“၂၀၁၀ ကမၻာ့ လူအခြင့္အေရး၏ တိုက္ပြဲႏွစ္” ျမန္မာ့ေသြးအနီေရာင္ မညစ္ေစနဲ ့။ စစ္က်ြန္ဘ၀လႊတ္ေျမာက္ၾကဖို ့ ေတာ္လွန္ွေရးသို ့့ အသင့္ျပင္

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

An iron fist in gold leaf

November 21, 2010
Watching hundreds of monks tuck into their lunch is just another day in mysterious Burma, writes Katrina Lobley.
IT'S A daily ritual at Burma's Kha Khat Wain monastery. At 10.30am, a gong's struck to signal lunch for the monks massed within the complex, among the country's three biggest. We're told to watch in silence but no one has told that to the skinny stray mutts scratching and sniffing about nearby.

At the boom of the gong, they collectively point their snouts skywards and howl.
Story continues below The sound might upset the hounds but for the crimson-swaddled barefoot monks - there can be up to 1200 but a mere 800 are in the house today - it means it's time to gather in orderly single file for their last meal of the day.

Awaiting them inside the fluorescent-lit dining hall is a simple concoction of rice moistened with a sweet-sour soup of roselle leaves - the most common vegetable found in Burmese kitchens - with hot green tea on the side. Sometimes, a benefactor's donation spices up the menu with something like curry, but not today.

Sitting at low circular tables, monks spoon the soupy rice from alms bowls resting in their laps. Others shuttle about the hall, delivering rice scooped from steaming giant vats.

From outside, bug-eyed children peer in through the windows. As tables start to clear, they poke empty plastic bags through the grille and these are discreetly filled with leftovers and passed back to them. By 11.30am, lunch is over.

This very early lunch in Bago, a town 80 kilometres north of Rangoon, is a compelling glimpse into everyday monastic life. To watch it costs nothing but visitors must observe the rules that apply at each and every one of Burma's many sacred sites: shoes must be left at the entrance and women must dress modestly, covering cleavage and knees.

The downside of visiting the monastery is that it's a known drawcard for the few visitors who do come to Burma (the country recorded just 227,400 visitors in 2009) and venture into the countryside, which means begging kids and trinket sellers will most definitely find you.

Before seeing the monastery, I wandered through downtown Bago, buying a pot of thanakha - the creamy sandalwood make-up that Burmese women and children paint on their cheeks - from a street vendor. At the monastery, reached by minibus, my thanakha retailer and her friends mysteriously pop up again, then again at lunch, another bus ride away. It takes a while for the penny to drop: the women are tracking us on motorbikes.

It's weird but then so is being in the great unknown that is Burma. Most Australians know little of the place beyond its oppressive politics. Friends ask what it feels like to be in a country so infamously ruled by a military junta. Armed baby-faced soldiers are visible at places where crowds gather, such as at Bogyoke Market in central Rangoon. And there's more near the turn-off to where pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest.

Flying from Vietnam to Burma feels like leaving south-east Asia for the subcontinent. The intriguing ethnic mix includes many Indian faces and curries feature prominently on menus; in fact, fish and giant river prawn curries are so subtle and fragrant that

I make a beeline for Innwa Bookstore in Rangoon to browse the English-language cookbooks.
Visitors usually want to spend their money so that it goes direct to impoverished Burmese rather than to the regime. It's easy to do this: from buying an elephant bell or cotton sarong at the markets to bargaining for beads or postcards from the women and kids who eke out a living near places such as the Strand Hotel, where butlers look after every whim of well-heeled guests.

Even though Rangoon is home to 5.5 million people, it's a peaceful place to explore (drivers are fined if they dare beep a horn, so the city is quieter than places such as Hanoi).

In towns such as Bago, the street markets provide entertainment. Visitors can watch women slice marbled betel nuts and the men, with their betel nut-stained red mouths, play checkers with bottle tops on the footpath. And if there's a sudden downpour - the long rainy season runs from May to October - don't be surprised if a solicitous shopkeeper dusts off a chair and beckons you to sit with him and wait it out.

In Rangoon, the must-see attraction is the Shwedagon Pagoda. Soaring 98 metres into the sky, the golden spire is visible from just about anywhere in the city and is reputed to be coated in 135,000 sheets of gold leaf. The best time to photograph the golden stupa is half an hour before sunset, when fading daylight and the switching on of spotlights changes the colours minute to minute.

