As it turned out, cars were among the few spy-free zones, and Than seized the opportunity to tell us his story. He had been a history student in 1988, when pro-democracy demonstrations broke out across the country. The uprising was quickly crushed; the Tatmadaw (military) killed at least 3,000 protesters in the streets of Yangon alone, many of them students and monks. The ruling generals then shut the university, divvying it into satellite campuses to prevent future mass gatherings. For Than, the crackdown didn’t just interrupt his studies; it shut him out of his career. His field had been modern history, but after 1988 all history books that extended later than 1960 were banned. Since then, he’s been trapped in an Orwellian paradox. He knows the history exists, but he can’t get access to it.
Downtown Yangon was a mix of decrepit colonial buildings and concrete tower blocks coated with a velvety mildew. The air in this densely packed part of town smelled like sewers, gasoline, and incense. Swarms of soldiers sporting flak jackets and North Korean machine guns guarded hotel lobbies, directed traffic, and sardined workers into military convoys, transporting them to and from work. There are roughly half a million soldiers and almost as many monks in this country of about 50 million.
Along one potholed road we found a clutch of booksellers, their stalls filled with sad, dog-eared paperbacks and Burmese comic books. One of the few English titles was Burmese Days, George Orwell’s withering novel about British imperialism, which he wrote after serving five years as a policeman in Burma’s colonial service in the 1920s. Though some of the people I met knew about Orwell’s dystopian classic, Nineteen Eighty-Four—one of our Burmese guides referred to it as “the generals’ bible”—the book was nowhere to be found.
We ended that first day at the Shwedagon Pagoda, the extraordinary temple structure built on a mount in the city’s heart, a world away from the throngs of downtown. Shwedagon is where Theravada Buddhism meets Disney. Dozens of glittering gold-leaf shrines reach to the sky, encircling a magnificent stupa that is crowned by 4,351 diamonds weighing 1,800 carats. At sunset, the entire platform shimmers in a hazy orange light.
There are all manner of astrological posts and Buddhas among the shrines—reclining Buddhas, alabaster Buddhas, Buddhas with lit cigarettes stuck between their plaster lips. Supposedly, there is also a relic of the original Buddha’s hair. Given the sounds of clanging gongs and constant praying, and the sight of so many Burmese laying flowers as offerings, it’s strangely serene. One thing about the Burmese—they embody the word “grace.” Men and women are gently spoken and seem to glide as they move. I felt lumbering and bloated in comparison.
Through our travel agent we had been able to choose hotels that weren’t owned and operated by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), as the junta calls itself. Though it’s likely that foreign companies—mostly French and Japanese—paid hefty bribes to enable them to build here, we took some solace in knowing that our money wasn’t going directly into government coffers. Tipping generously in cash also enabled a select few to benefit from our dollars.
Most Burmese have never known a decent government. Before the current regime, the country was ruled by another thug, Ne Win, who hijacked Burma from 1962 through 1988, when he was squeezed out of power. In less than a decade, Ne Win’s experiments in socialism left one of the region’s strongest economies in tatters and his people close to starvation. He was also criminally insane. A devotee of numerology, he, like many Burmese, believed that the number nine was auspicious, so one day in 1987 he ordered all banknotes to be printed in 45- and 90-kyat denominations, and simultaneously declared all of the old 50- and 100-kyat bills worthless. Overnight, half the population’s life savings were wiped out. When student-led demonstrations broke out in 1988, the military staged a coup, then smashed the uprising. Ten months later, the junta placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest—where she languishes today—and in 1990 ignored the results of the first general election in 30 years, which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won by an overwhelming majority. Led by Than Shwe, an uneducated bully who never finished high school, the 12 “senior” generals and their secret police have since made themselves wardens to a nation of prisoners.
Today, life in the Burmese gulag is as dire as new reports depict it. Though the country is rich in natural gas and oil, its cities are plagued by blackouts. The largest export crop is heroin. There are no hospitals, and an estimated 60 percent of the population is malnourished. Homeless children have been seen sleeping in mesh cages—dog crates, effectively—on the rutted streets of Yangon. In September 2007, when the SPDC raised the price of fuel 400 percent, the monks and 100,000 supporters took to the streets and once again the country was front-page news. And now, in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, which swept over the Irrawaddy Delta in early May, the question of whether one should visit the country has taken on yet another dimension.
Throughout our trip, the question nagged at us: Should we be here? The smattering of other tourists we met asked themselves the same thing, but there was so much magic interspersed with the deprivation that the answer was always evident. Yangon seemed nowhere near as grim as East Berlin was under the Communists. Under that city’s brown, coal-stained winter skies, people shuffled along like sullen automatons. Crowded cafés were memorably silent, as no one spoke above a whisper to avoid being heard by Stasi spies. As tourists we were scorned, insulted, or ignored when requesting service. Myanmar, by contrast, has retained its joy and color, at least on the surface. Our guides took immense pleasure in pointing out the spies who hovered around the perimeters of noodle shops like gnats. Hardship was all around, but the people didn’t wear it on their faces. They have a rich history and a powerful connection to Buddhism that seemingly supports them through disasters, political and natural. Nowhere is this more evident than in Bagan, the jewel of Burmese culture.
The temples at Bagan rival Cambodia’s Angkor Wat in terms of magnificence. Much of the ancient capital was built between the 11th and 13th centuries, with more than 4,400 temples to enshrine it as the center of Buddhist study and to ensure the kings’ own good fortunes. The good fortune didn’t last for long.
In 1287, Mongol invaders overran the country and ransacked its shrines. They lay in ruin for centuries until a 1975 earthquake prompted UNESCO to rebuild some of the 2,000 remaining stupas and attempt to establish Bagan as a World Heritage Site. But the government’s xenophobia forced the organization to quit the country.
As a result, the temples in this 4,100-hectare archeological zone have been restored haphazardly; some have gold-leaf stupas and refinished interiors with original murals illuminated and visible. Others are untouched. Climbing tight stairways in the dark, surrounded by the acrid smell of bat guano and dampness, was spooky and thrilling. We may have been the first to rediscover some paintings languishing in dim corners—who knows? Most information about Bagan is anecdotal. There don’t even seem to be any official maps. That’s the bright side of underdevelopment. The bad side is the ugly concrete observation tower that rises above the government-owned Aureum Palace Hotel like a scar on the landscape. Our Bagan guide, Saw Tun, called it “the tower of bad taste.”