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Myanmar’s Moment

It’s a nation on the cusp of great change, and there’s never been a better time to go than right now.

Bagan, Myanmar, at dawn. Photo: Nicholas Kenrick. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Bagan, Myanmar, at dawn. Photo: Nicholas Kenrick. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

You might not want to go to Myanmar yet.

You might want to wait until the country, formerly Burma, becomes a full-fledged democracy, possibly led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and icon of righteous courage. You might want to wait until the Muslim problem settles down, and until the armed conflict with minority ethnic groups is resolved. You might hold out for utopia, as lots of Myanmar’s citizens appear to be doing. You might sit tight until the political prisoners have received their reparations, censorship is truly of the past, and the sometime junta has written itself out of existence. You might want to wait until it becomes what it is now becoming.

You might, however, be well advised to go right now. Go before the place internationalizes and loses the look of old Asia that has been preserved by its harshly imposed self-isolation. Go before irreligiosity strips Myanmar of its mystical Buddhist purity. Go before the people in remote villages grow accustomed to tourists and lose their curiosity about you, before people switch to global ways of dressing and thinking. Go before they fix the English on the menus and signs. Go before the place gets wealthy and ugly, because if one can generalize from the little pockets of prosperity there, economic miracles are not going to make for an attractive sight. Go before everyone else goes.

I had anticipated a time of hope in Myanmar. In the few years prior to my visit, political prisoners had been released, censorship of the media had been eased, parliamentary elections had taken place, and international sanctions had been lifted. Foreign investment was beginning to invigorate the economy. Suu Kyi, freed from about two decades of house arrest in 2010, was engaged in a campaign aimed at the presidency. The country seemed to be barreling toward both wealth and democracy. But what I found was an extremely cautious neutrality. The exuberance of transition was tempered by the Buddhist philosophy of a people who had seen too many rays of hope extinguished. The population had been optimistic, perhaps, in the lead-up to independence in 1948; they had been optimistic again in 1988, when student uprisings promised a new justice; they had even had a streak of optimism during the Saffron Revolution of 2007, when thousands of monks rose up against the government only to be brutally crushed. By 2014, they had eliminated such buoyancy from their repertoire of attitudes and were merely waiting to see what might happen next.

That did not make it an unwelcoming place to visit — in fact, quite the opposite. Besides being a land of spectacular landscapes and buildings, Myanmar boasts a fierce, proud, and kind population who will go to almost any lengths to make you feel welcome. Sammy Samuels, a Burmese Jew who owns a travel agency called Myanmar Shalom, said that people had had absurdly high expectations that with reform, foreign investment would pour in, new airports would be built, and everyone would become wealthy. Many were disappointed to realize how sluggish development is; the Burmese call the Internet the “internay” — nay being the Burmese word for slow — and Internet penetration is only about 1 percent. But there were still incontrovertible changes. “Two, three years ago, every time I come back from the United States, I am so scared at the airport even though I have nothing on me,” Sammy said. “The immigration officer starts asking, ‘What were you doing there?’ Now, they’ve start saying, ‘Welcome back.’ It’s a happier place.”

Author and presidential advisor Thant Myint-U, chairman of the Yangon Heritage Trust, said, “For the bottom fifty percent in terms of income, daily life is not much better at all. But the country was based on fear, and now the fear has been taken out of the equation, and people are discovering how to debate or discuss their own fates.”

Golden stupas (or pagodas: the terms are interchangeable here) glitter in the sun wherever you go in Myanmar. In the shadow of these towers, peasants labor in rough conditions. One local drily remarked to me that the country is rich, but the people are poor. For many, life seems to have gone on largely unchanged for the past 2,500 years: peasants, oxcarts, the same kinds of food and clothes. The same glittering pagodas, covered in gold in the richer towns, and merely painted in the poor ones. Nothing ever happens when it should; it’s amazing that the sun sets on schedule. My voyage among these contradictions and inefficiencies was impeccably curated by GeoEx and went startlingly smoothly. They had designated as my guide the charming Aung Kyaw Myint, with whom my friends and I spent our time learning history, geography, culinary arts, and cultural fluency.

We began our trip in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), the heart of the country. Its Shwedagon Pagoda is among the holiest sites in the land, and people come from near and far to worship at it. The central stupa is covered in gold — not gold leaf, but thick plates of solid gold — and there are receptacles full of jewels near its apex. The Burmese maintain that the pagoda is worth more than the Bank of England. Incongruous amid the modernizing city, it feels momentous and transcendent, a sort of St. Peter’s Basilica of Theravada Buddhism. At Burmese pagodas, you are required to take off your shoes as a mark of respect. When President Obama visited in 2012, the secret service protested that its agents couldn’t be barefoot, but at his insistence, they broke a previously unequivocal rule and removed their footwear, and the President paid his respects.

