Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 27, 2021
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The hidden face of Myanmar

After years of self-imposed isolation, this southeast Asian country unveils its beauty

For more than half a century under the bell jar of self-imposed isolation, Myanmar is the purest of Southeast Asian cultures. It recalls what Thailand must have been in the 1920s, before mass tourism, AIDS and the erosion of Buddhism under the onslaught of Western consumer culture. For the journeyer with an open mind and a thirst for beauty, Myanmar may be the most compelling destination on this planet. Get yourself there while it lasts, I say, before the corporate hucksters, leering Kentucky colonels and golden arches claim it as their own.

We began our journey in Yangon -- once known as Rangoon -- Myanmar's capital. There's a surrealism about Yangon, as if we'd stepped into a sepia-toned postcard. Its Georgian and Edwardian architecture summon up the tropical British outpost that was Burma in 1886. Yet its faded paint and overhanging verandas reminded us of the French Quarter of New Orleans.

The greatest site in Yangon is the Shwedagon, the colossal golden pagoda which, soaring to a height of 98 metres, literally crowns the city. Claiming to possess eight hairs of the Buddha, it's as sacred as it is spectacular. "Like a sudden hope in the dark night of the soul," Somerset Maugham once called it.

At the Shwedagon, we found ourselves in a self-contained Buddhist world more riveting than the glimmering domed chedis and prangs of Bangkok and as intense as anything I'd experienced in Tibet. We moved clockwise around the gem-studded pagoda and through its necklaces of pavilions, shrines and offerings. Gongs clanged, bells tinkled and clouds of incense engulfed me. Mysticism swirled around us like molecules. Nuns with shaved heads and bubblegum-pink robes sent shy smiles our direction. If you're travelling to kick-start your sense of wonder, the Shwedagon has your number.

Gold, Sandalwood and Mirth
Then we caught a flight north to fabled Mandalay, the last royal capital, on the banks of the Irrawaddy River. Mandalay is a city so festooned with temples and pagodas, you half expect it to topple into the river. Artisans were chiselling Buddhas on Stone Carvers' Road. We watched Burmese women painting their cheeks with the sandalwood paste called thanaka, which they use to protect their complexions from the tropical sun. At the Mahagandayon Monastery, 987 monks lined up for their last meal of the day, bananas and white rice. A young monk, built like a chopstick, struggled for words in English, turned to me and enunciated gingerly, "You are very fat."

We paused at a small factory to see the meticulous pounding of gold leaf from the thinnest-imaginable pieces of gold. The leaves are purchased by supplicants, who plaster them on the venerated Buddha of the Mahamuni Temple. This both enriches the donors' future lives and the Buddha's girth: some Buddhas have received so much gold leaf, their features have completely disappeared. They look like large gold bowling balls.

One afternoon, we ventured to the mirrored Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda high in the Sagaing Hills for a perspective on the Irrawaddy, which really is the Nile of Southeast Asia. Below us, the beguiling assembly of temples glowed sweetly in the peachy hues of late afternoon. Neither belching industries nor commercial billboards pimpled the view. Isolation from the world is not without its advantages.

River Rapting
The Irrawaddy seemed the most beautiful river in the world. It's blue and clean and as wide as the Mississippi. Bamboo rafts, fishing boats and teak-log flotillas made their way downstream towards the Bay of Bengal. Sails fluttered like moths against palm, tamarind and mango trees. Golden pagodas shimmered like baubles along its emerald shores.

My favourite mode of travel is river cruising and the Irrawaddy beckoned. As far back as the 1870s, steamers plied the river under the flag of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. They were legend: they carried rice north and teak south and elephants in both directions. They transported passengers -- soldiers, missionaries, mercenaries, traders -- on their upper decks. Adventures on the tempestuous Irrawaddy could be Homeric in scope. One boat, caught in a whirlpool, spent three days spinning in circles. The incident turned the captain's hair white. The end of the era was swift and brutal. In 1942, as Japanese forces approached, company officers destroyed more than 600 vessels, the largest private fleet in the world.

Happily, the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company has been reborn. Three authentically replicated steamers offer week-long voyages on the river. Our boat was the RV Pandaw. The vessel carries just 48 passengers. It has immaculate teak decks and floors, handsome public lounges, a library, a restaurant and 24 comfortable cabins with air conditioning and twin captain's beds.

As on all river boats, life comes in bands of river, shore and sky. From the decks of the Pandaw, we took mental snapshots of village life, of lithe Burmese women clad in sarongs, flowers in their hair, bathing at the riverside. A fisherman sat with a long, tapering pole, waiting and hoping, as fishermen do. At a village that sees few foreigners a throng came out to greet us.

"What do they think of us?" a fellow passenger wondered. "They think we're old," I told him. "Every tourist they have ever seen is old. They probably think foreigners are born this way, with wizened munchkin features and patches of hair so insubstantial, it might blow away like tumbleweed in a gust of wind."