My guide Kyaw tells stories of fantastic jewels embedded in the stupa - the "diamond bud" at its peak is known as that for good reason - but it's hard to believe all the priceless gems remain up there intact (although to be doubly sure, there's a security screening gate at its base).

We circumnavigate the stupa watching the faithful at their devotions, which includes pouring water over tiny statues of Buddha at the base. Rain turns the marble surrounds slippery but well-practised attendants quickly lay a non-slip path and sweep the water into drains. Kyaw stops at a seemingly innocuous spot he knows well - it's the only place where light glints off a faceted jewel at the tip.

Beyond seeing the country's awe-inspiring sacred sites, which include giant reclining Buddhas and island pagodas that can only be reached by boat, Burma is the sort of place where you can have unexpected adventures. I discover this when I pop out of the Chatrium Hotel in a ritzy part of Rangoon to photograph once-grand mansions that have fallen victim to the passage of time and tropical heat and damp.

One particularly creepy but photogenic house sits behind high gates topped with curls of razor wire. Before I know it, security guards at the windows spot me and make a beeline.

Panic sets in. Will they seize my camera? Tell me off? Detain me?
They unlock the gate, usher me up to the house, take my umbrella and point me up a dim stairwell. My heart's beating at a million miles an hour. I'm meant to be leaving for the airport in 40 minutes.

I have no idea what's about to happen and, if something does, that anyone will know where to find me.

All that happens, however, is that the boss guard wants to show me the view from each window. He points out the safest route across the rotting floorboards, as well as the faintly Arabic curves of an interior arch, then insists I snap a picture of him and his colleagues, who all appear to live here.

I trot back to the Chatrium (which, curiously, sells its "Do Not Disturb" signs for $US3 a pop) unsure if my unexpected private tour was a brave or stupid thing to do.

I tell Kyaw the adrenalin's still pumping from the largely wordless, strange encounter. "Why?" he says, as if I haven't learnt a thing from the Buddhist philosophy he's shared during the past few days. As if the guns, the soldiers, the politics don't even register as part of the country he loves or as things that might set a visitor's nerves on edge.

"This is Burma - nothing would have happened to you," he says, giving me his most Buddha-like smile. The writer was a guest of Vietnam Airlines and the Strand Hotel.

Things change on a whim in Burma. Credit cards aren't accepted, so take enough US cash to cover expenses. Visitors must carry $US300 ($302) cash on entry. Change your US dollars with your tour operator, at a big hotel or even with the money-changers at Bogyoke Markets (don't worry about finding them; they'll find you). The government rate offered at banks is a tiny percentage of the going rate elsewhere.

The short-lived visa-on-arrival system at Rangoon and Mandalay international airports was suspended on September 1. Foreign visitors must apply for a 28-day visa ($35) from myanmarembassycanberra.com /visainformation/visa_information.htm.

Laptop loophole
The Strand and the Chatrium hotels offer free Wi-Fi but travellers often find they can't access their email accounts while travelling in Burma. The trick is to add an "s" to the http section of the URL to bypass the country's officialdom.

Trip notes
Getting thereVietnam Airlines flies to Rangoon via Hanoi and via Ho Chi Minh City. Return airfares Sydney-Rangoon via Vietnam start from $1125. (02) 9283 1355, vietnamairlines.com.

Staying there

The Strand Hotel, next to the Australian Embassy in Rangoon, exudes elegance and class. If you're not staying in one of the 32 suites on the two upper floors, drop in for the "Stranded" happy hours with guests and expats, from 5pm to 11pm on Fridays. Rooms from $US208 ($210) a night. +951 243 377, ghmhotels.com.

The Chatrium Hotel is a five-star 303-room hotel near Royal Lake with grind-your-own thanakha in the lobby and a palm-tree fringed pool out back. Rooms from $US180 a night. +951 544 500, chatriumhotelRangoon.com.

Touring there
The Sydney-based Myanmar Travel Group organises customised tours. Prices start from $950 for a four-day, land-only tour including car and guide. 0408 885 016, myanmartravelgroup.com.

See and do
Kha Khat Wain monastery is in Bago, 80 kilometres from Rangoon. Free entry.
Shwedagon Pagoda, Singuttara Hill, Rangoon, open daily from 4am-10pm, $US5 entry. shwedagonpagoda.com.
Bogyoke Aung San Market, Bogyoke Aung San Road, Pabedan, Rangoon. bogyokeaungsanmarket.com.



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