Ancient splendours

Margaret Turton | VOLUME 30, ISSUE 1
The remains of the ancient capital of Bagan. A novice monk studies.
Cruising through Burmese history, along the Irrawaddy River.

A major drawcard of cruising through Burma (also known as Myanmar) is seeing lost or ancient cities as they should be seen – up close, and at a leisurely pace.

Myanmar’s waterways have been efficient highways for around 1000 years. Chief among them, the Irrawaddy River gathers itself together below Tibet before rolling south through dense jungle and temple-studded plains. After a journey of some 2100km, it flows across a wide delta and pours into the Andaman Sea below the Bay of Bengal.

We joined the Irrawaddy in the river port town of Prome, a bustling inland trading post previously linked to the fortunes of the Scottish-owned Irrawaddy Flotilla Company, which carried goods and passengers by paddle steamer in the days of the British Raj. Passengers taking the upstream voyage to Mandalay used to travel to Prome by train from the old British capital, Rangoon (now called Yangon). We drove that 260km distance on new roads and, once in Prome, boarded the RV Irrawaddy Explorer, a 188ft river cruiser built in Myanmar in 2014 by American luxury river cruise operators, Haimark. There are 28 suites, each replicating the finest features of British colonial style.

We’d already gained a clear impression of the British era during our stay in Yangon. The old Rangoon was built sparing no expense in the days when Burma was a province of India and the sun never set on the fortunes of the British Empire. These days the buildings of colonial Rangoon are snap frozen in time, nationalised after Myanmar’s independence in 1948, with many abandoned since a new capital, Naypyidaw, was built north of Yangon in 2005.

Some do manage to keep up appearances, though. The City Hall, a beautiful mix of Burmese and colonial architecture, remains a key administrative building. The legendary Strand Hotel, built by the Sarkies brothers of Raffles fame, looks great and no visit is complete without a drink at the Strand Bar. The hotel’s former annex is now the Australian Embassy. Next door, a prosperous merchant trading house that imported Roundtree’s chocolates to British Burma in the 1930s is home to the British Embassy.

The Central Post Office resides in the former offices of Bulloch Brothers, once the largest rice millers in the East. The double-winged stairways have seen brighter days and the metal roof flaps about in the slightest breeze. Weeds sprout from the facades of abandoned buildings. Nevertheless, they are more or less intact, saved by neglect, really, when elsewhere in Asia similar gems were replaced by skyscrapers years ago.

Yangon’s most photographed landmark, the ancient Shwedagon Pagoda, also survives despite invasion, foreign occupation, looting and natural disasters. This great golden mass of spires, shrines and gilded Buddha statues on Singuttara Hill first fired the imagination of the West when images of Burma were published in Britain during the 1820s. Not surprisingly, aboard RV Irrawaddy Explorer, we found artworks which depicted these exotic scenes of old Burma.

MESMERISING

From any deckchair, there were frequent views of pagodas, large and small. We were heading lazily upstream, thoroughly mesmerised by the rhythm of life along the river. We watched people fetching water, washing clothes, fishing, transporting teak on bamboo rafts, dredging sand or gravel and stacking green bananas and ceramic pots bound for distant markets.

An abundant water supply and easy transportation makes riverside habitation attractive. Forests supply natural products for dwellings and boatbuilding. We glided by villages and sizeable towns. Sometimes bamboo and palm-thatched huts dotted sandbanks and floodplains. These were home to fishermen or to the farmers who tend seasonal crops on soil enriched by receding monsoonal waters. The Irrawaddy has many tributaries, and sandbars shift according to the currents. Local pilots joined our crew – one for each new stretch of the river – ensuring the smooth navigation of channel changes.

Our typical days began with coffee on the sundeck and breakfast in the Customs House Dining Room followed by onshore excursions. These might range from a brief tour of an archaeological site, a monastery, village, markets or monuments or, as was the case near Thayetmyo, a few hits on the practice green of British Burma’s oldest golf course. Club members back then had reciprocal rights with St Andrews. So taken were the Brits with golf that, during the crisis-ridden days of the Second World War, an officer was sighted helping himself to golf bags and clubs at Rowe and Company’s department store in Rangoon.

WAR ARRIVES

World War II heralded the demise of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company. Vessels were scuttled lest they fall into the hands of the advancing Japanese. “Imagine how I felt drilling holes in their bottoms with a Bren gun,” wrote the company’s manager, John Morton, in 1942. The same fate awaited British oil interests around Magwe, where wells were irreparably destroyed.

We spotted an occasional derrick and met an Indian population directly descended from the workers of the British oil companies.

Similarly, the pleasant riverside town of Salay is a throwback to colonial times. The Brits offered money for oil-rich land and newly cashed-up locals built mini-mansions imitating British style with mock-Tudor beams, Victorian embellishments and royal crowns. These now rub shoulders with the shiny new dwellings of the latest wealthy class, peanut oil merchants. They are impressive, but incapable of evoking the sense of quirkiness and wonder those early survivors so effortlessly convey.

Tourism is still new to Myanmar and western visitors are a novelty in the quiet riverside locations. Sometimes gravel and sand is brought to the riverbank to aid disembarkation. Ropes were secured to sturdy banyan trees in lieu of bollards. A small crowd gathered. Women like to bring their children to see the foreigners. We were taken on guided walks and invited into homes.

Sightseeing was often on foot. Distances were covered by bus, van, tuc tuc, trishaw, horse and cart or oxcart. It was pilgrimage time in central Myanmar and we were not the only visitors at the temples. Monks and pilgrims stared, smiling. They photographed us on their cell phones as we photographed them. “You will never see an unfriendly gesture on the river,” our Burmese cruise director had promised, and he was right. The Burmese people are disarmingly warm and friendly.

