Inle Lake, in Myanmar's northeast, is surrounded by green hills, young vineyards and seemingly endless rice fields. On the lake, fishermen wearing pointed, straw hats balance their weight on twiglike boats while a brutal sun blurs the line between the sky and its reflection.
Hundreds of miles to the west, Bagan hides over 4,400 pagodas and centuries-old temples that range from small to massive and sprout like mushrooms from the dry soil. The sky turns pink in the evenings as lone boats float past on the river.
This is Myanmar, a land of golden pagodas and smiles.
This is also the image that the country's military junta has promoted since the 1990s to drive tourists to the isolated nation. As Myanmar opened up over the past decade, the growing numbers of foreigners have flocked to its hidden temples and untouched beaches, encountering a growing amount of propaganda along the way.
Although the presence of foreigners helped the Myanmarese to shed light on the difficult conditions in the country, tourism revenues inevitably benefit the regime and legitimize its rule. This is why many Burmese opposition groups have opposed foreign visits in the past -- a stance that some groups have recently abandoned as military rulers show an apparent willingness for reform.
Still, traveling in this country comes with some serious ethical dilemmas, not the least of which is deciding whether or not positive experiences in Myanmar are the product of its earthly gifts or political disfunction.
Myanmar is beyond beautiful and its people are wonderfully welcoming. Their absurd fairness and unique warmth makes it hard to constantly remind yourself of the misery and sorrow often hidden from tourists. It proves hard to remember that millions of Myanmarese live in poverty and that the army is still engage in brutal conflicts with separatist groups. Hundreds of members of the opposition may remain locked away in primitive prisons, but Inle Lake is still scenic.
The simple lesson learned by those that travel to Myanmar is that beauty can be corrupt, a distraction from realities, and genuinely moving at the same time.
Take a look at some of Myanmar's charms below.
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