Eastern Promise: On the road from from Bangkok to Mandalay
Thailand & Burma
Carol Hunt travels the historic road between Thailand and Myanmar.
It could be a scene from the latest Mission Impossible or Bond movie.
We're in an impossibly exotic Asian location, hurtling up a winding hill in the back of an open-ended truck, hanging on for dear life to whatever we can manage to get hold of.
A teenage boy stands sentry at the back - presumably to grab us if we fall out, as we rollick with breakneck speed around hairpin bends. Dry dust and grime fly up in the dying light of a sweltering day, and we know we must make it to the top of the hill before the sun sets. Hurry - that huge red orb is half dipping over the horizon. Will we make it?
When Kipling wrote about being "on the road to Mandalay" I'm not sure he had this in mind. With seconds to spare we arrive at our destination, the Sutaungpyei Pagoda, Mandalay Hill, kick off our shoes and savour the panoramic view of the Mandalay plain as it stretches out in front of us, the old city walls and moat, the vast numbers of pagodas and temples, the Irrawaddy River to the west and the Minwun Hills on its opposite bank.
There are monks in saffron robes - photographing each other with Nikon cameras - families making offerings, incense burning and children playing hide and seek.
And everywhere there are images and icons of Buddha - large, small, green and gold, some tasteful and some wonderfully tacky - one of which is surrounded by flashing neon lights. I sit by a group of pre-teen monks and rest, noting a nearby sign which tells me that "foreigners" must pay fees if they wish to take photos on their iPads or iPhones.
We foreigners are lucky to be here at all, I think.
It's not long since the European Union lifted sanctions against Myanmar, and recognised its transition from a military dictatorship to civilian rule. Getting to see a country where the 21st century has hardly intruded is rare indeed, particularly when set beside the glamour and tourism of its neighbour; beautiful, welcoming, wondrous Thailand.
Historically the road between Thailand and Myanmar has been a dark one. The British had hoped to build a railway uniting the two countries in the early 20th century but dropped the plan, citing the need for an "army of slaves" to work in the hills and jungles.
During World War II, the invading Japanese acquired their "slave army" - 180,000 Asian civilian labourers and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war - to achieve this daunting task, many of whom died during its construction. And so the infamous "railway of death" became a legendary part of the story of Thailand and its neighbour.
Today, now that Myanmar has opened up its borders and is actively seeking tourists to visit the country, the Bridge over the River Kwai and the operating sections of the railway between Ban Pong and Nam Tok are major tourist attractions.
Myanmar is now open for business and what better way to visit its hidden gems than to do so from its always welcoming neighbour, Thailand?
Currently, the easiest way to negotiate the delights and splendours on offer in both countries is to travel with Bangkok Airways. Flying from Bangkok in little over an hour, we settle for a few days into the charming Ratilanna Riverside Resort in the Northern Thai city of Chiang Mai and spend a day with three generations of Mae Changfong's family in their wooden home (on stilts).
They are, they tell us, typical of a "lanna" family. Literally, "lanna" means a "million rice fields", a reference to the rich agriculture of the region encompassing the Golden Triangle area of present day Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar, where the Lanna civilisation and unique culture flourished. The family mix their Buddhist beliefs with ancient Animist traditions. On arrival we are given the traditional "fisherman's pants" to wear, in anticipation of the meal we will later cook. Herbs are gathered and lychee fruit is sampled as we meander through fragrant fields. Then we gather to cook dinner with the family, but not before I have sampled a cigarette rolled in banana leaves. I end up coughing like a 90-year-old with bronchitis.
Later, I learn how to oil and wrap our sticky rice dessert in little banana leaf triangles. My hosts are polite enough not to laugh at my dysfunctional efforts. Banana leaves, I discover, are a staple part of Thai life - used for myriad purposes previously unknown to my Western ignorance.
Food is what we take to the young monks at the foothills of the Doi Suthep Mountain, on a bright dawn morning - silent and serene, they walk barefoot in their saffron robes collecting lunch items from bowing, gawking foreigners. Above at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple, we are suitably awed by the dazzle of the numerous golden pagodas and statues of the Buddha. From the top of the mountain down, 309 steps make up the Golden Naga Staircase, where young girls in Thai costume wait for tourist dollars. They smile, hug and pose for pictures. It is a good way, seemingly, for them to earn money for their families.
In the mountains of Doi Suthep lies the forested peace of the Wat Umong Temple, which dates from the 14th century. Breathe its calm atmosphere and you know instinctively that just a day here will make you a better person. On a plastic chair a young man sits, getting his head shaved by his godfather, before he commits to life at the temple as a monk. His family celebrate the joyful occasion and in keeping with Thai hospitality we are all invited to join in. He's not here for life though; we are surprised to hear that sojourns can be between one week and three months. It's tempting. Very tempting.
Over in newly welcoming Mandalay we hear that military families now live in the 2km square royal walls of the former Great Golden Royal Palace. Our guide tells us that there is little public access; the reams of red tape involved in this former military dictatorship is much too wearying to contemplate. But who needs a palace when there is a bridge? And what a bridge! The 200-year-old U Bein bridge that spans the Taungthaman Lake is the longest and oldest teak bridge in the world. Walking across I pass children, barefoot (as everyone seems to be in Myanmar - it's easier to negotiate all those temples) fishing at the side of the bridge with ancient rods and string attached, teenagers chatting into (newly arrived) mobiles; elderly people, bowed, creased and bent, but polite and kind when faced with the inquiring stares of these new visitors to their country. In Bagan, home to thousands of pagodas, the heavens open as we leave our bus.
I am grabbed by two small boys who tell me they will take me to shelter with the "sleeping Buddha". We sprint out of the torrents and arrive into a dark warm cave, and sure enough, in front of us is a beautiful sleeping Buddha. A snake slithers out from beneath it and exits into the rain. One of the boys speaks French to another tourist.
"We listen to the visitors and learn from them all", he tells me.
He must be all of nine years old. With kids like this, Myanmar should be assured of future prosperity. But it will be a tough journey. The new capital, Nay Pyi Taw, was obviously created on the understanding, build it and they will come, but more need to come and sample its many attractions. A short flight and it's back to cosmopolitan Bangkok, where, if you're tight for time you could do no better than stay in the hotel which must have the best view of the entire city: the Landmark. It may also have the most charming staff, as we were only delighted to be fussed over and pampered in their luxurious spa.
And what does one do with a day, and night, in Bangkok? Why, go shopping! Luckily we have the fabulous Thai guide Kannika with us, and a quick spin on the Sky-Train has us sorted in a shopping Centre where they sell designer goods at Penneys' prices.
Trailfinders (trailfinders.ie) can arrange trips combining Thailand & Myanmar. Three nights in Chiang Mai with transfers, breakfast and a 'Spirit of Chiang Mai' day tour (which includes a visit to Wat Doi Su Thep) as well as a seven-night, Burma highlights private bespoke tour, which includes private vehicle & guide, seven nights accommodation, daily breakfast, two lunches and visits to Rangoon, Bagan & Inle Lake, is priced at €2,999pp based on May departures.
Thai food is arguably the tastiest in the world, with the most aromatic spices, herbs and vegetables, mixed together to create the most flavoursome dishes. A Chinese influence is evident, but Thai cuisine was influenced by other neighbours - including Myanmar - and thus one finds dishes along the Mekong River having a strong influence from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Delectable combinations. Yum.
Sunday Indo Living