In Burma tourism is coming out of the shadows and into the sunlight. For decades Burma’s military dictatorship - they renamed the country Myanmar - has held it in an iron grip . Opposition leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi asked people not to travel there; visa restrictions have been strict and wars fought by their minority peoples have riven the country.
Much of this - though not enough - has now changed. In February I was at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Mandalay, where Aung San Suu Kyi was a major attraction, welcoming by her very presence the arrival of visitors from the West. She explained that much still remains to be done in Burma’s progress towards democracy. The constitution will have to be amended even to allow her to run for president. Citizens who have family members who are citizens of another country are currently not eligible and Suu Kyi - or “the Lady” as she is universally known in Burma - has sons who were born in Britain. Wherever I went she was spoken of with respect.
Meanwhile the UN’s special rapporteur for human rights in Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana, has just concluded his six-year mandate and earlier this week he submitted his report to the Human Rights Council . In it he declared that though much has improved – some political prisoners released and some limited freedom for the press - sectarian violence persists and threatens Burma’s progress. “Myanmar is only at the beginning of a transition,” he wrote, “and more fundamental reforms, including to the Constitution, will be needed to keep the process on track.”
Given the country’s slow emergence from decades of military rule, Burma remains at that stage when its tourist industry is still in bud, full of promise but not yet in overblown glory. The full flowering of tourist excess has yet to overtake it. Let’s hope it never does, and that skyscraper hotels, roads jammed with coaches and tourist sites given over to package holidaymakers are held at bay. At the moment a visit there has all the innocent pleasure of a quiet country and gentle people not yet spoiled by the needy, tourist-pestering behaviour seen in so many other places.
As the glossy pictures already featured in the travel brochures show, Burma has plenty to offer. But at the moment its infrastructure is pretty poor. There are few major highways: visitors must depend on local flights to get around. From the air I looked down on a huge road-building project striking its way through an untouched landscape. Other than on major international routes, existing roads are virtually empty.
Outside the crowded city of Yangon – formerly Rangoon - there seems to be very much less traffic than we’re used to in Europe. Hire a car to take you out and about and you have the roads virtually to yourself – how soothing is that? My guide was happy enough to stop off at wayside villages, so that I could wander round the small huts and see the daily round: the oxen plodding in a circle, grinding the peanut oil into a pot, a couple of locals smoking huge rolls of local tobacco, and preparations going ahead for the next day’s initiation ceremony of small boys into the ranks of the monks.
Ah, yes, the Buddhist monks. They are everywhere, their crimson robes evident wherever you go. I am told that boys are expected to spend up to a year as a monk, moving into a monastery, having their heads shaved and donning the appropriate robes and sandals. Then later on, in their mature years, they are expected to serve again, this time maybe only for a few weeks. Girls enrol, too, shaving their heads and wearing pink robes. The nearest comparison is with our National Service of the 1940s and ’50s, a time when young men left home for a couple of years and enrolled in the service of the state. The monks aren’t the state, exactly, but there are a great many of them. “Do they work?” I asked, imagining what an economic burden such a cohort could be. I was assured they were not idle.
Burma is unequivocally a Buddhist country: 80 per cent of its people are Buddhist, paying homage at numerous pagodas, not worshipping a God, they insist, but paying respect to the ideas of the Buddha. At the same time they pay parallel homage to the nats: a whole gallery of animist spirits, less solemn than the stately Buddha and inhabiting the natural world and finding an easy acceptance everywhere. Their shrines often sit alongside Buddhist temples. It is the great variety and beauty of the many shrines and temples that are Burma’s great cultural heritage. It is where the tourists go. Everyone takes off his or her shoes at the entrance. It makes flip-flops the footwear of choice.
The most imposing of all pagodas is the Shwedagon in Yangon, its glittering gold surface visible from almost any point in the city. The great golden dome rises 300ft from the base, a platform on which clusters a whole array of shrines, images, fountains, temples, huge bells and, everywhere, images of sitting and standing Buddhas. Not far away the Chauktatgyi Buddha is reclining, the soles of his feet etched with enigmatic hieroglyphs. Mandalay, too, has its landmark shrines: at the Mahamuni pagoda, believed by some to be 2,000 years old, the tradition of coating the Buddha with slivers of gold (only men may do so) has left the lower limbs of the statue entirely obscured. Outside the precinct, the stone carvers are at work in a street of artisan workshops where more and more Buddhas are being chipped and polished. It certainly feels like a living religion.
But the most extraordinary place of all is Bagan, one of the most impressive archaeological sites in the world, and just a 30-minute flight from Mandalay. Here, between the 11th and 13th centuries, the kings of Burma built more than 1,000 temples in an area of 14 square miles: temple after temple, many with wall paintings and carvings. You climb the tallest to get a panoramic view; you visit others for their Buddhas; yet another for its view over the waters of the Irrawaddy River.
Tourism to this place is served by some excellent hotels, hidden unobtrusively below the level of the palm trees. Planning limits their height to 30ft. The vivid life of old Bagan goes on nearby; a daily market offers a colourful spread of fruits, vegetables, spices and meats. There is a bank, even a cash machine – a rare blessing, for Burma is basically a cash economy. Best to arrive with a wodge of American dollars and pay as you go.
This is a lovely land of broad horizons, lush forests, wide plains and great winding rivers. I travelled by air and by hire car, but friends have gone trekking there; others plan to take a cruise down the Irrawaddy. The people are smiling and polite, keen to practise their English and be in touch with the outside world. The political direction of the country is reassuring for the traveller as much as for the Burmese. Global travel spreads enlightened ideas around the world: the time has come for Burma to enjoy such freedoms.
Joan Bakewell travelled at the invitation of the Irrawaddy Literary Festival on a tour arranged by Trailfinders (020 7368 1500;trailfinders.com). Trailfinders offers a 10-day private “Classic Burma” tour, taking in Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay and including car and driver plus private guides but not interational air travel, from £1,348 per person (based on two sharing).
Burma river cruise: sailing back into history
A luxury trip down the Chindwin River, writes Nigel Tisdall, is the stress-free way to see the remoter parts of a country now emerging from decades of isolation.