Angkor Encore
The Pandaw swept us downstream to Bagan, the ancient Burmese capital. Bagan was founded in the 11th century and made grand with 13,000 temples and pagodas. Its mightiest king claimed an army of 36 million, a harem of 2300 concubines and a daily capacity for 300 curries. Twenty-three hundred concubines? Three hundred curries? No wonder Marco Polo was impressed when he passed through in 1298.


Nowadays Bagan is an archeological garden comparable to Cambodia's Angkor, a plain scattered with the ruins of more than 2500 temples. People drive themselves batty trying to see 10 percent of them. With the help of Mumu, a buggy driver whose horse was named Madonna (only prettier than her namesake), we climbed the small temple of Minochandar for a perfect vista. The temples below loomed like ghosts in iridescent vegetation, a lone farmer and his water buffalo lending scale to the landscape.

We all dream of a perfect day and this would be ours. We woke up to the crackle of cooking fires in the pre-dawn light, the sun no more than a pink slash in the sky. Barefoot, we clambered to the upper platform of Khay Mingha temple just in time to see three hot-air balloons lift off and, one by one, float across the rising sun, creating a series of eclipses over misty temples and pagodas. The night of this perfect day, we were atop a different temple, taking in the final play of light on ancient stones, hues deepening to blood orange before the sun plunged to the horizon under purple clouds. At such a moment, we would happily have stopped time.

In garden restaurants swathed in bougainvillea, we discovered Burmese cooking, probably the least-known of the great Southeast Asian cuisines. Burmese dishes sing with explosive little Asian limes, chilies, peanuts, shrimp paste, fermented fish sauce and tamarind leaves. Butterfish, the ubiquitous local river perch, lives up to its name in a pungent hot-and-sour sauce. Pickled tea-leaf salad pits bitter leaves against the crunch and sweetness of peanuts, ginger and dried shrimp. The omnipresent condiment is balachaung, a seething meld of chilies, dried shrimps and shallots. The spice of the sultry Myanmar night swooned around us, and we swooned back.

Water world
All this would be enough for any journey, but we were determined to see Inle (pronounced Inlay) Lake, the Burmese paradise. I was especially eager to reach Nyaungshwe because I had been told a group of Padaung -- a tribe known as the giraffe people because of their elongated necks covered in brass rings -- had settled here to earn money by allowing foreigners to photograph them. I'd much rather find them in their own surroundings, but this was as close to the reclusive Padaung and their curious notion of female beauty as I would ever get. When I did, the Padaung women were greatly amused by my frantic camera work.

Inle Lake is one of the great beauty spots of the Shan State and home to a 22-kilometre-long hydroponic farm run by the Intha, another tribe in Myanmar's complex and often fractious ethnic mosaic. The Intha are born water babies. They live above the water in villages on stilts. They invented leg-rowing -- one foot planted on the canoe's stern, the other hooked around an oar -- and propel their crafts across the water with a dancer's easy grace. Their farms, called kyunpaws, literally float on the lake's surface.

Out in a long-tailed canoe at dusk, we watched the monsoon break, a wondrous thing to see. Charcoal-bellied clouds bled to silver. The wind stilled, the surface of the lake turned to rippled silk. The sky flared, silhouetting fishermen and their hooped nets. When the sun cracked through, flashes of gold danced across the lake like exploding firecrackers.

When it was done, our boatman turned towards shore. That's when we learned our lesson: never turn your back on a monsoon. Suddenly this intoxicating land, celebrated for its rubies, strung them out along the heavens like scarlet ribbons. The monsoon, which had arrived in a rage, went out as gently as a temple candle.

Among the ruins
We were staying at the Golden Island Cottages, wicker-and-bamboo huts perched on stilts over the lake and linked by a boardwalk. Our cottage was splendidly located for sunset-watching. One night, after the last pink glow faded from the sky, we watched a single boatman leg-steering his craft across the indigo surface. He was singing softly to himself, uncaring of besotted foreigners. We'd be better off, too, singing to ourselves at sunset. If a simple man in a poor land can claim such a measure of inner happiness, what's our excuse?

Last mornings are often anticlimactic, but not this one. We stumbled across In Dain Gone, a stupendous 16th-century ruin set in the jungle off a main canal. Here were the ruins of 100 temples, the remnants of some fantastical Buddhist panoply. Alone among the lovingly carved Buddhas, temple guardians and mischievous spirits called nats, we were instant Indiana Joneses.

Our heads swimming with discovery and wonder, we reluctantly began our return journey. Back in Nyaungshwe, we strolled the Yadana Man Aung Paya, the town's most venerated temple. Grim statues at the gate humbled us with Buddhist reminders: "You will be old" and "You will be in pain." All passes, all is transitory, so don't attach yourself to anything much if you know what's good for you.

I was weighing these thoughts as a little girl of three or so -- the custodian's daughter, I think -- took me by the hand. Together we hopscotched around the temple like a couple of badly mismatched bunnies. It made me want to add a third maxim to the dire pair at the gate: "You will know unexpected delight."


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