Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Harper's Bazaar Australia: Burma Rising

HB Australia, May 2012

Enigmatic, mysterious, often perilous, Burma has been closed to travelers for decades, but this unsung Asian hero is now open for business. Julie Earle-Levine rolls up the shutters

Burma, now known as the Republic of Myanmar, has always drawn adventurous travelers, designer Donna Karan among them, despite being shrouded in secrecy and under military rule for 50 years until 2011.

But with the famously resilient and formerly house-imprisoned spokesperson for its people, democracy movement leader Aung San Suu Kyi encouraging visitors, now is the time to book in your trip.

As an Australian journalist living in New York, I felt hopeful of change last year after reading of the appointment of a civilian president. The ever-gracious Suu Kyi, who emerged from spending much of the past 22 years under house arrest in 2010, is now running for parliament.  I can’t wait to see Burma for myself.

After a nearly 30-hour flight, the deep green pool set among the lush, palm- fringed gardens at The Governor’s Residence, a  colonial-style teak mansion that dates back to the 1920s, beckons. A swim, delicious watermelon juice, fresh papaya and a croissant and coffee (the coffee is good, even though it is a “tea”country) is the perfect way to refuel before exploring my surroundings.

Yangon, previously known as Rangoon and the former capital of Burma, is stunning, with crumbling Victorian- and Edwardian-era buildings sitting alongside ancient Buddhist pagodas, churches and mosques.

There is a new pulse in this age-old city. Locals say the changes are coming fast — until recently, access to blogs and certain websites was blocked, foreigners could not purchase property and young artists were afraid to show their work.

And there’s been a surge in tourist numbers. “We call it the [US Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton effect. [Mrs Clinton made a historic visit to Burma late last year.] January was up 20 per cent on the previous year,” says Nina Sophie Tomaschko, ground operations manager at Orient-Express, the British-based travel brand that has been operating in Burma for more than 16 years.

Visitors often start in Yangon and move on. But you should stay a few days to see the 2500-year-old Buddhist Shwedagon Pagoda, the Sule Pagoda, built with four entrances in the Burmese Mon style, and the buzzing Indian quarter and Chinatown. Temple hop to find Buddhas of every type, from pulsing disco ones to those carved from giant teak trees and towering golden renditions. At the
Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda, novice monks pay their respects at a huge, 65-metre-high reclining Buddha. 
My guide, Thet Naing, points out Suu Kyi’s house, its fence topped with heavy barbed wire. I later see Suu Kyi at the airport, in bright blue silk, walking with a purpose, head held high, the country’s heroine. The best-selling souvenirs here are T-shirts bearing her image.

The next stop is Bagan, a short flight from Yangon, where a still-small number of tourists go to see a staggering 2000 temples and pagodas dotting the landscape alongside acacia, cassia and palm trees. Here, pagodas and temples shoot up into the sky, some shaped like bells and others adorned with 11th- century frescoes.

Incredibly, there are no lines at any of these. Mass tourism is not here yet. At sunset, I head over to Bagan Temple. It’s a steep climb to the top, and once at the summit, I realise getting down the stairs won’t be easy. But the view is worth it – there are temples in all directions, glimmering in the sun as far as the eye can see. It’s also the first place where young girls approach me, their faces smeared with thanaka — a white paste made from wood and used to protect their skin from the sun — and timidly ask for cosmetics.

“Mascara? Lipstick?” says one, outlining her lips to explain. Naing says that Burmese women want to buy foreign brands. “Women here don’t like the fake stuff from China. They prefer real make-up and they don’t care if it is used or not. They will buy it.” A tube of Chanel lipstick is as precious as gold here.

I bike to the Ananda temple at sunrise, passing women carrying baskets piled high with wood or loads of flowers, young monks burning leaves, and families, riding four to a scooter. At the temple, there is only a monk sweeping, the rhythmic swish swish of the leaves the sound of a new dawn. The temple brings an unexpected bonus – internet access, which is sketchy across the country. Mobile phones usually don’t work here in Burma, and power shortages are common. After a few days of not being able to check my messages, the anxiety eases.

The pace here, even in the cities is calmer. There is a gentle quality and beautiful innocence to the people. One day I visit a clinic with Dr Than Hun who contributes to local medical aid facilities, including after Cyclone Nargis devastated the Ayeyarwady Delta  (west of Yangon) in 2008. Three hundred people wait patiently to see him each day, their needs ranging from the
contraceptive pill to serious illness.

Naing tells me that most people are genuinely happy, perhaps because 90 per cent of Burma’s 70 million residents embrace Buddhism. Last year, about 500,000 people visited the country, compared with six million tourists to Cambodia and 17 million to Thailand. Why do they come here? “Apart from the Buddhist pagodas, I think we have very nice people,” says Naing.  “The people
are very friendly to foreign visitors. The Burmese are a different race.”

Sitting at a tea shop for a cup of chai attracts curiosity and the locals want to talk, especially about where I’m from. Many Burmese don’t yet feel completely safe to talk about politics in a public area. The junta is among the people in plain clothes and there are still many “restricted areas”. Hopefully, things will change.

At the Bagan Market, two young girls selling traditional Burmese skirts —longyis — proudly show me a picture of Suu Kyi and Hillary Clinton on her recent visit to the country ... their smiles speaking a thousand words of hope.