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MORRISON TRIP TO BURMA


In January 2012 I joined the Betchart Expeditions 12-day tour to Burma
(Myanmar). Janet and I had visited Burma at the turn of the Millennium (Dec
1999 – Jan 2000) and found it artistically and historically fascinating, but
depressing with its incompetent and repressive military dictatorship. This
time much had improved, both economically and politically. The rate of
change is dramatic, with 600 political prisoners released and the U.S.
decision to exchange ambassadors announced while we were there. China has
made major investments, including a new “Burma Road” linking Mandalay with
China. People are friendly, the artistic and historical attractions are
unchanged, and the military have become almost invisible. Now is the time to
visit, before tourists from the U.S. and China overwhelm the country.

Our group of 9 visitors flew non-stop by Thai Air from Los Angeles to
Bangkok, connecting to a flight to Yangon (formerly Rangoon) – nearly half
way around the world. We were almost overwhelmed by the size of the Bangkok
airport, with a sign at our arrival gate saying “Transfer Desk, 920 m”.
Yangon retains its charm as the old British capital, with many handsome
colonial structures recently renovated, but now also “blessed” with heavy
auto traffic. Its major attraction is the Shwedagon (Golden) Buddhist
Pagoda, one of the greatest architectural monuments in the world. The
shining golden stupa rises almost 100 m and dominates the city skyline. The
10-acre platform contains hundreds of additional shrines and statues,
creating an overwhelming effect. One could justify a trip to Burma just to
see this wonderful place. I spent about 4 hours at Shwedagon.

We next flew to the highlands of the Shan Plateau, cool rolling farmland
dotted everywhere with gold-painted stupas like miniatures of Shwedagon.
This region is inhabited by the Karin and other minorities. Our main
destination was Inle Lake, a vast shallow inland sea, where we spent 3 days.
The lake is an excellent source of fish as well as vegetable gardens, many
of them floating on the lake surface. The fishermen are famous for their
technique of rowing with the feet to keep their hands free to work the nets
and fish traps. Most of the villages are built on stilts, threaded by a
complex network of canals.

Next we flew to Mandalay, a booming city thanks to trade with China. It was
hard to believe this was the same sleepy town we had visited 12 years ago.
Mandalay is the former royal capital, and it boasts many beautiful temples
and monasteries. We were on a very tight schedule, so I rose before dawn to
see some of the sites on my own. Our group visited several places along the
mighty Irrawaddy River (aka “The Road to Mandalay”), including the former
capitols of Amarapura, Sagaing, and Mingun (whIch we reached by river boat.)
Unforgettable sights included a large monastery where 500 monks were fed at
mealtime, and the shimmering golden temples of Sagaing seen in the shadow of
a gigantic new road and railroad bridge across the Irrawaddy River.

Our final destination was Bagan, the famous ancient capital on the broad
Irrawaddy River, with thousands of temples and shrines spread over a vast
arid plain. This huge city was contemporary with Angkor in Cambodia,
flourishing from the 11th century until destroyed the Mongols under Genghis
Kahn. Many of the temples and stupas have been restored, while others are in
often-picturesque stages of ruin. In Bagan I deserted our group and hired a
horse cart and driver for 1 1/2 days of sightseeing on my own. I love the
experience of traveling at the pace of a horse on dirt roads, and this gave
me access to many more photo options. At the end of our Bagan trip we
visited Popa sacred mountain (a volcanic plug), crowned with temples
honoring the pre-Buddhist gods of Burma, the Nats.

Burma is a wonderful country to photograph. (All my photos were taken with
either Canon G10 or Nikon 5100 cameras). It was sunny every day, and the
people were uniformly friendly. This is still a place where many people
enjoy posing, ask for no payment, and like to see the photos we take of
them. We visited one school near Inle lake where the children pressed so
close trying to pose that it was almost impossible to compose a shot. The
monasteries, also, welcomed us even during services.

Other memories: Chewing on betel nut in Yangon, not very good tasting but
surely producing a red mouth. Several concerts on the Burmese harp, and
wonderful puppet theatre. A monastery on Inle Lake famous for its jumping
cats, which perform for visitors. Many crowded country markets, with great
photo opportunities. The ubiquitous simple, noisy gas engines, called
locally “Chinese buffalo”. Factories where local people – all women – were
making fabrics and cheroots (the local cigars). Photos on display of Aung
San Suu Kyi and even a campaign office in Bagan for her party. A simple
still to make toddy liquor from the sap of the toddy palm. Many friendly
young girls using the local yellow make-up powder to create facial art. Huge
plates of papaya for breakfast.

We all left Burma charmed and hoping that this long-neglected country has
finally turned the corner and is moving into the modern world.

David Morrison
February 28, 2012

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