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US News & World Report: Myanmar goe

Subject: US News & World Report: Myanmar goes tourist

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Title: Myanmar goes tourist

The people are warm, the sights spectacular. But be thankful you're not =
a dissenting citizen
[Image Not Loaded]<!--1--><!----> Someone neglected to tell the soldiers =
in Yangon's Mingladon Airport that 1996 is "Visit Myanmar Year." Their =
penchant for inspecting luggage with the barrel of a semiautomatic rifle,=
 or detaining travelers in a locked room, hardly constitutes a warm welco=
me. And the soldiers grin with a ferocity that for five decades has terri=
fied millions of citizens, buttressed a repressive military regime and =
kept foreigners at bay. Of course, these soldiers can't take all the cred=
it for xenophobia in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. Dictators, drug =
lords and antigovernment insurgents have done their share.
Eight years after government soldiers massacred 3,000 pro-democracy demon=
strators in Yangon (then Rangoon), the military regime continues to suppr=
ess free speech. The United Nations recently denounced Myanmar for ongoin=
g human-rights violations, and PepsiCo plans to join the growing number =
of American companies that have severed business ties there. Yet this =
country, one of the most hermetic nations on Earth, has decided that it =
wants more visitors. The government's "Visit Myanmar" campaign is breathi=
ng new life into the Southeast Asia travel circuit. Travelers still watch=
 crocodile wrestling in Bangkok and sample dim sum at Singapore's hawker =
stalls--but many are saving Myanmar for the main course.
Like its Laos and Vietnam neighbors, Myanmar hopes tourism can jump-start=
 its woeful economy. The annual per capita income of $230 is one of the =
lowest in booming Southeast Asia. And human-rights-inspired boycotts cont=
inue to hobble exports--legal ones, that is. U.S. Drug Enforcement Admini=
stration officials believe Myanmar exports 60 percent of the heroin on =
America's streets.
Rather than tackling the export ban, the government is promoting four-wee=
k tourist visas, and a relative stampede has ensued. The state-owned Myan=
mar Travels & Tours is predicting half a million visitors during 1996 =
Newly open doors notwithstanding, why is this rogue nation the hottest =
destination in Asia? In a region dominated by high-tech megacities like =
Singapore, Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur, Myanmar is the peculiar recluse, =
the crotchety neighbor whose house piques your interest. Having spent =
the better half of this century in isolation, Myanmar retains the exotic =
flavors of old Asia. The country holds some of the world's most inspiring=
 religious sites, the Burmese people are fervently courteous to foreigner=
s, and $75 a day easily will cover food, transportation and first-rate =
lodgings. And theft in Myanmar, a devout Theravada Buddhist country, is =
virtually nonexistent.[Image Not Loaded]<!--2-->
Myanmar's modest charm looms the moment you step into the streets of its =
capital. Yangon is remarkably laid back--a dusty, dilapidated labyrinth =
of wide streets, open-air markets and curvaceous temples. There are no =
high-rises, no billboards, no traffic jams. Buddhist pagodas dot the city=
, with one rising above all others: Shwedagon. Built 2,500 years ago to =
enshrine eight hairs of the Buddha's head, the pagoda stands taller than =
a football field and is swathed in more than $100 million worth of gold.
Shwedagon's base is a shrine of perpetual worship. Ocher-robed monks enci=
rcle the pagoda, begging alms and mumbling sutras, or Buddhist scripture.=
 Children bow to a garish statue of the Buddha, who has a halo of flicker=
ing disco lights sprouting from his head. Vendors sell floral garlands =
to pilgrims, who move from temple to temple, leaving offerings of flowers=
, rice and prayer beads. At dusk, Shwedagon sheds its glittering visage =
for a more serene appearance. By nightfall, after worshipers have gone, =
its golden dome glows alone and austere.
A $20 overnight train, followed by a nine-hour, white-knuckle Jeep ride =
along eroding mountain roads, brings you to Yawnghwe, on the shores of =
Inle Lake. This is tribal territory, as far east as a foreign traveler =
can go. The surrounding hills are off-limits, but a visit to the twice-we=
ekly market offers glimpses of the ethnic hill minorities. Turbaned Shans=
 smoking truncated cigars squat next to their goods--purple and white =
wildflowers. Black-robed Karens haggle with local Inthas for bushels of =
apples and avocados. Necks, wrists and ankles encircled by brass coils, =
Padaung women step awkwardly from stall to stall, peddling pans of dried,=
 salted lake fish.
Just $5 hires a boat to cross Inle Lake to the town of Ywama, a floating =
world of Venice-like canals surrounded by stilt homes and aquatic gardens=
 . At dusk, dozens of Intha fishermen slowly rake the water's surface with=
 reed nets. Their catch can be sampled at any number of lakeside restaura=
nts. One local dish, "surprise soup," is an oversize bowl of glass noodle=
s in a aromatic broth. The surprise: a water snake at the bottom, peeled =
white and coiled like sausage.[Image Not Loaded]<!--3-->
The famed road to Mandalay--"Where the flyin' fishes play," wrote Kipling=
--is a 10-hour bone breaker over roads so potholed they might be a batter=
y range. And Mandalay is not a romantic town but just a jumping-off point=
 for the so-called deserted cities nearby. Cycle rickshaws take visitors =
to the Irrawaddy riverbank, where they can catch a ferry to Mingun, the =
most famous of the towns. The Irrawaddy is a thriving, 1,000-mile artery =
