Yangon known for its secondhand book stalls as well as golden pagodas

MENTIONING elephants is a big mistake. It’s how, on a trip to Myanmar, I come to be known as the Elephant Man.

It all begins late one afternoon in Yangon, the delightfully decrepit capital of a former hermit nation that’s opened up to the outside world and on its way to becoming South East Asia’s hottest holiday destination.

I’m hot, sweaty, grumpy and tired after a day’s downtown exploration in Myanmar’s largest city – a grid-pattern district oozing charm and crammed with once-grand but now crumbling colonial buildings, a place demanding on-foot investigation.

Some buildings in this safe city are exquisitely refurbished, others shunned even by squatters – but most survive in an in-between state with some floors occupied and others abandoned, allowing tropical vegetation to poke skywards through long-gone windows.

New steel-and-glass high-rises squeeze between venerable architectural delights – a reminder of changed times. Myanmar is playing catch-up – with observers expecting this to accelerate after elections in November.

Pedestrians of both sexes mostly wear sarong-like longyis, even to the office. Many adorn their faces with thanaka, a powder that’s a combined cooling agent and sunscreen. Tradition dies hard – these days it co-exists with smartphones.

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Some residents, mostly the elderly, still call their country Burma and its largest city Rangoon.

I pause at a second-hand bookshop. Yangon is renowned for bookshops, which flourished during self-imposed isolation from outside influences.

Some stock has become collectors’ items. Want a mechanical manual for an aircraft that’s no longer manufactured? You’ll find it in Yangon.

A young assistant sidles up to me and, with politeness characteristic of his country, asks: “For what subject are you searching?”

“Elephants,” I snap, preferring to browse alone amid mildewed volumes. I regret uttering the word as soon as I hear myself speak.

But it’s too late. More books about elephants than you can imagine are thrust at me by more assistants than I have seen in any bookshop.

In the end, I spend less than a dollar buying a copy of The Care and Management of Elephants In Burma by A.J. Ferrier, published 85 years ago.

Intended as a how-to book for expatriates supervising working elephants, it’s more revealing about British colonial attitudes. For instance, if an ill elephant needs an enema it isn’t proper for an Englishman to make preparations. Instead, a local employee should “insert an arm well-smeared with oil to remove from the lower bowel as much dung as can be reached”.

What’s more, while a “reliable headmen may be entrusted with poisons”, opium and ganja (cannabis) used as elephantine medications should be kept only by British officers.

This much-thumbed volume now sits on my bookshelf, puzzling visitors who assume that the care and management of elephants is among my lesser-known interests. On daily bookshop visits I’m unfailingly addressed as “Elephant Man”.

Assistants carrying books about elephants pull me into the shop. “Good morning, Elephant Man! We have some more books for you.”

I resort to lying that I’ve already read everything offered – but this ploy succeeds only in convincing salespeople that the breadth of my knowledge is truly exceptional. They inevitably find more dog-eared tomes about pachyderms.

A Yangon friend whispers that I’ve made a canny choice because elephants are uniquely important in local culture and history. Myanmar, she adds, boasts 5000 domesticated elephants (mostly engaged in logging) and another 5000 in the wild.


Myanmar — which tourism officials dub the “Golden Land” — is best-known for golden-spired temples symbolising the country.

In Yangon’s city centre, ringed by colonial structures, there’s sacred Sule Pagoda. And, at the edge of the business district, sits Yangon’s supreme attraction: Shwedagon Pagoda, one of the world’s most revered places of Buddhist pilgrimage.

Tourists often cruise up or down the Ayeyarwady (still commonly called the Irrawaddy, the country’s main waterway) because itineraries include time in Yangon, Bagan and Mandalay, with en route stops at riverside villages and add-on side-trips to other parts of the country. Cruise options range from super-opulent to budget.

MANDALAY: The name itself sounds exotic, bracketed with places such as Mali’s Timbuktu, Morocco’s Marrakesh or the island of Madagascar.

Though Marrakesh is popular among Europeans, it’s much-visited Mandalay (because of closeness) that Australians are likelier to visit.

I gaze from Sutaungpyei Pagoda atop Mandalay Hill to a traffic-choked town. As Myanmar opens up Mandalay embraces change, becoming more like other bustling Asian cities.

But key attractions remain. Among these: an oddity called “the world’s biggest book” with 729 white-painted stupas, each 2m tall, covering 5ha and encircling Kuthodaw Pagoda. Every stupa carries an inscription. Together, these constitute a Buddhist holy book. The book, stunning visitors for 155 years, is World Heritage-listed and best-known of Mandalay’s religious sites.

Another landmark: still-used U Bein, the “world’s longest teak footbridge”, a 165-year-old creaky connection between villages 1.2km apart on opposite sides of a lake.

BAGAN: Drifting in a balloon above Bagan’s 2200 stupas and pagodas it’s obvious why this place of extraordinary beauty is Myanmar’s top attraction.

Bagan’s gems encompass small crumbling stupas along with enormous art-filled pagodas such as Ananda Temple, hand-hewn in 1105. Tourists often rent motor scooters to travel within a 42sq km expanse. (Archaeologists insist that pagodas are hollow, incorporating temples, but stupas are solid, often containing entombed relics. But, in Myanmar, the words are interchangeable.)

INLE LAKE: Inle Lake, often labelled the “Venice of Asia”, and has canals instead of streets. Boats are the usual transport. Memorable sights include “one-legged fishermen”.

Aboard tiny craft, they stand on one leg — wrapping the other around oars to paddle.

NGAPALI: Australians associate Myanmar more with unique cultural attractions than beach holidays. But there are magnificent beaches — far less crowded than those in, say, Bali or Phuket.

Ngapali, 7km from a town called Thanwe, is picture-postcard territory. Among stylish resorts, there’s even a Hilton. Accommodation ranges from ultra-opulent to bare-bones basic.

I spread my towel near palms on a long white-sand beach before snorkelling in calm aquamarine sea, reminding myself to keep secret this glorious locale. But I’ve shared it now.

Source: Herald Sun

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