Then + Now in Myanmar

I first visited Burma, now Myanmar, in the spring of 1966, when I was 18. It was a few years after the coup d’état; most foreigners had been kicked out of the country, and the government was not welcoming visitors.

At the time, Union of Burma Airways offered flights between Calcutta and Bangkok with an overnight layover in Yangon (Rangoon). With Burma issuing only 24-hour transit visas, travelers hoped for a storm that would ground their flight—once they had landed, of course—granting them a longer stay.

There were just three of us on my flight from Calcutta, and I knew the other two–fellow hitchhikers traveling to Bangkok. The attendants–who had us outnumbered, not to mention the rest of the crew–let us sit anywhere on the plane and offered us as many meals as we could eat. This was the golden age of air travel–a time when few people flew–and we had the entire plane, on an international flight, to ourselves.

Our traveling trio hitched a ride with the crew into Yangon. We were the only foreigners in Burma that day, at least on a 24-hour visa. After checking into the Strand Hotel, which, at that time, a hitchhiker could easily afford, we made a beeline to the most sacred Buddhist site in Burma, the Shwedagon Pagoda.

My first view of the famous shrine was from the backseat of a trishaw, as our driver huffed up a broad tree-lined avenue devoid of traffic. The 322-foot stupa glinted in the sunlight, shimmering above the treetops. I’d just come from India where stone temples dominated every skyline, and before that from Ceylon, where stupas were blindingly white. But this one was golden; all the cultural and metaphorical allusions collided and I just knew this place was unique.

Once my friends and I had climbed the entrance stairway, we came out on the temple platform where we walked barefoot on tiled walkways around the Shwedagon admiring the jewel-encrusted walls and pillars under the sun’s glare. (I wasn’t sure if they were jewels or cut glass, but they were dazzling.) Buddhist monks of all ages, in their saffron-hued robes, came up to speak with us. We met few other people.

That night, we went to the market to eat and sat down at a communal table across from a young couple with a baby. Two older women sat with them, smoking cigars. We started talking with the couple, and after exchanging where-are-you-from-glad-to-meet-you pleasantries, they asked if we could guess the name of their daughter.

A waiter interrupted our game as he stumbled toward us, almost losing his tray of dishes. After recovering, he rushed over and, in a conspiratorial tone, whispered “Jerry Lewis. I love his movies!”

“Guess, guess!” our friends urged, ignoring the waiter’s intrusion. I suggested Elizabeth, Victoria, and Margaret, as Burma had recently been part of the British Commonwealth. They shook their heads no.

“Cinderella,” they finally told me.

I fell instantly in love with Burma. Obviously teenagers are impressionable, but this went beyond impressions. Even though the ruling military regime was one of the harshest in the world, the people I met were gracious and generous–and never before had I met a Cinderella. I wanted to do a book–anything that could get me back there. But Yucatán and the modern Maya sidetracked me, and I haven’t had the occasion to return until this year.

When I arrived, my first impulse was to visit the Shwedagon. It was full of life and faith, and brought back nice memories, but it was much more crowded than I remembered. When I recounted the experience to a Burmese friend, she may have detected a hint of disappointment in my voice. She suggested I return–this time early in the morning to beat the crowds.

When I got back to Yangon after traveling around Myanmar for two weeks, I followed her advice. I had been getting up at 4 a.m. every morning in order to caption what I’d shot the day before, so I was used to being up before the sun. At five I found a taxi and headed for the Shwedagon through a dense fog. The streets were deserted. Normally you can see the stupa from anywhere in the vicinity, but I could only make out the vaguest hints of it as we approached.

The lights trained on the giant pagoda were like beacons searching out an object hidden in the night. A few monks were chanting and a couple of people were cleaning and putting out food and flowers. The mist swirled around us as if no other place in this world existed. I was in a foreign place that didn’t feel foreign, but felt instead like home.

When I was crossing Asia in 1965-66, English was not the dominant language in the world, (French was still the language of diplomacy), chain restaurants were still on the horizon, and few people had flown on planes. There were shipping lines rather than cruise lines and people still chose the cinema over TV.

It isn’t often that we can return to a place that brings what it was like to be young and in awe of the world rushing back. I keep using the word magical to describe the experience because I can’t find any other way to convey how really, really special this moment was. When I tried to tell my wife Mary about it I almost started crying.

We are told over and over that we can’t go back. But I found that not only could I go back, I could feel, if only for a few hours, the excitement and wonder I’d felt as a teenager. And, like a teenager, I was having trouble finding the right words to express myself.

Macduff Everton is a contributing photographer for National Geographic Traveler magazine. He lives in Santa Barbara. 

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