In the morning we are off early on a bike ride through mists rising off Lake Inle, through rice paddies, fields of garlic and sugarcane, past flowering tamarind trees to the nearest town, seven miles away. On the way, once again we are greeted by the resonant waves of chanting carried on the breeze from roadside monasteries. We stop and receive permission to visit a local school complete with shade trees and a playground. The headmistress greets us warmly and leads into the classroom, where the kids, most of them about 5 or 6, are reciting their daily lessons and chanting the teachings of the Buddha, tiny voices rising in a harmonic and robust soprano chorus, floating out into the countryside.
This school is special because in most of Myanmar, children are needed during the day to help sell goods, or work in the garden, or provide extra hands for the family mini -business. So the majority of kids attend school at the end of the workday, usually from 6 to 8.
A couple of miles down the road we come across a winery on a hill overlooking the valley, with a nice view of the lake in the distance, that produces varietals made from grafted French, Spanish and Italian vines. Young women in traditional conical sunhats are busy in the vineyards harvesting grapes.
Back in Mandalay the following day we set out on an excursion that will take us all the way back to the 18th Century, and in places several hundred years before that.
We drive to the river, where a wooden longtail boat just big enough to carry a few people ferries us across a brown current to a magical island in the Irrawaddy known from ancient times as In We (the British, unable to pronounce the name, called it Ava). On the other side, we jump on a horse-drawn cart and clip-clop through shaded dirt paths and open rice fields to a sanctuary frozen in time. We have ridden through the looking glass and find ourselves in the 15th Century. This very special island was once the private reserve and palace grounds of one of Burma’s greatest kings. Time and earthquakes have leveled the palace and much of the splendor that once rose above the palm trees, but the massive palace brick walls and entry gates still stand.
Some distance out in the dusty fields — once magnificent royal gardens and orchards — we find the queen’s 600 -year-old swimming pool, big as an Olympic pool, but far more elegant, with steps, recesses, platforms, niches, and benches along the sides. Except for a few weeds, it is still in astonishingly good condition. Anyone without knowledge of its origins might tell you it was just a few years old, just a little neglected. It looks to be in its deepest parts about seven or eight feet deep. Could the queen swim? I can only imagine the scene, six centuries ago as the queen and her entourage, perhaps including the king, cooled themselves here in the long days and nights of baking summer heat. Did they wear bathing suits?
The monastery here is a marvel of black teak and rosewood, which has weathered the centuries practically unchanged. It is built around solid teak tree columns 80 feet tall, the floors laid with ancient teak planks two and three feet wide (which might give you some idea of the size of the original trees). Inside — an elderly monk is teaching little boys — future monks in small rust robes, who sit in obedient silence. One has fallen asleep, his head resting against the open latticed window.
Buddhism is so deeply embedded in Burmese life, temple sanctuaries and monasteries make up cities within cities. The earthly suffering that inspired Buddha’s teachings some 2,500 years ago is still a heavy presence throughout Mandalay. Beggars, cripples, the blind and their children congregate like gypsies at the shrines, temples, pagodas and crossroads, begging quietly and with endless patience.
At every turn, even in the open countryside, you see pagodas. The kings and the glory days are gone, but life today in the countryside today remains largely unchanged. On the outskirts of Mandalay, thatched roof huts and bamboo stalls crowd stretches of tree-lined boulevards, and earthen embankments bordering rice fields. Further out, ox carts loaded with fresh cut sugar cane and horse drawn shays carrying workers and families lumber along country roads and byways. Oxen drag plows that turn the earth for the next crop. In places, rice paddies stretch all the way across irrigated green valleys to the pagoda-pocked, parched hills beyond.
In the cool early morning hours cooking fires raise a blanket of smoky haze over waking cities. In Mandalay, loudspeakers blare a tinny cacophony of monks singing and chanting. From another direction a woman’s voice, singing a sweet song.
