Discovering The Joys Of Myanmar

Among the sights along the Irrawaddy River | Bob Jones photo

Call it Burma, Myanmar or the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. It’s the hot travel destination now that the generals have donned suits, loosened up the press and freed democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest.

Only 300,000 tourists in 2011. More than a million last year. The spectacular Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon (or Yangon) is in danger of being as overrun by visiting hordes. Cruise companies are setting up 85-passenger boats to do Rangoon-Mandalay on the Irrawaddy River.

You can get a visa on arrival. You can use dollars or local kyats (pronounced “chats”), but kyats are preferred. Only non-worn dollars accepted. You’ll see ATMs, but they don’t work. No credit cards except in high-end hotels.

Rangoon has 6 million people. It banned bikes and motorbikes because of the high accident rate. Electricity regularly fails. Wi-Fi is iffy and slow.

Many buildings that are marvels of 19th century British colonial architecture are covered with soot and rotting away. Kandawgyi Lake is green scum.

Pagan (or Bagan) is still the real deal, with nearly 2,500 stupas and temples, some dating back to 1049. It has rental bikes and motor scooters and very cheap guest houses for those on a budget. The high-end stay is the Myanmar Treasure Resort. You must go to this town. No place in the world is so full of magnificent temples and yet so under-traveled. Fly. Do not take the train!

The cool way to arrive in Mandalay (no name change) is by the 11-hour “fast” ferry from Pagan on the Irrawaddy River. It’s air-conditioned with a large sun deck, noodle lunches and beer. The time flies because you see so much going on. This former royal capital was memorialized by Rudyard Kipling’s poem that became the song On The Road To Mandalay. It has lost its old luster because the Japanese bombed all but one original imperial building during World War II.

The Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel is first rate. It has Burma’s best pool and best french fries outside a McDonald’s. Also, a $65 Coffee Detoxify Body Scrub or Pineapple Body Polish.

One of the city’s top tourist attractions is the Mahagandayan Monastery, but it’s disturbing to see the foreigners elbowing for position to photograph the monks marching to the din-

ing room for their ration of rice, fish and pizza-flavored crackers.

Burma was one of the richest countries. Then the socialist government nationalized everything. The army eventually took over and reversed the socialism but did nothing to restore the economy or respect human rights. Burma is now semi-democratic. The holdover problem is the 135 ethnic factions and fighting going on in three areas over autonomy and Hindu incursions into a Buddhist country.

But, yes, go now. Ten years from now it will be another Bangkok with high-rises, pollution and exorbitant prices.