In spite of its tropical green landscape, its culture colored by Buddhism and its warm, smiling-faced people Burma is a country practically unknownto the outside world. The first civilized people to come to Burma, the Mons, passed into history as those who gave their settled land the name, "Golden Country", and who brought Buddhism to the region. For centuries Burma operated on the trade routes between South-east Asia and India. Present day Burma with its Buddhist values rooted in Tibet has emerged as a synthesis of the two cultures.
The Shan, one of Burma's ethnic communities living in a region near the Thai border, speak a language resembling Thai.
The great majority of Burma's population of 50 million is Buddhist. According to legend, the Golden Stone in Kyaiktiao brought from the depths of the sea to this precipice rests on a single hair of Buddha. Interestingly the stone maintains perfect balance even though it can easily be rocked by the strength of one person...
As the plane from Bangkok approached the mysterious country veiled in the darkness of night the 2-dimensional map of my imagination took 3-dimensional shape as the lights of the capital, Rangoon, came into view.
Burma. Recently on the Western-World's agenda for non-observance of human rights in the grip of a military regime and yet little known to the outside world in its isolation in spite of its tropical green landscape, its culture colored by Buddhism and its warm, smiling people.
The first civilized people to come to this land of golden dreams with its primitive animist beliefs were the Mons who brought Buddhism to the region and named it Suvannabhunai or "Golden Country." Two thousand years ago the Pyu migrated from mountainous Tibet to the broad plains of Burma and together with a later wave of Bouman Mon-Khemer communities pushed onwards to the south towards present day Kampuchea. The ancestors of the Burmese the Pyu and the Boumans, settled in the fertile region between the Irawadi and Salween rivers which carried glacial waters from the Himalayas and made verdant one of the most magnificent examples of Buddhist civilization. These two cultures together with Buddhism rooted in Tibet created an interesting synthesis in the land on the trade routes between South-East Asia and India.
Pagan, with its statues of Buddha and temples, is a centre of pilgrimage for those who hold the Buddhist faith...
MORE THAN TWO THOUSAND TEMPLES
For 11 centuries the ancestors of the Burmese, the Barmar (Birmans, who migrated from the north) subjugated the peoples in the south and founded a dynasty. Pagan, in the Mandalay region, was the dynasty's first capital. Under the rule of king Ana wratha the city was built with the most magnificent examples of Buddhist art. In 1287, Pagan was destroyed by Kubla Khan and abandoned. In the last century it was plundered by the Germans. The presnt day small village of Pagan and its environs - consisting of more than 2,000 temples - were partially destroyed by an earthquake in 1975. The buildings are now being restored under a UNESCO conservation programme..
In the 19th century Burma came under British rule as part of British India. Before the Second World War it achieved a certain measure of self-government and separated from India. During the Second World War Burma was occupied by Japanese forces and fought on the same side fueled by the desire for independence. Subsequently perceiving itself to be a puppet-state of Japan Burma changed allegiance and fought against the Japanese on the side of the British. In 1948 it was granted independence and became a Republic outside the Commonwealth. In the first election the Marxist party of Aung San was chosen.
The country, destabilized by economic problems and guerrilla warfare in the north, was taken over in 1962 by general Ne Win in a bloodless coup, and a form of socialist rule was established. As the Vietnam war spread to Kampuchea and Laos Burma's democratic hopes turned to ashes and 26 years of hard-line military rule ensued. In 1988 the murder of a student demonstrator in Rangoon fueled nationwide unrest and the military regime promised multi-party elections. The outcome was in favor of the democratic party of Aung San Su Kyi, the daughter of the national hero, Aung San, and the elections was canceled.
In Burma most of the ethnic communities and tribes live in the mountainous regions and the Barmar in the plains.
In the Kyaiktiao region, where every stone has been used to build Buddhist temples, the village houses are constructed of wood and bamboo. The people living in these basic villages subsist on agriculture and hand-crafts... In Burma, a country of very few large cities, 75 % of the population lives in settlement centres in rural areas. In many villages the lifestyle is communal influenced by tribal custom and Buddhism.
