YANGON — In the cities scooters whizzed by carrying three, four, even five people — mom in front, dad in back, three kids stuffed between. In the countryside elephants vied with pink-clad Buddhist nuns for our attention. Saffron-robed monks held out their bowls for alms. Everywhere men wore longyis — ankle-length, wraparound skirts.
And everywhere road blocks manned by soldiers with guns dotted the landscape, serving as a reminder of this desolate but beautiful country’s half-century of oppression.
Once Myanmar’s military regime finally decided to loosen its iron grip last year, releasing opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from years of house arrest, freeing other political prisoners, holding nominally free elections, and greeting Western diplomats for the first time in 50 years, I moved the country to the top of my must-see list. It helped that my daughter, Megan, was working on the border, in Thailand, teaching persecuted ethnic minorities from this country formerly known as Burma.
After decades of isolation, Myanmar is hungry for tourists. As Megan and I arrived at the Yangon airport from Bangkok, a billboard greeted us: “Warmly Welcome and Take Care of Tourists.” Many signs are in English, a holdover from British colonial days.
We were there in April, a week after the elections in which Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate who heads the opposition National League for Democracy, won a seat in Parliament, along with other members of her party. A longtime opponent of tourism in her country — tourist dollars would benefit only the ruthless regime — Suu Kyi is singing a different tune these days: Come, spend your money to help the ordinary people.
Megan and I had picked a few places we had to see. Yangon (formerly Rangoon) is the largest city, and until 2005, was the capital. (You won’t find crab Rangoon in Burma; it’s an American invention.) Bagan is home to the country’s most amazing architectural site: thousands of thousand-year-old Buddhist temples. Finally, Inle Lake, at 3,000 feet elevation, is known for the iconic leg-rowing of the Inta people.
Megan, who had been teaching students from the Karen ethnic minority group, also insisted on visiting Hpa An — Burmese, I think, for “in the middle of nowhere” — since most of her students come from there.
A friend who knows the country well set us up with a Myanma travel agency, which handled all of our arrangements, from air and hotel reservations to drivers in a couple of places where we needed them. (Infrastructure in the country can charitably be called “crumbling.”) The agency also helped us get our tourist visas upon arrival at the Yangon airport. Our agent also advised us on money: Bring lots of pristine, recently-minted US dollars in large denominations such as $50 and $100 bills; counterfeiting is a big fear. Few places take credit cards, and there isn’t an ATM in the entire country.
“Please do not fold the bills and please bring clear bills,” the agent told us. It took me four banks, and a lot of patient tellers, to find enough “clear” bills — though some were still kicked back to me in Myanmar.
As it happened, we were there during the four-day water festival that ushers in the new year. Everyone — from preschoolers with cups to teenagers with garden hoses to women with buckets — cheerfully douses everyone else with water, the better to wash away the old year. Megan loves the water festival in Thailand, and was thrilled.
There is also street dancing and music. But mostly, there’s water. For me, a cup of it thrown by little kids was OK. But the third time in one day that I had to change into dry clothes, it got very old. Imagine that for four days. And being the only “white people” (what they call Westerners) around, Megan and I were targeted, if in a friendly way. Few Westerners visit Myanmar; during our week there, we saw perhaps a dozen. We were the object of both curiosity and hospitality.
In Yangon, the biggest attraction for Buddhists and tourists alike is the Shwedagon Pagoda, an enormous domed stupa said to be one of the most spectacular religious monuments in the world. Archeologists place its origins between the sixth and 10th centuries. Beginning in the 15th century, the domed pagoda with a spire was covered entirely in gold leaf. Yes, there are guards.
We drove by the house on Inya Lake where Suu Kyi was confined for 15 years, and where she still lives. Nearby, the headquarters of her NLD party proudly flew its red and yellow flag, and we saw such flags in the back of car windows and elsewhere, something that would never have been allowed before the recent changes.
Tourist books had warned us about speaking to local people, for fear they would be harassed by the military. But many residents sought us out, asking about America and expressing their cautious optimism about the new day. Sometimes, young men would simply smile at us and shout, “Obama!”
We were anxious to get out into the country, to see the Myanmar that is largely agrarian, with little electricity and running water. The countryside is beautiful: green and hilly, with lots of rice paddies, palm, banana, and bamboo trees.
