Front Page Nation

Look who’s on the cover of Virgin Australia’s inflight magazine this month. Burma is possibly the hottest travel destination in South East Asia this year. Blame this on the political revolution that saw a shift from military to civilian government, the inauguration into parliament of Nobel Peace Prize laureate and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, and the related – if not consequential – lifting of sanctions, wiping of debts and abolishing of key economic restrictions. I am happy with these positive, although slightly overdue, developments for the economic growth of the country, however, I wonder if the country will be able to withstand the side effects of tourism.

Travel journalists seem to be writing about Burma left right and centre.The marketing undertone usually jumps out at you but if the author is skilled it blends into the article. In this month’s Virgin Australia inflight magazine ‘Voyeur’ Michael Buckley narrates a charming account of my motherland. The reader follows his journey through Yangon (urban capital), Inle (lake), Mandalay (royal capital), Bagan (city of ruins) and Ngapali (beach).

I feel that Buckley captures Yangon’s atmosphere quite accurately in the following two paragraphs…

“Time moves differently here, as does the traffic: Burmese used to drive on the left, following British style, but in the late 1970s, the military administration of Ne Win ordered all drivers to switch to the right. The vehicles themselves did not follow suit, hence cars sport a bizarre right-hand drive on the right-hand side of the road.

Yangon itself is a garden city, not through planning so much as lack of funds to develop the shopping malls and high-rises that dominate Singapore or Hong Kong. It’s a colonial time warp, reflecting British might in a 1920s vintage setting, a time when Yangon was the jewel of Asia. It hosts the largest collection of (dilapidated) colonial buildings in South-East Asia; among these are City Hall, Customs House and Saint Mary’s Cathedral.”

This is where he subtly slips in some advertising…

“Fortunately, some buildings have been restored for the anticipated new wave of foreigners. Monsoon Restaurant & Bar (85-87 Thinbyu Rd, Botataung; +95 1 295 224; http://www.monsoonmyanmar.com) serves an eclectic menu of Burmese and Indochinese dishes in a beautifully restored mansion. The Strand (92 Strand Rd; +95 1 243 377; http://www.ghmhotels.com) hosts a delightful afternoon high tea in an elegant interior setting that once hosted authors Rudyard Kipling and George Orwell. Across town, in the leafy embassy area, is The Governor’s Residence (35 Taw Win Rd; +95 1 229 860; http://www.governorsresidence.com), a wonderful teak mansion from the 1920s renovated with all the creature comforts. For aerial views of Yangon, the place to go is Thiripyitsaya Sky Bistro, located on the 20th floor of downtown Sakura Tower. Parked over a drink, you can peer down at the British sector of the docks and see the shimmering golden dome of Shwedagon Pagoda (www.shwedagonpagoda.com) in the distance.”

Shwedagon Pagoda has a website?! I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised as this national landmark holds more gold than the Bank of England. Even the rainwater that washes off the pagoda is collected and sold for gold extraction. Maybe I should get into the trade, to help pay for hotel prices that increased 300% in the past year! I understand supply and demand but this rise is preposterous! If I’m forking out three times more for accommodation then how will I afford to wine and dine at expensive restaurants and bars designed for rich businessmen and westerners? I guess I will just have to try the street food and give small local vendors a go.

Buckley also mentioned that “This country is a treasure trove of attractions, but it is really the people who make it such a charming place. As Burma has not been exposed to large-scale tourism, people are incredibly friendly and genuinely curious about foreign visitors. The curiosity is mutual…” This is an interesting observation for me to hear because even though I am a detached Burmese person I will never have the  opportunity to experience the country/people from this position. I thoroughly enjoyed this article.

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Warren Clarke’s photographs are the perfect accompaniment to Buckley’s words. Some of the photographs are beautiful and romanticised. Others are raw and confronting. That’s Burma. Beautiful and tragic. Are you up for it?

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