Mandalay is in one aspect a new city. The Japanese, at war with the colonial British who occupied Burma in the early 1940s, bombed the entire city to rubble (the British took refuge in the hills outside the city, as did the city’s population, which holed-up on the grounds of sanctuaries and monasteries which they guessed — correctly — the Japanese would not bomb, since the Japanese themselves were Buddhist.)
Since the British left in 1947, much has changed. But much has stayed the same. Streets are alive with bicycles. The scene is dusty, crowded, a sea of handsome brown faces, people coming and going, stray dogs seeking scraps, Buddhist nuns in pink wraps begging food at storefronts (monks don’t cook for themselves, but nuns do. They take the uncooked rice, vegetables and condiments given them each day by grocers back to the nunnery and make their own meals).
In the chaotic river of traffic that chokes every intersection, families of five and six perch precariously on small motorcycles. Jitneys — aging and battered Japanese pickup trucks — are packed with people wedged shoulder to shoulder on wooden benches, while another group squats on the roof. I count one tiny truck groaning under the weight of 23 people and whatever they are carrying in their plastic bags. Young men hang out the open doors and ride the bumpers on overloaded busses taking people to work at rush hour. Everyone is honking, demanding primacy and right of way. The road junctions (no lights, signs or cops) are a study in death-defying driving skills. Taxis, bikes, trucks, busses and pedestrians, all missing one another by mere inches. The greatest circus act on earth. More than once I close my eyes, thinking a whole family on a cycle is going to get run over by a truck, only to open them again to see the family is fine, unhurt and happily on its way to another carefully- orchestrated close call.
Fuel here is a growing necessity, but also a rare luxury. Because the country is woefully ill-equipped to deal with demand, sometimes you have just a single gas pump to service a large urban area. So the lines are long and the wait endless. In Mandalay we see a line of cars three deep stretching hundreds of yards around the block, and another triple line of scooters and cycles going around the other way to the same pump. We are told the wait time is about four hours. If you don’t want to wait you buy on the black market and pay double.
There is absolutely nothing in the world that quite compares to an old-time overnight steamboat (now diesel-powered) cruise down the legendary Irrawaddy River. To sit in our stateroom at the very bow of the ship with all three sliding glass teak doors opened wide to the river ahead, afternoon sun pouring in and the breeze blowing through the cabin is to experience Burma as the colonial British did 150 years ago. Up on the sundeck on the cushioned rattan lounge chairs you can almost imagine Rudyard Kipling, and later Graham Greene, and any number of white-linen colonial figures and their families taking their ease over afternoon tea, watching the timeless sights of stupas, shanty villages, and fishermen in longtail boats plying the coffee-colored river, all sliding by in the daily rhythm of the Irrawaddy — exactly what I am doing right now.
But I have to remind myself to try not to notice the human effluent and garbage floating by, and not think about the cyanide the Chinese have poured in the river refining gold in their unregulated gold mines in northern Burma (obtained in sweetheart deals with the generals). Cyanide levels are so severe that villagers have stopped eating fish, according to a rural development worker. Yet we see river fish offered on menus in Mandalay, and even had it for lunch today on the boat (so far, no ill effects).
Cyanide is not the only legacy of China’s ambitious foreign acquisitions program. In recent years they have quietly — even secretly — gained alarmingly strategic inroads into harvesting (cynics would call it plundering) the natural resources of neighboring southeast Asian nations, most notably Burma, Cambodia and Laos. The plan is low profile, ingenious and appears to be working brilliantly. In the case of Burma, all the deals had to be made behind closed doors with the generals — and that’s why the coming potential economic takeover of Burma remains shrouded in secrecy. As usual, the Burmese people are uninformed and clueless. The generals are reportedly cutting huge economic deals with the giant to the north, but whether the Burmese people themselves will ever see any of that wealth is anybody’s guess.
