rises, it brings new hope.” That is what encapsulates the mood of the people.

Myanmar is not the repressive state that the media present to us—at least not after (some) meaningful reforms of 2010. Today, it is a nation desperate to embrace the modern, globalized world. Myanmar wants investment, dollars, and tourists. And tourists should want Myanmar.

Myanmar is now unique in Southeast Asia. Unlike its ‘saturated’ ASEAN neighbours, Myanmar offers true mystery, the unknown; it begs to be discovered. It is opening up at an increasingly pace, but a tourist might not see a fellow adventurer from one bumpy bus ride until the next.

Yangon is a vibrant capital that is shaking-off its poverty perception. Grand malls are celebrating their fifth anniversaries, 5-star hotels are being built apace, and ATMs are replacing green-fatigued soldiers. Fine Burmese cuisine and moreish family kitchens rub shoulders with each other, surrounded by temples older than many European states.

To the North, a nascent hippy trail is emerging. Several hours beyond the capital, Naypyidaw, the main highway forks into three. Towards India, the great plain of Bagan with its four thousand temples awaits the patient—and athletic—digital traveller for a sunset that is more sublime than Cambodia’s Angkor Wot (and the photo-napping hordes). The Eastern prong leads to the tranquil Inle Lake, which has barely changed since George Orwell’s imperial pre-war posting; locals there continue to fish the way they always have. The middle throughway continues to Mandalay, a place rich in history, and surrounded by three former capitals.

After spending two weeks in this beautiful country with its millennia-old history, and conversing with a new generation eager to greet the west as Myanmar opens up its frontier after six-decades, it’s easy to see why the monk is brushing-up on his English.

Thomas Dowling

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