Under Burmese Junta, Tourists' Dollars Rule

Trip to Burma takes travelers back in time to Asia's most sacred sites

When I first touched Burmese soil, it was close to midnight on May 25, 1990. Thirty other reporters and I - all invited to cover the first elections in 30 years - were herded from the airport onto a bus by a gaggle of soldiers with stunning inefficiency. As we drove through the funereal streets, emptied by a 10 p.m. curfew, the huge red-and-white billboards proclaimed - in both Burmese and English - varying versions of ``The Enemy of the Army Is the Enemy of the People.''

We were deposited in the dilapidated but charming lobby of the Strand Hotel, and as we signed in, a hotel clerk bolted the front entrance, locking us in for the night.

By the second time I landed, on a sunny November afternoon four years later, the airport could have been in a different country. I had to fend for myself and watched as one luggage cart after another got snapped up by uniformed generals' aides, carrying the generals' golf clubs.

When I finally dragged my bags outside, I found a cluster of taxicab drivers - private entrepreneurs - fighting for the chance to take me to my hotel. On the way to town, I could no longer read the signs; the English translations had been painted over. Even these threats had been drained of import. ``They're just propaganda,'' one driver said. ``We don't take them seriously.''

Burma (also called Myanmar) is still run by a military junta. But for the tourist, it is a happy junta. Mainly, it is happy for hard currency, and it's doing everything it can to raise the number of dollar-toting tourists from 61,000 this year to a hoped-for 300,000 in 1996, dubbed ``Visit Myanmar Year.''

Many travelers probably associate Burma with political repression, narcotics from the Golden Triangle, and the 5 1/2-year house arrest of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. And in fact, when I tried to take a picture of the green gate in front of her house on University Avenue, a plainclothes officer put his hand in front of my lens.

But much is changing even on that score: In September, the military government began negotiating with Suu Kyi over terms of her release. Officials hint that her detention will end Jan. 20.

A measure of the political change are government plans to build a ski resort at Kakaborazi at the foot of the Himalayas. Until recently, the area would have been limited to skiers with armor, as the entire area has been engaged in civil war for the past 40 years. In the past two years, however, 11 of the 13 ethnic-minority rebel armies have agreed to cease-fires. What this means is that more areas are open to tourists - either completely or with some restrictions.

One of the government's goals is to develop the country without the rampant commercialism of, say, Thailand. And in this it seems to be succeeding. Crime is almost nonexistent. People dress in traditional sarongs, called longyi. And in places like Scott market in downtown Rangoon (also known as Yangon), one can still find inexpensive treasures - anything from puppets and lacquerware to tapestries and jewelry. (Burma is famous for sapphires, rubies, and jade.) In the northern part of the country, the best puppets can be found in Mandalay, and most lacquerware comes from Pagan.

The capital, Rangoon, is beautifully preserved, with trees lining the streets, many parks, and the Shwedagon Pagoda gracing the horizon. Shwedagon, which is supposed to hold eight hairs of Buddha, is reported to contain more gold than the Bank of England. Each year the gold increases, as Buddhists slather gold leaf onto the dome to gain merit. It is not a tourist attraction, but the centerpiece of Burmese religious life.

Burma is the most religious country in Asia; more than 90 percent of the country's 43 million people are Buddhists. This point was driven home to me one Sunday morning at 4 a.m. when a loudspeaker blared outside my window for a half-hour. I crept out to the street to see hundreds of monks in their saffron robes, shaved heads bowed, walking in a silent line. I learned later that the loudspeaker was reminding everyone to come make offerings to the monks.

The monks have always been a political barometer in Burma and were at the vanguard of the pro-democracy movement in 1988. My recent visit to Mandalay - home to 260 monasteries and some 100,000 monks - suggests that in the past four years, the military has gained effective control of the religious leaders.

One antigovernment monk I interviewed in June 1990 had since fled the monastery to escape arrest.

I finally tracked down another dissident monk, who, I later learned, had spent several months in jail. He was terrified to talk to me, insisting on speaking Burmese, though I knew him to speak fluent English. He would discuss only religious matters in front of other people, so he could not be accused of passing on political information. ``I think the monastery walls have ears,'' my translator later said, explaining that some monks were government informants.

I traveled from Mandalay to Pagan by local bus a mode of travel not recommended, even for the bargain price of $2.50. For 9 1/2 hours, 40 other adults and I bumped along a road in a school bus that had a capacity of 32 children. We stopped only for lunch. Finally, at dusk, we reached the 1,000-year-old imperial capital.

Pagan is the most magical place I have seen. It has 2,200 pagodas and stupas, many in beautiful condition.

To get from one temple to another, hire a horse cart for $3 a day, $5 if you're feeling generous. Most of the cart drivers speak English and are happy to recount the history of any particular pagoda. For a trip back in time, no place in Asia matches Pagan.

Or for that matter, Burma. It is a country that the world has left behind, and one worth seeing before the world catches up.

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