To many, Myanmar presents a dilemma. On the one hand, it has a timeless beauty—it feels like something out of a dream. It’s one of the last remaining places where you can catch a glimpse of Old Asia—of men and women in traditional longyis walking beside golden pagodas and dilapidated colonial buildings as horse carts and vintage taxis ply the streets.
On the other hand, the group of generals who rule the country have combined some of the worst aspects of Old Asia with some of the less admirable aspects of their more modernized neighbors. Their contradictory impulses—to keep the country closed and tightly under control, while desperately attempting to lure foreign investors and travelers—make for a very unsettling place.
The government’s reluctance to admit problems was evident in the aftermath of the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia in December 2004. Despite independent reports to the contrary, the government initially denied that the country had suffered any damage. In fact, though Myanmar’s rocky shoreline was spared the serious damage that killed thousands in Thailand, Indonesia and India’s Andaman Islands, there was some destruction in the Irrawaddy Delta south of Yangon. All told, 86 people were confirmed dead, more than 5,000 people were left homeless, and several fishing villages were destroyed.
Four years later, Cyclone Nargis devastated the region, claiming at least 150,000 lives and billions of dollars worth of damage. Still, despite the havoc wreaked by the country’s worst disaster on record, the regime still refused foreign aid, leaving hundreds of thousands more vulnerable to homelessness, starvation and disease.
No matter how fragile the country’s progress away from tyranny, U.S. and international tourists are beginning to feel encouraged by recent reforms, including the 2010 release and subsequent election into parliament of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The country welcomed nearly 1 million tourists in 2012, a number that’s only expected to grow.
Adventurous, open-minded travelers who choose to visit Myanmar, despite and because of the repression of its people, will find the experience both memorable and haunting. To gain the broadest insight into the country’s people and their culture, we recommend traveling beyond the major tourist sites to explore the multiethnic diversity of this ancient land.
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