Backpacking through Asia 30 years ago I had the chance to hop across the border from Thailand and spend a week in Burma. In those days a 7-day tourist visa was all anyone got. With such limited time it really meant having a razor-sharp focus on what I hoped to see and do.
A week wasn’t nearly long enough to explore the capital Rangoon (now Yangon) in the south before travelling north to Mandalay and from there take in Lake Inle and also visit Pagan (now Bagan). This was the traveller’s “Burma quartet” at the time. (Names may have changed since, but these four places remain core today to the country’s tourist industry.)
So something had to go. I made my choice: Rangoon to Mandalay, then west along the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwaddy) river to Pagan, which meant I missed seeing Lake Inle. I don’t regret my choice one bit as my visit to Pagan was brilliant. Now the country has opened up to the world I’ve inked Lake Inle on my ‘back-to-Burma’ itinerary.
Rangoon in the 1980s was pretty similar to what it is today, although the musty and faded Strand Hotel has since been overhauled and is now rather swish. In 1983 it was known for its dilapidated, rain-stained architecture and post-World War 2 colonial flavour. Taking tea or sipping a gin and tonic on the verandah was simply one of those things a traveller had to do. I couldn’t afford to stay there in 1983 and I certainly can’t now. Some things don’t change!
Rangoon’s main attraction 30 years ago was – and still is – the magnificent, golden Schwedagon Pagoda in the centre of town. I think it’s one of South East Asia’s most wondrous structures and I spent quite a portion of my precious time soaking up the Schwedagon’s sights and sounds. This magnificent temple is as much a community centre as place of worship.
Another priceless memory from those days is my overnight rail journey from Rangoon to Mandalay. The train was so crowded I ended up crawling under a wooden seat to sleep on the floor and was awoken at each station by the shouts of food vendors. The mellifluous, subliminal sounds of the Burmese language – a bubbling murmur or so it seemed in my semi-comatose state – remain imprinted in my memory.
Sunset seen from the top of the Schwesandaw pagoda in Bagan is yet another of my golden “Burma moments”. All thos years ago there were just seven foreign travellers up there marvelling at the amber sheen cast across the surrounding plain with its extensive array of temples and stupas with the landscape framed by the silvery glimmer of the river.
It most certainly was “mystical Myanmar” back then and I’m sure that it still is. I can’t wait to return.