Myanmar’s cuisine is largely unknown outside the country. The national dish, lahpet, is a salad of fermented tea leaves mixed with chiles, sesame oil, fried garlic, dried shrimp, peanuts, and ginger. In Yangon we ate at the local favorite Feel, which serves excellent noodles; at Monsoon, the chic favorite of the international crowd, which offers delicious Burmese and Pan-Asian food; and at Padonma, which is a splendid, traditional operation out near the Belmond Governor’s Residence hotel. The historic colonial center of the city, which Thant Myint-U’s group is trying to preserve, has the majestic sweep of the Raj.

After a few days in Yangon, we headed northwest to Rakhine state, center of anti-Muslim prejudice in Myanmar and locus of some of the country’s greatest sights. We flew to Sittwe, capital of the state, a depressing place with an extremely colorful fish market.

Early the next morning, we boarded a boat for the five-hour ride to Mrauk-U, an imperial capital from the 15th to the 18th century. If you make it to Myanmar, take as many boats as you can. The life of the country unfolds on the rivers, and they make for smoother journeys than the badly paved roads. Everyday scenes appear as picturesquely as in genre paintings, the breeze is delightful, and there is always another pagoda ahead. If you are staying at the Princess Resort in Mrauk-U, you will get to embark in one of its old wooden barges — and the food on board is delicious.

The Princess is not opulent by international standards, but its charming campus of pretty little cottages around a pool of lotus flowers is overseen by the nicest possible staff. After visiting a few pagodas and other Buddhist sites, we returned to the hotel for a dinner that included a delectable salad of banana flowers. The next morning, the hotel manager woke us at 4:45 for a drive through the eerily darkened byways of the impoverished town to the foot of a small mountain with steps carved into it. We went up and up and found at the summit that hotel staff had come even earlier and arranged a continental breakfast for us, and we sat there to watch the sun rise over the pagodas. Mornings in Myanmar often find bewitching mists hovering in the valleys and around the hills, delineating what is small and close and what is large and far; though temples and monuments may look similar in size upon first glance, the blurring of their edges bespeaks the distance. I called our Mrauk-U sunrise Pagodas in the Mist.

We had Rakhine breakfast at the hotel, which is fish soup with rice noodles and a lot of spices and condiments, then sailed upriver to visit Chin villages. The Burmese king used to take beautiful women for his harem; to protect themselves, according to legend, the Chin began tattooing their faces with lines like spiderwebs, a custom that continued long after the threat had abated.

We headed south the next day, driving from Yangon, stopping at various pagodas and other sacred sites before reaching the Golden Rock. At the base of the mountain on which it sits, we boarded one of the “ascension trucks.” As we drove, I kept reminding myself that people actually pay to get this kind of experience at Six Flags: going dizzyingly fast up and down and around tight switchbacks.

The place was mobbed with pilgrims, Buddhist monks and nuns, and more. Street foods and the ingredients for traditional medicines were being hawked everywhere: porcupine quills; a goat’s leg soaked in sesame oil; bunches of dried herbs. Many people were sleeping on bamboo mats or in makeshift tents. Thousands upon thousands of candles flickered, the hum of chanting was ubiquitous, and the air was heavy with incense. Young couples come not only out of piety, but also for the chance to interact in the anonymity of the crowd, and younger boys and girls in groups pay respect to the Buddha and have a raucous good time; we saw and heard them singing Burmese pop songs. Flashing, Chinese-sourced LED displays were draped over the buildings, even the animist shrines and holy outbuildings. If I were to say that it made Grand Central Station at rush hour look like a meditation retreat, I’d be underselling the anarchic chaos. Yet for all of that, it felt peaceable; one sensed a layer of holy calm just beneath the wildness.

The Golden Rock itself is an extraordinary sight: a boulder, nearly round, 20 feet in diameter, balanced on the edge of the mountain as if on the verge of plummeting. Legend holds that three hairs of the Buddha keep it on its precarious perch. The entire rock is covered in gold leaf, which devoted pilgrims keep adding, so that in some places, the gold is an inch thick and stands out in lumps. Atop the rock, far out of reach, is the Kyaiktiyo Pagoda. The gold orb glows at sunrise, in afternoon light, at sunset, in the floodlit nighttime. When the light changes, the effect shifts subtly, but it is never less than awe-inspiring. We climbed under it, stood beside it; from every vantage, one feels the fragility of its odd balance, the drama of its massive heft, and the tranquillity that holy places can have. It has the grandeur of a fire, or a rushing river, or a mountaintop panorama. We descended the mountain by pasha-worthy sedan chairs, surveying the surrounding jungle in a semi-recumbent posture.

There are 500,000 monks and 150,000 nuns in Myanmar — which is to say that nearly 1½ percent of the country is in orders. Most boys spend at least some time as monks before returning to their families. As a visitor, you pick up a bit of Buddhism as you go along. To wit, there are six types of religious structure: the pagoda or stupa (or zedi), a solid structure with no interior that often contains a relic; the temple, a hollow square building in and out; the cave, which serves as a meditation center for monks; the ordination hall; the monastery, which is a residence for monks; and the library, where the scriptures of the Buddha are kept.

