Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a three-part series. Visit www.vaildaily.com to read the first story.
MYANMAR — I’m never one who wishes to spend much time in a city. There is one thing though that keeps me in Yangon another day. Its temples are spectacular, the people friendly, the beer good and the food cheap, but I’m anxious to experience the countryside.
Myanmar is a resource-rich country. Its diverse geography, abundance of minerals and rich farmlands have provided great wealth for Burma’s rulers. While the peasantry lives by subsistence agriculture, past royalty lived lives of unimaginable wealth and luxury.
Able to command a vast workforce, kings built new royal capitals at whim. Eleven dynasties over 1,000 years established numerous capitals scratched out of the jungle. Some lasted hundreds of years, some only months.
The architectural styles and cultural heritage built over this millennium is vast and unique. Subtlety in decoration is not a Burmese trait. The collection of royal objects in the National Museum where we go today is said to make the British crown jewels look cheap by comparison.
Another $3 taxi ride takes us across the city to the museum’s cavernous floors. Unfortunately photography is prohibited. Inadequate lighting and signage bathe the multitude of intricately wrought objects in a physical and historical half-light.
The ornate 26-foot-high Lion Throne of Burma’s last king, overthrown by the Brits in 1885, occupies its own high ceilinged teak-paneled room. Appearing more gateway than throne, its multi-leveled golden splendor is still awe-inspiring.
Original ceremonial outfits worn by the king and queen stand beside old black and white photos of the royal couple wearing them. The exotic Burmese design of golden threads, jewels and intricate gold filigree, though faded with age, is astounding. Just the golden bejeweled slippers would be worth a fortune.
Even these, though, pale next to the solid gold everyday objects used in court life. A giant “safe” 20-feet-by-80 holds these treasures. Lighted windows open onto displays of intricate hand-wrought, solid-gold, jewel-encrusted pipes, urns, goblets, spittoons and bowls. I am not disappointed.
‘Traveling the roads of Myanmar’
The next day, we had our guest house arrange transportation to the small town of Taungoo, an ancient royal capital 125 miles north. Right on time, a trait consistent throughout Myanmar, the guest house’s new minivan pulls up to whisk us to the bus station.
Traffic crawls as we reach northwestern Yangon. The driver turns into a district of block after crowded block teeming with people and buses. He deposits us outside one of the innumerable nondescript bus companies. No way could I have found it on my own.
A boy tosses our bags into the dusty luggage compartment as others manhandle a motorbike into the opposite side. Twenty minutes and an ice cream later we board. It’s freezing! Condensation obscures the windows. Yes it’s hot outside, but this is ridiculous.
Pulling away, a music video begins: Burmese hip-hop replete with the mysogynistic gun violence learned from our culture. We few Americans on board are appalled.
Back in traffic we make our way north to where the new Yangon-Mandalay Expressway splits from the old road. Immediately traffic eases. With no trucks allowed, only the occasional car or tour bus can be seen. The road was built by hand, all 450 miles of it, very likely by forced labor.
The countryside is flat and desiccated. Dry rice paddies fade into the smoky distance. Long thatched sheds on stilts rise out of occasional ponds. Banana trees delineate fields and rare villages of thatched huts break the monotony.
Travel goes smoothly until we exit the expressway meeting the volume of traffic funneled onto the two lanes of the tree-covered old road. It is chock full of conveyances of every description. Two wheeled oxcarts plod heavily along. Bicyclists and trishaws (a bike/taxi with “sidecar”) are passed by innumerable motorbikes carrying up to five people weaving among the vastly overloaded farm trucks. Buses honk warnings seeking an opening to pass in turn.
This becomes our normal experience while traveling the roads of Myanmar.
Arriving in the middle of a town, it becomes evident we are to get off the bus. I guess we’re in Taungoo. Motorbike taxi drivers clamor at the door for customers. A young trishaw driver catches my eye and flashes the card of the Myanmar Beauty Guest House, our destination. I negotiate a price, he grabs our bags, strapping them on with threadbare bungies while I sit askew in the too small passenger seat.
Setting off along the traffic-clogged main highway, we begin a journey into the politically oppressed heart of Burmese culture.
Dennis Jones is a local professional photographer and writer. He and Yolanda Marshall travel extensively. Dennis leads private photography workshops in the Vail/Beaver Creek area. To contact him, visit www.dreamcatcherimaging.com.