Burma Part 2: A world that time forgot
If you are a party animal, Burma is not for you.
Because there's no nightlife, instead of staying up late to party, the population in the cities goes to bed early and gets up early — very early. Rangoon's city parks, for example, are filled before dawn with thousands of ghost-like figures practicing Thai chi under the crescent moon as the eastern sky gently unfolds, spilling apricot light on morning clouds. Here whole families stroll, kids play on the grass, and silent, shaven-headed monks in ruddy robes stand in lines a block long, holding flat round baskets to their chests, preparing to make the morning rounds to beg for food — typically rice and curry — from obliging Samaritans who await the monks, ready to dole out the daily allotment.
Along park paths, people are jogging — a whole city out under the open sky to greet the new day. The idea is to beat the heat, which in the summer can hit 112 degrees Fahrenheit or more, and to get in a few hours of quality time before work.
In Rangoon, we are invited to lunch by a Burmese woman who is related to a friend of a friend. The meeting has been arranged for months. The lady brings her daughter, who works in a big hotel and will meet us at the restaurant. The daughter is taking a vacation day, so we know this meal may be something of an event. Both speak English.
When the lady arrives at our hotel, she is pleasant, but formal, and a little circumspect. She doesn't seem to have much to say. Outside, she has a driver. Her car has a little metal flagpole on the left front fender, an indication that she is somehow important. There is no flag, but I can see that people on the sidewalk notice the pole. When we get to the restaurant, one of the better Rangoon eateries, the whole place goes silent when we enter, and there is no mistaking the malice in the eyes of the young waitresses in sarongs who escort us to a special table and seat us.
The daughter arrives and receives polite, but unwelcoming treatment. We all eat mostly in silence, the lady saying she comes to New York once in awhile and likes to shop. She steps outside to take a cell phone call. Finally, the ordeal is over and I walk back out into the sunshine and pay a hawker $2 to let two birds out of a cage so they can fly away.
Later, we ask ourselves, do you suppose the lady is somehow connected to the hated regime?
On the flight from Rangoon to Mandalay, we look down on sweeping valleys of cultivated fields. Popping into view from time to time is the country's major north-south four-lane highway. In 500 or so miles we spot only a few cars, bringing to mind the east-west superhighway the Russians built in Cuba, which is virtually empty of traffic.
The plane continues on after Mandalay to a dusty rural town called Heho in Shan state, and after an hour drive down into a wide valley from a high plateau, we arrive at Inle Lake, once the home of ancient kings, today inhabited by tribes who trace their ancestry to China and Tibet. Thatch-roof villages and stilt house communities ring the shallow outer extremities of this tiny inland sea. To venture into any one of them is to step back in time hundreds of years.
Out on the water, even before dawn, Intha fisherman practice a form of one-leg oaring found nowhere else in the world. They propel their flat bottom lehs by standing not in the stern, but in the bow, their toes just inches from the water, wrapping a leg around an oar, then twisting and thrusting, driving the boat with surprising speed.
The Intha are famed for their skills not just as net fishermen, but also as master silver and gold smiths (men), fine silk makers and weavers (women), ironsmiths, carpenters and master paper makers who craft collectable paper laboriously hand-processed on screen trays from the bark of the local marberry tree.
A handful of Padong women famed for their elongated necks held up with brass rings have come down from their villages to get closer to the local commerce, but mainly for the money they get posing for tourists as exotic objects of curiosity. The eldest, a woman perhaps in her 80s, is working a foot loom and telling us in excellent English that people post her picture on Facebook. I'm pretty sure I have already seen her before in National Geographic, or on a Discovery Channel documentary. Hearing this tribal lady from remote Burma talk about social media is a shocking reminder of how fast change is sweeping Southeast Asia.
To spend a day exploring the lake on a traditional, if motorized, boat is a heady whirl of sensory delights. Fisherman like phantoms emerging from the morning mists. Women washing clothes on the banks of canals. Monks ambling along shore paths.
Out on the lake under sunny skies, farmers tend to floating gardens, ingenious sources of bounty made of reed and thatch topped with rich black soil from the lake shore, planted with flowers and vegetables.
The outdoor market moves daily from one tiny tribal hamlet to another around the perimeter of the lake, a kaleidoscope of flickering colors in motion — oranges, reds, greens, blues, purples — sarongs and turbans jostling, pitching, in and out of the sun amidst a babble of dialects, a buzzing, kinetic bazaar, Shan people selling, haggling, gossiping over heaps of fresh cut flowers, piles of dried fish from the lake, stacks of vegetables, spices (tamarind, coriander, red and yellow curry, hot peppers, ginger, lemongrass - the air is thick with the scents of the bazaar) plastic children's toys, even drums of diesel fuel and fifty pound sacks of rice.
And everywhere you look, as in Thailand and Malaysia, for an instant you are gazing into the eyes of a striking young beauty whose face could grace the cover of Elle or Vogue. But the chances are — though she has been learning English in school from an early age — she will never make it out of her village. Most of the young women here decorate their cheeks with a yellow cosmetic paste made from sandalwood called tanaka, a tradition practiced for centuries. We are told it was originally created to protect from the sun, but is now regarded as an elementary fashion accessory. Our guide's cheeks are decorated with freshly-applied tanaka every day.
