Somewhere in a lab, scientists are working hard, bending space and time, trying to unlock the secrets of the universe. They’re talking about parallel universes, where the same life is playing out simultaneously many times with many different outcomes. They’re also wondering whether it’s possible to manipulate these universes, perhaps even swim upstream in a few of them. They’re curious as to whether they might be able to travel back in time, to see what it was like before. I have good news for those scientists: I’ve just returned from Myanmar (also called Burma), and I can tell you very honestly that time travel is indeed possible.
See, that’s the dark, ironic thing about people that have been repressed, either by their own government or a foreign one. It’s awful in every aspect, but there’s this tiny, small, admittedly self-indulgent glimmer in terms of tourism: When people are cut off from the outside world, things around them don’t evolve. They simply carry on, doing the things the way they’ve always done them; they’re aware of advances, but all the same, those advances can’t be made a reality for them. Time capsules are thus created, and sit waiting to be opened. This is the case in many parts of rural Southeast Asia, but it is immensely true of current-day Myanmar, a country that, for many years, was all but off limits to foreigners and has been wracked by civil wars since 1948.
In 2007, Myanmar welcomed about 300,000 tourists. This year, after several years of a newfound democracy movement, the country is preparing to accommodate over 5 million visitors. That’s an insane increase in a relatively short amount of time, skyrocketed by visitors from all over the world who are racing to visit the country in its early stages of tourism. Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake and Bagan are the four points on the main tourist circuit, and once hard-to-access regions are finally opening up via permit, such as the Chin State in the west or the far north near Hkakabo Razi, the highest mountain in Southeast Asia. These are all places worth seeing, but they’re not where time travel takes place. The parallel universes exist in the space between.
After hiring a guide in Kalaw, a launching-pad type of town, I set out by foot through terraced rice fields, which climbed up the hillsides in huge, bowl-shaped amphitheaters. Had this been the fall, they would have all been green and lush and filled with water. But, in January, it’s about as dry as it gets in Central Myanmar. For me, this meant a little less scenery and a little more dust. For the local villages, the ones we were headed towards, it meant rationing food. For most of the plow-driving water buffaloes that worked these fields, it meant a few months off.