Burma: fleeting impressions of a country in a time warp

FROM the air, Burma is a land of extreme natural beauty - mountains, wide rivers, beaches, and plains etched in rich green after the monsoon. On the ground, however, there is a time-travel quality about this country, where much of the past remains vividly present but contrasts sharply with what can only be described as the drabness of modern Burma.

The most breathtaking sight on our seven-day visit was the huge plain around Pagan, the Burmese capital from the 11th to the 13th centuries. Enclosed in a wide sweep of the Irrawaddy River, this plain sprouts hundreds of ruined temples and stupas, stretching as far as the eye can see, some in stone but most in reddish-brown brick that exude a warm glow in the afternoon sun.

Since it is still a holy area, even under this nation's socialist military government, visitors must walk barefoot in and around the temples. One can see that Pagan must have been a colossal city in its heyday. But the houses, from hovels to palaces, were built of wood, and so have disappeared. UNESCO has restored the temples hit hardest in a devastating earthquake of 1975.

Fleeting impressions are mostly what a new visitor to Burma can expect today, since tourist visas are restricted to a maximum of seven days, and it is impossible to absorb a great deal in so short a time.

The present-day capital, Rangoon, is a relic of British colonial days. The Victorian buildings haven't been replaced by the shiny glass and steel seen in so many Asian capitals now. One typical example of the old here is the Strand Hotel, which has become a nostalgic stopping point for tourists who enjoy sampling the glories of the past. The Strand seems to be a place where time has stopped - where Somerset Maugham or even Rudyard Kipling would feel completely at home. In the ancient elevator, a notice reads, ``Only 3 persons at a time.'' Inside the spacious rooms, the only change appears to be the air-conditioning units that have replaced the old mosquito netting.

The time warp continues on the streets. Nearly all the people wear the longyi - an ankle-length cloth tube wrapped around the lower half of the body, folded over in front with the ends tucked into the waist. Both sexes wear thong sandals. The overall effect is of cool grace, in contrast to sweating tourists in jeans and sneakers. The only Burmese dressed in trousers and shoes are those in uniform - soldiers, airline pilots, policemen.

The roads in the cities are a chaos of carts pulled by bullocks or horses, of buses with at least a half-dozen people standing on the back fender and clinging to a roof rail, and of cars - a few modern Japanese imports and lots of old European and American models - all honking and jostling for position.

Still a form of socialist government, the military regime doesn't really fit with the gentle and friendly character of the people. The present government is a curious mixture of groups - the Burmese Communist Party, the remnants of a Kuomintang group that fled from China in 1949, and various warlords leading minority non-Burmese ethnic groups such as the Shans and Kachins. Most of the men in power are soldiers, many of whom received their military training in England in British colonial days, at Sandhurst or the old Royal Air Force College in Hendon.

Outside the government, Buddhism permeates daily life. Temples are crowded, and offerings are laid at the feet of images.

Tradition predominates in the countryside as well as the city. Houses are constructed of plaited bamboo-leaf walls and thatched roofs, which weather quickly into a soft gray-brown. They look airy and cool. The miniature houses nearby on stilts are latrines.

In the village of Nyaung-U, we had a chance to sample a cluster of market stalls selling lacquerware, pots and pans, scraggy chickens, spices, thong sandals, vegetables, wood carvings, and fish. Here a black market also flourishes - men offer to exchange money, show you rubies or sapphires, or buy your watch. Little girls ask for lipstick or eye shadow, and tiny children beg for ``sweets, sweets.'' The things I most wanted to take home were some sizable, beautifully dressed puppets, the lacquerware, and some of the wood carvings.

Tourism throughout the country is organized by the official agency, Tourist Burma, which has a monopoly on the available facilities, rather like Intourist in the Soviet Union. The main visitor circuit is Rangoon-Pagan-Mandalay, though some tourists manage to squeeze in Maymyo and Inle Lake, too.

The easiest way to travel is in a group, but those who are adventurous and impervious to hardship and who prefer closer contact with the local people may prefer independent travel. Yet that can be hard to arrange, since waiting lists for in-country flights are usually long, and air schedules are extremely flexible; we were warned to arrive at airports in plenty of time, as ``quite often the plane leaves early.'' Traveling by bus and train is inexpensive but arduous and time consuming.

What is lacking in convenience here is made up, however, by the excellence of the guides. Burmese, particularly the educated classes, are actively prevented from emigrating, or even traveling abroad. The government cannot afford a brain drain. But often there are not enough challenging jobs to go around.

We had one guide with a master's degree in plant genetics, another who had graduated in math and physics and would have liked to do research. Instead, they were obliged to learn a foreign language and work for Tourist Burma. They were the best guides we've ever had anywhere.

Parts of the north and east of the country are closed to tourists - no government has entirely tamed the rebellious and independent minorities there. The eastern corner of Burma is part of the Golden Triangle (the two other points of which are in Laos and Thailand), where opium production remains a profitable source of income for both farmers and some rebel groups.

Burma could undoubtedly earn a great deal of badly needed foreign exchange from tourism, but the government fears that a flood of visitors would overtax the hotels and transportation systems, as well as bring in such undesirable elements as Western consumerism. So the seven-day restriction appears likely to continue.

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