No pukka sahibs are in sight anymore outside the Strand, though -- Yangon, a city of some 4 million people, has become one of the most diverse cities in the region, and Myanmar has over 130 ethnic groups.
As I push through crowded alleys that smell like chapatis, I see ethnic Indians with henna-tinged beards and red dots on their foreheads eating masala dosa at street stalls and ethnic Chinese merchants weighing bars of gold on aging scales. At a biryani stall, I am surrounded by ethnic Burmans, the majority, smearing on thanaka, a paste that supposedly provides sun protection but resembles war paint, giving Yangon the look of a city constantly prepared for a medieval battle.
From the 11th to the 13th centuries, devout Burmese monarchs built at least 4,000 temples in Bagan, across more than 32 square meters in central Myanmar's wide plains. Roughly 644km north of Yangon stands this monument to Burmese civilization, one of the most impressive architectural achievements in Asia. Though some original temples no longer exist, there are still thousands on the plains, from slim cathedral-like buildings to stocky, square monuments. Some reach 55m high, with elaborate terraces, porticos and bas-reliefs.
In contrast to other monuments like Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Bagan still receives so few tourists that you can hike among ruins for hours without seeing another person. At dusk, I can sit at one of the temples, undisturbed as I watch perhaps the most spectacular sunset in Asia, the sun bathing the temples in purple and crimson, creating silhouettes of the ancient stupas, and finally setting over lush fields.
By the time the British took over the country in the late 1800s, the center of Burmese royal attention had moved north to Mandalay, along the chocolaty Ayeyarwady River. As capital of Myanmar, Mandalay too became a center for Buddhist scholarship.
Today Mandalay, close to neighboring China, has also become a vibrant economic and cultural center. In the older part of town, I walk into homes where women still weave kalaga, the hand-embroidered tapestries traditionally used to decorate royal palaces. In the newer section of town, a friend and I wander through a glass-and-steel shopping mall dominated by Chinese electronics and fashions, where Burmese salesgirls peddle short dresses. When my friend asks one salesgirl whether it's acceptable in Myanmar's conservative culture for her to wear thigh-high boots and spike heels, she replies that it's not a problem -- even as elderly women in long frocks and traditional turbans stare into the store, seemingly mesmerized.
As everywhere in Myanmar, tourists in Mandalay cannot avoid encountering the government. Outside the colonial-era Mandalay Fort, an austere walled city around a shimmering moat reportedly rebuilt with forced labor, signs vow that the army will "crush" all enemies, and troops stop cars at will. Gangs of workers dig ditches along the airport road, and several travelers I spoke with saw what they believed to be forced labor in this region.
Local tour guides can be frank in their critiques; mine pointed out checkpoints where the police and soldiers constantly asked for bribes, before adding, "I can only talk like this alone, in the car" and asking me never to reveal his name. In Mandalay's theater area, home to Myanmar's companies that put on pwes -- a kind of vaudeville where actors perform into the early morning -- this dissent often plays out through art. Traditionally, pwes centered on broad jokes and interpretations of classical theater, though they also could be used to send subtle political messages, as performers could joke about topics commoners would never tell the king. Under military rule some performers once again use pwes and music for a kind of back talk to authority; in Yangon, Burmese gangsta rap has become a vehicle for mild dissent.