A visit to a place lost in time: Myanmar
In this December 2012 photo crowds visit the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar. (AP Photo/Richard Camp)
BAGAN, Myanmar (AP) — 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.
This December 2012 photo shows a woman sifting plum seeds used in the manufacture of herbal heart medicine, in Phwarsaw Village in Bagan, Myanmar. It’s common for women to chalk their faces with thanaka, a paste made from tree bark, as makeup and sunscreen. (AP Photo/Richard Camp)
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 cell phones 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.