S.V. Chowdhury, locomotive engineer 2nd Class, Burma Railways, Rangoon division, has been dreaming about Chicago again. "Just before I wake up, I'm standing on a promontory of some kind, and I'm looking out over a big, shiny steel bridge that connects to the city," he says. "At the end of it, Sheela and Chandri are standing there, holding hands with the rest of the family, welcoming me, beckoning me, telling me I'm there, at last!"
During the short period I have come to know Mr. Chowdhury, he has told me about his dream several times: How his brother-in-law, Chandri, immigrated to the States 10 years ago with the intention of eventually bringing the rest of the Chowdhurys over; how the plan has been interrupted by Chandri's unexpected bad health; how Tula Vin, Mr. Chowdhury's wife, wasn't exactly thrilled when her husband turned in his visa application recently and how it all has become a waiting game, punctuated by the dream.
Dreaming is a Burmese pastime, as it is in any country where the leaders have left only the life of the spirit untrammeled. But in Burma, now officially called Myanmar by everyone not troubled by the fact that its Nobel Peace Prize winner is still under house arrest, dreaming has a capital city. It is called Pagan. Once the holiest city in Southeast Asia, it is now a place for the Chowdhurys of the world to dream of steel bridges, or for travelers like myself to follow their own longstanding dreams and to walk quietly in a place where the spirit of Buddha once ruled.
There are other Burmese dreams--Rangoon, Mandalay and Burma's best-kept secret, Maymyo--and only they can prepare a Westerner for a place like Pagan. Rangoon, the sweltering, gritty, bureaucratic capital is the first stop after the madness that is Bangkok. It offers a couple of nice parks and two notable pagodas, the Sule and the Shwedagon, the latter an enormous gold-domed structure dating to the time of Buddha himself (the ancient monks built it in anticipation of a coming buddha, said to appear every 5,000 years). Here, too, is the old Strand Hotel, where the likes of W. Somerset Maugham and George Orwell stayed, and where, in a strange testament to the country's half-hearted modernization, a Hong Kong entrepreneur has invested millions to remodel half the hotel, while the other half remains dilapidated.
Moving north to Mandalay, I get the complete issue of Burmese street culture: East Indian teahouses full of men in longyi (a kind of tightly wrapped sarong) chattering over milky tea and biscuits, produce markets choked with fruits and flowers and spices and rattan, swarms of black-market money changers offering deals of the century. But Mandalay's riot eventually sends me eastward, to historic Mandalay Hill, where the last kings of Burma worshiped. And the quiet here sends me farther on, to the little town of Maymyo. A day here and you wish for a week.
Once a seat of the British colonial system, Maymyo is laid out in the rectilinear fashion that seems to have given so much solace to the raj. There are red brick commercial buildings, a clock tower, a town square now used for tying up horse carts. A bus mate tells me to visit Hotel Candacraig, where the old English colonialists used to vacation during the summer, so I rent a bicycle and peddle outside Maymyo's city limits, past fragrant sweet shops, vendors selling betel nuts, tobacco, tea and curios. Soon, a cool wind at my back, I find the Hotel Candacraig, English garden still intact. Inside the polished wooden lobby, where the old raj had taken sustenance, I collapse on a roomy wicker chair with a mineral water. I peddle back to town beneath a sky bruised with darkening shades of violet, dreaming of Pagan.
ONE COMES TO PAGAN AT DUSK, BY STEAMBOAT along the mythical Irrawaddy River, its yellow cast glimmering through its dark surface. It is a 12-hour passage from Mandalay, giving one more than enough time to absorb the history lesson. The kingdom of Pagan flourished from the 11th through 13th centuries under a lineage spawned by King Anawrahta, who unified the country's warring tribes while simultaneously elevating the doctrines of Therevada Buddhism--the philosophy as it was preached by its founder, Gautama Siddhartha. Anawrahta's evangelical fervor was apparently contagious. In 200 years, more than 5,000 ornate temples, pagodas, monasteries and reliquaries were erected--16 square miles of religious architecture unequaled anywhere in Asia.
