by Violet Baron
Last updated: 6:00 PM ET, Wed February 24, 2016
PHOTO: Buddha statues in the massive Shwedagon Paya. (Photos by Violet Baron)
Travelers to Myanmar have to change their clocks upon arrival - half an hour back, if they are coming from Thailand or Laos to the east. In some ways you feel that thirty-minute difference in Myanmar, a country that retains some of its past in everything, as it speeds toward a freer political future.
On the street in Yangon - the former capital, and still the most populated city - is a familiar Asian chaos, sidewalks packed with food stalls and motorbikes, rickshaws, cars and trucks moving every which way. But inside that chaos are remnants of colonial Burma and the British Raj, and echoes of a time before imperialism folded Western culture, language and prejudices over the land.
English is widely spoken here, more so than in neighboring countries. Teahouses abound, where teenage "tea boys" serve black "Chinese" tea and ultra-sweet chai, and an air of secrecy remains under the gleam of the countertops. Men wear longyis, floor-length cotton skirts in muted patterns, while women and children pat yellow thanaka paste onto their faces to keep cool in the heat. Giant chinthes, mythical lion-dragons that guard entrances, jut out from temples and government buildings to bare gold-painted teeth.
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In 2010, Myanmar opened significantly after many years of oppressive military rule. The country's authoritarian powers have scaled back, allowing the long-suppressed popular hero Aun San Syuu Kyi a democratic victory in the November 2015 election. While there is still a long way to go before all Burmese see a change for the better, this is great news for travelers, who can now see the country without numerous permissions and roadblocks.
One thing tourists can now do far more easily is cross overland from neighboring countries, like Thailand, China and India. It is fairly easy to cross over from Bangkok and Chiang Mai in Thailand to rural areas in eastern Myanmar, although a previously obtained visa is required. Years of political isolation have allowed these cultures to develop with less influence from other groups, which make for an interesting visit and exchange.
Another route begins in Yangon, where Burmese airlines and international carriers fly regularly to Yangon International Airport. Hotel prices in this city are relatively high, but food and transportation costs will be more familiar to travelers in Southeast Asia.
Perhaps the best site in Yangon is the Shwedagon Paya ("pagoda" in Burmese), a 114-acre temple complex whose gilded core is believed to hold eight hairs from the head of Gautama Buddha. The massive temple could be a daylong experience, perhaps punctuated by a nap or two beside conveniently shady mini-shrines. A visitor will wander through innumerable Buddhas and other holy figures, and may anoint the one corresponding to the day of his or her birth.
PHOTO: Buddha statue in Shwedagon Paya.
If you have several days in the city, a visit to the National Museum and a puppet show will give a sense of the city's royal, colonial and prehistoric history and the many cultures with it.
Whether arriving from the north or from Yangon in the south, Bagan in the Mandalay Region is a must-see. With nearly every inch of the dusty terrain covered in pagodas built with surprising speed in the 11th-13th centuries, this still-remote site feels almost like another planet.
It's necessary to have a game plan when tackling Bagan's roughly 10,000 temples -and wise to seek out some of the most spectacular, like the Sulamani Temple in Nyaung U, which has impressive murals of reclining Buddhas. Though there is also something to be said for wandering through the scattered treasures at random, winding through narrow hallways to gaze at the Buddhas seated serenely in lotus position for all eternity.
Honeymooners and adventurers with cash to spare can hire a hot-air balloon to float above pagodas and grassy plains. Accommodations in Old Bagan should be booked several days in advance; nearby New Bagan and Nyaung U have dining options but little else.
A final Myanmar must is Inle Lake, that wide and silvery waterway with an almost mystical feel. Famous for its fishermen, who row their flat-bottomed boats with one leg gracefully wrapped around a paddle, the trip is a transformative one.
One thing all travelers to Myanmar should keep in mind is how far the country still has to go in its transition from an oppressive and corrupt state toward a more inclusive one. Tourism can and does play a large role in this transition, though a traveler's choices can go either way in terms of impact.
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Many companies are linked to the government; it is impossible to know how far ties go. But any purchase from an individual vendor over a larger company is likely to have a more positive - and immediate - impact, and ventures out of the biggest cities will give tourist dollars the farthest reach possible. People in more remote parts of the country also stand to gain from exposure to new cultures and perspectives, though travelers should remember to deal ethically with them and obtain consent for any photographs.
This is a unique and exciting time for Myanmar - visit now, and be a part of its change.
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