In mid-afternoon we take on a river pilot to help us negotiate some of river’s trickier bends and ever-changing channels, which constantly erode the mud banks and carve new meanders and sand bars. He sits now on the bridge just above our cabin, a tiny river man not five feet tall in the captain’s chair, intently studying the waters ahead, helping guide the great ship safely on its way.
A morning flight takes us to a town on the Bay of Bengal, and a bumpy ride through palm-shaded fishing villages to remote Ngapoli, so named by the British (the “g” was added later) because it reminded them of the bay of Naples (minus Vesuvius, of course).
A one hour longtail ride the next day from the beach in front of our hotel at Ngapoli transports even further, to a distant peninsula further down the coast where we discover a miracle — no tourists. Mile after mile of empty sand beaches and tropical turquoise waters with the bottom clearly visible thirty feet down, against a backdrop of low green hills and groves of coconut palms. Just one grass hut and a small dog, one woman waving from the doorway, but not a single human footprint in the sand for the next five or six miles. And, miraculously, no trash, save for one small empty plastic water bottle. I am wavering between shock and disbelief. It’s pure Robinson Crusoe here. This is what we have come so far to find. The water is perfect. Not a cloud in the sky. Nothing but one unspoiled beach after another, each more breathtaking than the last.
We walk for half an hour in solitude amidst all this surreal splendor and finally settle down in the dappled shade of a venerable palm that’s probably been here as long as I have been alive. I am thinking, this perfect paradise is too good to be true. And I soon discover how correct my suspicion is. In halting English, our captain reveals that all this will soon succumb, starting next year, to construction on separate one-acre private villas on land purchased by a German, an Italian, an Englishman and even a family from Chile. Ah well. At least it’s not mass tourism. Not another big all-inclusive resort. And who knows, maybe they will manage to put their dream houses in with minimum impact, in an effort to preserve the spellbinding natural beauty that captivated them in the first place. And at least we got to see it and live it, if only for one day.
At Ngapoli beach we are relieved to find no Russians. It turns out that the few Ivans who managed to make their way to this still relatively pristine area were so rude and horrifically badly behaved, especially at night (belting down bottles of vodka), that the hotels are no longer accepting any Russian reservations. The captain tells us of marvelous places, further south, down near Thailand, where the water is clear as gin, and tropical fish still teem on live reefs, and of islands yet untouched, inhabited by primitive indigenous sea peoples living where outsiders until only recently were forbidden to visit. Hundreds of miles of turquoise and green and sugar white empty beaches only now being “discovered.”
By contrast, once lovely Phuket, just over the border between Burma and Thailand was “discovered” about 20 years ago and is today ruined beyond hope or redemption.
At night in Ngapoli, fishing boats form necklaces of light along the dark horizon where the sea meets the stars. Fire lamps lure fish from the depths to the surface where they are caught in nets. At dawn, the boats make their way back to the village a mile down the beach, laden with butterfish, mackerel, yellowtail and sardines, greeted by their wives, sisters and daughters. The women haul the catch ashore in baskets and dump it on the sand, where it is apportioned to individual families for immediate consumption, and the rest laid out on mats to dry in the sun for 2 days. Some of the dried fish goes to market. Much is set aside for use during the months-long monsoon season when there is no fishing.
The bottom line on Burma is that big changes are on the way and that they are coming on the wings of a dragon. The secretive government is reportedly preparing to open the doors to permit China almost carte blanche to “develop” the country. If true, we can only imagine what the consequences of that decision will be. As we speak, China is planning, among other things, to build roads into the country — no doubt with an eye to Burma’s abundant natural riches (the same roads that might someday make possible a quick occupation).
Whatever happens, if history is any guide, sleepy Burma will soon be wrenched out of the 19th Century and hurled headfirst into the 21st.
So we feast our eyes on all the wonders we can still see in our travels here, knowing that it’s just a matter of time before this, too, like Tara, will disappear forever.
How lucky we have been to catch a glimpse.
NEXT: Vietnam, the fabled pearl of the orient loses her luster.