Unlocking the Mysteries of Myanmar

In the face of persistent flooding, a local king had built this paya several hundred years earlier as a tribute to the Buddha and a plea for his help. According to legend, the river's level has never once since surpassed the height of the paya's floor. The awe-inspiring setting allowed me to believe it might be true.

While we wandered around the small, spartan temple, Tin approached an altar and pulled out of his backpack offerings to the Buddha. He asked me to join him, emphasizing that any such offering had universal relevance as a positive reinforcement of the Buddha's teachings.

As I joined Tin lighting incense, he explained that the fragrance is a symbol of pure moral conduct and an encouragement to cultivate good behavior. Next, he laid out flowers, their ephemeral quality reminding us to value what we have now and to live in the present. Finally, we each lit a candle, an act intended to evoke the light of wisdom, dispelling the darkness of ignorance. Tin added with a wink that this last offering also ensures one's fame in life.

Moments later, we were approached by a group of eager locals. I was such a novelty, would I mind if they took a picture with me? Two minutes had passed and I was already famous!

After a two hour visit, we drove back to Yangon. Our final stop was the Scott market, formerly the city's British marketplace but now a tourist market controlled by the government. Impressive carvings of sandalwood and teak lay in one section of the market; a vast cache of rare gems and jewels occupied another. Everywhere I looked I saw Burmese treasures marketed for private benefit -- being squandered by a regime consumed by self-interest. It was a sad spectacle.

As Tin and I exchanged warm goodbyes on the way to the airport, I felt bittersweet. Only 24 hours into my trip, I was achieving my dream of experiencing Myanmar's amazing sights and inspiring characters. This dream, however, was tainted by the realization that I might be one of the few tourists ever to do so.

If You Go

For general information on traveling to Myanmar visit Mystical Myanmar (www.myanmar-tourism.com).

Airfare to Myanmar: Prices from New York range from $1100-$1600 on Delta to Yangon International Airport via Bangkok.

Queen's Park Hotel: $15 per night for standard single hotel room with television, refrigerator, telephone, private bath and air-conditioning (www.myanmars.net/queenspark)

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