We visited examples of them all. Most of the Buddhas one sees are made of a base of brick, or occasionally limestone, with a covering of plaster and lacquer. The standard policy is to fix the plaster and lacquer as they fade or chip, which results in Buddhas that look as though they have just been reupholstered; no elegant patina of age comes to settle on them. The restoration of the 11th-century reclining Buddha at Thaton looked as if it had been fashioned on Tuesday by a pastry chef.

The small city of Hpa-An lies on a flat plain interrupted by limestone hills so abrupt that they resemble furniture delivered by an incompetent moving company and left to be positioned later on. The south of the country is less developed (which is saying something) and the roads are mostly pretty bad. We stopped at various holy caves, in which ornament has been carved from and applied to the rock itself and dozens of large lacquered Buddhas stand guard. We took a boat, another gorgeous river trip, to Mawlamyine; the cities of the region have some charm, but the high points were the countryside’s wooden pagodas and caves.

We headed up north of Yangon, to Mandalay, the last royal capital of the former Burma. The city is more beautiful as a romantic idea than as an actual place, but it was there that we boarded the Road to Mandalay, a floating bit of Western luxury owned by Belmond (formerly known as Orient-Express). It plies the stretch from Mandalay to Bagan, stopping one night in Mandalay, sailing for a day down the Irrawaddy River to Bagan, and then staying a night at anchor in Bagan. Its cabins are elegant, the food is divine, and the crew are so coddling that you’re surprised that they don’t tie your shoes. The top deck is a teak platform with straw chairs and a small swimming pool and bar; there is enough space so that you can have reasonable privacy even when many other passengers are up there. Our second night on the boat, we were invited up on deck for a “special treat”: six little boats, hidden upstream, set afloat 1,500 tiny banana-wood rafts, each with a candle burning inside a colored-paper shade, and we watched as the current carried them down the water. It was almost unimaginably poetic.

Bagan was the capital from the ninth to the 13th century. In this period, it became fashionable to build pagodas and temples, and noblemen competed with one another to construct grander and more splendid ones; poorer people built more modest structures. The detritus of that spiritual one-upmanship is a 26-square-mile plain festooned with 4,446 religious monuments. It’s impossible to understand through photographs, because its power lies in its sweep. We walked among the pagodas; we drove among them; we climbed one of the temples to watch the sun set; we surveyed the whole gloriously littered landscape from a hot-air balloon. Even in person, it’s hard to compass the scale of Bagan’s Plain of Temples. It’s bigger than Manhattan, more than eight times the size of the gardens of Versailles. Some of the buildings were badly restored by the junta, others are dilapidated but still coherent, and many are in ruins. Whichever one you are looking at, you see a thousand more over its shoulder. If one feels exalted by the Golden Rock, one is humbled by Bagan, by the glory that was and the splendor that is.

We ended our trip at Inle Lake, in central Myanmar: a shallow lake where the locals have for eons lived by fishing. They stand up in their boats and paddle with one leg to keep their hands free for their nets. It’s a spectacular sight: they stand erect and move with astonishing grace in a serpentine full-body undulation. You go by boat to visit the lake’s many shrines. Local weavers produce cloth from the fibers of lotus stems; I brought some home and had a summer jacket made from it, and later learned that one of the Loro Piana cashmere billionaires had done the same thing after his visit. There are numerous pagodas, of course, and picturesque villages, and an abandoned temple complex, now overgrown. There is a famous floating market, which is rather touristy, and some others along the shore that are less so. The Princess Resort there is as lovely as the one in Mrauk-U, and its creator, the French-trained Burmese hotelier Yin Myo Su has also constructed the Inthar Heritage House — a building of perfect traditional style that houses a breeding operation for Burmese cats and a restaurant where we had our best meal of the trip.

But on the lake’s eastern shore is a gash in the landscape, the site of a construction project that will triple the number of hotel rooms at Inle Lake. There is no way that the lake’s fragile infrastructure can support such a deluge of tourists. The lake itself is silting up from unsustainable farming practices, and the narrow waterways around it are already crowded. The beauty of the lake — indeed the beauty of Myanmar — is in considerable part a consequence of its long-term inaccessibility. It is on its way to becoming so accessible that there may soon be nothing to access.

People I met shook their heads over such development, but they had made their peace with tougher things. I was surprised at first by the fact that the country is not in a time of tremendous optimism — but I was astonished in the end by the pervasive equanimity that seemed to exist among even those with little hope of personal betterment. There was not so much optimism in Myanmar, but there was also very little pessimism, which is perhaps a high expression of the country’s Theravadan ideals. Between my explorations of Myanmar’s landscape and monuments, I interviewed a dozen former political prisoners there. Many of them spoke of being grateful for their experiences. In prison, they said, they had had time to develop their minds and hearts, often through meditation. They had in most instances set out knowingly to do things that would result in their imprisonment, and they had marched into their cells with their heads held high. When they were released, their heads were still held high. The writer and activist Ma Thanegi told me that the best way to oppose the regime was to be happy in prison. If they could be happy there, then their punishment had failed, and the regime had no power over them. As she explained it, their adamantine cheer was both a discipline and a choice.