The recent reforms by the government of Myanmar, and the United States’ and Europe’s loosening of sanctions against this Southeast Asian country, formerly known as Burma, has portrayed the reclusive country in a more favorable light. The California Native has been conducting tours of Myanmar for the last eight years and we see this awareness in the large increase in the number of our guests traveling with us to this exotic destination.
Myanmar has so much to offer the traveler. From the splendor of Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda to the thousands of ancient temples in Bagan and the unique “Leg rowers” of Inle Lake, the friendly people and fantastic photo-ops make Myanmar a destination well worth visiting.
I stroll across the railway bridge whistling “Colonel Bogie’s March.” Others on the bridge give me strange looks as if thinking “Who is this weird man?” But I feel good and my whistling is appropriate, for this is the famous “Bridge on the River Kwai.”
Most of us first heard about the bridge through the 1957 film, based on Pierre Boulle’s French novel. Set in a World War II Japanese POW camp in Burma, it is a fictional account of a battle of wills between a harrassed Japanese camp commander and a doggedly-stubborn British colonel. The story climaxes when allied commandos blow up the bridge.
The true story is different. During the Second World War, the Japanese planned a railway from Bangkok to Rangoon to shorten the distance between Japan and Burma by 1,300 miles. The railway would cross some of the wettest and most inhospitable terrain in Southeast Asia and require the construction of 688 bridges, but they considered it critical to the war effort.
For labor they used 250,000 Asian forced-laborers, mostly Thai, and more than 60,000 Allied prisoners—30,000 British, 18,000 Dutch, 13,000 Australians, and 700 Americans. Estimated to take five or six years to build, the project, which began on September 16, 1942, was completed after only 16 months, and cost the lives of 16,000 POWs and 75,000 Asian workers. The deaths from cholera, beri beri, malaria, typhoid, exhaustion and malnourishment, earned the railroad the name, “The Death Railway.”
The Japanese actually constructed two parallel bridges across the River Kwai, just outside of the Thai town of Kanchanaburi—the first made entirely of wood, the second made of steel and concrete. The Allies destroyed both on February 13, 1945.
In the film the commandos detonated explosive charges fastened to the bridge’s supports. The real bridge was bombed. Failing to destroy the bridges with conventional bombs (some hitting POW camps) the American flyers brought in a new weapon, the AZON (Azimuth Only) bomb. The precursor of today’s “smart” bombs, it had a radio-controlled tail and ten times the accuracy of a conventional bomb.
After the war, engineers repaired the steel bridge over the River Kwai. It is still in use. Visitors to Kanchanaburi, Thailand, now walk across the bridge (the fortunate ones having the opportunity to witness me whistling the theme from the movie), and visit the Allied war cemetery and a museum run by Buddhist monks, featuring a reconstruction of a prisoner of war camp. The monks built the museum “not for the maintenance of hatred among human beings but to warn and teach us the lesson of how terrible war is.”
Bangkok, Thailand, is the cross roads of Southeast Asia. Most passengers traveling to our California Native destinations of Myanmar (Burma) and Bhutan stop in Bangkok before resuming their journeys, and it is well worth spending an additional day to visit Kanchanaburi with its memorials and famous bridge.
“Close your eyes and point in any direction,” our Burmese guide challenged, “When you open them, you will be pointing at a spire.” Sure enough, no matter which way we pointed there were hundreds of spires on the stupas and temples that spread across the almost treeless plain.
Located on forty square miles on the east bank of the Ayeyarwady River, 300 miles north of Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar’s Bagan stands as one of the two most preeminent ancient religious sites in Southeast Asia along with Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
It was in Bagan that the Buddhist religion took hold in Myanmar, influencing the society, its art and architecture.
Historically, Bagan was formed from 19 villages at a time when the region was beginning a transition from its Hindu origins to the Buddhist beliefs that are still a major force today. Manuha, the king of Thaton, a Mon kingdom to the south of Bagan, sent a monk to convert King Anawrahta of Bamar (the origin of the name Burma) to the new religion. Once converted, King Anawrahta asked for a number of sacred scriptures to be brought to him. The monk was unsure of the king’s sincerity, so he refused the request. In response, King Anawrahta attacked and conquered Thaton in 1057 AD, and brought back to Bagan classic Buddhist scriptures, as well as artisans, craftsmen and architects.
Thus began the golden age of Bagan, highlighted by the building of thousands of pagodas. Over 13,000 of these religious structures were built. Two and a half centuries later, in 1287 AD, Bagan was conquered by Kublai Khan and began to decline.
For many years the region was considered to be inhabited by bandits and nats (spirits). Once the British came to the area in the 18th century, and ensured their safety, Burmese people began to move back to the region.
Over time, floods, earthquakes, vandals and nature have reduced the number of pagodas, but over 2,200 still stand today, many in very good condition. There is beautiful detail on the exteriors and interiors and exceptional murals.
A trip to Myanmar is a wonderful experience—super-friendly people, a cultural mix of British colonialism and Buddhist tradition, magnificent temples and beautiful landscapes, but the true splendor of the country begins at Bagan.
Chauffeured by their parents, kids
patrol the streets with buckets and
water guns, soaking all in range.
While our year begins on January 1, in Southeast Asia the year begins on April 13. This is the first day of Songkran, also known as the “Water Festival” and the celebrations last for three days. Songkran celebrates the vernal equinox and is a favorite holiday in Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), Laos and Cambodia.
It’s a time for fun, especially if you’re a kid, and in the villages and towns, people in pickup trucks slowly cruise the streets, their truck beds loaded with kids equipped with buckets of water and “Super Soaker” water guns. Water is constantly flying and everyone is wet, but nobody minds, since this is the hottest time of the year. In one city I watched the local kids and police fighting it out with squirt guns.
Soaking wet California Native
founder, Lee Klein, pedals his
rickshaw back into the melee of
Songkran’s Water Festival.
During the time of Songkran, many community events and parades are held, both secular and religious, including the Miss Songkran beauty pageant. It also is a traditional time for family gatherings.
As a tourist, it is a wet but great time to visit.