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Myanmar traveler experiences rich history, food, customs

By Constance Heckert

Special to the Times

Myanmar is a place where temples gleam in gold, real gold, and its people are among the poorest in the world.

Yet, many believe that in five years this lovely, dreamy place will resemble other westernized Asian countries. But can't there be a way to preserve its charm and rich history?

Ever since reading Kipling's Road to Mandalay, when Myanmar was called Burma, I've wanted to travel to this mysterious land where time seems to have stopped in the 1920s. I finally visited with a tour group in March.

Entering the city of Yangon, formerly Rangoon, it was a relief to see no motor scooters. The former president outlawed them; too noisy, he decreed. Even as this city on the Irrawaddy River shows some signs of becoming a cosmopolitan center, it has an air of innocence. Flickering neon signs on businesses often showed a lack of familiarity with English usage: A bustling women's wear shop was called "Tart Fashions."

Our party of 16 tourists peered through a wire fence at the dilapidated Secretariat, the former seat of British government where Gen. Aung San, considered the father of democracy in Burma, was assassinated in 1947. Abandoned after the government capital moved to Naypyidaw in 2005, it recently held apartments where residents cooked over open fires inside.

Four hundred miles north of Yangon is Bagan, where more than 2,000 golden temples of all sizes are scattered along 26 miles of plain. Most roads leading up to these glowing monuments are dirt pathways. Some are accessible only by horse cart.

Our hotel, with views of the river, was charming, with luxurious appointments, as did all of the hostelries.

Curries, milder than those in Thailand, with chicken or fish and occasionally pork are the most common food. Only one of our hotels offered hamburgers and fries and there are no fast food places. Burmese eat with their fingers; silverware is provided to tourists. Rice is always served, sometimes in a pilaf with vegetables.

Beer is always available for $2 a bottle, which you can buy with kyats or non-worn U.S. dollars (we were warned to bring only fresh new bills). No one takes credit cards; there are no ATMs.

I purchased a couple of longyis, the universal skirt worn by both men and women (no one wears trousers). As I clumsily tried to wrap the colorful strip of material with just two strings around myself, several local women walking by were happy to show me how to turn it into a flattering garment.

Last stop on the trip was Inle Lake, a shallow waterway 13 miles long and 7 miles wide. The Intha people, who live near the lake in villages on stilts, fish in flat-bottom skiffs using one leg to row as they net fish.

Two-person canoes powered by a standing paddler in back took us to one of the Intha stilt homes where the family proudly showed off their two-room (one bedroom and one main room) home. Everyone sat on the floor, including a complacent pussycat.

At another village, we met women and a young girl from the Padaung tribe who wore heavy brass rings to make their necks appear longer. Through our interpreter, we learned the tribe believes the tradition began centuries ago to protect the necks of women working in the fields from tiger attacks.

I asked if the women are buried in them. (They can't take them off unless they want to spend the rest of their lives lying down; the muscles in their necks no longer support their heads.) The answer was no, they're too valuable.

Constance Heckert lives in Bethesda, Md., and Indian Rocks Beach.

Myanmar traveler experiences rich history, food, customs

08/28/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 28, 2013 5:06pm]
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