Top Gear Myanmar
Karina Moreton leads the film logistics arm of Panoramic Journeys and is delighted that it is at last possible to film in Burma, and that Top Gear showcased so much that we love about that spectacular country with all its idiosyncrasies and splendour. Jeremy, Richard and James had to drive across its heart before building a bridge over the River Kwai.
It isn’t actually in Burma – did you know that? We’ve had lots of calls and emails since the program, from people asking all sorts of questions – so we thought we’d try to answer here all the queries that the program has thrown up. (By the way, in case you were wondering, the River Kwai is in Thailand).
What is the big golden temple we can see over Rangoon?
At the beginning of the show, Jeremy, Richard and James meet at the People’s Park and Square in Rangoon and in the background is a very impressive golden stupa. That is the Schwedagon Pagoda and, at 325 ft, it dominates the city’s skyline. Built about 2,500 years ago to enshrine Buddha’s hair and other relics, it is decorated with thousands of gold plates and diamonds.
Rangoon looks crazy! What’s that all about?
Downtown Rangoon, or Yangon as it is now known, is a colourful, vibrant, chaotic place as you can see in the program. We think this is part of its charm! There is a fascinating blend of the old and the new, beautiful old colonial buildings rub shoulders with newer high-rise apartments, commercial offices and religious structures. The wide leafy avenues bustle with the unruly traffic and wandering pedestrians, markets or zei selling herbs, textiles, fruit and vegetables, roadside cafe’s and pavement stalls offering mouth-water street food, jewellery and handicrafts.
Tell me about the memorial to the fallen soldiers who built the Burmese railway?
The Top Gear team visit Taukkyan Allied War Cemetery on the outskirts of Yangon. The memorial pillars, known as the Rangoon Memorial, are inscribed with the names of 27, 000 Allied soldiers who died in Burma during World War 2, but have no known graves. The cemetery also holds the graves of 6,374 soldiers who died in World War 2, 52 soldiers who died in World war 1, and 867 graves of the remains of unidentified Allied soldiers. It is a sobering but immensely peaceful place.
Why has everyone got white paint on their faces?
The white paint is actually thanaka, a paste made from ground bark. Used as a cosmetic by Burmese women for over 2,000 years, it is believed to ease certain skin conditions as it has anti-fungal properties and also acts as a sunscreen. It is applied to the face and sometimes arms in pretty designs, is often seen on children and occasionally men.
So Burma is obviously a Buddhist country?
Yes, it is practised by about 90% of the country’s population and has the highest proportion of monks in the population of any Buddhist nation, numbering about half a million. The culture of Burma is synonymous with the religion and the yearly calendar incorporates may Buddhist festivals. There are countless pagodas or stupas, evident in every village and city and across the countryside too, normally richly decorated and gilded. The plains of Bagan are particularly memorable for the 2,200 pagodas which stud the region – the surviving structures of the 10,000 pagodas, temples and monasteries that were built there between the 11th and 13th centuries. Not for nothing is Burma known as the Land of the Golden Pagodas.
It looks like it rains a lot!
The program was filmed in October at the end of the monsoon season, which starts around May/June time. The best time to visit Burma is from November through to February, when it does not rain as much and the heat is less intense. The hot season is from March to May when temperatures in Yangon can reach 40 degrees although it can be even hotter in Bagan and Mandalay.
What on earth is the deal with that deserted city?
The deserted city that the presenters visit is called Naypyidaw and is the new capital of Burma. The move away from the historic capital of Yangon (formerly known as Rangoon) began in 2005 when administration was transferred to newly erected government offices. Grand buildings followed and all of a great city’s infrastructure, which includes a 20 lane highway – where Jeremy, Richard and James play football and race their trucks in the shadow of the Parliament building with the help of a friendly Burmese policeman. The city is apparently the 10th fastest growing city in the world and is already divided into administrative, military, residential and recreational zones. As James May observes, it is a city built entirely in anticipation of the future…
If the Top Gear Christmas Special from Burma has inspired you to visit the Land of the Golden Pagodas take a look at the trips to Burma we offer. We can promise you great hotels (including the one featured in the program, a genteel English colonial style place in Kalaw), and horse riding (with well-behaved mounts and helmets), delicious food, fascinating culture, and mind-blowing scenery. Not only can we take you to many of the places you’ve seen in the program, but we’ll take you off the beaten track to unspoilt locations and remote villages. Trek across varied terrain, paddy fields, orchards and tea plantations, rucked-up mountain ridges and plunging ravines. As Jeremy Clarkson says, Burma is really God’s Garden.