Despite Myanmar's harsh regime and widespread poverty, Jim Eagles finds a friendly people and treasures from a glorious past
When we first set foot outside our amiably down-at-heel hotel in central Yangon we wondered what on Earth had made us come here.
It was pouring with rain, the streets were awash with filth, the atmosphere was like a particularly hot sauna, the footpaths were a hazard, barbed wire and armed guards loomed around the corner, the map was confusing and the traffic was chaotic.
Then, out of the gloom, we sighted the glorious golden dome of the Sule Pagoda rising serenely above the pandemonium.
When we hesitated at one of the entrances, trying to recall what we had read about protocol, a smiling stallholder waved her arm at the shelves of assorted footwear and said, "You can leave your shoes here."
Then a shaven-headed man walking up the steps waved us on, saying, "Come in, come in. It's okay. Welcome, welcome."
It was the perfect introduction to the mass of contradictions which makes Myanmar — formerly Burma — such a fascinating and disturbing place to visit.
This is a country which for nearly 50 years has suffered under a succession of incompetent and brutal military dictatorships which have transformed it from one of the richest and most civilised countries in Asia to one of the poorest and most forbidding.
Yet the ordinary people remain extraordinarily kind, courteous and welcoming. And places like Sule Pagoda continue to offer a rare combination of history, beauty and tranquillity.
The Sule is not the greatest of Myanmar's thousands of pagodas, but its charm is accentuated by the way it rises directly out of the grubby heart of Yangon — formerly Rangoon — creating an island of spirituality in a grubby, noisy and sometimes ugly sea.
Splashing through the puddles in our bare feet we discovered that the pagoda is reputed to be more than 2000 years old, it houses a hair given by the Buddha to two Burmese merchants, and that its magnificent golden dome is 46m high.
Like all pagodas, it is circled by dozens of shrines to different Buddhist deities, some containing small porcelain figures, others holding magnificent gold statues, all surrounded by offerings of food, flowers and money left by worshippers taking a break from the bustling capital city outside.
And again like all pagodas — but unlike the regime, which is torn between a need for tourist money but a fear of foreign ideas — the worshippers seem uniformly delighted to see foreigners paying their respects, and only too pleased to help.
That contrast between a beautiful country and a vile regime, friendly people and ever-present spies, tranquil temples and ugly barbed wire, persists in most of Myanmar, although the regime is getting better at hiding evidence of its iron fist behind screening trees and civilian quislings.
Almost everywhere people smile at foreigners — at the Pindaya market some visiting Shan hill people even giggled at these alien beings — and many are eager for the chance of a quiet word about their country. Some are chancers using tales of woe to extract money but most seem genuinely concerned to make sure someone from the outside understands Myanmar's plight, even though they are taking a risk in doing so.
The regime's spies are everywhere. On one bus trip we were joined at the last minute by a local businessman who supposedly wanted to be sure we had no problems. But we were given a whispered warning to watch what we said because "he is the ears of the Army".
And if there was any doubt about who is in charge it came when we were waiting for a flight from Heho back to Yangon. Our plane landed but we were unable to board because all the seats had been commandeered by Army officers.
Because we had checked in we were not allowed to leave the airport. But because no more flights were due the airport shut down — apart from the waiting-room, where we sat under armed guard.
Our guide warned us not to complain or there could be problems. So we waited in docile silence until a few hours later another aircraft was diverted to Heho — much to the annoyance of its passengers — and took us by a roundabout route back to Yangon. In retrospect it was amusing rather than distressing.
The regime's economic incompetence means telecommunications are very patchy, transport is idiosyncratic (but improving) and the roads are pretty rough in places.
Even the Army's attempts to encourage tourism seem pretty disastrous, with garish new hotels sitting largely empty amid ancient landscapes, and historic temples rebuilt with such little regard for their original construction or design that they lose their appeal.
