Travel/Myanmar is Opening up – II

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By Pradip Phanjoubam
The proposed and much awaited Imphal-Mandalay has a number of hurdles to overcome. The most obvious of these is the highway that is to be used. From Moreh to Kalemyo it is a two-lane highway named Indo-Myanmar Friendship Road, built and maintained by India’s Border Road Orgainsation, BRO, and though a little narrow for a highway, especially for heavy vehicles, it is still good. Moreover, at the moment, there is hardly any traffic on it so drive on it is comfortable.

However, beyond Kalyemo as the road takes to the hills alongside the Chindwin River (Ningthi Turel), towards Monywa, the condition of the road deteriorates to a very dusty dirt road. During the monsoons, it will be almost a 200 km stretch of slippery mud track difficult for motor vehicles to negotiate.

Not only this, all along this road there are numerous weak bridges which cannot be used by heavy vehicles. During the dry seasons this is manageable for buses and trucks can descend into the dry or nominally wet river beds and cross them. This would be impossible during the rainy seasons when the rivers are in spate. India is planning to extend its generosity beyond Kalyemo and stretch its BRO-built friendship road to Monywa and ultimately to Mandalay. Once this is done, Mandalay would be a pleasure drive away from Imphal. So too important cities like Pagan, often described as the Pagoda jungle, predicted to become a major international tourist attraction no sooner than Myanmar opens up.

Mandalay onwards, connectivity is a different story altogether. Today the city is connected to the custom built still half empty brand new Burma’s capital city of NayPyiTaw and further to the country’s once seat of power and today its commercial capital, Rangoon (now Yangon), by a state-of-art concrete expressway, four lane most of the time, but broadening to as much as eight lanes near cities. This expressway is the country’s one and only, and as of today there is virtually no traffic on it.

Whatever else may be said of the military junta that ruled the country for half a century before making way for a nominally democratic government last year, it did build and maintain its road infrastructure. Other than the NayPyiTaw expressway, most of the other highways, except for some like the Monywa-Kalemyo stretch, are not in too bad shape. The methodical military planning is also visible everywhere. For almost all of the 10 days we drove in the country, we say the highways constantly covered under a canopy of trees planted on both sides of the highways. Not only did this provide cool shade to the highways but also makes for very pleasant and green sights. The roads too are built well and would compare well with most highways in India. There has to be a qualification here for in states like Manipur, where thievery is considered as service perks by the almost universally corrupt officialdom. Just a look at the cement road around the newly built BT Flyover would testify this. These cement blocks should have lasted a lifetime as no heavy vehicles ply on them but in a matter of only a few years, there are already washing away. At the cost of the public, we can only wonder how many expensive cars, and marble mansions were built out of the money siphoned off. Manipur indeed has become a land without remorse.

We hope as Burma opens up, and predictably overtakes Manipur in terms of infrastructure and general quality of life, we hope our powers that be learn the lesson. But back to Burma. The country is rightly described as the land pagoda and rightly so. There is hardly any place without a grand pagoda. But of all these Pagan strikes you as out of this world. If ten days ago before I had set foot at this place, I were to wake up here by some chance, I would have been left to believe I had been abducted by extra terrestrials and left in an alien planet. 2000 pagodas, many of them aeons old, packed in about 45 square miles is a sight that would awe anybody. These ancient structures, most of them in disuse and therefore in varying states of decays, stand there silently haunting the place like benign ghosts from a past era.

Not all the pagodas wear the ancient look. Many of them, though old, look spanking new because of continuous upgrading and renovation. Why shouldn`t they be? These include the majestic Shewdagon in Rangoon. These pagodas are still in use as houses of prayer for devotees first and not primarily for tourists and tourist dollars. There are many other unused temples which can be done up to suit the taste of tourists looking for the exotic orient so why should these live monuments, still forming an important part the present Burmese population be treated like museums for the benefit of tourists and sensibilities of Western conservationists. Hence the Buddha image at Shwe Sandaw Pagoda, Pyay is made of gilded wires frames and is transparent. A kitschy halo of LED lights gives the impression of the image transmitting energy. I see no use objecting. The present is part of history and has a right to contribute to it.

At pagan, the first thought that struck me was that generally discontinued practice of erecting Phura amongst the Meiteis as memorial structures for deceased loved ones is probably a spill over of this stupa building tradition in Burma.

