Postcard from Burma
It was in 1998, just after the World Cup, that I was in a Singapore travel agency booking a trip to Vietnam. My friend, busy at work, had relied on me to make the decisions. I’d just finished paying when the stately old man at the next counter thrust a piece of paper in my hands: it was a choice of packages to Burma, which sounded far more exciting. Knowing little about the country or its attractions, I chose a two-city tour of Rangoon and Mandalay. It was only when the plane transferring us deposited virtually all other passengers at Bagan that I realised something was up: I’d only managed to miss the country’s number one tourist attraction – over two thousand sacred temples sprawled across forty square miles of dusty plain. We consoled ourselves with a trip along the Ayeyawaddy river to Mingun, home of the world’s largest ringing bell. It was charming enough, but hardly compared to one of the most famous archaeological sites in Southeast Asia, as my companion kept reminding me. Nearby was a group of art shops, where I fell for a painting of a Buddhist monk, sitting in quiet contemplation. Negotiations completed, the shop-owner, a softly-spoken man, offered us tea and fresh fruit. ‘Which country?’ he asked, to which I replied England. ‘Ah, Tony Blair,’ he pronounced. ‘Very good.’ I nodded, albeit doubtfully. He pointed to a painting of the late Princess of Wales: ‘Princess Diana.’ We both pulled sad faces. Determined to come up with another British icon of our times, he paused to think. Then his eyes lit up and, clearly delighted with the depth of his knowledge, he declared: ‘Michael Owen.’
I dare say the Bagan temples are a wonderful thing, but for this memory alone, I’ve never minded missing them.
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