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FROM JET AGE TO STONE AGE

Wong How Man
Mandalay, Myanmar – 8 February 2011

Jetting with Global Express into MyanmarI have landed at tiny Heho airport in upper Myanmar’s Shan State many times, the latest being just a month ago. The runway usually is rough and bumpy. But this time, the landing was smooth as silk. Even as the plane taxied to the small terminal, it felt as if it were floating on air. It was akin to how an old jeep with leaf-spring suspension feels when compared to a late model limo cushioned by state-of-the-art shock absorbers.

But then again, I may just be imagining the smoothness. The lofty ride in a private jet, together with fine wine and cheese, not to speak of the aroma of chocolate cookies freshly baked by Sandy the flight attendant can be quite intoxicating.

The Global Express jet landed and taxied toward a spartan looking control tower, built maybe a half-century ago. The door opened and we walked down the stairs, our own stairs. Below was a small crowd of about a dozen or so airport officials and handlers in waiting. Several had cameras or their mobile phones pointing at us and snapping, as if we were celebrities. They were in fact more interested in this jet plane than the passengers it was carrying.

The landing was spectacular, but the view during flight was even more so. Myanmar is known to use some old and almost obsolete airplanes in its fleet. The windows are often scratched up as if permanently fogged up, preventing passengers from having a clear view of the outside. On previous flights, I had looked out the window – or tried to – and lamented how wonderful it would be to have a clear view of the landscape and scenery below. That opportunity finally came.

How Man inside the posh cabinThe field below resembles a patchwork mosaic or an oil painting on canvas with vibrant colors. The distant hills faded gradually into infinity like a Chinese scroll. I was focused on my camera, neglecting the plate of fresh fruits served in the lounge onboard. The jet has two toilets, a large powder room aft and a smaller one forward. Further behind is the luggage hold. Having excess baggage never crossed my mind on this trip. I am the excess baggage, accompanying two good friends Judith and Wim on a visit to our project site.

I noticed the cockpit door remained open during our flight, something commercial flights no longer allow. Sandy gestured for me go inside the cockpit. I poked my head in and sized up the instrumentation panels. Randy the captain turned and gave me a welcoming smile of approval as I raised my camera for a picture. I have flown in private prop planes many times but this was my first time in a private jet. And private jets rarely fly into Myanmar, let alone up-country to a tiny airport. This plane has come all the way from New York. Winning approval from the State Department was just one of many hurdles to flying a private jet into this country.

Myanmar girl with herbal make-up to protect her skinRandy and co-pilot Tim have never flown into Myanmar. But this aircraft is equipped with the best avionics and equipment for instrument flying. He did a half circle over the tiny airport to check out its surroundings, banked his plane, and eased it in without a hitch. We also eased through immigration and security in no time at all.

My first ride in a car a decade ago from Mandalay to Inle Lake took more than 10 hours. This jet could cover that in just 19 minutes. I cherish both journeys, one affording a close-up look on the ground, the other providing an unmatched birds-eye-view from above, though with not enough time to appreciate the wine at the same time.

Visiting Myanmar is a great way to go back in time, counted in decades, or even centuries. Vintage cars from the ’40s and ’50s still ply the roads, or backroads, of upper Myanmar. Willys Jeeps from the ’40s and Series 1 Land Rovers from the ’50s are frequent sightings. Pre-war Chevrolet buses in Mandalay were packed with seated or standing passengers, many of whom hung precariously on tiny step-rails beside or behind the bus.

On the Irrawaddy River, large riverboats hark back to the British Colonial days of the Flotilla Company, plying the same waterway with large bales of cargo loads. Timber, predominantly teak wood, floated down with a tugboat in the middle. A large barge with cargo flats on each side would be pulled from in front, or pushed from behind, by larger tugs. Smaller row boats dotting the channel complete a picture from over a century ago.

Maha Muni monastery in Mandalay There are other remnants from earlier days. Simply cross the river into the countryside. It is as if pages of the calendar enter a fast rewind mode, 1890s, 1850s, 1790s, and so on. At one place an ancient temple stands tall among the surrounding jungle. We moved on to a wooden carriage drawn by a horse, negotiating a long dirt road. To get to another temple next to the Irrawaddy riverbank, the ancient Ava capital, we rode on a simpler flat-bed carriage, pulled by two bullocks. The horse carriage had leaf-spring suspension, whereas the bullock has its carriage sitting squarely on a wooden frame, so the rider can truly feel all of the bumps on the road. Both carriages had large wooden wheels. The temples may be ancient. The means to get there is both archaic and idyllic, bringing back romance of the past.

On the edge of town in Mandalay is a section filled with marble sculptures. A line of shops and workshops all cater to this occupation, carving marble by hand. Buddha statues, large and small, filled the front and back yards of every shop. Chiseling away with simple hand tools, the work is time-honored as well as tedious.

Ox cart outside of Mandalay From a small shop in the heart of Mandalay came the sounds of stone pounding and metallic thuds. Three muscular, bare-chested men were pounding a small square package with a long-arm hammer, causing a melodious rhythm. Inside the package are more than a thousand thin sheets of bamboo paper, thin as ginger skin. In between every two sheets is a tiny plate of gold. Through hours of this pounding, the gold would be flattened to miniscule thickness, resulting in gold leaf. These are used as offerings to temples and generally pasted onto the body of the Buddha statues. Gold-leaf making goes back well over a millennium.

Many such occupations in Myanmar have continuously been practiced for hundreds of years. Though much of the world is marching full speed into the 21st Century, in Myanmar’s more remote locations, people still live as though they are caught in a time capsule. Those with nostalgia for an earlier age can visit Myanmar, where time is slow, life is simple, and people are happy – even with the smallest things in life.