BAGAN, Myanmar – The rising sun streaked a light blanket of fog with pink and yellow. Suddenly, pagodas popped out from the mist, some grand and intricate, others squat and modest, some crumbling, others glinting with gold — a carousel of Buddhist temples amid fields of sesame, tamarind and scrub.
If not for a monolithic red brick silo in the middle of this scene, you could almost imagine yourself in the 11th century, when the ancient city of Bagan was home to the first kingdom of Burma.
But the silo, with an exclusive restaurant and viewing platform, towers above the temples in Burma (also called Myanmar). The structure was built in 2003 by a crony of the generals who have run Burma for decades. The modern building is a major reason the ancient temples were denied world heritage status by the United Nations.
This is the magic and folly of Burma. Closed off for years by a repressive, corrupt military reign, much of the country seems lost in time and truly untouched by signs of globalization like fast food chains. Women here still chalk their faces with thanaka, a paste made from tree bark. Men wear longyi, wraparound skirts gracefully knotted at the waist. Monks carry begging bowls through town in the early morning ritual of seeking food.
But now that the government is opening Burma to the outside world, tourists are rushing to experience the country before it changes. While numbers remain small, they are increasing: About 260,000 arrivals from January to October 2012 compared to 175,000 in the same period in 2011. Tours frequently sell out and start-up airlines are sprouting up. Foreign cell phones won't work here and credit cards are rarely accepted (though tourists can use Visa and MasterCard to change local currency at private banks), but Western attire is now seen in cities and "O'Burma" T-shirts showed up after President Obama's recent visit.
There's also a palpable sense of possibility and change, making it an exciting time to visit. The Governor's Residence hotel in Yangon recently set up a screen on the lawn for guests to watch Luc Besson's "The Lady," a film about Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and liberation heroine whom the government released in 2010 after 15 years of house arrest. The film screening would have been unheard of two years ago.
Barbed wire still tops the wall around Suu Kyi's home, a must drive-by in Rangoon (also called Yangon) which was Burma's capital until the military built an entirely new capital two hours away.
Yangon is also home to Burma's most sacred temple: the 320-foot tall (97 meters) Shwedagon Pagoda, whose golden dome is visible throughout much of the city. Its tiers are plated in gold, studded with diamonds, and capped by an orb bearing 4,500 diamonds, with a single 76-carat diamond on top.
Families and pilgrims spend the day at the pagoda spreading out rugs and meals they've packed, alternately worshipping and chatting — the social equivalent of parks and malls in the United States. The temple's origins are said to date back some 2,500 years, but it has been rebuilt over the centuries, and is encircled by hundreds of smaller temples, shrines and pavilions. Halos on many Buddhas in smaller shrines bear flashing electric lights, which are disliked by traditionalists but appeal to the young.
While the Shwedagon is the star attraction in Yangon, Bagan and Inle Lake are the two most entrancing areas to visit elsewhere in the country. But Burma's colonial architecture is also notable. Crumbling and neglected, the buildings nonetheless recall an era when Rangoon was a bustling port. They also represent one of the largest remaining examples of original British colonial architecture. Advocates are pushing for their restoration but critics fear they'll be replaced by high-rises.
Downtown Yangon is home to sidewalk stalls selling tasty street food, fresh-rolled leaves of betel nut to chew (which stains teeth and sidewalks red), books and phone service (not mobile phones, but land lines you can rent to make calls). Pick up local handicrafts, a longyi, or well-priced lacquerware and antiques at the sprawling British-era Scott Market. Ubiquitous teahouses offer multiple choices of strength, sweetness and milkiness. During the most heinous periods of military rule, the teahouses served as a pipeline of communication for activists, journalists and dissidents.
Not many Western tourists venture to Mandalay: It's flat, dusty and traffic-congested, despite the romance attached to its name. Even Rudyard Kipling, who wrote the poem "On the Road to Mandalay," never went there. But it's a vibrant commercial and internal transportation hub. (Suu Kyi was recently spotted at the airport and wildly cheered.)
