Friday, 28 December 2012

Welcome Obama: making history in Burma

‘Welcome Obama’ graffiti on the roadside opposite my Yangon hotel
© Andy Brown/Burma 2012
I always seem to be visiting Burma (Myanmar) at historic moments. On my first visit in June, Aung San Suu Kyi was visiting London for the first time in 24 years. On my second in November, Barack Obama was making the first visit to the country by a serving US President. On the street opposite my hotel, a large ‘Welcome Obama’ graffiti mural had sprung up, and the papers were full of the news. ‘From Sanctions to Success’ claimed the headline of the Myanmar Times, with articles inside ranging from sober analysis of the visit to a fortune teller’s predictions for Obama’s second term. Whatever else, Myanmar remains a deeply superstitious country.

Hotel prices in Yangon have rocketed this year with the influx of companies and development agencies, so I was staying at the ridiculously overpriced Excel Treasure Hotel, or ‘cel easure Hotl’ as the faulty neon sign had it. For over $100 US dollars a night, I got a room next to an eight lane highway that was so noisy you couldn’t even watch TV. The hotel was shabby and run down, although you could arguably blame sanctions rather than the management. Half the lights in my room were dead, the shower didn’t work and the iron burned my shirt. For my own sanity I had to ignore the cockroach that scurried down the bathroom drain when I went in. On the other hand, the staff were friendly and there were a few charming old world touches, like bellmen in the lifts, which I had only previously seen in 1950s Hollywood movies.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s house

Aung San Suu Kyi’s house (left with red roof), as seen across Inya Lake.
© Andy Brown/Burma 2012
At work, I could see some visible signs of the reform process. In June, we had been talking about engaging overseas bloggers, who were then part of the Burmese diaspora. Just five months later many of them were back, invited home by the Government to help strengthen the national media, which was being liberalised after decades of strict censorship.

However, Burma is still a nation in transition, a fact that was brought home to me when I visited Aung San Suu Kyi’s house on the shores of Inya Lake. In the future this may become a regular tourist attraction, with a plaque outside explaining its history. For now, however, you are not exactly encouraged to visit. I was able to see the house from the opposite side of the lake, but had to refer to the Internet to work out which one it was. It was the rainy season and the sky was overcast, but as I watched, a gap in the clouds formed and the late afternoon sun broke through to shine on the lake. Smoke from a wood fire curled up from a small slum settlement on a nearby island.

Leaving the lake, I walked down the road looking for the main entrance to the house. There was nothing to see on this side except a high wall. It was obvious which one was Aung San Suu Kyi’s house, however, because of all the armed police officers lounging around on both sides of the road. One of them glared at me as I walked past and I decided not to try and take a photo. Instead, I walked round the corner, crossed over and came back on the other side of the road, feigning disinterest.

Interestingly, the house was not completely bereft of tourism. A few hundred metres down the road, out of sight of the police, was a line of food stalls. One of these had been converted by an enterprising owner to sell t-shirts of Aung San Suu Kyi, her NLD party and even Barack Obama.

Plain of temples

 Part of the 360 degree view across the temple plain from Shwesandaw Paya
© Andy Brown/Burma 2012
I had a spare weekend in Burma, so I decided to visit Bagan, site of the plain of temples that rivals Cambodia’s Angkor region. There are over 4,000 temples here, most of them constructed between the 11th and 13th Centuries AD. This was the period when Burma was switching from Hinduism to Buddhism under a series of powerful kings.

The temples of Bagan are noticeably less grand than those of Angkor. They are mostly made from brick and patched up over the centuries with dubious regard to authenticity. However, what they lack in grandeur, they make up for in sheer quantity. There are literally thousands of them, starting alongside the road from the airport. There were even a few in the grounds of my hotel. Bagan remains a predominantly rural area and, for now, much less touristy than Angkor. There were no gates or guards and most of the temples I saw were scattered in amongst fields of crops, between sandy tracks and wooden huts. More than once I saw cattle grazing amongst the crumbling ruins of a 1,000-year-old temple.

The best way to see the temples is by bicycle. I hired one from my hotel and set off just after sunrise. I cycled down a sandy track to the main road, past a farmer herding cattle, and climbed the steps of a ruined monastery. The view stretched down to the Irrawaddy river in one direction and towards Bagan plain in the other. By the river, women were leading teams of oxen to plough the riverbank. There was almost no sign of modernity in either direction except for the occasional motorbike on the road.