Pyay town where we halted a night was another fascinating place. This is where the capital of the Pyu kingdom was and there is a museum and an excavation site close by. I visited the place with a few friends, and to my surprise, the bricks used for restoration of some of the excavated walls, our guide told us were acquired from Moreh in Manipur. There was also a mass grave excavated at another place within Pyu bearing evidence of secondary burial, as in the case of the mass grave excavated near Sekta village in Imphal East. In secondary burial, the dead body is buried in the ground directly without coffin, and after the flesh have rotted and turned into dust, the skeleton is exumed, washed, embalmed and reburied in earthen pots. The Incas and Aztecs are also supposed to have practiced this form of disposal of the dead.

Inside some of the abandoned pagodas, below the statue of the Buddha were texts inscribed on stone in the ancient Pyu text. Prof. Ch. Priyoranjan of the Manipur University said the script of the Pyu, a kingdom which preceded the Pagan, was very similar to Manipuri and proceeded reading it. Our Burmese guide was surprised the professor could actually do so quite accurately. Obviously, there would have had to be some connection somewhere between the place and Manipur of the medieval times.

The structural technology of the dome is still remote in practically all of the stupas and pagodas in Burma. This is the inside of a minor stupa at Pagan.

The Chindwin, known to Manipur as Ningthi Turel near Kalemyo. This river had been the boundary between the Ava kingdom and Manipur once, and many in Manipur speak of it fondly.

In distance is the bridge over the Chindwin that would take you to the road to Monywa and beyond to Mandalay if you go by road from Imphal.

Civic sense of the Buddhist is admirable. A pot of clean drinking water placed on a small ledge secured to the trunk of a tree on the highway just outside Monywa town. The guy in the rear view mirror is yours truly.

Petrol and diesel on sale on the highway. The colour of petrol is different from ours. Petrol. I took permission to open a bottle and smell and the vendor thought I was an addict so was suspicious. Petrol sniffing apparently is a scourge here too.

A roadside eatery. You can have your choice of insects, sparrows and other small wildlife fried whole in these stalls. Very tasty (shhh…as a wildlife enthusiast, I shouldn`t be saying this).

The Majestic Shwedagon Pagoda where three strands of hair believed to be of the Buddha is preserved. I took the picture against the sun to create an ambience of abstract spiritualism.

A Rangoon Street from the 14 floor of my hotel. Rangoon reminds you of Calcutta, but as all SE Asian cities, much cleaner and kempt.

Burmese wages are very low at the moment. Even college lecturers get as low as 250 dollars a month (Rs. 12000), making it difficult for most to make pilgrimages to India, tbe birthplace of Buddhism. This is an enlarged picture of the bunyan tree at Bodhgaya under which the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment, installed at the Shwedagon complex for the benefit of devotees who cannot afford a trip to India.

It is however not uncommon to see expensive cars like this Nissan Fair Lady parked outside upmarket restaurants in Rangoon, Mandalay and of course the custom made capital city, NayPyiTaw — the spanking new, virtually empty city of swanky shopping malls and flower beds lined avenues.

The Mandalay-NayPyiTaw-Rangoon expressway. Here our vehicles` speed limits were being tested. As you can see, we were the only vehicles on the road. It is, as some explained, a matter of getting ready for the future.

There were also roads like this with very weak bridges. Heavy vehicles cannot use them and have to drive on the river beds. Our vehicles were also virtually the only ones on these roads too.

Plenty of girls take to blue collar jobs in Burma. These girls manning a petrol pump are in a Mandalay suburb.

The starting point of the BRO built, Indo-Myanmar Friendship Road at the Moreh-Tamu border. That`s me again in the rear view mirror.

Shwe Zigon/Onzedi pagoda at Pagan. Temples such as these which still are used as houses of prayer are spanking new because of constant upgradation and renovation. Why shouldn`t they be? These temples are first and foremost for the devotees and not for tourists and tourist dollars. There are many other unused temples in various states of decay. They can be done up to suit the taste of tourists looking for the exotic orient. Just my thoughts.

A monk at the entrance of Shwedagon in Rangoon. This temple too looks brand new, and even has a lift service for visitor.

A view of the giant Buddha installed just outside the Shwesandaw pagoda at Pyay. This pagoda too looks brand new and also has a lift service.

In the next decade, when as predicted Burma changes and international tourists flock to the country, I hope the country retains its inner spirituality so evident and not sell itself too much as many SE Asian countries have. I hope sex tourism is not encouraged, I hope no ethnic parks where tribal communities are asked to surrender their privacy and make tourists watch their lifestyles for a fee begin to sprout.

A boy selling quail eggs somewhere near Pyay town. Poverty is dehumanising, but selling one`s soul for a few dollars is even more so. Whatever else Bhutan has done to discredit itself, at least in this regard, this tiny country has not sold itself or its inner integrity. I hope Burma takes the lesson.

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