Monday, September 10, 2012

Just Back from Magical Burma/Myanmar: A Beautiful and Surprising Country Opens to the World

Burma Bliss The moment the South-east Asian republic of Burma (also known as Myanmar, a recent re-naming) announced that it was holding democratic elections, then held them, soon international delegations and ambassadors and great intentions and aid money and trade and hotel-building began arriving.

I started planning a trip to Burma early in 2012.

I wanted to spend time in Burma while it is still authentic, untouched by tourism, and is fresh and perfectly itself. The country, under a xenophobic military dictatorship since the fifties, had resisted all influences from the West, and the culture and life there are still authentic, true, and idiosyncratic.

(I won’t be presenting any political commentary here. Not my world. I’m a design writer, as you know.) 

I spent three weeks of pure discovery in Burma in August. I voyaged to regions I’d never read about, never seen photos of. I chased George Orwell (read on…you will be surprised.) I filled many Moleskine notebooks with impressions and notes and inspirations. This is a mysterious, thrilling, hidden, and in the end completely approachable country. I often ventured out alone without a second of concern. 

Road to Mandalay 
I was extremely fortunate to spend 11 magical days on the luxury cruise ship Road to Mandalay, heading up into the isolated redoubt of the ultra-remote Northern Gorges. 

Road to Mandalay: It’s a trip on the Irrawaddy River that can be taken only four times a year (in the rainy season, when the river is deep enough for navigation) and it goes to regions and villages that seldom see Western travelers.

The ship sponsors new school buildings, clinics, teachers, school supplies, and health education throughout the region. School children would come running down to the riverbanks waving their schoolbooks and notebooks—supplied by the ship—as we sailed past.

There was also a higher purpose and inspiration on the ship.

The ship’s saintly physician, Dr. Hla Thun, went ashore at each daily disembarkation at villages and schools, to care for village patients, elderly nuns and monks, school children.

In Bagan, with Orient-Express funding, he has set up a village clinic, with the help of local monks, where he sees hundreds of patients who travel for days for a consultation. Medications are donated by pharmaceutical companies. I was deeply moved by his compassion, his warmth, his practical kindness, and his holiness toward healing his patients. I will be writing more about Dr Hla Thun this fall. 

In Mandalay, I visited silk-weaving workshops, saw craftsmen casting bronze Buddha statues, discovered a shop selling gold leaf (I’ll have frames decorated with it). 

One bright afternoon, I encountered a colorful group of novice nuns waiting to return to their nunnery. I asked permission, and then captured their image, below.

Buddhism is a central belief and faith at the core of tranquil, calm Burmese life, and highlights of the travels were visiting 11th-century temples in Bagan, taking part in ceremonies at monasteries, visiting monastery schools, and encountering monks and novices and nuns in smoky as well as prosperous market towns.

Come with me for a magical visit to Burma. I took lots of images, even while fully engaging all senses in every precious moment. 

Historically, Burma (if you are still wondering where it is—it is north of Thailand and bordered to the west by India and Bangladesh, and has China, Laos, Cambodia to the East and the Bay of Bengal to the west)…has been called Burma, which I use here. Recently the rulers changed the name to Myanmar, to reflect that it is a union of diverse states.

After over fifty years of isolation, everything is now changing.

Burma the beautiful is welcoming travelers, who can now get a visa for a 28-day visit. 

River Run: An 11-day cruise on the luxurious Road to Mandalay 
I set off on August 9 with a full agenda. Traveling alone (the supreme luxury) I booked on the 11-day Road to Mandalay (Orient-Express) cruise, 682 miles on the Irrawaddy River, with plans to visit temples and pagodas, and explore the design, crafts, architecture, style, textiles, silverware, pottery, lacquer, remote villages and schools of the region. 

This cruise had 40 passengers from around the world—with two English couples who has already done this cruise twice. Cuisine on the ship is 3-star, with excellent wines, and lovely casual lunches on the roof deck. Afternoons when we were heading up the river, guests sunbathed, swam, read in the shade, or watched passing scenes of temples and villages as they scrolled past. Suites and cabins are extremely well-appointed and comfortable. Staff is impeccably professional and lovely.

As a design writer, indigenous style and architecture and crafts and people were my focus. I loved what I found.

Join me as I present my images, and I give you a glimpse of what and whom I encountered. 

A group of gold-leafed Buddhas at the Schwedagon pagoda in Yangon. 

