RANGOON, Burma — For the foreign visitor, Burma presents a rare chance to see what Asia was like before TV, transistor radios, motorbikes and, in many places, even the automobile.
My first impressions of Burma were vivid indeed. On the flight from Bangkok, Thailand, I raised the shade to look outside.
A mile below lay a smooth emerald checkerboard with dark green tree clumps, between which I could make out clusters of straw-colored village roofs. Through this bright patchwork meandered 12 lazy brown rivers and sloughs. No roads.
A few minutes later the Thai Airways jet touched down and taxied past the airport's solitary sign of life--a lonely tractor cutting a swath through a grass carpet that bordered the runway.
Three Korean War vintage F-80 jets huddled at the far end of the field. The sun shone from behind with surreal brilliance as we strode across the hushed, rain-washed apron toward the '40s-style, upright, white terminal building.
Inside a crowd was chatting congenially, waiting on massive hardwood rattan benches below huge socialist wall murals depicting idealized scenes of village life.
Unlike international airports the world over, that one had no carpeting, no padded seats, no background music, no air conditioning. The closest thing to a boutique was a few bottles on wall shelves beneath a wooden sign that read: "Duty-Free Shop."
After I managed to get all of my customs forms to tally (they didn't look inside my bags), the officials let me through. I headed for the counter of Tourist Burma, the official and only travel agency in Burma.
Tourist Burma, in its infinite wisdom, discourages foreigners from getting off the beaten path, I learned when I insisted on taking a public bus into town.
"Where is the bus stop?"
"Far away. It's best you take a taxi. The bus is crowded."
"That's all right. I like people," I said.
An hour later, after a memorable, jampacked bus ride into Rangoon, I found that the Strand Hotel, where I decided to stay, had rooms available because it was September, the tail end of the rainy season. During winter months the hotel is filled with Japanese tour groups.
At first my big $25 room, with its cooler noisily sucking air in through the window, seemed nothing special. But a closer look revealed a bit of the old style and character left over from the British colonial era--polished teak parquet floor, towering ceilings and hardwood Art Deco furniture.
Later, downstairs, I found the ceilings even higher, and although the old tiffin room had long since been converted into a Chinese restaurant, the front desk still had a huge, Gay '90s-style register in which I could have read the names of everyone else in the hotel.
Down the hall an antique elevator creaked up and down, and in a corner cabinet labeled "lost property" lay a collection of snuff boxes, spectacles, dozens of pipes and dusty jewelry.
There was no getting bored at the Strand, for the great mile-wide Rangoon River rolled past just a block away.
I watched passengers crowd down the gangplank and hop onto aging, double-decked ferries that angled away from the bank, churning up a mass of river mud.
Latecomers who preferred not to wait for the next ferry walked down to the river bank to canoes that whisked them, motors buzzing, downstream and across the river.
One evening I joined the local folks at sunset. We saw brilliant, orange, sky-castle clouds billowing above the horizon. I lingered in the dusk till the river lights twinkled.
A freighter waited in midstream for the tide. Soon a ferry pulled up to the pier.
When I return to Rangoon the one place I'll be sure to revisit will be the Shwedagon Pagoda. Just outside the tourist-elevator entrance I will admire again the mural that depicts the story of the two emissaries, who, 2,500 years ago, went to India to talk to Buddha.
Eight Hairs of Buddha
Evidently they were impressed, because they brought back eight of his hairs, which the king enshrined beneath the first Shwedagon Pagoda.
Since then earthquakes have destroyed it many times, but Shwedagon was always rebuilt on a grander scale. A 76-karat diamond graces its golden 280-foot pinnacle and, around its base, it hosts a forest of lesser pagodas, built by generations of millionaires and potentates.
These include a pagoda for every day of the week, each decorated by pilgrims with a type of flower according to the weekday of their birth.
Of Shwedagon's four cardinal entrances, the southern one is the most interesting. It rises in stairsteps, lined by dozens of stalls, where the faithful Burma come to buy myriad tokens from lucky owls and jade to gold filigree and fragrant blossoms.
Among the most popular souvenirs are the dharma dolls, made to mimic the Chinese founder of Buddhism, who sat so long meditating in a lotus position that his arms and legs withered away.