The blob of traffic in front of our car had stopped dead. Having arrived in Mandalay from crowded Bangkok, I'd hoped to escape gridlock, but here I was, just 30 minutes after touchdown at the airport, in bumper-to-bumper traffic again. Frustrated, I poked my head from the car, and was immediately pelted -- with garlands of jasmine.
I swiveled my head, and found myself staring into a crowd of Burmese girls standing on the bed of a truck festooned with ocher prayer flags. I had blundered into a novice ceremony, a festival celebrating the entrance of young girls into the local Buddhist nunnery. Burmese pre-teenagers in fuchsia and white robes, with crowns of garlands and gold leaf atop freshly shaven heads, stood on pedestals in the trucks, queens for the day. Truckloads of relatives held parasols over the girls' heads and tossed garlands into the street. Monks chanted while bands of wood drums and thin flutes belted out reedy atonal melodies.
As Southeast Asia modernizes rapidly, Myanmar remains the last country in the region preserved in amber. In Myanmar, men still wear sarong-like lungis rather than pants, and traditional rituals like the novice ceremony, rather than new-model Mercedes, still hold up traffic. Western influences are almost nowhere to be found. "We go nowhere," one Burmese business-man told me over drinks at a sailing club in the capital, where the wooden dinghies were cracking. "What can we do? Have another drink."
There's a reason for this sensation of being stuck in time, of course. Decades of rule by one of the world's harshest military regimes have left the country isolated and its economy a shambles, discouraging tourist arrivals, putting modern amenities out of many people's reach, and keeping the Burmese wedded to traditional life. (Last year, Myanmar received some 660,000 foreign visitors, according to the government, compared with the more than 11 million in Thailand in 2004, as reported by the Tourism Authority of Thailand.)
"There's only one destination where we won't market holidays, and that's Burma," said Justin Francis of Responsible Travel, a British travel agent promoting socially responsible trips. "We'll market trips anywhere else where we think it'll benefit local people -- even Zimbabwe."
The country's name alone suggests the perplexing state of affairs, and the political side that some travelers take even before deciding whether to visit. What was once Burma was renamed Myanmar by a 1989 military edict. But some people in the West -- particularly those human rights activists who argue that the current regime is one of the most oppressive in the world and has used forced labor to build some tourist sites -- still call it by its traditional name.
Like Responsible Travel, and Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy opposition leader, many Myanmar-oriented human rights groups support a boycott of tourism, which they see as endorsing the government. The groups draw up "dirty" lists of travel agencies that send tourists there, blast publishers of Myanmar guidebooks, and try to shame celebrities who visit, like Mick Jagger. "It's naive to say you can help as a tourist," said Tricia Barnett, director of Tourism Concern, a British group advocating responsible tourism, who believes that most of the tourist infrastructure remains closely linked to the regime.