Nothing is ever really lost to us as long as we remember it.

Lucy Maud Montgomery

Exactly a year ago (December 2014), I was in Myanmar, the Burma I heard about in my childhood. It was not for the first time. Burma, as it was then, entered my imagination during my childhood listening to my father (who was a Commando in Italy during World War II), talk about Wingate’s Chindits. The Chindits were a special force that marched through a thousand miles of jungle to counter the Japanese invasion of Burma. Later I would learn that their unusual name was an Anglicized version of chinthe or chinthay, a mythical lion, often with a human face, that is the guardian of the pagodas or payas (temples) in Myanmar.

In the early eighties, I was in Bangkok for a teacher education conference and heard a lot about Burma in the Thai news. Most of Burma was closed to foreigners but some lucky ones got a seven-day visa. I decided there and then that as soon as Burma opened up, I would visit.

I went first in 1999 with my friend Enerys and again in 2004 on my own. They were both fantastic trips in a magical land, still almost medieval in terms of development. I went again last December, wondering what changes I would see after a ten-year absence and also hankering to visit places off the typical tourist route – Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake and Bagan.  Of course, I started out in Yangon. I wanted to arrange a trip to Mrauk U, an ancient capital, situated in the Rakhine state, close to the Bangladeshi border. I also wanted to photograph some of the old buildings in Yangon before they were replaced with bright and shiny steel and concrete structures.  Alas, the ones that shimmered in my memory – tall dilapidated Victorian tenements across from Scott market, pastel paint peeling – had already disappeared. 

Scott market built in 1926 and named for a British civilian, is now called Bogyoke Aung San market, in memory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s father who negotiated Burma’s independence from the British in 1947, was assassinated later that year, and is revered as the father of modern Myanmar.  It is a landmark in Yangon and is the image at the beginning of this post.

Even the magnificent Shwedagon was under bamboo wraps for a facelift. No cheap plastic surgery for this most sublime of pagodas – only the best gold plating will do!

Yes, if you want to see Yangon, or the Burma of George Orwell, before the gentrification really takes hold, you’d better put it on your bucket list and go quickly.

More chinthe

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