Meetings with Extraordinary People 
Novice nuns, lovely market ladies, village women with machetes on their heads—please come and meet the lovely people I encountered while on the cruise, in remote villages, in Mandalay, in Bagan, and in river towns that time forgot.

Please be assured that I asked all of them all for permission before taking their photograph. They graciously gave me permission—and we quickly got into laughing conversations/gestural communication.

I loved meeting women at markets, often with babies, or groups of sisters. Engaging, charming, light-hearted and ultra-friendly, the market ladies sold exotic flowers, fresh vegetables, and super-sweet tropical fruits (mangosteens, mangos, papaya, dragon fruit). 

The village girls with machetes: I was exploring Bagan in an antique horse carriage (Victorian…) and came upon three young women heading off to chop wood for cooking.

I admired their ‘hats’ and their lovely outfits, and asked them if I could take their photos. As I aimed the camera, the girl on the left re-arranged her ‘hat’ and I realized they had lengths of fabric swirled on their heads to hold their very sharp and heavy handcrafted MACHETES. Ouch. I took some snaps, and they went on their way. A very Burmese encounter.

In Yangon, I went to explore the Schwedagon Pagoda. Along with gold-leafed Buddhas, I encountered these two lovely sisters in matching outfits, who had come to pay homage at their family shrine (to the left). Burmese women have natural grace, and these to stylish girls gave me permission to photograph them.

Chasing George Orwell 
On the Road to Mandalay cruise, the ship stopped at remote villages, pagodas, monasteries, village schools, elephant camps, and market towns in the far north.

Among the highlights of the voyage—and the unexpected pleasures—was arriving in the town where George Orwell lived as a British police officer.

‘At that hour there were beautiful faint colors in everything—tender green of leaves, pinkish-brown of earth and tree trunks—like aquarelle washes that would vanish in the later glare. Down on the maidan flights of small low-flying brown doves chased on another to and fro, and bee-eaters, emerald green, curvetted like slow swallows.’

I adventured into the historic past at Katha, a teak forest town on the Irrawaddy River where George Orwell lived in 1927. Who knew I’d be encountering George Orwell (‘1984’) in Burma.

In preparation for the visit, I read ‘Burmese Days’, a vivid novel-ized version of his life in remove Katha, before he became a writer.

It was the height of British rule of Burma and Katha retains even today, almost a century later, the ghosts of the past in the colonial buildings dating to that time.

Today Orwell’s house and the English club buildings he wrote about in ‘Burmese Days’—and Orwell’s spirit floats about. The white plastered building was Orwell’s house, overlooking the river. It is now a residence for government officials. 

Calling ‘World of Interiors’! I visited a private house that was once one of Orwell’s haunts, a residence and British club. Unfurnished, it retains the original architecture, balustrades, fireplace, even the paint, of the original. 

The owner arrived home from the market on his bicycle—and I styled the shoot (couldn’t help it) with is handmade hat and the bouquet he’d brought home. 

Temples of Beauty and Inspiration 
The Road to Mandalay cruises ended in Bagan—and it is there that I explored a tree-shaded plain with 2,200 11-th century temples, shrines, stapes, pagodas and highest Buddhist ideals. Come for a tour. I traveled in a pony carriage, along with a friendly driver. His English: ‘OK’ and ‘slowly, slowly’. A highlight of the month.

Temples are in various states of weather-worn beauty. The ones I loved the most had no tourists, no trinket sales, no coaches, no bicycles, even. Thrilling, beautiful, haunting, they are still used for devotions and in praise and exultation of the divine. 

Photo credits: 
All photography copyright DIANE DORRANS SAEKS. No photography can be pinned or blogged or used in any manner without express written permission of DIANE DORRANS SAEKS. 


The Road to Mandalay: built in Germany, has been operated since 1996 by the Orient Express luxury travel company.

Sailings from August—May each season. Each time of year has its advantages. I loved the rainy season (August, September), when the north gorges are navigable. Other times of year, the ship plies between Mandalay and Bagan, rich in sites.

Road to Mandalay: wonderfully professional and kind Burmese staff.

The hotel director of the ship is the wonderfully charming and helpful Samuela Bottari, originally from Australia, and now on her fourth season.

For visa information: check with the Republic of the Union of Myanmar Embassy nearest you. I worked directly with the Washington D.C. embassy, who expedited the visa. Plan ahead. 

I wish you a magical trip to Burma—and highly recommend that you plan now, find a suite on the Road to Mandalay. You will encounter remarkable people.


Lynne Rutter | the Ornamentalist said...

wonderful! I hope to visit there someday soon. I particularly like the shot of the girl with the braids- what an excellent smile and an excellent portrait.

