Was this a bridge too far for tourists in newly-emerging Myanmar?

//Was this a bridge too far for tourists in newly-emerging Myanmar?

jadegirl.jpgThe Road to Mandalay was paved with good intentions, but a couple of stops en route left me feeling a little uneasy about the nature of tourism in a country that is only just beginning to open up to visitors.
The one-hour flight meant an early start from Aegean Odyssey, but even before 6.00 am the streets of Yangon were already packed with locals up and about in numbers, buying and selling on the downtown pavements, jogging and exercising on the shores of Inya Lake, where Aung San Suu Kyi has her home.
After arriving at Mandalay’s rudimentary international airport, a short drive along a modern two-lane highway delivered us to a busy junction close to the railway line in Amarapura, one of Myanmar’s several former capitals.
Heavy trucks and overcrowded buses blasted their horns as they noisily bustled past the horse-drawn carts, second-hand cars and motorbikes jostling outside a silk-weaving workshop where we made our first stop.
silkwheel.jpgI had no call for a two-metre length of silk to fashion my own longyi – the full-length skirt worn by Burmese men and women alike – especially as the selling price was so far in excess of the $10 the weavers receive for a month’s intricate work creating a single piece.
While we had been welcomed in the hope we would spend some of our western money, there was no possibility of interaction with the poorly-paid young girls who had created the best pieces, and I suspect many o the goods on sale may have been imported from elsewhere.
monks.jpgNext stop on the itinerary was the Maha Ganayon Kyaung monastery where thousands of monks were lining up to be given their final meal of the day. From being a place of study and quiet contemplation, the monastery was transformed for an hour or so into a human zoo. Some visitors, admittedly, had simple gifts to donate to the dignified young men and boys, doling out pens and special treats to go with the rice and soup available at the head of the queue.
Like most, however, I had nothing more to give than a sympathetic smile as I clicked away with my camera. For once I found myself agreeing with the Lonely Planet guide, which says of the daily ritual: “Worth avoiding.”
If I felt a little shame-faced there, I was made to feel even more guilty at the next stop. U Bein’s Bridge is claimed to be the longest teak-built structure in the world, curving 1,300 yards across the shallow Taungthaman Lake. It was originally built with wood recycled from Amarapura’s one-time royal palaces.
It’s another must-see on the tourist trail and, stepping down from the bus in the dusty car park we were immediately encircled by a group of children selling trinkets.
A fetching young girl (top) in a full-length green dress – her face painted with the thanakha paste which is used to decorate, to moisturise and as a sun-screen – attached herself to me, keen to sell one of a handful of jade necklaces she had strung from her wrist.
Her English was excellent – she also spoke French, Italian, Spanish and German – and she was an informative, if unexpected guide explaining, for example, why another young girl on the bridge had a cage of live young owls for sale (Burmans believe that if they have committed some small sin or faux pas, they will be granted forgiveness if they buy the birds and release them into the wild).
But I no more wanted to buy her wares than I had been in need of the silk earlier in the morning. I steadfastly ignored her entreaties as she followed at my side like a love-lorn puppy.
I wanted to take her picture, and I gave her a dollar which she was reluctant to accept. She might have raised a smile if I had given her the $8 she was asking for a necklace, and to be honest, I would feel a lot happier now if I had done so.
Her downcast, accusing eyes as she watched me climb back on board the bus will haunt me for ever.
Pass me an owl . . .
I don’t want to end on a downbeat note, and I would hasten to add that the Mandalay excursion was one of so many highlights on this fascinating introduction to Myanmar. I’ll be back with a smile on my face later.

By | 2017-06-15T15:59:41+00:00 18 December 2012|Cruise Destinations|0 Comments

About the Author:

John Honeywell is a travel writer specialising in cruise ships and cruise travel. Winner of CLIA UK's Contribution to Cruise award 2017.

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