HISTORY LESSON

One afternoon onboard the Irrawaddy Explorer we were invited to gather in the Writers Lounge to hear the cruise director talk about his life and the country’s history. It was an engaging and illuminating story.

The director’s parents grew up in the days of the British Raj. Locals were frequently overlooked by their British rulers, who preferred an Indian workforce. Burma itched for independence.

A student, future national hero Aung San, criticised the British Raj, fled to Japan and returned with an invading army. The common aim was to get rid of the Brits. Aung San hoped for independence, but the Japanese goal was to colonise. He switched sides in disgust and reached a post-war agreement with Britain that led to the nation’s independence.

It would have been nice to hear that life improved for the people of an independent Burma. But it did not. Aung San was assassinated and the scene was set for new disasters. Our cruise director was two when a military government imposed the so-called Burmese Way to Socialism. His generation saw land reforms cripple the nation. Rice production ceased. The economy collapsed. Pro-democracy protests provoked violent crackdowns, which, in turn, brought international condemnation.

The late hero’s daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi emerged as the frontrunner for 1990 elections, but was placed under house arrest. Her party won, but was barred from taking office. Monks denounced the “evil military dictatorship”. Violence followed, along with sanctions and a tourism boycott. Myanmar was effectively lost to the western world.

This hothouse atmosphere cooled after 2010 elections brought reforms and the release of political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi. Everybody talks about ‘The Lady’ in reverential tones and her image, previously banned, is stamped like British royalty onto items in the souvenirs stalls. People speak freely. More than that, they’re optimistic. Change has brought real hope for Myanmar’s future.

ANCIENT RUINS

As Myanmar opens up to the world, more and more tourists are accessing its astonishing sights. A highlight of our cruise was a visit to Bagan, an ancient capital. Regimes come and go and Bagan is a potent reminder that Burma had an empire of its own. The remains of this city consist of 2229 temples spread across a broad plain. Marco Polo described it as one of the finest sights in the world. Today Bagan is likened to the ruins of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat.

Excavations commenced in the 1870s, but many temples are still choked in foliage. Bagan exudes the essence of a lost city and, at times, we felt we were discovering the place ourselves. Some monuments lean at crazy angles, others are only slightly knocked about. Most have been pillaged, neglected, patched up with varying degrees of success and yet they still stand firm, even after 1000 years.

We entered Bagan through the sole surviving city gate. There is also a city wall and a moat. Our aim was to see a few temples that might offer a good representation of the 2000 or so that are scattered about as far as the eye can see.

The first, Ananda, has torch-lit passageways with niche carvings depicting the Buddha’s life. Four enormous Buddha statues face the cardinal points. The next temple, Htilominlo, was constructed in an anti-seismic brick arrangement and its fine plaster carvings survive unscathed. A smaller temple, Upali Thein is lined with vivid murals.

Alongside Bagan’s major monuments, stall owners and visiting vendors in regional costumes sell handicrafts and artworks, including sand paintings, bronze statues, carvings, silks, and so on. Bagan is also renowned for high-quality lacquerware handmade in a manner dating back to the early Burmese kings.

We returned to the temples to watch the sunset from a pyramid-shaped pagoda offering viewing points from five lofty terraces, accessed by steep, narrow steps. The panorama from the uppermost terrace made our breathless ascent well worthwhile. And then came the sunset. It bathed all the temples in a rose-coloured light and sent deep purple shadows across the vast plain.

The days slipped by, each designed to surprise and engage us with local customs, unusual forms of transport, pagoda festivals and village hospitality, and to test our endurance as to how many temples or pagodas we could count or visit.

A FINE TIME

Myanmar is changing, catching up on economic opportunities. Nevertheless, it will keep its unique character for some time yet. Right now, though, cruising the Irrawaddy provides a soft adventure on a luxury cruiser, including fine dining with local and western cuisine and fine wines.

Some passengers chose a restful voyage, lolling on the sundeck or in the Writers Lounge, a cool retreat with wood-paneled walls lined with photos of writers linked to Burma, including Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham and George Orwell. But most didn’t want to miss a minute of our 10-day adventure, especially as we approached Mandalay.

A pagoda festival was in full swing at the Hpowindaung Caves and a shaman lady was in attendance. A walking tour at Mingun promised an artists’ market and a Burmese king’s unfinished pagoda – a massive monument with gaping cracks caused by earthquakes. Unexpected was the spectacle of novice monks posing for professional photographers against the whitewashed wavy terraces of Mya Thein Tan Pagoda.

We sailed to two more royal capitals, Ava and Amarapura, to see a watchtower, a monastery and more pagodas, plus silk and marble workshops with shopping opportunities before taking a sampan ride across Taungthaman Lake for sunset drinks beneath an ancient teak bridge.

Little remains of the royal cities. To earthquakes add Anglo-Burmese wars and the custom of dismantling royal capitals and building new ones afresh, as was the case for Mandalay.

Burma’s last royal capital was founded in 1857. Decades later the British occupied Mandalay’s Royal Palace, as did the Japanese. What you see today is brand new, a monument so fantastic that when sunlight zings off its golden pillars they almost seem unreal. The same goes for a mass of pagodas and temples visible from Mandalay Hill – not to mention the fiery sunset plunging into the Irrawaddy. You would hear it sizzle if it wasn’t for the tinkling of the temple bells.


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