Burma, that legend from the history books, was a very interesting place to visit, not so much from a horticultural aspect, as we found very few new varieties, but from a tourist's point of view it was fascinating.
This socialist country is now economically poor and underdeveloped. It appears to want to remain socially isolated. Business with the outside world is deliberately minimal and tourism is not encouraged.
We landed at Rangoon airport to be greeted by a large crowd of Burmese. It reminded me of New Guinea where many of the locals spend all day at the airport watching the planes come and go. We mingled with the crowd for a while - a rather curious security arrangement - then we were herded into the customs and immigration shed. I use the word loosely. In this hot crowded old building we faced more than two hours of red tape, endless questions and forms, officials bickering amongst themselves, and finally, "did we bring any whisky or cigarettes for the customs and immigration officers?" Without a bribe the whole procedure takes over two hours. On the way out of the country five days later two bottles of whisky got us through the red tape in just half an hour.
We stayed at the "INYA LAKE HOTEL" situated on the shores of a large peaceful freshwater lake, five miles from the centre of Rangoon. The "HOTEL" was a present from Russia in the 1960s. I gathered the Russians were interested in exerting their influence in Burma in the early sixties but eventually gave up because of the lackadaisical attitude of the locals. The Burmese way of socialism is a curious mixture of Buddhism and socialism with a few old British customs thrown in as well.
Most institutions and large businesses have been nationalised and this has created an underworld black market larger and more important than the official economy. The official exchange rate for our dollar was five to one while the black market rate was fifteen to one and if goods were being bought it was twenty to one. This black market is so large it is tolerated by the government but not officially recognised.
Burma is famous as the source of the world's best rubies. Every businessman in Rangoon could produce a pouch of sparkling red stones to tempt the tourist. However, the stones were nearly all of poor quality with numerous cracks and inclusions. The best quality rubies appear only when one shows the colour of one's money. The price can be haggled down to about $400 A. per carat.
In Rangoon there are hundreds of magnificent colonial buildings, some the size of a city block. The architecture and splendour can still be seen but the buildings are not maintained and are delapidating. The suburbs are dotted with hundreds of once-beautiful mansions surrounded by large, unkempt gardens. Bamboo extensions to these old buildings contrast sharply with their original magnificence and reflect the general malaise. The city was originally designed and built by the British early this century for a population of 38,000. However with the socialist revolution in the countryside, over two million people have crowded into Rangoon. The people are small in stature, of Indian/Chinese descent and very friendly.
Burma exports very little; just enough to pay for a few bare necessities. The exports are mainly rubies, rice and teak. Imports are mainly petrol and secondhand cars. Many old British and American cars can be seen on the streets; some of wartime vintage. Most of the buses are army blitz wagons. The only modern cars are a few DATSUN taxis. New cars cost $40,000 to $60,000 A. each. Television sets cost about $3,000 A. and VCRs are about $6,000 A. each. Import duties are written with a heavy pen.
Horticulturally, Burma was a little disappointing. Most fruit was of poor quality and only two mango varieties were considered worth bringing back. The people seem to eat mostly vegetables, rice and poultry. River boats bring hundreds of tons of vegetables and flowers down the Irrawaddi River from as far away as Mandalay.
A bus tour along the famous "Road to Mandalay" was a memorable journey. We motored through patches of jungle, flooded plains of rice paddy and small towns crowded with shoppers. All the little towns had busy markets. The stalls sold a variety of produce and handiwork. Goldsmiths were making jewellery from the raw materials of rubies and gold with considerable skill.
We stopped at a large country market beside a small muddy river. It rained heavily and the mud started to mix with the produce. Our health inspectors would have had a field day. Paddy fields with buffalos wallowing in the mud was a common sight on the road to MANDALAY.
We stopped at a pomelo farm where the farmer had sold his topsoil in harder times. He was growing huge pomelos on sandy subsoil with superphosphate and he wasn't doing a bad job either.
The giant African snail was an obvious pest in this area. We saw one banana tree with eight large snails clinging to it. We were told the Japanese brought the snails to Burma to eat during the war. We also saw them in New Guinea, another ex-Japanese stronghold.
Palmyra palms were numerous in Burma. The large purple and green fruit were sold in markets. The flesh inside the three seeds is similar to soft coconut. The leaves are used to thatch roofs.
Each morning in Rangoon was fine and each afternoon the north west monsoons would bring heavy showers. The area was green and lush, similar to the wet tropics of North Queensland. Very little fruit was found in Burma and only common varieties were seen. The parrot beak or mandalay mango and another which reportedly crops three times a year were the only varieties considered worth bringing back. We were also looking for the fruiting bamboo (Melacana bacifera) but were informed it grows only in the north country.
One of the world's rarest and most beautiful flowering trees (Amherstia nobilis) comes from the teak forests of Burma. We saw only about seven trees in Rangoon and only one was flowering. It is an endangered species there because of the forest clearing and because it sets seed so very rarely.
DATE: November 1985
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