TRAVEL / The Place Next Door: Burmese daze: At first it seemed as brash as neighbouring Thailand, but a trip down the languid Irrawaddy gave a glimpse of a vanishing Asia. Tim McGirk continues our series

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The Independent Culture
THE RIVERBOAT was due to sail before dawn down the Irrawaddy, and I was anxious to escape from Mandalay. For that, I blame my hotel. Before leaving Rangoon, I had asked a friend for the name of a quiet, charming place in Burma's cultural capital. He obliged by sending me to a hotel directly above platform three of the main railway station. It was the kind of hotel which proudly displays its rat-traps at the entrance, and the traps were large enough to accommodate a good-sized terrier. A karaoke machine blasted out from the rooftop, and the best singer, a winsome teenager, was later auctioned off for a night's entertainment to a jade prospector who had struck lucky in the Kachin hills. Quiet? Charming? The Burmese love a joke.

Had I wanted the loudest hotel on Earth, I probably would have stayed in Thailand. But in Bangkok, a foreign correspondent friend who had been kicking around Asia since the Vietnam War urged me to go to Burma before it was too late, before Thailand's consumerism, its hustle for sex and money, spread across into the neighbouring country. 'The army generals in Burma have done terrible things to their country. They're superstitious thugs. But they've kept Burma in a time-warp. Even today, Burma is the way the rest of Asia was 20, 30 years ago.'

And so I went to Mandalay. Instead of Buddhist serenity, I found the hotel staff watching The Simpsons in the lounge on satellite television. Maybe the Bangkok correspondent was wrong: maybe I was too late. But once I ventured outside the hotel, I began to realise that Mandalay, and indeed most of Burma, has retained its individuality. My hotel was a new aberration, the first sign of the mayhem to come.

For the first time in 118 years, rain had fallen on April Fool's Day, and it was cool enough to walk up Mandalay Hill, crowned with pagodas. Decaying colonial buildings lined many of the city's shaded streets. On the hillside, ruby-robed monks drifted by on long, whitewashed stairways. I saw a man selling birds, starlings, trapped in a cage. Were they to eat? I asked. No, replied the bird vendor, aghast. 'You buy bird and set him free. Good karma.' So I bought a bird. Its wings battered against my cupped hands, and I felt that its terrified, feathered heartbeat was about to crack in that instant before I tossed it into the sky.

As the bird flew up, past a giant reclining Buddha, to the safety of a telephone wire, I wondered about the paradox of trapping birds and stuffing them into overcrowded cages, just so they could be liberated. It was a complex form of cruelty, masquerading as Buddhist compassion, one that I was to see repeated with varying degrees of subtlety during my journey. Descending Mandalay Hill, a large prison compound was pointed out to me surreptitiously, and I couldn't help but think: at least they let the birds go. The political prisoners they don't.

In Rangoon, I had met dissidents who had given me the names of some of Mandalay's many artists and intellectuals. Only an old poet dared to talk to me; his son was already under arrest. Every page of his writing was vetted by the military police. He laughed bitterly: 'Before I think of writing, I imagine a perfect circle, but in the writing, it often comes out as a square. After the censor finishes with it, it ends up as a triangle.' He escorted me out to the car, although the secret police were probably watching him from the tea stall across the road.

If I'd imagined Burma as a perfect circle, it turned out to be as different as the poet's triangle: the captured birds, the 'auction' of girls to flushed jade miners at the karaoke bar. 'You like the tall one?' the waiter inquired. 'Last night they paid dollars 300 for her.' It was an unheard of sum for a girl in Mandalay.

The karaoke bar finally pulled the plug at 5am, when I took a rickshaw down to the Mandalay docks. The riverboat looked the way it ought to look: like a sly, old catfish. It was made of Burmese teak and the paintwork had seen better days. It had two storeys, bowed in the middle and was so low-slung that from the open, lower deck, I could have dangled my feet in the Irrawaddy. It resembled the old river steamers, built in Scotland, which had plied the Irrawaddy before the Second World War. The retreating British scuttled the flotilla when the Japanese overran Burma. The newer editions of the riverboat had no paddle wheels and were all diesel.

