Unlocking the Mysteries of Myanmar

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).

Having not yet even left the airport, I began to worry -- would it be possible to break free from the confines of bureaucracy and insider privilege to see the real Myanmar?

A History of Repression

Nestled on a cultural fault line between Bangladesh, China, India, Laos and Thailand, Burma has grappled with its identity since inception. Founded by the ruthlessly pragmatic British, the country was crowned Burma. But a single name did not unify the eight fiercely independent ethnic populations within this country's borders.

Just prior to gaining independence after World War II, Bogyoke Aung San, leader of the Burmese independence movement and the country's only hope for attaining stable democracy, was assassinated. Soon after his death, Burma plunged into chaos. In 1962, 15 years into nationhood, Burma experienced a coup led by the repressive and intensely superstitious Ne Win, which marked the beginning of military rule.

Roughly 40 years later, in 1989, the ruling military junta changed the country's name from Burma to the Union of Myanmar, as the region was known in ancient times. Nearly 20 years later, I was still unsure which illegitimately imposed name to use for the place in which I now stood.

The Temple Visit

Driving through the outskirts of Yangon by taxi (about $1-3), I braced myself for a bustling metropolis. Yet the further we traveled into this city of 4 million people, the more striking the absence of urban activity became.

We drove on a well-paved road, passing verdant trees bordering beautiful lakes until finally I caught sight of the top of a tall building -- the glittering, bell-shaped dome of Shwedagon temple. I checked into the Queen's Park hotel (found in my Lonely Planet guidebook), grabbed my camera and headed to Shwedagon.

When I arrived I saw that an escalator led up to the ancient temple, a contradiction I witnessed often at tourist sites: traditional scenes accompanied by a single piece of contemporary technology. It seemed as if the government was trying to make some show of altruism by prominently positioning a modern amenity to assist its people -- all while blithely ignoring the crushing poverty that plagues them.

Moments later I met Tin, the local who offered to be my guide, and we turned our attention to sight-seeing. The sun was setting as we approached the temple's centerpiece, the stupa. The Burmese believe it contains hairs of the Buddha that were deposited at its base 2,500 years ago.

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