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16th Sep 2012 9:11am | By Laura Chubb
My first impressions of Burma do not disappoint.
Having been cordoned off from the rest of the world for so long, the country holds a mysterious appeal, with visions of a time-warped otherworld exciting many a traveller’s imagination.
And as I fly in over the capital, Yangon, the sight is quite unlike anything I’ve seen before.
A thick blanket of jungle green is pierced by the spires of gleaming gold stupas – too many towering up above the trees to count.
The scene is so instantly exotic, so distinctly different, that I can feel the sticky heat awaiting me before we’ve even hit the tarmac.
Burma – officially Myanmar, but still known by its former name to the UK and the US, which do not recognise the unelected military regime’s name-change – has emerged as the must-see destination of the moment, thanks to the National League of Democracy’s decision to lift the tourism boycott it had encouraged since 1996.
The move came after the NLD’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was finally released from house arrest by the ruling military government, kicking off what has widely been seen as significant improvements to the political landscape.
And so, for the first time in decades, this former pariah of the international community – hit with extensive sanctions from a West outraged by a military coup that killed thousands of civilians in 1988; the military junta’s refusal to honour the general election results of 1990; and one of the worst human rights records in the world – is now more-or-less open for business.
The impact of this so far is proving varied, ranging from the first official release of Titanic in Burmese cinemas (previously, US companies had been banned from doing business here), to a massive influx of tourists.
Tour operator Explore reported adding 70 departures to an initial schedule of 12 for this year, such is the scale of demand. Just walking Yangon’s streets delivers the thrill this new wave of visitors comes in search of – a sense of Burma as Southeast Asia’s final frontier.
In contrast to Bangkok’s shiny shopping malls and jeans and baseball caps, a two-minute stroll from my hotel takes me into crowds of weathered men wearing longyis, a sheet of chequered cloth worn from the waist to the feet, almost sarong-like.
Steam rises from streetside stovetops, chanting monks dodge the heaps of junk and rubble that litter the pavements, and there’s a constant crackle of frying food.
Loose paving slabs and open gutters swimming with murky grey water mean I soon learn to watch my step. That, and the red jets of betelnut juice regularly spat from passing taxis.
There are no McDonald’s or Starbucks – or, less satisfyingly, ATMs. Visitors have to bring immaculate US dollars to Burma and have them changed into the local kyat (pronounced ‘chat’) at exchange counters. My first stop here is Shwedagon Pagoda, the country’s most sacred Buddhist monument and dominator of Yangon’s skyline.
It’s said to be more than 2000 years old and, as legend has it, contains eight strands of the Buddha’s hair. Rudyard Kipling wrote that, upon seeing Shwedagon in 1889, “The golden dome said: ‘This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about.’”
That message holds true more than 120 years later. My guide, Ko Ko, tells me the top of the pagoda is covered with diamonds and jewels donated by pilgrims.
To prove it, he ushers me into a building that proudly displays close-up photos of Shwedagon’s crown, too high for us to see clearly from the ground.
It’s dripping with riches. Earrings, necklaces and rubies completely canvas it, and a 15g diamond decorates the very top. I’m confused – aren’t the people of Burma some of the world’s poorest?
“They bring family heirlooms,” Ko Ko tells me. “They love the pagoda so much.” Stepping back out into the presence of the pagoda, the atmosphere turns suddenly eerie.
Clouds of incense blow across the complex as bells tinkle in the wind, each said to carry a prayer, the only sound filling a reverent silence. The gilded pagoda reaches into the sky with all its might.