I usually enjoy cycling but I on this occasion I had bad luck with my bicycles, which like everything else in Burma had a tendency to break down. The first got a flat front tyre by mid-morning. I managed to find a bike rental stall that had an old fashioned pump and got it fixed, but five minutes later it was flat again. I rode the bike carefully back to my hotel, and swapped it for another. This one had rock solid tyres but was permanently stuck in top gear. It was great on the flat but murdered my thighs on the slightest incline.

Shwesandaw Paya

Tourists get into position on the terraces of Shwesandaw Paya for sunset
© Andy Brown/Burma 2012
After lunch, I made my way to Shwesandaw Paya, a white pyramid-shaped temple in the centre of the plain. It’s the most popular sunset stop for tour groups but at 3pm it was almost deserted. The only sounds were of cowbells and the chatter of a few stall owners. I took off my shoes and climbed up a series of steep staircases to the fifth level of the pyramid. It was less than 100 metres high, but offered amazing 360 degree views across the surrounding plain, which was flat all the way from the river to the distant mountains.

From here, I could see many of the 4,000 temples at once. They ranged from small brick buildings nearby to the massive stone Mahabodhi Paya, squatting in the middle distance. Most were various shades of brown, but a few were painted white or gold and stood out from the green of the plain. Beyond the temples, there was a light mist at the foot of the mountains, which added to the atmosphere.

My guidebook described a scorching afternoon sun, but luckily for me I was visiting on an overcast day with a light breeze. I sat on the edge of the top terrace, dangling my legs over the side and feeling the breeze on my bare toes. I sat there for maybe an hour, admiring the view and watching farmers and the occasional tourist wander down the sandy paths. I finally left at around 4:30, just as a convoy of tour busses arrived and the stall holders started playing loud music to welcome them.

I met vendors and salesmen at all the major temples, with techniques varying from soft to hard sell. One even hilariously tried to make a sale while I was cycling along the main road. He cruised alongside me on a motorbike. “Hello, what country are you from?” he shouted hopefully. “You want to buy a postcard?”

Abeyadana Pahto

Than Htike with his sand and marble paintings.
© Andy Brown/Burma 2012
On the way back, I stopped at Abeyadana Pahto, famous for its ancient murals, which were restored by UNESCO in the 1980s. It was getting late but I got chatting to the last remaining vendor, a painter named Than Htike. He was friendly but not pushy so I let him show me round. Inside, a series of murals showed scenes from the lives of the Buddha (the Jataka), interspersed with Hindu deities improbably paying homage to the creator of the religion that displaced them. There was no light in the temple, so Than Htike lit a candle to show me the paintings. It added to the mysterious ambiance, with one painting at a time revealed in the flickering orange light. “That one is Gamesh,” he said pointing out an elephant-headed figure.

Many of the paintings were similar to Jataka scenes I had seen in modern temples in Bangkok, but much older and worse for wear. It was fascinating to see how both the stories and painting techniques had evolved over time. “Once there were many bright colours here but most of them have faded over the centuries,” Than Htike said. “Now all you can see are yellow, red and black.”

Outside, Than Htike showed me some of his own paintings, copied from the pictures inside the temple. He described the technique used by many painters in the area: “I grind up sand or marble and mix it with paint. Then I paint on cloth.” He scrunched a painting up into a ball, then flattened it out to demonstrate its durability. “You can do this, no problem!” he said.

Than Htike also described the meaning of some of the paintings. “In this one, a lion and elephant are fighting, but then the Buddha plays the music of peace and they stop,” he said. In the end, I bought a stylised picture showing the sole of the Buddha’s foot divided into sections. “In each square you can see one of the animals that the Buddha was before he became human,” he explained.

Back in Yangon, I had a couple of outstanding missions. For work, I visited a drop-in centre for street children, as part of a training session on blogging and online video. Then, on my last evening, I went with my friend Sandar to meet the former royal family of Burma. It was a fascinating experience. Unlike their Thai counterparts, the family now live a humble lifestyle in a small wooden house next to the tombs of their ancestors. They get no support from the state and make a living teaching English to students. But I’ll tell you more about that in my next blog.


  1. Nice one Andy, good to read your blog again. See you in Manila soon. -Marge

    1. Thanks Marge! Looking forward to seeing you in 2013.

  2. Great post Andy. Thanks for sharing. Brought back some great memories and I sympathise about the bikes in Bagan... what an amazing place though! Look forward to the next instalment...

    1. Thanks Alyrene, and for the retweet! Yes the bikes suck but I guess it's the price you pay to get off the beaten track. Really enjoyed your Burma blogs too, and hope to see you again in Bangkok.