YANGON, Myanmar — We were near the summit village, soaked through from several hours of hiking in the July rains, when a serpentine line of golden-cheeked, laughing girls streaked past us, heading down the lakeside mountain to work the ledged fields below. My guide, dressed in a red-and-white-checked skirt called a longyi, stopped up ahead to give me a breather. He flashed an encouraging smile, his teeth stained scarlet from betel nut, a recreational sedative that I was chewing, too. I was ratty and hungry from the morning’s muddy hike, and now I was buzzed as well.
When we reached the Shan village, high up in the mountains overlooking Lake Inle in central Myanmar, a scrum of boys took our shoes for washing, and then showed us to the upper floor of a thatched hut. Young men smoking cigars made from the local tobacco produced lunch: tomato salad with peanuts, peppermint, and lemongrass vinegar; fried potatoes; and Shan noodles with garlic and vegetables. My guide set out two bottles of Myanmar Beer (its slogan: Lucky Future).
While we ate lunch on the floor by the hut’s open side, the sun burst through, burning off the cloud cover. Suddenly, a mountainside of rolling tobacco fields came into focus, and then, farther down, the sun revealed the lake, a 23-square-mile body of water nestled among a fluorescent green patchwork of small farms and floating tomato plantations.
I asked my guide about the November 2010 elections, the first in 20 years in the country known before 1989 as Burma. He just shrugged. “Same wine, different bottle,’’ he said, popping the caps on the beer. “Is that how you say it?’’
I had come to Southeast Asia last year on a six-week trip. Having never been, I imagined, naively, that I would find some kind of old-world authenticity in Thailand or Cambodia or Vietnam. But somewhere along the way I began to feel like a walking dollar sign in a Western arcade of canned exotica: “Try the best Pad Thai in Ko Phi Phi,’’ “Lay down your towel on the same island where Leo made ‘The Beach.’ ’’
So my ears perked up when, three weeks into the trip, a fellow traveler told me that Myanmar “is like what Vietnam was 50 years ago.’’ Shaped like a giant diamond, Myanmar is lodged among Thailand, Laos, China, India, and Bangladesh. It is the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia and has been accused of being among the most corrupt, ruled by a military regime that presides over abundant reserves of oil and gas, teak and gemstones.
Hoping to create a more liberal feel in anticipation of the elections, in which the regime ran against itself, Myanmar instituted a new visa-on-arrival policy to attract tourists. This, along with other indications that Myanmar’s government is trying to democratize, has caught the attention of the Obama administration: Last month, the president dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to Myanmar, which is still called Burma by the United States as a matter of policy.
The country had been visited by a US secretary of state only once before, in 1955, when John Foster Dulles tried to persuade Burma into a regional alliance against China. Clinton’s visit took place at a time when the United States is trying to assert itself in the region, in part to counter the rise of China.
A short flight from Bangkok put me in Yangon (formerly the capital Rangoon), Myanmar’s largest and gateway city in the south. Immediately I found travel difficult: No travelers’ checks or credit cards accepted, and no ATMs (though that has since changed). And, the kicker: US dollars, the only foreign currency accepted, must be pristine.
In the Yangon airport, I presented a crisp $50 bill to pay for my $30 visa. The customs official examined the money, then handed it back. He pointed to a pinhead-sized smudge on the face of Ulysses Grant, as if the blemish constituted clear evidence of counterfeit. I fished out my best-looking fifty, and then continued through to an empty baggage claim area. From Yangon I caught a flight north to Nyaungshwe, a one-hour drive from Lake Inle. On my second day in Inle, after the mountain climb, my guide picked me up from the guesthouse and led me through town to the mouth of the lake, where his friend waited with a long-tail boat.
The princes of Lake Inle are the fishermen, who perch on the sterns of dugout canoes, stand on one leg, wrap the other leg around the oar’s neck, and propel the canoe with a swooping motion of the leg that holds the oar, as if skating on one foot, a technique that leaves both hands free to work the nets. Teak canoes piled high with taro and chilies shuttle past them. On the lake’s reedy perimeter, near the market, we drifted through a village of stilted houses and floating tomato plantations. Children hang out their windows and fly kites cobbled together from bamboo sticks and Shan paper.
The many tribes of Inle — including the Shan, the Intha, and the reclusive Pa-O, former insurgents — congregate at the Phaung Daw Oo market, where they sell carp, eel, tea, acacia, mustard, pumpkin leaves, long beans, tofu, and buffalo skin, which is soaked in water and fried into chips. When we came upon a vendor offering fertilizer from China, my guide shook his head in disgust. The run-off, he said, poisons the lake.
China is one of the only countries to do business with Myanmar. The world’s embargo mentality has trickled down to tourism: Many Asia travelers avoid Myanmar. They argue that going there supports the regime’s repressive rule.
