Rangoon turns out to be the stuff of travel fantasy, an exotic mix of Milton's "gorgeous East" rich with "barbaric pearl and gold," Kipling's beguiling sloe-eyed, slim-hipped Burma girl "a-smokin' on a whackin' white cheroot," and the moldering remains of the old Anglo-Indian empire, all of it locked in a time capsule since 1948.
Seduced by tales of golden pagodas and an innocent land that has hardly entered the 1950s, let alone the 1980s, we arrived mentally prepared for almost anything, only to find that gentle, stubborn, irrational and inconsistent Burma still had surprises to spring.
It has been 25 years since U Ne Win, a general little known to the outside world, seized control in a bloodless coup, closed the door to the rest of the world and set up what he termed "the Burmese way to socialism," an ingenious blend of Buddhism and Marxism in which the religion was to function without interference. Indeed, Buddhism flourishes tangibly day by day, as golden pagodas and stupas (spires), numerous as mushrooms after a rain, grow another millimeter taller or thicker each time the faithful contribute still more tissue-thin sheets of hand-beaten gold in offering for prayers or Thanksgiving.
We arrived in April, the hottest month of the year; the sun was glinting off the golden towers, and the earth was parched and dry. In 99-degree heat we slogged across the Tarmac into a building reminiscent of a 1930 railway station and, forewarned of a likely long wait, settled in on the slatted benches.
The official stance toward visitors is one of polite suspicion, and since the normal procedure is for officials to pore intently over every line in the lengthy paper work, and curiously and thoughtfully examine each item in every bag before clearing it, immigration and customs seem to take up a measurable part of the permitted seven day stay.
Although several airlines--Burma Airways, Aeroflot, Bangladesh Biman, Royal Nepal and CAAC (national airlines of the People's Republic of China), few of them exactly household words--fly into Rangoon, the favorite of the Burmese children is Tahi International. That line's passengers are met by the enterprising kids who wheedle them out of the flowers they've been given in flight and then sell them.
Eventually, we were loaded into yellow-and-white Tourist Burma buses, everyone competing to get next to an open window where the breeze might circulate once the bus starts moving.
Vintage vehicles, some of them of World War II military origin, share the roadways with wheezing 40-year-old buses converted from three-ton trucks and so tightly packed with riders that their passengers bounce in unison at every pothole.
Along the wide, tree-shaded boulevards of Rangoon, Victorian colonial buildings stand in genteel disrepair, many of them empty. Entrepreneurs leaning in doorways hawk single cigarettes, pale green cheroots and paan, a betel nut mixture heaped on a fresh betel leaf and seasoned with various dried herbs, spices and seeds, then rolled up and stuck like chewing tobacco in the jaw. Users say it aids digestion and sweetens the breath; it also turns the front teeth red and stimulates spitting.
Under the faded but still legible signs of once grand banking houses long ago nationalized by the Socialist Republic of Burma, young men in T-shirts and longyis, the ubiquitous unisex sarong skirts worn by all Burmese, sidle up to Westerners with whispered offers to change money at up to 700% of the official rate.
But even discounting the risk of spending three years in a Burmese prison for ignoring the country's rigid currency controls, there would appear to be no point of a mass kyat (pronounced chut) since there is little to buy. Besides, virtually everything is prepared when visitors arrive with a group, and that's the only way to be sure of getting one of Burma's 700 hotel beds--and an airplane seat out of the country before the seven-day visa expires. (Individual travelers will find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to obtain either hotel rooms or airline reservations.)
The golden light of late afternoon gilded the straw brooms and baskets of the roadside markets as we rattled into Rangoon toward the Strand Hotel, the city's major, perhaps only, downtown hotel, a 1901 structure politely described as "historic" and "colonial" its dark wooden floors glossy from generations of wax, its lobby and public rooms unsullied by air conditioning.