|The Shwedagon Pagoda's golden exterior shines in the sun. (Source: Global Times)
BEIJING, Mar. 8 (Xinhuanet) -- A gaggle of girls smiled shyly for the camera. They were sweet and demure, the typical cluster of preteen girls, save for their shaved heads and carnation pink Buddhist robes. I met them at the Shwedagon Pagoda, the glistening golden jewel of Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar. In the 90 percent Buddhist country, monasteries provide free schooling, leading to troupes of baby monks roaming the streets.
I was fascinated by the large number of pint-sized monastics, and they by me, as well - one of the growing number of tourists pouring into their newly opened-up country, formerly known as Burma, since the military junta eased its control and international sanctions loosened up. Xinhua reported that more than 1 million tourists visited Myanmar in 2012, up from 200,000 in 2011.
Trends aside, Myanmar is, very simply, a humbling country rich in religious architecture and natural wonders, perhaps the most awe-inspiring being its indefatigably friendly people.
Arriving in Yangon
Before landing in Yangon, one of two entry points for foreigners, I converted my currency to crisp US dollars. I had to bring along all the money I would need for the entire trip. This in itself was a lesson on what it really means to be in a cut-off country. No ATMs, no credit card swipes. All you carry with you on the plane over is all you will have - I think there's some very Zen Buddhist teaching in there somewhere.
What bills you do have must be kept pristine. Any torn or even folded bills would get a flat-out rejection from locals, even from the most welcoming innkeeper. The local currency, kyat, thankfully does not carry these same prejudices.
With my backpack and wad of bills, I opted for a budget stay in Yangon at the White House Hotel. For the very modest accommodation, my friend and I paid a surprising $25 for a double with a private bath. We sure weren't in Thailand anymore. Though there's been an influx of tourists, hotel options still lag behind demand, giving your nightly stay an inflated price. But the amicable owner of the White House Hotel more than made up for this with his friendly service and the fascinating mix of travelers his simple lodging seemed to attract.
Mingling over the breakfast spread of fruit, noodles and a spicy guacamole-like concoction one morning were a veteran Japanese journalist on assignment and a young American from Mississippi just starting out his new life doing business in Yangon. A testament to him trying to go native, he wore a longyi, the sarong-style wraparound that locals still don. George Orwell waxes poetic about the accentuating effects of the longyi on the posterior in Burmese Days, but I'm not sure our friend from Mississippi was who he had in mind.
Escalator to heaven
After breakfast, we walked across town to the Shwedagon Pagoda. The entrance begins with a long series of stairs, but as we made our ascent we noticed there was construction underway to install an escalator. Was this a sign of the tourist tide to come?
On my first steps into the heavenly summit, I was blinded. Everything was awash in white, including the marble our bare feet tread on. And at the heart of the pagoda stood a magnificent golden stupa, said to hold a few locks of hair from the Buddha. Fiery in blue skies and smoldering in gray, the golden marvel spoke to a universal sense of awe. Whether following Jesus or the Buddha, you can't help but feel the staggering power and beauty greater than yourself in the midst of this structure. Yes, you can say it's stupa-fying.
Do a little research before you arrive at the pagoda because the Burmese zodiac goes by the day of the week you were born. I happen to be a Friday baby, so our toothless guide took us to my Burmese spirit animal, the majestic guinea pig. Our affable guide, with gums the bloody crimson of the betel he and many of his countrymen chew, helped me complete the ritual of pouring water over the golden creature, once for my family, once for my teacher, once for the Buddha - I lost count somewhere along the line, but the rite was enlightening, nonetheless.
Our "guide," kind as he was, was not introduced to us as such. We first met him as just another curious local eager to strike up a conversation. My friend introduced herself as a Canadian, to which he name-dropped the 1960s musician Paul Anka, perhaps the only time I will ever hear the "Put Your Head on My Shoulder" singer used as a jumping-off point for Canada. But by avoiding the Biebs, the guy won us over and we happily agreed to let him show us around the area. After we finished the water-pouring ritual, he asked for some kyat. We should have seen it coming, and indeed he did offer us insight we were ignorant to, but be wary of overly friendly people at the pagoda. It was the only time this happened to us in a 12-day trip, but beware on your own travels as this may become a more commonplace thing as tourism continues to boom.
At night the streets were quiet and dark, so we went out for one splurge drink at the Strand, where rooms go for upwards of $400 and drinks come at $12 a pour. But the all-teak interior and wicker furniture spoke to a forgotten era. Romanticizing colonialism doesn't come cheap, so we moved on after having our Orwell moment.