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Traveling in Style : DREAMING IN THE CITY OF TEMPLES : Getting Lost in the Ancient Burmese City of Pagan Is Not Only Easy, It's the Point.

March 05, 1995|GREG CRITSER | Greg Critser is deputy editor of Buzz magazine and a contributing editor of Harper's magazine. He travels frequently to Southeast Asia.

S.V. Chowdhury, locomotive engineer 2nd Class, Burma Railways, Rangoon division, has been dreaming about Chicago again. "Just before I wake up, I'm standing on a promontory of some kind, and I'm looking out over a big, shiny steel bridge that connects to the city," he says. "At the end of it, Sheela and Chandri are standing there, holding hands with the rest of the family, welcoming me, beckoning me, telling me I'm there, at last!"

During the short period I have come to know Mr. Chowdhury, he has told me about his dream several times: How his brother-in-law, Chandri, immigrated to the States 10 years ago with the intention of eventually bringing the rest of the Chowdhurys over; how the plan has been interrupted by Chandri's unexpected bad health; how Tula Vin, Mr. Chowdhury's wife, wasn't exactly thrilled when her husband turned in his visa application recently and how it all has become a waiting game, punctuated by the dream.

Dreaming is a Burmese pastime, as it is in any country where the leaders have left only the life of the spirit untrammeled. But in Burma, now officially called Myanmar by everyone not troubled by the fact that its Nobel Peace Prize winner is still under house arrest, dreaming has a capital city. It is called Pagan. Once the holiest city in Southeast Asia, it is now a place for the Chowdhurys of the world to dream of steel bridges, or for travelers like myself to follow their own longstanding dreams and to walk quietly in a place where the spirit of Buddha once ruled.

There are other Burmese dreams--Rangoon, Mandalay and Burma's best-kept secret, Maymyo--and only they can prepare a Westerner for a place like Pagan. Rangoon, the sweltering, gritty, bureaucratic capital is the first stop after the madness that is Bangkok. It offers a couple of nice parks and two notable pagodas, the Sule and the Shwedagon, the latter an enormous gold-domed structure dating to the time of Buddha himself (the ancient monks built it in anticipation of a coming buddha, said to appear every 5,000 years). Here, too, is the old Strand Hotel, where the likes of W. Somerset Maugham and George Orwell stayed, and where, in a strange testament to the country's half-hearted modernization, a Hong Kong entrepreneur has invested millions to remodel half the hotel, while the other half remains dilapidated.

Moving north to Mandalay, I get the complete issue of Burmese street culture: East Indian teahouses full of men in longyi (a kind of tightly wrapped sarong) chattering over milky tea and biscuits, produce markets choked with fruits and flowers and spices and rattan, swarms of black-market money changers offering deals of the century. But Mandalay's riot eventually sends me eastward, to historic Mandalay Hill, where the last kings of Burma worshiped. And the quiet here sends me farther on, to the little town of Maymyo. A day here and you wish for a week.

Once a seat of the British colonial system, Maymyo is laid out in the rectilinear fashion that seems to have given so much solace to the raj. There are red brick commercial buildings, a clock tower, a town square now used for tying up horse carts. A bus mate tells me to visit Hotel Candacraig, where the old English colonialists used to vacation during the summer, so I rent a bicycle and peddle outside Maymyo's city limits, past fragrant sweet shops, vendors selling betel nuts, tobacco, tea and curios. Soon, a cool wind at my back, I find the Hotel Candacraig, English garden still intact. Inside the polished wooden lobby, where the old raj had taken sustenance, I collapse on a roomy wicker chair with a mineral water. I peddle back to town beneath a sky bruised with darkening shades of violet, dreaming of Pagan.

*

ONE COMES TO PAGAN AT DUSK, BY STEAMBOAT along the mythical Irrawaddy River, its yellow cast glimmering through its dark surface. It is a 12-hour passage from Mandalay, giving one more than enough time to absorb the history lesson. The kingdom of Pagan flourished from the 11th through 13th centuries under a lineage spawned by King Anawrahta, who unified the country's warring tribes while simultaneously elevating the doctrines of Therevada Buddhism--the philosophy as it was preached by its founder, Gautama Siddhartha. Anawrahta's evangelical fervor was apparently contagious. In 200 years, more than 5,000 ornate temples, pagodas, monasteries and reliquaries were erected--16 square miles of religious architecture unequaled anywhere in Asia.

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