When Kublai Khan arrived in 1268, ready for the kill, Pagan's very reputation allegedly held him in awe, temporarily at bay. He struck north first, conquering little Bhamo as a warm-up. Pagan fell soon after. Since then, Pagan has followed the waxing and waning of the country's political fortunes, sometimes flourishing under the Burmese kings of the north, sometimes going to wrack and ruin when political power concentrates to the south, as it has now. In 1975 a strong earthquake damaged hundreds of historic structures, some of which the government then began restoring. But in 1988, political unrest--or, as we know it, democracy--shook up the nation's political elite. The government blamed, among others, "activist" monks in Pagan and cracked down. Under the auspices of creating an "archeological preservation district," authorities forced the villagers of Pagan out and erected a pricey tourist hotel. Pagan was under control, but deathly silent.
Silence is an unnatural thing for the traveler; it signifies sleep, if anything, and sleeping is not what the adventurous traveler normally has in mind. But silence also amplifies discovery--it creates the space one needs for exploration, a luxury in a world of packaged tours, planned itineraries, video-and-audio-prepared tourists. Pagan is for the traveler who wants to get lost.
I find this out on my first morning after Mr. Chowdhury and I share a pot of sweet Burmese tea and say our goodbys. I rent a semi-sturdy Chinese one-speed from the cheerful proprietor of the guest house where I am staying and ride south down Pagan's only paved artery of any consequence, Nyaung-Oo Road. By 9 a.m. on a November day, it is already 80 degrees plus and the only way to the temples is by dusty dirt path.
Ananda was the name of Gautama Siddhartha's cousin, and it is the name of perhaps the most celebrated temple in Burma. The word is a derivative of Ananta Panna, denoting the endless wisdom of Buddha, and so chosen by King Kyanzittha, Anawrahta's son, as the name of his centerpiece temple. Nothing has prepared me for its grandeur, for the dark vestibule and light-bathed terrace, or for the gilded tower reaching almost 170 feet into the azure sky.
I put my bike down and enter the quiet corridors, still cool from the night air. On each of the temple's four sides, buddha figures sit in various stages of enlightenment. Still more buddhas surround me in a honeycomb of tiny niches. As I walk down the halls, sunlight flickers in, followed by a moment of darkness. Light, then dark, then light again. Its effect, with me all morning as I sketch the temple, is pure exhilaration. As enormous as Ananda is, there is also about it a feeling of the temporary, of wonder. Did Kyanzittha, devout ruler that he was, plan Ananda as a place to spin free of one's own earthly weights? Nine hundred years later, in any case, it is for me.
THE NEARBY THATBYINNYU TEMPLE, AT 201 FEET the tallest in Pagan, is said to offer the best view of Pagan's 2,500 remaining sites, but today the tower is closed and the temple empty. A young Mandalay family on holiday are the only other visitors to Mingalazedi Temple, all delicately proportioned and decorated with terra-cotta Burmese legends--the height of classical Pagan style.
But silence is broken at Gawdawpalin Temple. Here, noisy schoolchildren are running about, ringing bells, placing flowers at the feet of Buddhas, practicing ancient ancestral visitation rites exactly as King Narapatisithu intended when he built it 800 years ago.
As the day lengthens, what few touts there are in Pagan now make their appearance. Most of them are waifs wearing longyi .
"Mister! Mister! Real antiques!"
A boy riding alongside me manages to unroll a clump of newspaper to reveal the severed head of a tiny stone figurine.
"Where did you get that?"
"I know real. But where did you get that? From the temple?"
"Oh no, sir. From the field. From the treasure fields!"
All around us, between the various temple grounds, bean fields flourish. It's the farmers' yearly turning of the soil that yields the ancient crops.
"Not from the temple. From the ground!"
I feel terrible, then faintly amused. Imagine gypsies growing corn between the Colosseum and the Forum in Rome, as they gamely try to sell tourists little pieces of the Spanish Steps or the Vatican. "Not from the temple": that still doesn't make it all right, I think, and peddle on. But who am I to deny this boy the one enterprise the Burmese government hasn't already banned?
The day ends at the nearby Shwesandaw Pagoda, which is a comparatively humble structure, clearly not part of the "star system" promoted by the Myanmar Tourism Authority. Shwesandaw, which is said to house several sacred hairs of Buddha, was restored from near-rubble in 1977 and repainted an unusual wash of gold instead of its original white. I climb up five terraces to the pagoda's tower and sit down to contemplate my first day in this remarkable place. Before me lie the plains of Pagan, golden, sleeping in the dusk. The treasure fields.
"WAKE UP! LET'S GO! YOU SAID WE READ!"
