Unlocking the Mysteries of Myanmar

I had just entered the temple when he approached me -- a small man in his mid-20s. He wore a simple, white button-down shirt and a dark-colored longyi, a sarong-style garment indispensable in tropical climates. His British-style English was impeccable. For $3, he offered to be my guide for as long as I required.

This encounter was on my mind as I read the recent news about Myanmar. Last month, the ruling military regime enforced a series of crackdowns on pro-democracy demonstrations led by Buddhist monks.

The meeting occurred during a 2003 visit to the Southeast Asian country. It was a trip about which I had long dreamed. Though I have been lucky to have traveled extensively in my life, I had still hoped to find a destination that felt untouched by tourism. I was drawn to Myanmar, a nation I was told where the lifestyle had changed little from centuries ago, where cultural sights are still in active use and untouched by commercialism, and where the people are genuine and warm.

I had finally arrived.

Reality Sets In

It was not until I was standing in the airport of Myanmar's capital of Yangon (formerly Rangoon) that I fully considered the challenges ahead of me. The modern terminal teemed with civil servants waiting for tourists who would never arrive. Myanmar, a country of roughly 50 million people, receives an average of only three thousand visitors a day.

My trip had been a source of debate among my friends. The British government, for example, endorses a tourism boycott to Myanmar. Many felt that it would provide de facto support for a military regime that represses its citizens politically and economically, censors e-mails and blocks international cell phone calls. Still, I decided to go with the hope that my visit would help make a positive impact on the country's people.

Upon arriving to the airport, I was required to hand over $300 for the equivalent Burmese "foreign exchange certificates" -- government-issued Monopoly money that could be used only within Myanmar. This was the only money I was required to give directly to the Burmese government during my trip.

After passing through Customs, I made my way to another part of the airport to buy an airplane ticket for an afternoon flight to Mandalay that I had reserved on a posh Internet site the week before. Immediately, I learned that there was no seat for me on the plane. The flight did not, in fact, exist!

On the fly, I decided to buy a ticket to Mandalay for the following day and to spend the next 24 hours in Yangon.

The woman at the Air Mandalay counter confided that she knew an outside travel agent who could sell the ticket to me at a 30 percent discount. (I later saw this same ticket for sale at my hotel for substantially less.) In any isolated country, it is no surprise to encounter an inefficient economy, but Myanmar's is an extreme example. Getting the lowest price for anything depends solely on being lucky enough to find good inside information.

When the travel agent arrived at the airport, I had an uneasy feeling about him. He wore designer clothes and drove a stylish car -- signs in this impoverished country that he was a friend of the government and likely benefited financially from this transaction. The prices he quoted me for other travel services seemed implausibly high for Myanmar, which is relatively inexpensive for Western travelers (indeed, the $50 I saved by using this agent ended up covering two days of travel).

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