Myanmar Architecture: Cities of Gold by Ma Thanegi and photographs by Barry Broman (Marshall Cavendish)

What most of us know about Myanmar could be tattooed on the abdomen of a mosquito. When we try to learn more about the country, the books that most easily come to hand are either highly political, highly outdated, or highly unreadable.

Who would ever think that one of the best introductions to Myanmar, its culture, and its history would be found in a coffee table book, that genre which is usually very pretty, examined once for its remarkable photographs, and then is ignored until it's time to donate something to the next church rummage sale?

Myanmar Architecture: Cities of Gold does indeed have remarkable photography but the writing is what makes this book extraordinary. Ma Thanegi, author of the travel classic, Native Tourist, is a writer whose sentences sparkle with vitality and humor, and she uses that gift to make the history of her country more enticing to read than many novels are.

With forms of architecture serving as her structure, Thanegi leads readers through time, recreating the life of her country throughout its history, from its ancient and turbulent early kingdoms where temples were built and monarchies were elevated and toppled in bloodsoaked succession, into its imperial days of glory before the forces of Western imperialism barged in and took over, bringing with them their Victorian towers and turrets, dripping with gingerbread trim.

The lost civilization of Pyu that flourished for seven centuries and then vanished, leaving few traces of a people who were so devoutly Buddhist that they would not wear silk because "it involved taking of life"; Bagan, which, legend says, once held 4,446 temples, of which "today, ten centuries later, 2,230 remain"; Amarapure, where in 1795 a British envoy witnessed a daily two-hour procession of elephants, horses, servants carrying their masters' betel boxes that were made from gold, enlayed with gems, and, reported the envoy, were "no inconsiderable load for a man"; the Big Black House left from the days of the British occupation, which was made of teak and haunted by those who were massacred during the era of the British pirate, Samuel White--all are vividly described in sensuous details that are accentuated by Barry Broman's lush photography.<br
Most revealing of Myanmar culture is the chapter on Vernacular Architecture, which is where Thanegi discusses the rich traditions and customs that have guided her country through the centuries. Examining both secular and sacred buildings, she explains the reasons why homes were simple and temples were opulent, why homes were traditionally planned around trees and why houses of all social classes were raised above the surface of the earth. The home plans that she describes are still followed by some of her countrymen today, and the open veranda, the front wall made of folding doors, the smooth-planked floors, and the toilet placed at some distance from the main dwelling place sound so perfectly suited to tropical living that it seems absurd that all homes in Southeast Asia don't conform to that ideal.

For those who are curious about Myanmar, or for those who plan to go to that country and see it for themselves, this book is the ideal introduction--its size is its only flaw, making it an impractical traveling companion. But it does fulfill its original function quite well--in addition to its unexpected literary and historical value, it looks dazzling on a coffee table.