Our driver, Joe, took us to Hpa An, an excruciating six-hour drive over rutted roads that our travel agent had assured us was the easiest way to get there. We saw people on horseback, herds of goats walking down the middle of the road, women with baskets of goods on their heads, men on bikes hauling sacks of rice on either end of long bamboo poles.
On one dusty road, we saw an elephant, decked out in colorful ruffles, participating in a ceremony for girls entering the Buddhist nunhood.
Joe often pulled the car over at checkpoints but told us not to worry; since we were tourists, there would be no problem. He also stopped to replenish his betel nut supply, a mild stimulant popular in Asia that explained his reddish teeth.
Back in Yangon, we took the hourlong flight to Bagan. Our guide showed us the Morning Market, where people sell fresh produce, curries, rices, clothing, and crafts. Before I knew it — and much to Megan’s delight — a woman had tied a longyi around me, pulled a shirt over my head, and wrapped a scarf around my neck. Yes, I bought it all, for $25.
They also dabbed on our cheeks the light-colored face paint that serves as both sunscreen and a fashion statement.
Then began the long march to this, that, and the other temple, spread out over a 25-square-mile plain in Bagan. Believing that their ticket to Nirvana was building a temple, the Burmese built thousands of them, some spectacular and massive, others small and humble. Our guide told us that 4,200 remain, and it felt like we saw them all.
The back roads on the plains attract bicycles and horse-drawn wagons, the best way to see some of the more isolated pagodas. Bagan has been called Angkor Wat without the tourists, but that will no doubt change soon, if the country continues to open up.
The locals we met seemed hopeful but wary. “We couldn’t even talk to you before this,” was a refrain. But a pervasive mistrust of the military remains. “This is just window-dressing,” said one of our guides, of the recent reforms.
Inle Lake was our last, and favorite, stop. Surrounded by mountains, it has no real shoreline — the lake sort of disappears into reeds and swamp. The rickety homes of fishermen are built on stilts, accessible only by boat.
Amazingly, there are farmers here, and our boat guide showed us some so-called “floating gardens” where the ingenious farmers plant fruits, vegetables, and flowers on a marshy bed of grass and silt, anchored by bamboo poles.
At 44 square miles, the lake seems little-traveled. The low, narrow long-tail boats come with unique rowers, who wrap their right legs around the oars, some say to leave their hands free for fishing, or perhaps because they can see better standing up. Whichever, the rhythmical rowing is poetry in motion.
Our boat guide took us to Jumping Cat Monastery, where the cats have been trained to jump through hoops. There were plenty of cats who looked plenty bored with the task.
For lunch, he rowed us to a restaurant — on stilts — where we had grilled fish for about $3, fresh from the lake and delicious. Tribal people market their wares from their own boats and I finally bought a bracelet from a woman who simply would not let go of our boat. (She had tried hard to sell me a pipe.)
We visited a lacquer-ware workshop, where teams of people in a primitive assembly line produce gorgeous bowls, cups, platters, trays, and the like, each taking weeks to make. Bring a lot of cash to Inle Lake; you cannot buy these items with credit cards.
Despite its beauty and tranquillity, Inle Lake is in Shan State, where the ethnic minority rebels have long fought a brutal military intent on eradicating them. In the past several decades, troops have killed thousands of civilians and burned down scores of villages, resulting in hundreds of thousands of displaced people. A ceasefire signed in June was broken by troops in July.
Megan and I never knew whether a guide or a driver might be “with the regime” or “against the regime,” so we were careful in our conversation. But our guide at Inle made it clear whose side he was on. The military, he declared, was protecting villagers from the rebels.
After our long day, we were anxious to get back to our hotel. The Myanmar Treasure Hotel is beautiful: It’s a series of cottages, all on stilts, with porches and stunning water views. There’s an outdoor dining room and bar, and the lake is a three-dimensional meditation, quiet and peaceful.
Too soon, it was time to leave the country. Megan and I arrived at the Yangon Airport for our flight back to Bangkok, wearing the T-shirts we had bought at the market: a smiling Suu Kyi on the front, and the flag of her party on the back. They were only recently made and allowed to be sold, one vendor told us.
The shirts are our favorite memento from a country that is finally, it seems, beginning to emerge from its stormy past.