Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 12, 2017

© David Lewis

The precariously perched Golden Rock shrine in Kyaikhto.

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I prescribe a trip to Myanmar

Or how an MD and his wife got to meet Aung San Suu Kyi without really trying

The impetus to go to Myanmar, or Burma as we Brits like to call it, was twofold. First I like to go to places where most other people don’t venture and second, my father served there during the Second World War getting a Burma Star for his troubles and fortunately getting out 24 hours ahead of the Japanese Imperial Army.

Myanmar is still in a bit of a time warp and won’t be for much longer, so go now. Disappointingly, nowadays with the advent of the Internet and mass communication, the differences between places are less obvious to the casual, superficial traveller. But not there.

So off we went, myself, my wife Helen and my Australian cousin David, complete with every type of toiletry that comes in miniature traveller’s sizes to the land with no ATMs, no traveller's cheques, no cell phones and no Internet. Welcome back to the ’60s — which, sadly, we remember.

The kindness of strangers

Anything you read about Myanmar emphasizes how wonderful the people are — how friendly, honest and welcoming. And even to my cynical and well-travelled self, it was all true. Learn only two words, mingalaba (hello) and jesuba (thank you), and you can’t go wrong. There’s a fair bit of mangled English around and everyone wants to talk to you.

On our first morning in Yangon, a girl approached our guide to ask if we would come and speak to her English class. We spent an hour giving tutorials in conversational English to a group of enthusiastic 20-somethings. It was one of the highlights of the trip and we got as much or more out of it than they did — what an introduction.

And despite the fact that I was carrying around $1500 worth of kyats (the local currency) in my backpack, I never felt in any danger of being robbed the whole time we were there. People were forever telling me I didn’t have it zipped up properly!

The tourist infrastructure, surprisingly, was quite sophisticated with excellent accommodations everywhere we went, except for one notable exception which we changed after one night with the help of our terrific local guides from Mandalay Travel (mandalaytravel.com). In fact, our toiletries and water tablets were never opened and sat in our bags taking up space and weight for the whole trip.

Magic kingdom light show

The other highlight of our Yangon stay was our evening visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda which, no disrespect to Walt Disney, truly is the Magic Kingdom. The marvelous architecture lit up with multi-coloured lights took up four of the most memorable hours I have ever spent anywhere. Buddhism and the temples associated with it are the signature symbols of Myanmar.

The gold-plated stupas (towers) with relics of the Buddha's teeth and hair hidden deep inside are unforgettable. They call Burma “The Golden Land” referring to a daily diet of temples, monasteries and shrines. And while this can seem monochromatic and potentially tedious in theory, we found that every one was different and novel.

Our four guides over the two weeks were each excellent, if different in their approaches and English fluency, but they each brought a personal approach. One was an expert on Buddhist philosophy and had lots of charming and instructive stories about the Buddha’s life. All of them were open in their criticism of the General’s dictatorship and kleptocracy.

The endings of Burmese words are not pronounced which led to some comic misunderstandings when this was applied to English. Thus “cemen” was interpreted by my wife as seafarers and by me as male emissions. In fact, it was cement!

After Yangon, we went to Bagan, the land of a thousand pagodas. Spending a sunset atop one, looking out over many more was unforgettable. We also witnessed a local National League for Democracy campaign HQ where I bought a very stylish Aung San Suu Kyi T-shirt as well as other NLD election souvenirs in support of the opposition. We visited a palm sugar plantation where young boys shinned up very tall trees to tap them (having first prayed that the climb wouldn't cost them their lives).

The country's lifeline

Driving around Myanmar on some pretty terrible roads wasn’t very different, I think, from my father’s time there. All agricultural work is still done by water buffalo and bullocks and the roads are full of bullock carts plus some environmentally unhealthy Chinese trucks with exposed engines blocks.

From there it was on to Mandalay, the watchword of Kipling’s famous poem, written by someone who never went there. Despite the romantic name, the Royal Palace and the old town were destroyed during the War and what was left was taken over by the army, so the city itself is a bit of a dump but a lively one.

Surrounding Mandalay is the great lifeline of Myanmar, the Ayeryarwady River. It is lined with many impressive pagodas, shrines and artifacts, some accessed by pleasant river cruises.

Another memorable sunset was at the longest wooden bridge in the world, crowded with locals, among them many Buddhist monks in traditional robes. We saw a children’s initiation ceremony for novices, going to stay in a monastery for the first time. Everyone in attendance was dressed in their finery despite the general and pervasive poverty.

Buddhism certainly seemed to me to give people a built-in dignity helping them to rise up above their deprived circumstances and definitely contributed to the cleanliness we found, compared to other third world countries we have visited.

A hike in hill country

From there we went upcountry to Shan State, named for one of the bigger ethnic minorities in Myanmar. We hiked and boated around the area but the high point was a misty, cold morning in Hsipaw watching the barefooted novices and monks parading from one house to the next receiving food offerings for their breakfast and lunch (they don’t have dinner). It provides merit for the people to donate food to the mendicants.

On the way, we went down, through and up a spectacular ravine traversed by the 100-year-old Gokteik viaduct, the highest steel structure of its kind and much beloved of Paul Theroux, the great travel writer.

Then it was off to Heho from where we went on a hike and overnight stay at a monastery. The novices who were there were studying for their secular exams. Despite the fact that they couldn’t speak English at all, all their science studies were in it, learned by rote and of doubtful value. The food provided was excellent and the wrinkled venerable abbot was everyone’s image of a Buddhist holy man.

We went from there to the magical Inle Lake where we stayed at a resort built on stilts. The lake, shrouded in mist in the mornings, is delightful and teeming with life, from the iconic fisherman paddling with one leg wrapped around the oar whilst standing on the other, through floating islands of vegetable gardens. There are many local industries including my favourite one, the cheroot factory, the products of which I am still enjoying much to the disapproval of my wife.

Meeting The Lady

It was here that we ran into, of all people, Aung San Suu Kyi who was in the middle of a campaign swing through the area. She was leaving for Yangon at the same time as us from Heho airport and our guide asked if we would like to meet her in the VIP lounge. Would we?! I was so excited, I had a headache. She was a charming, elegant, regal woman with beautiful posture. You can see why she is known far and wide as “The Lady,” the perfect sobriquet.

We exchanged greetings but didn’t feel comfortable enough to ask for a photo with her; that seemed right at the time and does now. The fact that I was wearing my T-shirt probably didn’t hurt but the lack of security around her, only being asked to leave my pack at the door, was both amazing and somewhat scary.

Our final jaunt with our first guide, Po, (he of "cemen" fame) was to the Golden Rock in Kyaikhto, an amazingly precariously perched shrine stuck at an unbelievable angle above a mezzanine full of pilgrims. It was covered with myriad layers of gold leaf and, this being a Friday, was chock full of locals and tourists.

The atmosphere at night, full of fairy lights, veered between a country fair and a religious festival. High up in the hills, you first travel in a packed truck. This is followed by either being carried by porters on a litter (my companions) or a steep climb (myself). It was a fitting end to a grand tour of the Golden Land.

We recovered for three days at Ngapali Beach on the Bay of Bengal being treated like royalty and sadly made our way home after the trip of a lifetime.

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