It was just before midnight. Our slow procession blinked past the checkpoint, wisps of hair clinging to my cheek, the only blonde ponytail in a sea of brown-black. London, where my passport finally found the visa for this country, lay beyond the reach of reality’s memory.
We shuffled forwards.
Burma – or Myanmar as the current government prefers it to be known – breathes an air of mystery. Rudyard Kipling once wrote that it was “quite unlike any place you know about.” That was more than 100 years ago and it’s still the quote that runs on the Lonely Planet book spine, white letters on baby blue, cloaking photocopied pages from a dusty street stall in Hanoi.
It’s certainly the idea I arrived with, packaged up in mental brown paper and tied up with travel dream string. That Lonely Planet guidebook was all I could find in print, with more recent information whisked from blogs across the internet onto the Pocket device on my phone.
Wherever I looked, either on screen or off, I kept coming to one or two phrases.
“Closed off from the world,” was the first.
“Stepping back in time,” was the second.
In the early hours of the morning, I reached the desk. I handed over my passport, the Latin-quoting lion on the cover long since gone, the unicorn galloping after it.
My visa, though, shone dutifully and with a glint of that stamped silver rosette, I was in.
Quietly, but definitely, in.
Airport arrival stories rarely make the news. They’re either sterile and interchangeable or else so fetid and rancorous, so filled with pressing crowds, with yelling and pushing and spitting and cheating that the words never see the light of screen. Probably because the writer at the centre of the lawless scrum wants to forget the whole thing.
Or perhaps that’s just me.
In any case, neither situation applied to Burma. Nor to Myanmar. A sweetness filled the nightas scented flowers swayed in the air. But there were more surprises in store.
For one thing, there was a cash machine. For another, taxi drivers spoke English.
Groundbreaking, I know. You can see why Kipling was so inspired and why his quote rings on and on.
Yet bear with me just a moment. Press the pause button on the sarcasm.
Leave aside the language and the revelation that it’s easier for foreigners to get a taxi in Yangon than it is in Paris or Rome.
I want to highlight the cash machine (or ATM, confused American readers.)
Every source. Every single newspaper cutting, book, blog, archive and google search had said that no such thing existed in this country. At least not for foreign cards.
You had to bring cash, they said. In dollars, they added. Pristine, fresh and flat and not besmirched by a single crease, crumb or corner fold.
I believed them (and when it came to the countryside, such prophesies turned out to be true.)
But here, in the former capital of Rangoon that now went by the name of Yangon, things had changed.
Embossed plastic in. Paper glided out.
I ran the kyat notes through my fingers, the paper cool and crisp in the fluorescent-lit darkness. An elephant stared back at me from one, surrounded by pink-purple swirls. A white elephant. A symbol for a gift that’s more trouble than it’s worth. At least that’s the version at home. Here, apparently, it represents good fortune and authority.
I tucked the fresh kyat snug against the pristine versions of Washington and Lincoln. It was time to leave the airport and to speed into the night.
Clouds, stars and a blush-shadowed moon swept overhead in this surreal bright sky. Treetops scrambled past the clouds and then dropped into darkness.
And then the most surprising thing appeared.
A dream, a sheen, the ghost of a spire. The golden, glinting concentric circles and sharp needle outline of the Shwedagon Pagoda.
Shining, looming, glowing in the darkness. It was, I could truly say, unlike anything I had ever known.
I’d had less than an hour in this country. But already the message was clear.
What little it seems you think you know, prepare to sweep it away.
Burma. Myanmar. Whichever name you want to apply, we are quite unlike anything you know.
To be continued…continues here with Is it Burma or Myanmar?