We docked our boat at a teak house where women weave scarves with thread made from the stalk of the lotus flower. Painstakingly, the fibers, thin as spider silk, are extracted from the stalks and rolled into thread that looks like hemp and retains a pleasant wooly smell. The manager of the store said each scarf takes three months to make. I was happy to pay the asking price of $60. When I looked in my wallet, however, I had only the $300 that was rejected by the money-changer in Yangon. I had $30 worth of kyat, the local currency, but I needed it for the next day’s journey back to Bangkok.
Sure enough, the manager determined that none of the dollars was passable. She expressed little regret, which seemed dignified. I promised to get more money and return. But that was impossible. In Myanmar, you have only the cash you come with.
We pushed away from the dock and waved goodbye to the lotus weavers. I saw the manager return my scarf to the pile of scarves. This was the price of authenticity. I hoped the next customer would bring clean notes.
Myanmar’s main religion is Theravada Buddhism, which began to flourish more than a millennium ago on a vast plain in central Myanmar called Bagan. Bagan is a 40-minute flight (or a 12-hour bus ride) west from Lake Inle. Situated on the eastern bank of the Irrawaddy River, Bagan was once a rich cosmopolis of Buddhist study and the capital of the first Burmese kingdom. What remains today are more than 4,000 temples spread across a 26-square-mile savannah of grassy knolls and leafy banyan trees. It looks like Buddhism brought to the Old West, a set piece worthy of Sergio Leone or Ridley Scott. The temples, taken individually, may not stagger the mind like those giants of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, but then neither do Bagan’s crowds.
For cyclists, a 12-mile paved road circles the plain and connects the three towns of Bagan. The temples are also accessible by horse-drawn carts that clop down the dirt roads.
On my last day in Bagan, just before sunset, a horse cart took me to Buledi Paya, a temple in the central plain that provides a popular end-of-day vista. I asked the driver about Myanmar’s clean-cash fetish. He believed the government was afraid of getting fake money. But when I suggested that a crisp bill, with no marks, was perhaps more likely to have come off a counterfeiter’s printer, he shrugged, laughed ruefully, and said he had no idea why the rule existed. “Our leaders no good! No writing! No talking! No freedom! Everything control! Everywhere spies!’’
Myanmar’s last bid to attract tourism and win international legitimacy came in 1996, when the regime inaugurated Visit Myanmar Year. According to a United Nations report, forced labor was used to restore the temples of Bagan. The regime’s opponents urged a boycott, arguing that tourist dollars would benefit the regime. Others argued that tourism revenue amounted to peanuts for the generals. Still others complained that unskilled laborers - caring nothing for archeological fidelity - dressed the temples indiscriminately in identical spires and red-brick walls made with modern commercial masonry.
At Buledi Paya I climbed to the temple’s upper ledge, where I encountered Myanmar’s version of a tourist throng: three people. Together we watched the sun decline beyond a phalanx of a thousand golden domes. The domes’ corncob spires stabbed through the haze.
As for Clinton’s November visit, it would not cause much excitement. The New Light of Myanmar, a government mouthpiece, reported her trip in a two-paragraph article on Page 2. On its front page, meanwhile, the newspaper printed the entire resume of Mikhail V. Myasnikovich, the prime minister of Belarus, another autocratic nation whose relations with the United States are also strained. Myasnikovich was scheduled to arrive the next day.
If you go...
The giant of Southeast Asia
and its military regime try haltingly to relax on visas and generate tourism
Most visitors arriving in Myanmar from Southeast Asian cities such as Bangkok will fly through the former capital of Yangon. Before heading north, spend a day in the country’s commercial center and largest city. In Myanmar, phone service is hit or miss.
Where to stay
Motherland Inn 2
422 Lower Pazundaung
$12-$15 per night
Savoy Hotel 129 DhamaZedi Road
About $150 per night, with cash-exchange services - a rarity in Myanmar - available in the lobby.
What to do
Phaung Daw Oo Market
South end of Lake Inle. Get there via long-tail boat from the village of Nyaungshwe. Feast on fresh tomatoes grown on floating plantations. Try a bag of buffalo chips.
Where to eat
Taik Nan Bridge, Nyaungshwe
One of the best restaurants in Myanmar, serving gourmet preparations of local Shan dishes, including fresh fish. Dinner for two $25.
Where to stay
2 PhaungDawPyan Road
Lounge on the comfortable porch furniture and chat with fellow travelers. Private room with private bathroom runs about $12.
YoneGyi Road, Nyaungshwe
An upscale option where guests eat breakfast on a bridge overlooking the canal. Double rooms start at around $40.
Nyaung U is the gateway for Bagan. A five-minute taxi gets you from the airport to town.
What to do
Rent a bike and see the temples from the largely traffic-free road that circles the central plain.
Where to stay
New Park Hotel
Double room with private bathroom about $15.