Tourists flocking to discover a place lost in time: Myanmar
BAGAN, Myanmar - The rising sun streaked a light blanket of fog with pink and yellow. Suddenly, pagodas popped out from the mist, some grand and intricate, others squat and modest, some crumbling, others glinting with gold — a carousel of Buddhist temples amid fields of sesame, tamarind and scrub.
If not for a monolithic red brick silo in the middle of this scene, you could almost imagine yourself in the 11th century, when the ancient city of Bagan was home to the first kingdom of Burma.
But the silo, with an exclusive restaurant and viewing platform, towers above the temples in the country now called Myanmar. The structure was built in 2003 by a crony of the generals who have run Myanmar for decades. The modern building is a major reason the ancient temples were denied world heritage status by the United Nations.
This is the magic and folly of Myanmar. Closed off for years by a repressive, corrupt military reign, much of the country seems lost in time and truly untouched by signs of globalization like fast food chains. Women here still chalk their faces with thanaka, a paste made from tree bark. Men wear longyi, wraparound skirts gracefully knotted at the waist. Monks carry begging bowls through town in the early morning ritual of seeking food.
But now that the government is opening Myanmar to the outside world, tourists are rushing to experience the country before it changes. While numbers remain small, they are increasing: About 260,000 arrivals from January to October 2012 compared to 175,000 in the same period in 2011. Tours frequently sell out and start-up airlines are sprouting up. Foreign cellphones won't work here and credit cards are rarely accepted (though tourists can use Visa and MasterCard to change local currency at private banks), but Western attire is now seen in cities and "O'Burma" T-shirts showed up after President Obama's recent visit.
There's also a palpable sense of possibility and change, making it an exciting time to visit. The Governor's Residence hotel in Yangon recently set up a screen on the lawn for guests to watch Luc Besson's "The Lady," a film about Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and liberation heroine whom the government released in 2010 after 15 years of house arrest. The film screening would have been unheard of two years ago.
Barbed wire still tops the wall around Suu Kyi's home, a must drive-by in Yangon, formerly Rangoon, which was Myanmar's capital until the military built a new capital two hours away.
Yangon is also home to Myanmar's most sacred temple: the 320-foot tall (97 metres) Shwedagon Pagoda, whose golden dome is visible throughout much of the city. Its tiers are plated in gold, studded with diamonds, and capped by an orb bearing 4,500 diamonds, with a single 76-carat diamond on top.
Families and pilgrims spend the day at the pagoda spreading out rugs and meals they've packed, alternately worshipping and chatting — the social equivalent of parks and malls in the United States. The temple's origins are said to date back some 2,500 years, but it has been rebuilt over the centuries, and is encircled by hundreds of smaller temples, shrines and pavilions. Halos on many Buddhas in smaller shrines bear flashing electric lights, which are disliked by traditionalists but appeal to the young.
While the Shwedagon is the star attraction in Yangon, Bagan and Inle Lake are the two most entrancing areas to visit elsewhere in the country. But Yangon's colonial architecture is also notable. Crumbling and neglected, the buildings nonetheless recall an era when Rangoon was a bustling port. They also represent one of the largest remaining examples of original British colonial architecture. Advocates are pushing for their restoration but critics fear they'll be replaced by high-rises.
Downtown Yangon is also home to sidewalk stalls selling tasty street food, fresh-rolled leaves of betel nut to chew (which stains teeth and sidewalks red), books and phone service (not mobile phones, but land lines you can rent to make calls). Pick up local handicrafts, a longyi, or well-priced lacquerware and antiques at the sprawling British-era Scott Market. Ubiquitous teahouses offer multiple choices of strength, sweetness and milkiness. During the most heinous periods of military rule, the teahouses served as a pipeline of communication for activists, journalists and dissidents.