At 5.30am that morning the boat to Pagan was the scene of a mighty, carnival chaos. In the half-darkness, hundreds of families, porters, banana vendors, monks, and a few disoriented foreigners were squeezing to get on to the narrow gangplank. A woman sweetly offered me a handful of fried crickets, which I felt absolutely no compunction about turning down. It was all I needed to propel me into the scrum around the gangplank, and eventually I found my way on to the ferry.

Once on board, it was apparent that there was indeed order in the chaos. My ticket was snatched away by a man I first assumed to be a thief but who thankfully turned out to be the steward, and I was eventually led upstairs to a roped-off section where 20 other foreigners were staking claim to canvas deck chairs along the railings. We had paid dollars 15 (pounds 10), which included the journey and deck chair, while the Burmese sprawled out on the deck for a twentieth of the price. The women's faces were a ghostly yellow from thanaka, a paste made from a tree bark that they smear on as a cosmetic. They squatted, smoking cheroots and giggling, agog, as they stared at us. We were as bizarre to them as they were to us; this would never happen in Thailand, where cruises tend to be on air-conditioned boats with Muzak.

A bell clanged. Just as dawn broke over the Shan hills, spilling a copperish colour across the water, the riverboat spun backwards into the current in a lazy arc, and we were off. One of Asia's slow, grand rivers, the Irrawaddy rises in the southern Himalayas, passing along the way through the Kachin hills, the Shan plateau of rice paddies and mustard fields, and across the parched central plains before it finally unravels, like the frayed end of a rope, into the Andaman Sea, 1,350 miles away. My journey was to last 18 hours, heading south from Mandalay to Pagan, Burma's most sacred, though now deserted, city, with its 2,200 temples and pagodas. One late 19th-century British traveller, Sir James Scott, wrote: 'Pagan is in many respects the most remarkable religious city in the world. Jerusalem, Rome, Kiev, Benares, none of these can boast the multitude of temples, and the lavishness of design and ornament . . .'

The river scenes are probably unchanged since the 1850s, when the Irrawaddy Flotilla and Burmese Steam Navigation Company had 40 steamers, their great paddles ploughing through beds of water hyacinths. Just outside Mandalay, we passed a timber yard where they still use elephants to pile the great teak logs. On the riverbank, a bullock cart creaked past a white pagoda guarded by celestial lions of stone.

The Irrawaddy under its polished, smooth surface can be treacherous, with shifting sandbars and devilish currents. Most of the flotilla's captains were Scotsmen who relied on charts, depth soundings, and a full complement of crew to push the steamer back into the currents when it ran aground, which it did frequently. I went up to the bridge, half-expecting that the captain would be a Conrad character, a latter-day Lord Jim, some haunted European washed up in this Asian backwater. But this captain was a young and barefoot Burmese. His sandals were left at the door; there was no steering wheel, and he sat cross-legged on a high stool, touching the chrome throttle and lever with fingertip delicacy, as he scanned for the tell-tale V-shape of a submerged rock or eddying currents of a sandbar.

Sinking back into my lounge chair, a syrupy lassitude overtook me. A breeze blew across the open deck. The babies had been lulled asleep by their yellow-faced mothers, and it felt as though the blood in my veins had slowed to the river's languid flow. I tried reading Orwell's Burmese Days but his Burma was not the Burma gliding by me. It revealed more about how Orwell hated his fellow colonialists, and even himself, than it did about Burma and the Burmese. I tossed Orwell back in my bag, content to watch a few fishing boats gliding upstream.

Not far out of Mandalay, we docked at Sagaing, a hillside community of monasteries, pagodas and hermit caves. The Burmese believe that Sagaing is the foothill of the mystical, mythical mountain at the centre of the universe. In Sagaing, every pagoda is a stylised white-capped mountain, surrounded by smaller spires rising above the tamarind and mango trees. It is customary for every Burmese Buddhist boy to spend time meditating in a Sagaing monastery. First, the boy is dressed like a little prince, his face prettied with rouge and make-up. Then his head is shaved by a monk. He is washed, shorn of adornment and, finally, is dressed in red robes and given a begging bowl.