Little Ko Ko-Gyi, the 9-year-old son of the owner of my guest house, is teasing me again. We have become good friends in the week I've been in Pagan--with him showing me around the shadowy corners of his favorite temples as only a child who's grown up among them could, me sitting with him at night, helping him with his English. Now it is 3 in the afternoon, the hottest time of the day. I had nodded off while sitting on the porch, and Ko Ko-Gyi has caught me. It is time, he has decided, for another lesson.
All up and down Nyaung-Oo Road, and around the nation, for that matter, Burmese girls and boys read and study. Burma may be poor, but it boasts one of the highest literacy rates in Asia, one of the few benefits of the government's dogmatic adherence to Socialist principles. English is not just a requirement; Burmese who hope the West might someday invest in their country again see it as a way out.
Ko Ko-Gyi is remarkably adept at picking up vocabulary. I discover the reason when I ask him why he is holding his hand up against a page of a book, which he in turn holds up to the sky. "It helps me remember," he says simply. "Where my hand has been, also my mind." Inevitably, Ko Ko-Gyi begins our "lessons" by interrogating me about America. "You like Tom Cruise? Arnold? Rambo Sly?" I nod grudgingly. Yes, I have seen their movies; no, not everyone in America wants to be just like them.
I manage to get him to return to his lessons, folklore pamphlets--thin, poorly printed on tissue-like paper. "Selected Myanmar Tales," one is titled. In these tales, I find a clue to the bittersweet resilience of the Burmese people. Ko Ko-Gyi reads one called "How the Galan-Bird Became a Salt Maker," an allegory concerning a sacred Galan bird hungry for some tasty dragon. Having spotted one he swoops down, but too late: the dragon has turned himself into a human to camouflage himself among a group of the king's attendants. The Galan follows, but fails again when the dragon returns to his undersea home.
"The Galan wept in disappointment," the story goes on, "for he had set his heart on eating that particular dragon. So the Galan decided to become a salt-maker and wait for the day the dragon would return."
"What do you think happened, Ko Ko-Gyi?" I ask, figuring this to be a "patience will win out" kind of morality tale.
Ko Ko-Gyi picks up the book and reads the ending matter-of-factly. "He worked and watched at the edge of the sea every day, but the dragon did not reappear. The Galan grew old and died a morose salt-maker, for he never caught the dragon after all." A pause envelops us. How could a child's fairy tale end like this? Ko Ko-Gyi closes the book and smiles. "Now can we talk about Tom Cruise?"
NOTE: BECAUSE AUTHORITIES IN MYANMAR HAVE been known to retaliate against citizens who cooperate with writers, I have changed the names in this story. In its guidebook to Burma, the very conscientious Lonely Planet Press asks the reader: "Should You Go to Myanmar (Burma)?" And then it goes on to enumerate the ills of the past 33 years that Burma has suffered under Gen. Ne Win, whose so-called "Burmese path to prosperity"--a kind of Albanian socialism run amok--has been universally derided. The quandary for the conscientious traveler then is this: Boycott Burma and the country's isolated, oppressed population will never hear what life could be like, never know more than Arnold and Rambo Sly. Spend your tourist dollars there and you support the corrupt government. It is the kind of moralistic hemming and hawing one gets accustomed to as one travels in this modern age. But I wonder why a third alternative always remains unspoken: What if things stay the same, no matter what you do?
THE GREAT SHWEZIGON PAGODA IS considered the holiest temple in Burma; in its chedi, or top, is said to rest a bone and tooth of Buddha himself. I've saved it for my last day. Ko Ko-Gyi and I pack a few extra bottles of water onto our bikes and head north, where we are soon greeted by a sight both familiar and surreal: familiar because the outline of Shwezigon, with its enormous gold domes and curlicue finials, strikes a chord in any Westerner who may have seen it in a 9th-grade geography text, surreal because the pagoda's very mass suggests not as much another archeological site as a city unto itself.
A city of the Buddha: it is the urban feeling of Shwezigon that sets it apart. This is, for one thing, a functioning temple, with dozens of small groups of worshipers lighting incense at a favorite shrine, rubbing gold leaf onto tiles depicting the Jataka Tales (panels chronicling the life of Buddha) and walking, walking, walking. Shwezigon accommodates many kinds of worship. Dozens of meditation halls, each with its own icon, are supported by an individual sect. In one corner spins an electronic prayer wheel. In another, a buddha reclines amid strings of Christmas-tree lights.
