Boy's own adventure

Strike gold...Shwedagon Paya.
Strike gold...Shwedagon Paya. Photo: Getty Images

Lesley Holden and son find cultural curiosities are more than enough to keep young minds occupied.

'Why is Burma called Myanmar?" asks my 10-year-old as he points to a Myanmar Beer sticker on the door of our clapped-out taxi. Secretly I think Burma Beer sounds better. We all have lots of questions and the big one is how can my child have fun in a country with limited infrastructure after years of oppressive government and international isolation?

I want him to gain a sense of the Asia I experienced as a young backpacker. The world seemed foreign before globalisation and there were fewer travellers. Since then, Burma has become Myanmar, sanctions have been eased and tourists, including children, are welcome.

Jack with a monk.
Jack with a monk. Photo: Lesley Holden

Burma is full of grand narratives to capture a child's imagination. The magnificent golden Shwedagon Paya, crowned with diamonds, emeralds, sapphires and rubies, is thought to be one of the oldest Buddhist temples in the world. Burma has haunted, crumbling colonial edifices and the charred evidence of Japanese occupation. There are ever-present monks and nuns who seek both enlightenment and democracy; "the Lady", Aung San Suu Kyi, has been released like a dove from her home prison and the military-dominated government is embracing reform. It is a happy ending a child wants to believe.

At 10, Jack is accustomed to pulling his own bag around Asia. The loop we travel is Yangon to Inle, Mandalay, Bagan and back to Yangon. Our soft landing in Yangon, formerly called Rangoon, is a hotel with pool. The plan is to stay in places with pools where possible, to beat the midday heat after a morning outing. We make the transition to calling the country Myanmar. It rhymes with "Mingalabar" - the chirpy greeting extended to us everywhere in this friendly country.

Burmese food is not too spicy and there are plenty of Indian and Chinese options for kids, reflecting centuries of immigration.We get around in battered old taxis. At the other extreme are toy-like new Mazda taxis that zip around the streets like wind-up mice.

Meat cooking at a street food stall.
Meat cooking at a street food stall. Photo: Getty Images

Our cultural immersion begins around Yangon's Shwedagon Paya, among the flower sellers, sculptors chiselling giant Buddhas, shops selling maroon-coloured robes and other Buddhist paraphernalia, food vendors and kids selling plastic bags for carrying shoes past the temple threshold. Majestic staircases with souvenir stalls tucked on each side signal the scale of the temple complex.

A young monk sees Jack craning his neck to look at the Jataka ceiling murals and offers to explain their stories, in English, and shows us around the temple. We observe a women's "day of birth" sweeping ritual. The monk asks me what day of the week Jack was born.

Embarrassed, I can't remember and pick Wednesday. He asks, "Morning or afternoon?" That much I do remember - it was morning. Wednesday counts as two days in the Buddhist eight-day week.

Shwedagon is an entrancing place around sunset as the golden stupa begins to glow and shimmer while the sound of a meditative blend of chanting, gongs and bells increases. The monk shows Jack where to stand to see the refracted light from a giant emerald on the stupa. Spots are marked blue, orange, yellow and red, and green. Jack is mesmerised by the place. Not once does he mention he is bored.

Later, I tell him that in 1988 Aung San Suu Kyi stood with her two sons and English husband at Shwedagon Paya and declared her support for independence. Her youngest child, Kim, was 11 and after that event did not see his mother again for many years. This family story of sacrifice and higher purpose resonates with a 10-year-old. Later, we buy old currency that displays the portrait of Suu Kyi's father, General Aung San, a national hero who was assassinated in 1947.

At Inle in Shan State, a day-long boat trip is perfect for a young adventurer. Long boats with motors, wooden seats and lifejackets zoom noisily across the lake to see where fishermen row with their legs and see floating village life, temples and stupas. The scene at a hill-tribe market at the southern end of the lake is an ancient tableau. It is surreal watching my child pick his way around cow dung, oxen and carts, past women in costumes smoking cheroots, selling wood and vegetables, like an invisible time traveller. No one seems to notice us or tries to sell us anything. There's work to be done.

An unexpected highlight hidden in a reedy canal is a Burmese cat preservation program at the Inthar Heritage House resort. We are smothered by 30 affectionate cats, bred from Australian and American stock. The breed used to be the royal palace and temple cat.

