Wed, May 10, 2006 - Page 13 News List

Treading carefully on the road to Mandalay

Myanmar's ruling military junta has been widely criticized for committing human rights abuses, but a trip to the country doesn't have to line government coffers

By Joshua Kurlantzich  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

For other travelers, convinced their tourism dollars will help average Burmese, the appeal of the last truly Asian place in Southeast Asia is exactly the reason to come. "When I was in Burma, I've never met anyone who said that I shouldn't be there," said Andrew Gray, founder of Voices for Burma, another advocacy group. Gray argues that educated tourists can spend money on local businesses without government links and help average people in one of Asia's poorest nations.

I've visited Yangon, as Rangoon is now called, more than five times in the last decade, including most recently in March. Each time, I rise early my first morning for a pilgrimage to the northern end of the city's axis, the Shwedagon Pagoda. "It is of a wonderful bignesse, and all gilded from the foot to the toppe," wrote the first Englishman to visit Myanmar, Ralph Fitch, in 1586, upon glimpsing Shwedagon.

The pagoda still towers over the skyline today, a 99.4m-tall bell-shaped spire over 1,500 years old, gilded in layer after layer of precious metals and set with over 5,000 diamonds and other gems. Below the main spire sit hundreds of smaller stupas, and in the morning, Shwedagon's jewels reflect the sun like a disco ball, tossing multicolored light in every direction.

South of Shwedagon, in the middle of a busy intersection, lies the other end of the axis, the Sule Paya -- another gilded temple that's nearly 2,000 years old. Just outside Sule Paya, surrounded by traffic, I stop at a tea shop. Despite military rule, the Burmese remain avid consumers of news -- I see numerous people holding transistor radios to their ears -- and dispensers of gossip. And tea shops, where you can sit for hours digesting salads and Indian-style snacks and chewing betel nut, a mild narcotic whose red juices stain Yangon's streets, have always been where the best gossip is tossed around.

In the late 1980s, political conversations and fights at tea shops helped ignite an antigovernment revolt, which culminated in the party of Aung San Suu Kyi sweeping the national election in 1990, the first free vote in three decades. But the regime ignored Aung San Suu Kyi's victory and she has been under house arrest on and off since, along with at least hundreds of other political prisoners. In the last two years, the junta has become even more reclusive, moving ministry buildings from Yangon to a jungle redoubt in central Myanmar, reportedly on the advice of an astrologer. According to the Free Burma Rangers, a relief and advocacy organization based in Thailand, more than 11,000 Burmese have fled their homes in recent months.

Meandering south, I lose myself in the warren of crumbling colonial buildings, some with posters advertising screenings of Missing in Action, a 20-year-old Chuck Norris flick, or magazines 15 years out of date. Once scrubbed outposts of the British Raj, the buildings have begun to succumb to the humidity, but structures like the old High Court, an imposing Victorian red brick edifice crowned with a Big Ben-style clock tower, retain an imperial majesty. On the waterfront, I wander into the lobby of the Strand, the classic Yangon hotel where steamer ships once disgorged maharajahs, princes and other nobility of the Raj. Elegantly restored, down to the white-suited liverymen opening the hotel doors, from inside the Strand's tearoom one could still think the sun hasn't set on Britannia.

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