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BURMA (MYANMAR)

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Pundits debate whether one should visit Myanmar at all, given the country's human rights record - but what matter politics when your scant few dollars mean a day's earnings to those you encounter along the way?


Cross the river into Burma, and step back fifty years Walk across the bridge at Mae Sai, the Thai Kingdom's northernmost point, and travel north to the heartland of an ancient Thai culture. Burma, the 'Union of Myanmar', usually prohibits entry by land, but this route into the Eastern Shan State is an exception; your papers will be scrutinised at five or six checkpoints en route. By the way, your ten-dollar border permit fee goes straight to the regime in Rangoon, but otherwise your greenbacks, baht and kyats go straight into the pockets of ordinary people in one of the world's poorest nations.

Turn the clock back half a century in Kengtung, a sleepy town built around three lakes, dotted with golden pagodas and crumbling colonial architecture. Beyond the town, secluded in its remote valley, the hamlets of several hill tribe minority peoples cling to forested slopes; the road continues north to Mengla, a surreal casino town on the border of China's Yunnan Province.

Leg-rowers, leaping cats and other Myanmar miracles Sitting in a concrete-floored shop as horse-carts clatter past the door: an internet connection seems miraculous, almost as marvellous as cats trained to leap through hoops.

Aloof from the world, Myanmar remains a land of mysteries, some dark, others whimsical. A golden boulder perches inches from perdition; a train lumbers into view, hours late. Just a gentle paddle from where I sit, the ethereal waters of Inle Lake are home to the Intha, Burma's famed leg-rowers.

Saffron Army The day begins early for those saffron-robed legionaries, the Buddhist monks of South East Asia, as they glide through the morning mists, alms bowls at the ready. Glimpses inside a Burmese monastery reveal the domestic life of the Sangha or community of ordained believers.


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