carrying bamboo rafts, chugging diesel ferries and thousands of tons of =
goods between upper and lower Myanmar. Plying upstream, the ferry to Ming=
un takes an hour and costs $3. When it docks, a gaggle of barefoot monks =
greet travelers with a chorus of "Hello" and "What country?" The monks =
are eager to guide visitors to the well-known sites next to their monaste=
ry. It is considered proper to drop a 200-kyat note--around $2--into each=
 monk's begging bowl.
Mingun is home to the world's largest uncracked bell; the pagoda next =
to it was less fortunate. An 1838 earthquake nearly split it in two, leav=
ing a cartoonish crack down the middle. The pagoda's creator, King Bodawp=
aya, planned to make it the world's largest. But when he died, the thousa=
nds of slaves imported for construction fled to Bengal, and none of the =
king's 122 children resumed the work.
On first approach, the pagoda seems more like the set of an Indiana Jones=
 film than a place of worship. Its girth is daunting--460 feet across =
at its widest point. After guiding a hike to the summit, the monks escort=
 guests back to the ferry and run along the riverbank as the boat pulls =
>From Mandalay, it takes nine hours and three bus rides to reach the most =
fascinating site in Myanmar--perhaps all of Southeast Asia. Nearly a thou=
sand years ago on this dry and dusty plain, 11 successive kings built =
13,000 pagodas to honor the Buddha. Called Pagan (pronounced pah-GAHN), =
for three centuries its profusion of temples made it the most remarkable =
religious city in the world. But in 1287, Kublai Khan and his Tatar horde=
s conquered Pagan and much of Burma. Though more than 2,000 pagodas survi=
ved his rampage, they remain virtually unknown to the outside world. Geog=
raphic isolation and four decades of strict visitation policies have left=
 Pagan largely free of tourists. Except for the occasional farmer hauling=
 an oxcart-load of millet and sesame, the pagoda-studded plain is deserte=
d.[Image Not Loaded]<!--4-->
Dollar-a-day bike rentals, available in nearby Nyaung-Oo, are a popular =
way to explore Pagan. Most travelers spend at least five days here, cycli=
ng traffic-free roads, climbing dozens of temples and gazing at 1,000-yea=
r-old paintings depicting the moment Siddhartha obtained enlightenment =
and became the Buddha. Like an open-air museum, Pagan offers an intimate =
learning experience. A climb to the top of Thatbyinnyu, Pagan's highest =
temple, brings the entire dramatic landscape into view. Temples in every =
architectural style, from Mon to Sinhalese, jut from the earth like fairy=
-tale castles. And the quiltlike fields of millet look as green as billia=
rd tables.
Local monks guide visitors through the interior tunnels of nearby Dhammay=
angyi--a massive, Mayan-like temple with dozens of hidden passageways. =
Crawling, literally, through a 2-by-2-foot tunnel to see ancient inscript=
ions may not be everyone's idea of a good time. But it's a small price =
to pay to emerge at a temple-top window as Dhammayangyi throws its shadow=
 across the plain.
Pagan is a fitting climax to any journey through Myanmar. From there, =
oxcarts are available to Nyaung-Oo, where Myanma Airways offers twice-wee=
kly flights to Yangon. My oxcart driver furtively passed me a small, lami=
nated photo of Aung San Suu Kyi--the charismatic head of Myanmar's Nation=
al League for Democracy (NLD). Cabbies, coolies and oxcart drivers everyw=
here carry stashes of such photos, handing them out to tourists while =
regaling their captive audience with stories of their heroine.
In 1989, a year after the Yangon massacre, Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders =
were placed under house arrest. In prison, she won the Nobel Peace Prize,=
 and international pressure to set her free slowly mounted against Myanma=
r's State Law-and-Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Last July, SLORC =
finally released Suu Kyi, who quickly resumed her post as head of the =
NLD. "She is the next president of Burma," the oxcart driver whispered =
with utter confidence. His sentiment is pervasive, even among members =
of Myanmar's military regime.[Image Not Loaded]<!--5-->
Back at the airport in Yangon, the same government soldier roots through =
your bag on departure, but his expression can't reclaim its original infl=
uence. In a country on the eve of a new life, the soldier's leer seems =
desperate and out of place--a crude mask worn by a man whose time has =
come and gone.
[Image Not Loaded]<!--6-->

MYANMAR BOUND?Here are a few tips to keep in mind if you're considering =
a visit to Myanmar:
WHEN TO GOMost pleasant: October through February, when temperatures are =
in the mid-70s.[Image Not Loaded]<!--7-->
Least crowded: March and April, when it's hot and dry.
GETTING THEREThai Airways offers daily flights between Yangon and Bangkok=
 for $135.
TOURINGDo-it-yourself: surprisingly convenient, the recommended way to =
see the country. Wait until you arrive in Yangon, then visit Myanmar Trav=
els & Tours for assistance in planning an itinerary, changing money, maki=
ng hotel reservations and buying plane or train tickets.
Prearranged: packaged but short and costly. Abercrombie & Kent Internatio=
nal (800-524-2420) is typical--six-night Irrawaddy cruises with stops =
in Pagan and Mandalay excluding airfare, $2,210 per person.
BACKGROUND READINGLonely Planet's Myanmar--A Travel Survival Kit (1996, =
$13.95). It's the most thorough and credible guidebook available.
Burmese Days. George Orwell's vivid account of Burma during the era of =
British occupation.<!-- !! end page info (contents) before this line !! =
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                 |     Shimojima Ichiroo      |