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).

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.

Dazzled, I looked around the roughly 12-acre platform that encircled the main stupa and housed a labyrinth of smaller statues, temples, shrines and other elaborately decorated Buddhist artifacts. As night fell, thousands of Burmese began to gather to meditate, pray and make offerings at the hundreds of altars in the compound. I began to perceive the importance of this place in the daily lives of the people of Yangon. Not once did any local pay heed to me, a rare and obvious outsider. Here, finally, was the Myanmar I had hoped to see.

Tin exemplified the calm and warm Burmese demeanor. No question I asked of this man was too detailed, no request too unreasonable. After we finished our tour, I still needed to know more. I invited Tin to dinner.

A Revealing Meal

As we rode in a taxi toward the capital's Indian neighborhood, we passed Burma's main university, the windows of which have been shuttered for more than a decade. In 1988, thousands of Buddhist monks and student protesters were killed during pro-democracy demonstrations. Immediately, the government drew worldwide condemnation and harsh sanctions against it. The government cemented the nation's isolation in 1991 by nullifying elections and confining the victorious party's leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. Because she continues to organize campaigns of civil disobedience, Suu Kyi is continually shuffled between imprisonment and house arrest. Yet despite numerous invitations from the regime, she refuses to accept exile.

As I shared a curry dinner with Tin at the Nila Biryane Shop, he revealed that he had grown up in a small town in the country's interior. Having pursued an array of postgraduate studies, Tin discovered upon graduating that his skills served no purpose in a country lacking a developed job market. He left his family to pursue tourism in the capital and after two years of studying history and culture, Tin obtained a position as one of Shwedagon's many guides. In a country starved for tourism, he normally waits in vain for business.

Suddenly, Tin became the questioner and I the story teller. I told Tin about my upbringing and my life in New York City. He asked me about Sept. 11. He had heard about the tragedy but had not seen even one image shown on the heavily censored, state-controlled television channels.

Learning that I was not leaving for Mandalay until the following afternoon, Tin suggested visiting an unknown temple outside the city. He offered to arrange for a car, which would cost him $10. If I committed to paying this, he said, I could give him what I pleased after both days' efforts. I eventually paid him $25 for his services.

A Bittersweet Goodbye

At 7 a.m., Tin and a driver picked me up in a clunker of a car and we set off on a two-hour journey southeast from Yangon. Once we left the capital, the level of poverty increased immediately and dramatically. We drove through a lush, unpopulated countryside sprinkled with small, gold-leaf-covered Buddhist temples encircled by huts and houses in varying states of decay. When we arrived at the small town of Kyauktan, an expansive river scene opened before us and I caught sight of a temple in the middle of the water. This was the Yele Paya, the Mid-River Pagoda.

Here was another spectacular site where the absence of tourists was stunning. As we floated toward the temple, the sole customers on the "tourist" boat (a clever way to extract a $1 fare, locals pay 2 cents), Tin shared with me its history.

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)