Ko Ko-Gyi pulls on my shirt and leads me to a patch of shade in a garden of amaranth and marigolds. I sit sketching for a while as a group of Ko Ko-Gyi's friends gather about and chatter "American" . . . "Hollywood" . . . "Tom Cruise." Somehow, I suspect that, for better or for worse, my biographical profile is being enhanced, Ko Ko-Gyi style.
Exhilarated but fatigued, I am already thinking about the next day's long return trip to Thazi, then Rangoon, then Bangkok. But Ko Ko-Gyi has one more stop in mind, Kubyaukki Temple, built in 1113 by Anawrahta's grandson, Rajakumar. I agree reluctantly and luckily so, for here is one of those grand moments the dirty, the tired and the sunburned can experience in Pagan. Kubyaukkyi houses some of the oldest corridor paintings in Burma, many of them with legends in the original Pali script.
My favorite scene, "The Teaching in the Deer Park," I'd first seen in some dusty reference book. As a young man, I was taken with Buddha's message about the right way to live. How its clarity opened my eyes then! But how difficult it is to hold on to that clarity. Recalling Ko Ko-Gyi's memory technique, I put my hand up to the panel and hold it there. Then Ko Ko-Gyi tugs on my other hand, and I allow him to lead me home.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
GUIDEBOOK / Burmese Days and Nights
Telephone numbers and prices. The country code for Myanmar is 95. The city code for Rangoon is 1; for Mandalay 2. All prices are approximate. Hotel prices are for one night.
Getting in: Myanmar has only recently begun issuing 30-day visas to foreign travelers. For information and applications, contact the Myanmar Embassy, 2300 S St., N.W., Washington, D.C.; (202) 332-9044, or a commercial passport and visa service. Travel to and within Myanmar is strictly controlled, and independent travel is difficult. An experienced tour operator is recommended, and can arrange group or individual packages. Among them: InnerAsia Expeditions of San Francisco, (800) 777-8183; Mountain Travel-Sobek of El Cerrito, Calif. (800) 227-2384 and Absolute Asia of New York City, (800) 736-8187.
Getting there: Thai Airways flies four times a week from Los Angeles to Bangkok, with a stopover in Seoul; total time about 20 hours. Several other carriers, including Northwest, United, Cathay Pacific, Korean Air and China Airlines, , have connecting service to Bangkok. After an overnight stay in Bangkok, flights to Rangoon are available on Thai Airways and Myanma Airways. Myanma Airways and Mandalay Air fly from Rangoon to Mandalay. For $10, travelers can take a steamboat via first class from Mandalay to Pagan. Book through the Myanmar Tourism Agency, located near the Sule Pagoda in downtown Rangoon. Horse-drawn carriages are available near the docks in Pagan, $1.
Where to stay: Hotels and restaurants operated by the government are markedly more expensive than private facilities. In Rangoon, the Strand Hotel, 92 Strand Road, downtown near the Rangoon River; tel. 81530. This beautifully remodeled hotel, the most famous in Burma, offers luxury and a sense of the raj at a price. Doubles in the new section are $300 a night; in the old section, $66. Any number of gentlemen will offer their services in finding a guest house in Rangoon. Haggle for the best price--usually not more than $20--before agreeing.
In Mandalay,the Ayeryarwaddy Hotel, 26th Street near 80th Street. Rates: Don't pay more than $20.
In Pagan, the Thiripyitsaya Hotel, Nyaung-Oo Road, on the banks of the Irrawaddy; local tel. 89000. Government-style luxury, which is not much. Rates: $40-$60. Or try one of the guest houses in old Pagan village or along Nyaung-Oo Road. Rates: $10-$15 for a room.
Where to eat: Because Burma is at an Asian crossroads, its cuisine is a blend of Thai, Indian and Chinese. In Pagan, the Nation restaurant, opposite the Shwezigon Pagoda, serves a good curry. At the Thiripyitsaya Hotel, a fixed-price meal, $4 per person, is available, but book one day ahead if possible.
Recommended reading: "Lonely Planet's Guide to Myanmar (Burma)," Lonely Planet Publications, $13.95; and Nicholas Greenwood's "Guide to Burma," Bradt Publications, $15.95. Available in most travel bookstores.