Burma: The land of new beginnings
As Burma shakes off its troubled past, Sophie Gorman discovers a country of welcoming people and wonderful eccentricities
My first image of Burma was a powerful one. The taxi driver from the airport screeched his car to a halt in the middle of chaotic traffic, opened the door and hawked up a dark-red river of what I presume to be blood.
As I feared for his health, he slammed the door and sped off.
His English seemed to be limited to the word 'taxi', so I couldn't enquire as to his prospects of survival. But at the next traffic jam, I noticed three other drivers taking opportunity of the stall to casually spit out red torrents and suspected this may not be an outbreak of some contagion.
I soon learnt that this is the product of the national pastime of chewing betel leaf with nuts. Every pavement is stained with dried red pools.
The driver's lack of English, his rickety taxi and spitting habits were more than compensated for by his beaming smile and his obvious delight at welcoming another tourist to his land.
The Burmese, I soon learnt, are very happy that visitors are finally coming. The fact that we are such novelties is reinforced by the absence of the trappings of mass tourism, though there are some signs that this is beginning to change.
Burma, or Myanmar, is a land of complete mystery. Unlike its adjacent neighbours Thailand and Vietnam, it has never before properly opened up to tourism, its people with almost as little awareness of the outside world as we have of it.
What we do know about it we have learnt in the past couple of years, and that is almost entirely about its political corruption. But, with recent electoral upheavals, and the liberation of Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010, after 15 years of house arrest, Burma's metaphorical ramparts have been destroyed. It is now open for business.
There are still no ATM machines, few internet cafés, and your western mobile phone will not have coverage.
Its former capital Yangon, or Rangoon as the British would call it, was my point of arrival, a giant sprawling city in the south of the country with a population nearing five million.
Dilapidated British colonial-era buildings border tree-lined boulevards, electricity lines are tangled into giant impossible knots, people are everywhere. It is hot and humid, and so very alive. Yangon is laid out in a grid system, which makes exploring easy. I set off on foot from my downtown hotel near the famous Bogyoke market. My stroll started at the city hall, past a number of small alleys crammed with food stalls, many selling dishes that smelled wonderful but, upon closer inspection, revealed parts of pigs' intestines that my western palate was not brave enough to sample.
The absolute must-see of Yangon, and a must-see of all Burma, is Shwedagon Paya. This gilded masterpiece is visible from almost anywhere in the city, glowing different colours depending on the height of the sun.
As you wander around, you will be approached by trainee monks very keen to practise their English. The key is to talk to everyone. Many possess an impressive amount of historical knowledge, peppered with colourful anecdotes.
We flew from Yangon to Bagan and into another world. To describe Bagan as breathtaking is an understatement. The site of the first Burmese Kingdom, more than 3,000 pagodas and temples are scattered across its sandy plains and the best way to scratch the surface is by bicycle. It is very easy to rent one and then peddle at your own pace around these extraordinary sights.
Almost as fascinating as the temples, the Bagan market is full of unfamiliar sights and sounds, not to mention smells.
And it is very much a market for the locals. Apart from the occasional stall selling tourist-friendly lacquer work or longye (the traditional wrap-around skirts for men and women), it is all about local foods and basic clothing.
Girls on sewing machines make instant adjustments to trousers. Others chop the heads off fish or fan skinned chickens to keep swarming flies at bay. Men chew betel leaves and spit. No one tries to haggle with you; it's 43°C – no one has the energy.
There was one low point on this adventure, a two-day voyage up the Ayeyarwady River from Bagan to Mandalay. It sounded like a magical mystery tour, a romantic voyage. But, in averaging 45°C swelter, with nothing to see on the banks, and nothing to do on board other than shadow dance, it became a team-building exercise in endurance rather than enjoyment.
It did bring us to Mandalay, a bustling city full of contradictions. Despite appearances of bland concrete buildings, Mandalay is considered something of the cultural capital of Burma and it is worth venturing beyond the main streets to discover avenues of gold pounders or stone workers carving Buddhas in all shapes and sizes.
Mandalay seemed even more humid, so I sought refuge in Shwe In Bin Kyaung, a meditative teak monastery. Re-energised, I prepared for the crowds at the giant monastery complex of Mahamuni Paya, whose star attraction is its 13ft-high Buddha, believed to be more than 2,000 years old. Over the centuries, so much gold leaf has been applied by the faithful that the figure is estimated to have more than 6in covering it. I was not allowed to apply gold leaf myself – only men can. Religious segregation is universal.
But my most unforgettable visit in Mandalay was the U Bein Bridge. I took a taxi from my hotel and arrived just before dawn at the start of the world's largest teak bridge.
As the sun started to rise, locals began their walk to work and a straggle and then a stream of monks crossed the bridge in their flowing gowns, the younger ones kicking footballs and playing in the way young boys do.
I sat in the middle, mesmerised by it all, before crossing to the other side for breakfast in a local tea house of unrecognisable colourful plates of what was perhaps simple food but tasted sublime on this special morning.
And with so little contemporary Western influences, there are many wonderful Burmese eccentricities. They drive on the right-hand side of the road in right-hand drive cars, making the roads chaotic at best.
But my favourite peculiarity is their method of attracting the attention of a waiter or barman. None of your arrogant finger clicking, instead the Burmese make a very loud kissing noise.
It is quite the sight when strapping young men making these effete sounds rather like your elderly aunt's sloppily wet Christmas kiss. It is such a pleasing way to summon a bartender that you quickly adopt the habit, and the worry is what would happen if you started to use it back home.
My trip detoured from the new standard tourist route with a visit to Kalaw, founded as a hill station by British civil servants who needed to escape the heat. With its high altitude, this mountain town is the perfect base for long hikes into its green hills.
Our guide, Naing Naing (and you should take a guide) was extremely knowledgeable about the land and its history, and took us on a 24km walk up and down hills, into remote villages, where the children almost weep with the excitement of meeting us. It's always good to have a box of pencils in your bag for such introductions.
After Kalaw, all roads lead to Inle Lake, which is the convergence of four lakes. Most people stay at Nyaungshwe village at the entrance to the lake, but you can also stay in fancy resort hotels out on stilts in the middle of the lake.
It's worth spending a few days canoeing around the blissful sights, from floating markets and floating gardens to the jumping cat monastery and, my own personal highlight, Shwe Inn Thein Paya, a complex of more than 1,000 zedi (small temples). Without a single other tourist, just some cats for company, this is Indiana Jones territory.
There is something so very exciting to be in Burma – it feels as if it is awakening, alive, brimming with possibilities. Its moment has finally come.