In a nearby village on the banks of a river, I duck into the shadows of a small bamboo and grass word-carver's shop, and find myself in a back room, where I stumble into a poignant moment I have no business sharing. An old man is dying on a grass mat in the corner. A faint smile flickers on his face. His family — the wood-carver's family — is kneeling by his side, touching him, and smiling. The end is near. Someone is reciting a bhuddist prayer. They look at me, but there is no malice. I duck back out, deeply regretting my intrusion. It's only a glimpse, but a moment I can never forget.
Back outside in the heat of midday, we climb a dusty dirt path to a 600-year-old temple complex of gleaming gold leaf rising majestically above the scrub and see in the distance, on the uplands above the far shore of the lake, many more like it. A powerful king built this sanctuary. The temple grounds are studded with crumbling brick stupas (stupas have no interior space, pagodas do) and small pagodas donated by royal princes long ago. Before we step into the cramped spaces within, we stop to clap our hands in the half-light of the narrow entrances to check for cobras (the serpents warm themselves in early sun, then retire to cool enclosures to escape the heat, then emerge at the end of the day to hunt).
Inside a shrine, I impulsively whack a tiny gnat between my palms, only to be swiftly admonished by our guide that it is forbidden to kill any living thing within the monastic sanctuary and — worse — in the presence of the Buddha himself (the devout believe that the images of Buddha are actually alive, and they bring offerings of food each day for spirit of the statue to consume. The food is then given to the monks or the ever-present needy). The situation would have become even more dire had I told the guide that I had terminated a "gnat." The word "nat" in Burmese means "spirit."
Monasteries are everywhere, on pilings in the lake, on the shores of the lake, and in the surrounding hills. Haunting Buddhist chants, like a vibration rising up out of the earth itself, resonate in the morning light. Men appear to be wearing lipstick, but it's just the red juice from the betel nut, which most everyone chews for energy and to stave off hunger.
Burma is the land of pagodas. In the ancient royal capital of Bagan alone, there were once 400,000. The number has dwindled to about 4,000. Most pagodas are covered in gold leaf, and shine like beacons of divine light from almost every hilltop in the country. From the air, it looks like a giant dumped a bag of gold nuggets over the landscape all the way to the horizon.
Nowhere in the world will you find such extravagant personal spending for purely religious purposes, in the midst of such widespread poverty. The indigent and penniless with barely enough to eat will not hesitate to spend their last Kyats on a tiny but costly filament of gold leaf to press on some image of Buddha that may be so already thick with gold acquired over the centuries, the original statue is completely unrecognizable. You would never know there was a Buddha hiding somewhere underneath.
At the country's largest pagoda in the heart of Yangon, dozens of big golden Buddhas in separate open-air chapels circle the shrine. At the top of the central spire rests one of the world's largest diamonds — a 75-carat behemoth the size of a grapefruit. Below that, tons — tons — of precious gems, including rubies, sapphires, and diamonds, a pirate's wet dream, and enough tangible wealth to make every one of the country's 5.6 million citizens filthy rich. Some of those citizens are sleeping now a few hundred feet below on the marble floors, and wondering where their next meal will come from.
All this lavish homage to the Buddha is regarded as a good thing, which will gain merit, in hopes of a better life next time around. When gold leaf by itself is inadequate, wealthier people, including royalty, over tens of centuries have built pagodas and stupas in an effort to secure nirvana (the Buddhist version of heaven) for themselves.
Cynics here say the badder the dude, the bigger the pagoda. Some kings must have been very bad dudes indeed. All the gold in Fort Knox would not suffice to cover the staggering quantities of gold you see everywhere in some of the larger sanctuaries. The golden buddhas under the roof are virtually eternal. But gold leaf and gold plate exposed to the weather has to be periodically restored. I'm wondering if Burma might be the most gold-rich country on the planet.
The country is also rich in gems. Diamond, ruby, sapphire, tourmaline and jade mines in the north produce a constant flow of precious gems, some of which wind up for sale at dirt cheap prices in the better shops in Rangoon — yet another reminder of the huge gap between the natural wealth of the country and its largely impoverished masses.
But there is progress. The middle class is growing. In downtown Yangon a shopping mall just opened — an indicator that some people now have more money to spend. But the infrastructure has a long way to go to catch up. Industrial-size generators line sidewalks outside office buildings to keep the lights on in the crumbling commercial district. The shopping mall has several bus-sized generators to fire up all the blazing neon lights. Hotels, too, have their own generators.
On the return trip back across Inle Lake to our traditionally designed hotel tucked into wide wetlands of tall reeds, the day fades toward twilight. To our left, a waning papaya sun grows fat as a full moon, infusing smoke from distant cane fires and painting the backdrop clouds and hilltops in warm patinas of peach, lemon and pomegranate, then to vermillion, sinking finally behind he mountains to etch a jagged necklace of molten gold along the ridge line.
In the gathering dark, bonfires suddenly flare in the marshes and in the hills, blazing orange in the night, splashes of fierce color marking the daily burn off of sugarcane waste. The cooling night air is sweet with smoke. Later, galaxies emerge against the profoundly black depths of deep space, nearer stars pocking the sky with ice and diamonds in clarity made possible by the fact that we are at 3,500 feet with little ambient light in this remote place. But even here there is no escaping the monks. They are still at it well into the night, chanting and singing somewhere out there in the dark, far across the water.
Next week: Legendary Mandalay and Bagan, ancient city of kings.