Dec 18, 1996 - Jan 15, 1997
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To go or not to goThe western media and audience are fixated with princesses and assorted female heirs to the throne. Because the daughter of Burma's old dictator asked foreigners to boycott tourism in Burma, several westerners are avoiding Burma. The fact is that this woman has no right to speak for the entire country. If you do go to Burma, you will find that the vast majority of the people will welcome you and of course will be very happy to see you there and buy their goods. Just avoid the government hotels and agencies if you don't want to help the government. But remember that Burma's government is a government of saints compared with China, so it is really unfair to punish one dictatorship and not the other. Burma has not occupied a free country, whereas China still occupies one (Tibet) and threatens to occupy another one (Taiwan). Burma is infinitely more peaceful than China. If you don't go to Burma for political reasons, be consistent and remove all dictactorships from your travel list.
Mandalay is the main monastic center: 60% of Burmese monks live here. It is also a very Chinese city. The economy is booming.
In order to climb the Mandalay Hill, you have to walk barefoot.
The Kuthodan pagoda houses the entire Buddhist scriptures carved onto 729 marble slbas, i.e. the world's biggest book.
At night Mandalay is way too dark. There are no lamp posts. There are signs at every intersection, but it's impossible to read them in the dark.
There is a de-facto truce between the government forces and the troops of the druglords in the north. Basically, the government accepts the existence of this phantom state in return for peace and prosperity in the south.
The road to Kunming (China) is open to trade, but not to tourists. That explains all the Chinese goods here. This is truly a Chinese colony.
Some of the ancient cities north of Mandalay have just been opened to tourists for the first time in years. Schwebo has been closed again. Mogok is definitely off-limits to foreigners.
To visit the ancient city-state of Mingung one has to go by boat upriver. Very slow, but rewarding. The nearby village is run as a commune. Some homes were built on bamboo stilt.
The good news is that there is very little pollution, unlike in the rest of Asia.
Sittwe is a town isolated from the rest of Burma. It consists basically of two parallel streets. The one along the river continues in a brand new promenade that extends out of town. The river, dotting with rowing boats and fishermen standing in the shallow waters, is very pretty. The other bank is actually three islands, off limits to foreigners. Very few tourists come here. A foreigner is still an attraction.
There is palpable animosity against the Bengali population, who came here recently (with the British), built its own mosques tolerated in a Buddhist country and now wants independence.
There are only two restaurants, one Indian and one Chinese. The Chinese place overlooks the river.
The town is poorer and much dirtier than average.
Men play chinlon in the streets.
The area next to Bangladesh is closed to tourists. It is sparsely populated, compared with Bangladesh.
Mrauk U is reached by boat from Sittwe in five hours. No overland communications yet. Unlike Bagan, the temples are in decay, and they are generally smaller. Lots of restauration in progress. A handful of small guest houses and an expensive government hotel. Only one real restaurant.