Mandalay also teems with monasteries and ancient culture, including the Mahamyatmuni pagoda, which shelters the country's second-most sacred Buddha image, an enormous seated Buddha. Here, you can watch pilgrims applying wisp-thin sheets of gold to the Buddha (something only men are allowed to do). So much is applied that statues at some temples become unrecognizable blobs of gold. As at the most-visited temples, colorful craft and knick-knack stands line the entry halls, their owners calling out "ming-ga-la-ba" (welcome and hello) as you pass by.
At monasteries like Mahagandayone, you can witness the morning meal procession. Access to the monasteries is so wide open throughout the country that visitors can stroll through and see close up how the monks live, from meal preparation to laundry. For shoppers, Mandalay is a center for traditional crafts, including wood carving, silverware, gold-leafing and tapestries.
Southeast of Mandalay is Inle Lake, where members of the Intha ethnic group use boats to tend their crops on floating gardens. Others fish in small dugout boats, casting nets while using one leg to steer in a Kabuki-like ballet. White egrets and birdsong are a constant, with the occasional kingfisher, flamboyant in green and blue. Intha women, their hair twined in scarves balanced atop their heads, sell produce in roving markets that move among the villages. Hotels, shops and restaurants on stilts dot the lakesides. Getting around requires a launghle, a long motorized canoe.
How the opening up of Myanmar will affect its rich unique culture and traditions is an issue of much discussion, and a major reason for the current tourist stampede. "I had to come see the real Burma before it gets spoiled," one Australian visitor said over breakfast as his fellow travelers nodded.
Yet experts and local tour guides point out that what little has been done to preserve and restore the ancient temples and sites has been at best amateurish and at worst destructive. Even Suu Kyi has spoken out about the faulty restorations, saying last year: "One cannot just go about restoring the temples using modern material and without adhering to the original styles."
A case in point: Hundreds of centuries-old, crumbling cone-shape temples called zedi at Inndein, near Inle Lake, lean haphazardly, trees sprouting from some. Local villagers speed their ruin by removing stones for use elsewhere, including building new zedi.
"Every time I come here, there are fewer of them," said San San Myint, a tour guide with a deep love of her country's history and traditions. "It makes me so sad. I worry that one day they will be gone."
If You Go...
Many travel companies offer guided tours and can make hotel, visa, flight and other arrangements, which are difficult to manage from outside the country. Options include Destination Asia, http://www.destination-asia.com/myanmar/tours/ and Overseas Adventure Travel, http://www.destination-asia.com/myanmar/tours/ , which is also launching a small cruise tour. Backroads is starting biking and hiking tours, http://www.backroads.com .
— Learn about the military's role in siphoning off the country's wealth. Ask tour companies which hotels and airlines are owned by the government or by cronies of the military. Two noteworthy hotels not owned by the government are The Governor's Residence, in Yangon, a colonial teak masterpiece in the lush embassy area, and the Villa Inle Resort, beautifully furnished lakeside bungalows with a good restaurant. A small chain of restaurants called The Green Elephant serves good Burmese cuisine.
— Dress code for temple visits: No bare arms or shoulders, no shorts or short skirts. Signs warn: "No spaghetti dresses." You must remove your shoes, so bring sandals or slip-ons.
— Magical dusk and dawn balloon rides over Bagan are worth the $300 cost but usually sell out, so sign up in advance.
— Few places accept credit cards. Those that do charge hefty transaction fees. Best exchange rates are at the airport; for changing U.S. dollars, bring crisp $100 bills. You can often pay locally in dollars instead of kyat (pronounced chaat).
— Foreign cell phones don't work in Myanmar but you can rent local phones at the airport. Larger hotels have intermittent Internet service.
— Take mosquito repellent.
— Look for indigenous handicrafts such as lacquerware, made from bamboo or from horsehair, in Bagan. At Inle Lake, you can buy scarves made from the silk of lotus blossoms.