I saw one such child, no older than eight, on our ferry. He was sitting on a raised wooden platform with a group of grandfatherly-looking monks. They travelled with a large bunch of green bananas, their parasols and their black lacquer bowls. One of the monks later approached me for a cigarette and a look through my binoculars. I couldn't refuse him. He had the most remarkable wrinkled face, as though at any instant he would be seized by a fit of laughter or tears. Instead, he handed back the binoculars with a calm smile.

The steamer docked at riverside villages every few hours, and I did not see a car after leaving Mandalay. The river was the only road. At the docks, glistening, tattoo-covered porters wrestled with metal trunks and sacks of grain. Platoons of girls marched on board, balancing on their heads trays of fruit, fried fish and rice snacks. Crickets aside, Burmese cooking is much like Thai, only spicier. To flavour their fish and noodle soups, the Burmese use a strong-smelling fish paste and fistfuls of chilli. The riverboat's tea, unfortunately, looked and tasted as though it had been scooped out of the Irrawaddy.

At sunset, we landed near Pagan. Many of the pagodas have htis or umbrellas like small golden carousels, and in the fading light these shone like flames. I hired a horse-drawn buggy, which took us the four miles to a government-run hotel inside Pagan. Winter is the best time to visit Pagan, but I was lucky. It was unseasonably cool on the scorched plain. Yet, the next day, after exuberantly scaling a few pagodas and seeing a dozen giant reclining Buddhas, I was overcome by culture fatigue and the heat. For the rest of the afternoon, I was happy trotting around the sites in a shaded horse cart.

Pagan's monuments, which mostly date back to the 11th century, are spread over 20 square miles and in the moonlight their silhouettes loom like a range of hills. The more pagodas and shrines a king built the better his karma. Many of Burma's monarchs were in deep spiritual debt; they fought wars, committed fratricide and executed thousands of their subjects. In many ways, little has changed. During the cruise, I had not seen one uniform to remind me that Burma is under the yoke of the military. But once on land, the junta's bullying presence soon intruded. The villagers around Pagan had been press-ganged into clearing weeds and painting fences along the roads; it all had to look nice for the chief of military intelligence who was coming down for a weekend holiday.

The inhabitants of the only village within the Pagan area have certainly been made to suffer by the military regime. In 1990, with no explanation given by the army, they were given a week to pack up and abandon their homes. The strangest rumour surfaced: one of Burma's top generals didn't want the villagers to see him consulting his favourite astrologer in Pagan. So he cleared them all out. The one village elder who dared to ask why was jailed. And they catch birds to set them free.-


GETTING THERE: Campus Travel (071-730 8111) has fares starting from pounds 389 Heathrow-Rangoon return. Trailfinders (071-938 3939) flies Heathrow-Rangoon return for pounds 517 from 7 June until 31 August; from now until 7 June the cost will be pounds 550. Thai Airways International (071-499 9113) has low-season flights (now until 15 June; October and November) for pounds 799 return to Rangoon, and high-season flights (16 June until 30 September; December and January) for pounds 922 return.

TOUR OPERATORS: Explore Worldwide (0252 344161) offers a 16-day tour of Burma, bed and breakfast, flights, transport and tour leader included for pounds 1,435. Andrew Brock Travel (0572 821330) has two-week full-board tours for pounds 1,878 including private car, driver and guide; also tailor-made tours.

VISA INFORMATION: Embassy of the Union of Myanmar, Visas and Consul (071-499 8841) is open from 10am to 1pm. An answerphone message is usually in operation, but is extremely difficult to understand. It is probably easier to operate through a visa service company. Travcour (071-223 7662) will obtain visas from the embassy for an pounds 11.75 fee.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Hepatitis, polio, typhoid inoculations and malaria prophylactics are recommended. Travellers must have dollars 300 (cash or traveller's cheques) to change into Burmese currency at the airport. This is compulsory.

(Photographs and map omitted)