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Magical Myanmar

The quiet nation blossoms under reform

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MANDALAY, Myanmar -- The man waiting at the corner whisks me off the deserted Mandalay street and down a back alley. It's that perfect sort of night in the tropics, when most reasonable people are perfectly content sitting on a patio enjoying a break from the heat.

But not us. Ahead, hushed laughter cuts through the stillness. We round a corner and slip through a curtained doorway into a cramped workshop. A dozen guests are arranged on plastic chairs facing a makeshift stage, and the discussion has already begun. The subject: criticism of the harsh military regime that currently governs Myanmar, also known as Burma.

"The government is very scared because of Libya," says Lu Maw at the front of the room, his twice-jailed brother Par Par Lay at his side. "They do not want Libya to happen here." Maw pulls out a placard emblazoned with the words 'FBI CIA,' alluding to the secret police in Burma that are always watching. The thought gives me goosebumps.

It feels like a dangerous scene from a George Orwell novel, but this isn't a secret meeting at all. This is the Moustache Brothers comedy show, one of the most popular nighttime activities for visitors to the once capital of Myanmar.

Maw introduces his wife to the audience. He holds up a 1996 Burma guidebook with her picture on the cover and tells us he married a centrefold model. "But now my wife has to worry about crow's feet. Me, I don't have to," he winks at the audience. "I use Nivea." The crowd roars with laughter.

Changing times

Astonishingly, the Moustache Brothers have been performing their subversive vaudevillian comedy for tourists since their release from hard labour prison camps in 2002, With humour, they criticize the military junta known for its violent suppression of protest. These days, however, the show is looking a little dated, because Myanmar is changing and the brothers are not the only ones noticing.

One of the world's most isolated countries, Myanmar has been attracting worldwide attention lately as it takes steps toward reform.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a historic visit in November and since then the U.S. government has normalized diplomatic relations with the country. Myanmar has released political prisoners, including longtime opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The democratic champion recently put her name on the ballot for an April 1 byelection, marking her return to politics after 21 years mostly spent under house arrest. Pictures of Suu Kyi, which two years ago were never seen in public, are now for sale in markets all over the country. Indeed, both my taxi drivers to and from the Moustache Brothers show get giddy with excitement at the mere mention of "The Lady." The country is overwhelmed with hope for the future.

Among those hopes is tourism, which puts money directly into the hands of local entrepreneurs. Take Mr. Su-Su, our boat guide during a day on Inle Lake, the popular tourist water world located in ethnic Shan State. Su-Su's family once lived in a simple floating village, eking out a living as vegetable farmers. Not quite a decade ago, they relocated to the tourist hub of Nyaung Shwe to try to earn a profit giving tours with a rental boat. Today, Su-Su has made enough money to buy his own boat and send his children to university. He speaks excellent English.

The boat roars to life. It's market day in Nyaung Shwe, and the main canal is packed with vessels that arrived at dawn laden with goods to sell. We follow a side canal, passing a protected wetland region for migratory birds before reaching the open water. A white bird from near the shore flies easily beside our five-person longboat as we soar past fisherman.

Mr. Su-Su cuts the motor near the centre of the lake. In the silence we watch villagers in simple dugout canoes tend to vast floating gardens that rock in the water, pieced together with a network of bamboo sticks. Later, we navigate the water streets of Nampan, passing houses on stilts where canoes are parked out front. Not far away, we see a waterfront pagoda with a tiled outer courtyard filled with children flying kites.

Clinging to tradition

Such is life in Myanmar. It's a quiet country, not terribly different than it was in 1979, when television was first introduced. Seventy per cent of the population are farmers. Cellphones, at $600 each, are still relatively unknown. As part of their transition to adulthood, most citizens spend part of a year as a monk or nun, highlighting the spirituality that is still central to this devout Buddhist country.

In a flotilla of canoes, uniformed students on their way home from school wave to us as they pass. With a 90 per cent literacy rate, education has always been important to this country. Visitors are bombarded with questions accordingly. I think back to a scholarly monk I met a few days earlier who, without much introduction, asked me to explain the phrases "silly billy" and "dog and bone." This is maybe the most exciting consequence of reform in Myanmar: the growing exchange between its population and the outside world.

At sunset, we head back to town, the late daylight casting orange reflections off the lake. Fishermen laying traps are silhouetted against golden pagodas along the shoreline. Su-Su stops the boat for us to take in the moment, and I am aware of the serenity of the moment. I look at my fellow boatmates, who are equally mesmerized by the scene before them. Perhaps the people of Myanmar have a lot to learn from us. Yet travelling through a country that has been shielded from development and progress for so long, it's easy to accept we have a lot to learn from them. Su-Su looks over us with a knowing satisfaction. He powers up the motor one last time and drives us back toward reality.

IF YOU GO

Getting there

The only port of entry for foreigners is the former capital of Rangoon (Yangon). Air Asia flies there twice daily from Bangkok for about $200 round-trip. SilkAir has a daily connection from Singapore. Burmese visas, valid for up to 28 days, are easy to obtain in both cities (about $40).

Where to stay

Foreigner-approved accommodation in Myanmar is clean and comfortable. In Mandalay, The Royal City Hotel receives consistent praise ($25 per night), as does the luxurious Rupar Mandalar Resort ($300 per night).

At Inle Lake, romantics will prefer the Golden Island Cottages ($80 per night) which stand on stilts over the water. The bustling village of Nyaung Shwe is more practical: good options are the Hotel Remember Inn and the Teakwood Guest House ($20 per night).

Where to eat

In Mandalay, the Shan ethnic food restaurants at 84th Street and 23rd Street are delicious and filling. A few blocks south, the Nylon Ice Cream Bar is a good place to rest on a hot day.

Fresh fish served at the Nam Pan Restaurant breaks up a trip around Inle Lake. In Nyaung Shwe, the Golden Kite makes excellent wood-fired pizzas. A meal at an upscale restaurant is unlikely to ever exceed $15; a filling local meal is usually $4.

What to do

Any taxi driver will know the location of the nightly Moustache Brothers show at 80th Street and 39th Street (about $10). Mandalay Hill, a shrine-covered viewpoint at the north end of town, is a popular place to watch the sunset beforehand.

In the town of Nyaung Shwe there is no shortage of Inle Lake boat guides, but formal arrangements can be better made at your hotel. A half-day ride with up to five guests is usually around $15.

Guides know the lake and its attractions very well, but check that their English is understandable.

-- Poatmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 21, 2012 D5

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