Myanmar was isolated from the rest of the world for nearly half a century. When I first visited the country in the 1980s, tourists could obtain a visa for a maximum of seven days, and tour groups were shadowed, fairly blatantly, by the secret police. A paranoid military junta governed the country from 1962 until 2011, when strongman Gen. Than Shwe finally stepped down in favor of a milder-mannered former general, Thein Sein, to clear a path to some form of civilian government.
At the end of last year, Aung San Suu Kyi duly won a second electoral landslide. (The first was in 1990, when the military simply ignored the result.) At the time of writing, a full political settlement has yet to be agreed, but many sanctions have been lifted, overseas investors are straining at the leash, and President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have included Myanmar on travel itineraries. The number of visitors from the United States is increasing rapidly.
Of course, the experience of a land frozen in amber is a big part of Myanmar’s appeal. Yangon bears little resemblance to modern Asian cities like Bangkok, Singapore or Hong Kong. The old colonial heart, with grand brick buildings, remains largely untouched and gently decaying. True, the streets are choked with traffic — most import restrictions on vehicles having been lifted — but much of the city’s skyline has changed little since the end of World War II, and the most prominent landmark remains the golden spire of the Shwedagon, a Buddhist pagoda that is a focus for both national identity and Buddhist devotion.