The Book

So Where Is Myanmar?

The young clerk at the information counter in a large bookstore in Honolulu asked me this question when I was trying to find the latest travel books on Myanmar, but could not locate them in the Asian section. "Look under Africa," he advised me. And there they were.

Myanmar, or Burma (I will use both terms interchangeably), is the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia, occupying an area of 260,000 square miles (676,000 square kilometers), which makes it almost twice as large as Germany (after reunification) and almost the same size as Texas. The population of Texas is 19 million, Burma's is 46 million, and Germany's is 82 million.

Burma's population is very unevenly distributed. The fertile delta area and the coastal strip have a markedly high density, but the hill and mountain areas a very low one. With 80 percent of the population living in rural towns and villages, the country has only two major cities: Yangon (formerly Rangoon), with a population of more than 3 million, and Mandalay, with around 750,000. The people are friendly and physically attractive, polite but shy, and willing to talk to a foreigner when approached, but they seem neither obtrusive nor aggressive. The people of Burma, together with the exquisite landscapes and magnificently impressive historical buildings, are the great attractions of this country.

The most northerly point in Burma lies at twenty-eight degrees north, about the same latitude as New Delhi or Tampa, Florida. Its most southerly point, ten degrees north, has almost the same latitude as San Jose, Costa Rica, or Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The humid and fertile area where Yangon is situated lies at almost the same latitude as the southern part of the Sahara Desert. The tropic of Cancer (2327' north latitude), generally considered the border of the Tropics in the northern hemisphere, traverses the country about half the distance between Mandalay and Myitkyina (Kachin State).

Except for the long southern "tail," the Tanintharyi strip, the main part of the country is diamond-shaped, and by adding the long tail one can visualize a kite shape. Overall, Burma measures some five hundred miles (eight hundred kilometers) from east to west and some thirteen hundred miles (twenty-one hundred kilometers) from north to south.

In the west, the border touches Bangladesh and India; in the northeast, China (the Tibet Autonomous Region and the Province of Yunnan-the new drug route to the East); and in the east, Laos and Thailand where, including Burma, the infamous Golden Triangle lies, one of the largest narcotics centers of the world.

Burma is mostly separated and isolated from its neighboring countries by a ring of mountain ranges and plateaus that generally follows a north-south direction. Its three main rivers, which rise in the Himalayas and Tibet, follow the same north-south course before they empty into the Andaman Sea. The Ayeyarwady River (formerly the Irrawaddy) and its tributary, the Chindwin, the main arteries of the country, end in a nine-armed delta near Yangon. Navigable for some nine hundred miles (fifteen hundred kilometers) from Bhamo in Kachin State to Yangon, the Ayeyarwady is some 1,350 miles (2,170 kilometers) long. The Chindwin is also partly navigable. These two are wide, slow-flowing rivers, and have long sandbanks during the dry season. The Thanlwin River (formerly the Salween) lies to the east and runs through Shan State and, along a portion of its course, forms the border with Thailand. Because of its many gorges and rapids, its dangerously fast currents, and its fluctuations in water levels, the Thanlwin is navigable only for some one hundred miles (160 kilometers).

Rivers and mountain ranges and-to a lesser degree-climate and ethnic groups divide the country into six different zones. Two of them I hope to visit in the future are the Rakhine-Chin area in the west and the long "tail," the Tanintharyi strip, in the south. The other four zones, south to north, are, first, Lower Burma, the coastal strip, and the huge Ayeyarwady River Delta where Yangon is located; and, second, Upper Burma, the drier central area where Bagan and Mandalay are located. (These two areas were referred to by the British as Burma Proper, the center of a nation now called Myanmar. Burma Proper is the home of the Burman, the ethnic Burmese, although some minorities live there as well.) The last two zones were part of Outer Burma, or the Frontier Areas, where most of the many ethnic minorities live. They are the Shan Plateau in the east and the Kachin Hills, which are the northern mountain ranges.


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