The nadir of this hamfisted approach is seen at the fabulous old capital of Bagan — surely one of the most fascinating places on Earth — where an incredible 2217 temples and pagodas dating back a thousand years lie sprawled across a dusty plain on the banks of the Irrawaddy River.
While we were there the regime had started a clumsy restoration programme, using bright red bricks and modern cement utterly incompatible with the original materials, completely against the advice of international experts. That work has since proceeded apace and a report in Britain's Daily Telegraph says that more than half the venerable structures have been rebuilt in a way Sydney University archaeologist Bob Hudson describes as "verging on Disneyfication".
The Telegraph says the rebuilding is so bad that it has cost Bagan any chance of being listed by Unesco as a World Heritage Site. But don't let any of that deter you from going to Bagan. It is still an unbelievable experience to walk or cycle the dusty tracks between the magnificent ruins of this once glorious city (see the story about Bagan on the next page). Just ignore any buildings made of red brick with white cement pointing.
Don't let any of it deter you from going to Myanmar. It can be hard going at times — especially if you choose to avoid any tourist operations associated with the regime — but it is well worth the effort.
For me, the highlights are the markets and pagodas and the people you get a chance to meet there. There are so many pagodas that I must confess that at one stage we coined the expression "arp" for "another ruddy pagoda". But the truth is they are all different, all beautiful and all fascinating.
In Bagan, for instance, you must go to the Ananda Pagoda, arguably the most spiritually important in Myanmar, which does have a particular serenity.
In Mandalay there's the Maha Muni Pagoda, with its marvellous fortune-tellers who warned that I had a secret enemy and gave me a charm to ward him off — it seems to have worked — and stunned my wife by telling her she had three children even though we only know of two.
And there's the magnificent Shwedagon Paya in Yangon with its escalator, closed-circuit television pictures of holy relics, and special footwashing facilities for foreign tourists.
Every town also has its markets which are great to places to see the amazing array of produce, the beautiful crafts — lacquerware, Buddhas of every kind, tapestries, woodcarving, longyis (Burmese skirts), handpainted umbrellas and Shan shoulder bags — and the different peoples which make up Myanmar.
My favourites were the food market in Pyin U Lwin, the floating market at Namhu on Inle Lake and the Bogyoke Aung San Market in Yangon, which is a great place to buy those last-minute gifts.
But temples and markets are not all Myanmar has to offer. Other unforgettable experiences include:
• The extraordinary leg rowers, floating gardens and water villages of Inle Lake.
• Mt Popa, a 750m high rock volcanic pillar jutting up from the plains, traditional home to Myanmar's nats (traditional spirits).
• A boat trip to Mingun with its vast unfinished temple and the world's largest uncracked bell.
• The cool air of Pyin U Lwin — formerly the British summer retreat of Maymyo — with its miniature pony stagecoaches, superb antique shops and botanical gardens.
• Mandalay, the last capital before British conquest and inspiration for Rudyard Kipling's geographically inaccurate song, whose highlights include the barefoot walk up the 1729 steps of Mandalay Hill, with its magnificent Buddhist images on every level, and a wonderful puppet theatre.
• Several extraordinary caves such as the ancient Shwe-umin, with its 8000 Buddhist images, and the more modern Peikchinmyaung, which looks like a pagoda by Disney.
Plus a visit to Myanmar offers a rare opportunity to look inside one of the world's nastiest regimes and make up your own mind.
Of course that rather begs the ethical question, should you go? I've covered that hot topic in this editorial.
Visas: Visas must be obtained before travel.
Money: US dollars are widely acceptable but credit cards and traveller's cheques are not.
Getting there: Flight Centre has airfares to Yangon. Contact Flight Centre on 0800 354 448. House of Travel offers a six-day/five-night Myanmar Classic from Auckland. Contact them on 0800 838 747. United Travel has a four-day/three-night Highlights of Yangon tour. Contact them on 0800 730 830.
Jim Eagles paid his own way to Myanmar.