Love Your Homes said...

Dearest Diane,
I so glad to finally see the pictures from your amazing journey....they are far more than I ever expected!!!

Thanks, I've got to read it once more.

My fondest,

the modern sybarite ™ said...

Sounds amazing Diane. Thanks for sharing. It's like a dream!

KAM said...

Your post with story and wonderful photos truly spoke to the poet, writer artist in me. Several of your photos I saved in a file kept for inspiration, stirring of though, pure inspiration. I also saved with the photos the information on how to contact you if ever I might find one or more pieces stirring the creative juices to create or compose a work. I will contact you for express permission should that reality occur, without hesitation.
Thank you so much for the visual and verbal have truly blessed my day with your keen eye for composition in your photos, your sensitivity to the culture of the people and the sharing of your response to what came before you on this most magnificent journey.
With great appreciation for your delicious blog!
Kristin McNamara Freeman

The Peak of Chic said...

How magical! What a lovely trip you must have had, and thank you for letting us come along for the ride.

PS- It's wonderful that the Burmese women seem to enjoy wearing pink, including the novice nuns!

columnist said...

I loved my trip to Burma in 2004, and as it's our nearest neighbour, I have been wanting to return to explore it further. We only went to Rangoon, but I want to see Bagan. Your post has prompted me to do something about re-visiting before it all gets too commercialised.

A Super Dilettante said...
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A Super Dilettante said...
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Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Friends-

Thank you so much for your lovely and insightful and personal messages.
I have been so touched by the response to my stories on Burma.
I met the most delightful and soulful people--and truly--it was a trip that has left such an uplifting impression.
As I noted--I was looking at Burma with a design eye, from the point of view of art history and architecture and design and literature. The beauty there--natural and untouched and untainted and certainly not tourist-over-run--was vivid and eccentric and wonderfully itself.
I hope this will encourage travelers to venture there--and find peace, tranquility, delightful people, and a country in the winds of change.
Thank you so much for your thoughts, DIANE

Philip Bewley said...

What a beautiful post, Diane. I loved your photography: Burmese encounters, the interactions, the settings, the lovely people, the traditional dress. Orwell's House is sensational, especially since it is in situ. We have seen rapid change from traditional cultural qualities in Macao, Portugal and elsewhere. It is very special to see something still untouched. All of this is pure magic.

Philip Bewley said...

What a beautiful post, Diane. I loved your photography: Burmese encounters, the interactions, the settings, the lovely people, the traditional dress. Orwell's House is sensational, especially since it is in situ. We have seen rapid change from traditional cultural qualities in Macao, Portugal and elsewhere. It is very special to see something still untouched. All of this is pure magic.

Philip Bewley said...

What a beautiful post, Diane. I loved your photography: Burmese encounters, the interactions, the settings, the lovely people, the traditional dress. Orwell's House is sensational, especially since it is in situ. We have seen rapid change from traditional cultural qualities in Macao, Portugal and elsewhere. It is very special to see something still untouched. All of this is pure magic.

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...

Dear Philip

Thank you. I was just scrolling down the images once more--and I'm amazing how well they turned out. At the all times...the air was electric with excitement with me and I never knew what might happen next. So I never wanted to be a traveler glued to a camera and especially wanted to be fully involved in each moment. The bullock cart image, which is so full of detail...I was riding along the village road in the horse carriage and saw the bullock cart coming, so we turned around and I jumped out and ran along the road as the bullock kept walk...and there is the shot with the pagodas and stupas and the cart kept moving.
I encountered people...and started chatting and laughing with them...and took a snap and observed and took it all in and lo and behold the photos came out. I took a trishaw over to George Orwell's was hot...jungly..and called out, no-one answered, went in the house, still calling out...took the photos, the resident arrived on his bicycle not at all concerned, so I borrowed his hat and flowers to style the shot. Burma is complicated and wonderful for that. I'm amazed that the photos capture the light, the CLOUDS, the buddhas, the stupas and pagodas, randomly must go there, DIANE

katiedid said...

Oh my Diane! It looks like such a wonderful adventure! Your photos are magical and I am truly inspired. I will be looking into a trip to see if it is my future. Thank you!

Panchakarma Treatment said...

Personally, a brief judgment about Burma, within the time that I spent their the most amusing thing I experienced is the touchy friendliness and kindliness of the people. When it comes to the beauty and the scenes in the country, its unutterable. The natural magnificence still remains unspoiled.