Burma/Myanmar and the Trick of Getting There

Trip Start Jan 31, 1996
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Myanmar  ,
Saturday, January 3, 2004

Sarom whipped his steed from atop our horse-drawn carriage and frantically yelled, "Heeyah" as we charged up to the gothic-like temple.
"We must hurry. The sun will be up soon." he said.

Our frenetic approach reminded me of Jonathan Harker's arrival at Dracula's Castle. The horse let out a baleful sound as Sarom pulled hard on the reins and brought us to a stop right in front of the ominous structure. By the light of the moon, we were surrounded by dreamlike spires rising from the parched grassland. Some loomed majestically while others sat weather worn by centuries of neglect.

We had chosen to come to Burma because we could. Western nationals are discouraged from visiting this frightening land of oppression and dictatorship. We couldn't wait to get there. Three days earlier we had spent the better part of a day at the Burmese Embassy in Vientiane, Laos, applying for entry visas. We knew that there would be some tricky questions. Our ability to give the right answers would determine whether or not we could visit Burma. Simply put, the Burmese government doesn't want outsiders to report their questionable internal policy. Anyone who admits to working in the communications field will most likely get a big X stamped on their application. Writers, particularly journalists will get the X stamp too - and maybe an additional one on their forehead for good measure as they're ushered out the door.

"I am a retired civil servant, Sir - from the field of administration" I said confidently to the cherubic, militarily dressed embassy official. After a moment of piercing eye contact, he looked away. I'd won it seemed.
"Where do you work?" he then asked Ellen.
More cautious than I and not wanting to tell the officious embassy man that she worked for a government in a western democracy, even if it was only the Department of Highways, she replied, "IHS Help Desk, Sir", a firm she'd worked for six months earlier.
"What do you do there?"
"I manage the office", she replied.
"What does IHS stand for?" I looked and saw a bead of sweat on Ellen's temple as she said, "It's a company that specializes in compu - "
"No, IHS, what do letters stand for? What does it mean?"
Ellen paused for a moment. Would an answer form on her lips or should we break for the door? I watched Ellen. I could feel dampness on my forehead. Sweat started to roll down my spine.
She looked straight into the officer's eyes and said, "Ian Howard Smith, Help Desk, sir, Mr. Smith owns the company". The officer looked at Ellen then at me.
"It's a top notch Canadian firm, sir. We're really looking forward to visiting your beautiful country. We've heard so much about it", I said.
The inquisitive officer stood, looked us over once again and then said, "Your visas will be ready tomorrow. I hope you will enjoy our beautiful country." With a click of his heals, then an abrupt spin he was off to unknown confines behind a massive teak door.
"This is getting a little bit scary, are you sure you want to go through with this?" Ellen asked me.
"I'll travel anywhere with you kid - you know IH Smith. And all this time I thought IHS was an acronym for ......"
"Shut up and get moving", she said, her finger jabbing my back on our way out the door.

"We are here" said Sarom, who was dressed in the typical Burmese longyi, a skirt-like length of cloth that is wrapped several times around the lower torso.
"Are you sure Sarom - we're going into this temple in the dark?" I asked.
Ellen started pushing me from behind past the entranceway towards a gloomy winding staircase. Sarom led the way with a torch. Upwards we continued through a tiny hole in the wall then up another staircase that must have been built for temple gnomes. My feet slipped and slid as we plodded upwards on sharp, gooey cobblestone steps. There was a fetid scent in the air. Sarom shone the torch on the staircase.
"What's all the white paint on the steps Sarom?" Ellen asked.
"Bat guano."
"Bats" Ellen shrieked as she tore my treasured Burmese bamboo hat from my head and pulled it down over her ears. "That's what stinks. I hate bats."
"Don't worry", I said, "Bats only nest on the heads of women with long hair...and you've got a hat - now."
Battered and scratched from banging our way along the narrow passageway we finally reached the roof. Freedom and fresh air, at last. We stumbled to the east-side of the temple roof just before sunrise. A reddish glow silhouetted the hundreds of large and small temples that sat before us. The sun appeared. Eerie shadows grew from the temples. Brilliant light reflected off the temple faces. Some bounced like stars - others like light beams. A dark ominous science fiction setting - I wondered if film directors Tim Burton or Ridley Scott had been here. Could this ancient temple city over 1,000 years old have been the inspiration for the ultra modern - ultra urban Batman and Blade Runner movies? Ellen snapped pictures - one after the other. A lazy fog rolled away with the rise of the sun. We sat in silence.
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