Unlocking the Mysteries of Myanmar

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.

Having been rebuilt numerous times due to damage from earthquakes (the current structure dates from 1769), Shwedagon's stupa is of spectacular proportions -- a golden bell-shaped dome 98 meters high and roughly 45 meters wide covering interior layers of brick, marble, lead, copper, tin, silver and a core of gold. Shwedagon's stupa is regilded every year with gold leaf, of which it had reportedly accumulated 53 metric tons by 1995. At the stupa's top, a gold and silver plated vane studded with 1,100 diamonds and 1,383 other precious stones turns in the wind. At the very top of this vane rests a diamond orb, a hollow golden sphere covered by 4,351 diamonds and tipped with a gigantic 76 carat diamond.

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