In the afternoon a thunderstorm breaks. Driving rain and strong winds force us to shelter at the village of Inthien. Jack is cold and wet but it is good for a city kid to experience some elemental drama. A night's stay at the Golden Island Cottages II, in a bamboo villa on stilts over Inle lake, has us all feeling like kids in a tree house. Mandalay is a sprawling, sweaty, Chinese-influenced city and the most challenging place to travel with a child because of the traffic. The Mandalay City Hotel, with pool, is a perfect downtown bolt-hole after a morning spent undertaking a palace and temple tour. Later, we take Jack to see the Moustache Brothers show - another family who tell the story of modern Burma. While most of the script goes over his head, he loves the costumes and vaudeville feel of a once edgy comedy troupe that satirised the nation's military government and saw one of the brothers jailed.

We buy souvenirs from Mandalay's gold-pounding district, where rhythmic work undertaken by beaters produces the squares of gold leaf sold at temples. Yet Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in the world, even though it looks self-sufficient, with abundant food and crops.

We leave Mandalay by boat, taking a comfortable six-hour journey along the mighty Irrawaddy to the vast temple complex at Bagan. The city has more than 2200 temples and stupas, which sends our boy into a spin - how many do we have to see, he asks? - but a hotel pool and charming horse-and-cart ride to the Ananda Pahto temple, where a guide shows him where to stand to see a giant, gold serene Buddha seemingly smile, livens Jack up.

At sunset, the lantern-lit "restaurant street" has plenty of dinner options and after a meal we have a trishaw race back to the hotel. Next day, an early morning trip to Mount Popa means climbing the 700 steps to the hilltop temple accompanied by monkeys stalking the walkway roof, demanding peanuts from pilgrims. Jack's initial fear of them dissolves by about the 100-step mark.

So why is Burma called Myanmar? The former military government changed the colonial name but not everyone likes it. There are a lot of other changes taking place in this country but, for us, travelling to Myanmar at this time is special and at times humbling. Of course, there were days where the heat got us or we got to each other. But those moments were far outweighed by Jack's sense of wonder, adventure and fun, along with soul searching. He finds the few kids we saw begging or serving him in restaurants confronting and shook hands with a boy who sold postcards outside the Monsoon Restaurant in Yangon; a young, brilliant salesman who could secure sales in five languages. The boy's education was sponsored and Jack thought he had a great future - just like Burma.

Later, I work out Jack's actually Friday's child. His animal sign is a guinea pig but I suspect he would prefer it to be a Burmese cat.

Burmese daze: Keeping the kids amused

YANGON

See Shwedagon Paya at sunrise or sunset.

Sule Paya is the only temple in the world that is also a roundabout. It has many temple cats.

Explore the Bogyoke Market (closed on Mondays).

INLE

Take a boat trip to markets, temples and stupas.

Visit the Intha Heritage House for Burmese cats. It's at the southern end of Inle Lake near Paw Khon village.

MANDALAY

Hire a car and driver for a day-long "three ancient cities" tour.

Visit the gold-pounding district.

See U Bein bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world.

Visit the Nylon Ice Cream Bar.

See a performance by the Moustache Brothers. The show takes place most nights at their home. Tickets are $10. Take a taxi; the drivers know where the house is.

Take a boat trip to Bagan.

BAGAN

Take an early-morning horse-and-cart ride to the temples. Ananda Phato is a good place to start.

Shwesandaw is a good temple from which to view sunset; Shwezigon Paya, the golden temple in nearby Nyaung U, is also wonderful to see during the early morning or at sunset.

Dine in "restaurant street".

FAST FACTS

Getting there Singapore Airlines has a fare to Yangon for about $1160 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne, including taxes. Fly to Singapore (about 8hr), then to Yangon (3hr); see singaporeair.com. Australians require a visa for stays of up to 28 days. There are scant ATMs or credit card facilities outside five-star hotels, so take US currency. Take crisp $US dollars, no folds, tears or stains as locals will reject even slightly damaged notes.

Staying there In Yangon, the Chatrium has rooms from $US189 ($179.80) a night; see chatrium.com. The Savoy has rooms from $US276; see savoy-myanmar.com. The boutique Clover Hotel City Centre, near Sula Paya and markets, has rooms from $US90; see clovercitycenter.asia.

At Inle Lake, the Golden Island Cottages II has rooms from $US90 a night; see gicmyanmar.com. At Nyaung Shwe, PYI Guest House has bungalows from $US50; email pyi.nsmn@gmail.com.

In Mandalay, the 67-room Mandalay City Hotel has rooms from $US60 a night; see mandalaycityhotel.com.

In Bagan, Thante Nyaung Oo has bungalows from $US60 a night; see thantenyu.com.

Comments