The former military junta has migrated to the supposedly civilian government. The opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, is constantly pushing to ensure this fall’s election occurs without corruption. A small but influential group of radicalized Buddhist monks preach hatred toward Muslims and, increasingly, the Rohingya, a large ethnic minority desperate to escape the country.
Foreign investment is flowing, albeit cautiously with the unrest, and much of the country still feels frozen in time. The streets of downtown Yangon, the country’s largest city and former capital, are full of striking British colonial buildings now mostly faded and crumbling after years of neglect.
But those were distant concerns back in Bagan on a crisp January morning this year while we were drifting just below the clouds and watching a fireball of a sunrise creep over the mountains in the distance.
The hot-air balloon pilot warned us the landing would be rough. Sure enough, the wicker basket carrying more than a dozen fellow travelers slammed hard into the dirt, nearly tipped over, and skidded along clumsily until coming to a rest alongside a grand Buddhist temple.
After surviving our high-impact landing we climbed out of the balloon and were dwarfed by the shadow of the imposing Shwesandaw Pagoda. A swarm of children and women peddling postcards, lacquer trinkets, and gift-shop mementos surrounded us as the pilot poured all his passengers celebratory champagne. We had become an air-dropped tourist trap.
Later that night we returned to Shwesandaw, along with a horde of other foreigners, climbing up its grand multi-story stone staircases to watch the sunset. On one side of us sat a monk, meditating cross-legged, and to our right, a gaggle of tourists wielding selfie sticks. Myanmar’s perilous moment of transition captured in a thousand hashtagged photos.
Tyson Evans is an editor at The New York Times.