General Saw Maung took power followed by widespread protests and strikes. When the army open fire on demonstrators in Tatmadaw 3,000 civilians lost their lives and thousands of people were forced to seek refuge in neighboring countries. Aung San Su Kyi has been held to this day in a Rangoon prison. Her efforts to lead Burma on the road to peace and democracy were acknowledged in 1991 with the award of the Nobel Peace Prize and she remains a symbol of the Burmese people's for democracy.
The streets of Rangoon that witnessed dreadful tragedy only 6 years ago are now full of ostentatious displays of goods imported from the west and the people immerse themselves in a passion for consumerism and electronic amusement arcades as if to erase the past. Every year in the month of May people take to the streets in joyous celebrations to inaugurate the Buddhist New Year. Everyone from man to woman, child to priest, friend to stranger sprays each other with water to wash away the troubles of the past year.
At sunset I distance myself from the fluorescent lights, exhaust fumes and car horns of the 20 century and climb to the terraces of the gigantic 2,500 year old Shwedagon pagoda which rises 100 meters above the city centre. Its golden tower gleams in the last rays of the setting sun and all around me are priests deep in prayer clad in garments ranging from saffron through purple. I am drawn into the smells, sounds and colours of an oriental night.
The villages of Inla Lake on the Shan plateau surrounded by high mountains on the Thai border are interconnected by canals.
INLA LAKE AND CANALS
Inla Lake on the Shan plateau. On the lake are floating villages and every day there is a market in one village where people from surrounding villages come to sell or barter their wares... In the colonial era the cool air of the lake was popular with the British and today attracts hordes of tourists... If you go on a tour of the canals joining the villages you will find floating vegetable gardens and the monastery known for its jumping cats. Turkish visitors to this monastery founded on bamboo in the middle of the lake should not be surprised to hear the priests mention Mustafa Kemal and the Turkish War of Liberation...
I find myself in a tea garden where daytime popular Burmese music has given way to the night music of European rock groups. Most of the leather jacketed youth shaking their long hair vigorously to the hard rhythm are students of Rangoon University.
80 km south-east Rangoon is the city of Pegu (Bayo) where the majority of Burma's earliest inhabitants, the Mons, lived. Although destroyed in 1757 by a rival king it still bears traces of its magnificent past. The Shwemawdaw Pagoda, largest in Burma, which adorns the green city with its golden gleam, can be seen from a distance of 10 km. Another work left by the Mon civilization is the 60 m long statue of sleeping Buddha.
After a tiring but pleasant journey I arrive in the town of Chayktiyao for the 10 km ascent to the peak where the Golden Stone rests on the edge of a precipice. Every November hundreds of thousands of pilgrims make their way to the pagoda and the villagers are feverishly engaged in the construction of temporary reed and bamboo houses and shops in anticipation of their arrival in a few months time. The finished constructions are decorated with statues of Buddha, flowers and posters of American, Indian or Burmese film stars. In the evening I am invited to share a meal in one of these huts.
Karen villagers live in bamboo houses. Both men and women work together to produce crops such as rice in the fields of the tropical forest or to cut down trees.
In the morning I start the climb to the temple. After a 5 hour climb through tropical forest filled with captivating bird calls I reach the misty peak. Leaving my shoes by the half-dragon, half-lion statue of the man-eating monster Chinthe guarding the entrance I enter the temple, impatient to see the golden stone and suddenly the clouds are evaporated by the hot golden sun of Asia revealing the stone.
A priest approaches and explains with pride that the stone is balanced on a single hair of Buddha. The giant rock poised on the edge of a precipice can be rocked by the strength of one man and then retains its perfect balance.
In the colonial period, Indians came from Bengal and south India to Burma. Today, together with the Chinese, they control an important sector of trade in Burma.
Ananda Temple in the centre of Pagan was built in 1091. In this, the highest temple of the region, sit four enormous statues of Buddha and two of his footsteps. (below left) The turbaned and tattooed Shan who live in the Inla Lake region subsist on fishing and agriculture. (below right)
After the Mongol raids of 1287, Pagan became a small village, and life there continues according to the traditions of centuries ago. (bottom)