Should you go to Burma? The answer is a resounding YES! I can still feel the memories of Myanmar coursing through my body and my jet-lagged brain. “This is Burma,” wrote Rudyard Kipling over a century ago. “It is quite unlike any place you know about.” His words are true even today. Everywhere you’ll encounter men wearing skirt-like longyi; children and women with thanakha (traditional make-up) on their cheeks; and grannies smoking cheroots, chewing betel nuts and spitting red juice. There are no Starbucks, McDonalds, or Kentucky Fried Chickens—yet.

The October/early November “shoulder season” is a great time of year to go there. Although it rained during our first two days in Yangon, the wet season is generally over; the countryside is lush and fresh; and the tourist season is just beginning.

I was fortunate to be in Burma during a rare press conference held by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, held a week prior to President Obama’s recent visit. She warned the U.S. not to be “too optimistic,” and that promised reforms have slowed during the past two years. The government’s emphasis, she explained, has been on economic advances rather than human rights.

Suu Kyi opened the press conference in Yangon with Obama last week by addressing reports of tension between the U.S. and those working for democratic reforms in Myanmar: “We may view things differently from time to time but that will in no way affect our relationship,” the Associated Press reported. Burma is clearly counting on the support of the west.

IMAGE: PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS/ASSOCIATED PRESS

IMAGE: PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS/ASSOCIATED PRESS

It’s a heady time for the people of Burma. In 2010, Myanmar held its first free elections in two decades. Even though the country’s progress on the road to democracy is two steps forward and one step back, there’s a cautious optimism in the air. The 2015 elections are coming up next fall. I could sense the spark of hope and excitement. Just maybe they will change the constitution so that “The Lady” can run. And just maybe the generals will delete the clause they added that allows them to have 25% of the parliamentary seats no matter what the vote tally shows. Everyone I queried says they would vote for The Lady. Of course. She has given up her life, her freedom, and her family—all for the people—quite a sacrifice.

Restrictions have definitely relaxed since my last visit to Burma in 2006. During a two-day cruise up the Irrawaddy River to Mandalay, I was surprised that the Paukan cruise line could show the film, “The Lady” (see movie trailer) released in 2012. Even so, the film is still not allowed in Burmese theaters.

We had the opportunity to see much of Burma through “independent travel,” which allowed us more free time to digest what we had seen and learned before rushing home or on to another country. Many of the tourists we met were heading from Yangon, the largest city, to Bagan with its 3200 pagodas, and then to Mandalay, the ancient capital of the kings. By expanding the itinerary of a typical trip and seeing only one country, we could take the time to go deeper into the interior. Swaths of the country, off-limits for years, can now be visited. I fell in love with the fertile farms of Shan state, the mountain villages of Pindaya, and the fishing villages of Inle Lake. We saw people getting around in trishaws or horse-and-cart and farming with little or no mechanization.

It wasn’t all easy travel. Beyond Yangon, Burma is still a third-world country. In the interior, I had to let go of internet, phone and e-mail. However, I’m very glad I went there. And I urge you to go as well!

I plan to post stories and photos of the best of Burma in forthcoming blog posts. Here’s a sneak preview:

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