Myanmar, at a (beautiful) glance

A Buddhist monk watches the sunset in Myanmar.
A Buddhist monk watches the sunset in Myanmar. ANGELO COCLANIS

While visiting her hometown of Salisbury a while back, my wife visited an antiquarian bookstore and picked out a book for me: A 1908 volume simply entitled “Burma,” by one R. Talbot Kelly, a veteran of the “British Raj,” a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and commander of the vessel Medjidieh. Kelly’s little book is delightful, part of a series endearingly entitled “Peeps at Many Lands.” Early on, he tells readers that his purpose is “to tell something about Burma, a country, which, though one of the most interesting and beautiful in the world, is comparatively little known to the majority of people.”

More than a century later, his words still hold true. Moreover, until recently, traveling to the country seemed akin to reverse time-travel. When I first visited Burma in 1993, it seemed very similar to the country I read about when doing research in late-nineteenth-century issues of the Rangoon Times, an English-language newspaper published in what is now called Yangon.

Indeed, in general terms of transportation facilities and infrastructure, the country in 1993 may even have regressed since the late 19th century!

That said, I loved Burma – officially named Myanmar – right away. Over a 30-year career as a professor and administrator at UNC Chapel Hill, I have had the opportunity to travel all over the world both for research and as an official representative of the university. Out of the many, many places I’ve visited, Burma is my favorite.

I’ve been there about 15 or 16 times since my first visit in 1993 and – though the country is changing rapidly – its allure continues unabated. There is no place on Earth that can match its combination of natural beauty, magnificent temples and ruins, traditional trappings and warm and gracious people.

With its recent reforms and reopening to the world, Burma is much in the news today. It is considered by many to be Asia’s “last frontier” – another way of saying the country isn’t yet just another outpost of global capitalism. (You won’t find any Mickey D’s in Burma; indeed, the country has only recently gotten its first ATMs!)

The pace of life is picking up, though – cellphones are increasingly common in Yangon – and the modern world has made inroads: Many young men now wear trousers rather than traditional longyis.

Nonetheless, in terms of hustle and bustle, noise and din, most of Burma shares more with the world of R. Talbot Kelly – or, better yet writers Rudyard Kipling or George Orwell – than it does with sophisticated urbanites in fast-paced 24/7 Shanghai, Bangkok, Hong Kong or Seoul.

As Burma edges into modernity – and creates some reasonable options for comfort-seeking, middle-class travelers – it retains its venerable, if not timeless qualities, which make for priceless experiences, even epiphanies.

A trip to Burma means exploring the mysterious temple complex at Bagan, watching with amazement the leg-rowing Intha boatmen on misty Inle Lake, visiting the stunning golden-domed Shwedagon Paya (pagoda) in Yangon and cruising silently down the mighty Ayeyarwady (or Irrawaddy) River. And that’s just for starters. The food, the dress, the customs, and, most of all the people, make a visit to the country unusually rich – and potentially deep – travel experience.