by Bennett Stevens
As President Obama’s high profile visit to Myanmar late last year helped to illustrate, the country has undergone major democratic reforms and emerged from a half century of isolation. With the hardline military junta dissolved; General turned President Thein Sein trading in his army uniform for Hugo Boss, and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi freely elected to parliament, “The Golden Land” has at long last re-opened her arms to the world.
And what magnificent arms she has, stretching from the pristine tropical islands of the Andaman Sea in the south all the way to the majestic Himalaya in the north. Enfolded within are 2,500 years of some of most spectacular and least visited historical sites in the world, inhabited by one of the most ethnically diverse and genuinely welcoming populations on the planet.
With all this and so much more going for it, including glowing recommendations from the likes of Lonely Planet and Conde Nast, why does the country still remain off the maps of most travelers?
Myanmar or Burma; What’s in a Name?
The spectacular Southeast Asian nation of 70 million, still so early in her coming out party, suffers a confusion and perception problem. Without getting too political, much of it can be clarified by a quick look into its dual identity.
First point of clarity, the land has been called Myanmar for at least 1,000 years. Myanmar has always been the formal, written, and “nation” form of Bamar. The Bamar people are the predominate ethnic group in the nation of Myanmar.
Simple, right? Not so fast!
The British invasion of Myanmar in the 1820’s began 60-years of war, aggression and ethnic division. With victory declared in 1886, the Brits officially named its new colony Burma, an obvious derivation of Bamar. They also changed Yangon to Rangoon, and so on.
Burma’s independence came in 1948, but the colonial name was kept until early 1989, when the ruling junta changed Burma back to Myanmar. Since the change came on the heels of the brutal suppression of the 1987 protests, it was seen as politically motivated and widely spurned. Over time most of the world’s nations, including the United Nations, accepted the return to the original name of Myanmar. Britain and the United States remain the most notable holdouts.
It should be noted that many, mostly older citizens of Myanmar, still use Burma. For some it’s as simple as what they grew up with. For others the name was forever spoiled by the junta. Some of their children would agree. But this view is fading quickly and Myanmar is rising in popularity, both spoken and written, especially among the young.
Just the same, since Aung San Suu Kyi herself still prefers Burma, you can’t go wrong using it. Once you arrive, if you have doubts, let the person you are talking with make the decision. If they use Burma, use Burma. If you should speak first and use Myanmar, and they respond using Burma, then follow their lead. It’s a subtle way of tipping their preference. Don’t worry about offending. They are not only very understanding of the issue, but very likely very happy to be speaking with you!
Myanmar’s Magic Window
From a traveler’s perspective, the upside of Myanmar’s long isolation is the unique window into the past that’s been opened, at least for a while. Stepping into Myanmar is like stepping into a time machine.
Your oldest time-marker begins in Yangon with the resplendent, 2,500 year-old Shwedagon Pagoda. The Buddha shrine and spiritual center of the nation rises some 320 feet and dominates the city skyline. An estimated 60 tons of gold cover the pagoda, which is capped with 5,488 diamonds and 2,317 rubies.
Another Yangon time marker, though far younger, is the wonderful crumbling glory of old colonial British architecture. Some has been restored to elegance, much is slated to be restored, but when you see the enormity of some of these buildings you can only imagine the enormity of the cost. And no, Shwedagon will never be plundered!
Another excursion into antiquity not to be missed; is the surreal temple-scape of Bagan. Truly one of the greatest historical vistas on earth, the ancient temples that stud the east bank of the Irrawaddy cover 16 square miles and number more than 4,000. Bagan at her height boasted more than 13,000 temples and pagodas and was the world center of Theravada Buddhism for a millennium. It all came to an abrupt end in 1287, when the city was sacked by Kublai Khan and abandoned. Many of the pagodas stand in partial ruin as his marauding hordes left them all those centuries ago. After a day of exploration by foot, bicycle or horse drawn carriage, a climb to the top of Shwesandaw Pagoda offers breathtaking sunset panoramas. Here you can almost see the dust rising from the hooves of Mongol horsescharging in the distance…
Only the tourist hordes who will come riding in on their luxury coaches over the next decade can threaten the Mongols place in history. Whether you travel by backpack or valise or something in between, Myanmar remains an authentic and amazingly welcoming travel experience that for me anyway, borders on the magical. I have only scratched the surface here. Just don’t dawdle, because like all windows into the past, the future is relentless in closing them.
Benn is a writer/photographer with 15 years experience in Southeast Asia. He first traveled to Burma in 2005 and fell head over heels. Several trips later he co-founded Luminous Journeys as a joint U.S. / Myanmar venture. “With the country opening up we saw a rare opportunity to combine skills and backgrounds to help foster a conscientious approach to Myanmar tourism, virtually from the ground up.” Feel free to contact Benn through Luminous Journeys.