Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma, is currently making its big debut on the world stage after years of isolation. The military junta has chilled out, Nobel-prize winning activist Aung San Suu Kyi has been released from her decades-long house arrest, and adventurous travelers, myself and Obama included (seriously dude, stop stealing my itineraries), are filling up the few hotels across the Southeast Asian wonderland.
The people seem to be embracing this moment in their history. Walking through the colorfully cobbled streets of Yangon, I was met with only the warmest curiosity.
Even the monks were relishing the spotlight, as they sashayed along the white marble of the brilliant Shwedegon pagoda or sat in the shade, smiling with a look so cool it must be nirvana. And why not? They were in the presence of this crown jewel of a stupa that ignites a primal awe even in non-believers. As the skies grayed, its golden warmth only grew.
Miniature monks and nuns — kids who are serving a year or so at the monasteries in return for a good education — also strutted around, engaging me. I was most fascinated by the girl nuns with shaved heads and carnation pink robes, giggling bashfully and sticking out their tongues at me.
The pint-size and fully-grown Buddhists devotees were everywhere. Lo-fi loudspeakers blasted the monotone chants incessantly, from 4:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. with countless intervals in between. Buddhism here proved so inescapable, it bordered on oppressive.
I was up for one of those 4:30 a.m. chants in Bagan, where the only way out to the vast field of brick pagodas at that hour was by horse-drawn carriage. We made it, albeit slowly, and from our perch on the 11th to 13th century ruins we could make out the pre-dawn glimmers of golden pagodas far off in the distance.
Then we heard a deep, primordial sound — an unbroken “om” from the bellies of hundreds of monks. The nearest active temple must have been more than a mile away, and yet here we were, ingesting this sound too ancient to be credited to humanity.
The sun rose, the sound evaporated. We moved on to Inle Lake.
The boatmen and passing moms on bicycles gave us the same warm welcome. The entire landscape was painted in an invigorating palette. The betel red huts and teak temples floated on the lake as white clouds enveloped the sky and caressed the brooding blue hills. At this time of year, the rice shoots were an electric green piercing against all the heavily saturated burgundies. We took it in, had some coffee, read Orwell’s Burmese Days, and wrote about the journey behind and ahead of us.