Busy with visiting locals, Thawbita has his assistant monk, 67-year-old Ashin Kuthala, guide me into the temple. I expect the statues to be stored deep in a vault, far from visitors, but instead they rest on silk sheets inside a gilded cage just a few feet from passersby. I find their close proximity a rare gift. I gaze at the large padlock on the metal door. I ask Kuthala if he ever opens the door to the cage.
"Only for VIPs," he says. "For prime ministers, heads of state."
"Oh." I study the statues. I press my case. Kuthala takes a moment for consideration—and then goes to get the keys.
He asks me to sit on the floor just outside the chamber. Unlocking the door, he goes inside and brings out one of the statues. Holding it, he asks me to pray. He places the statue on top of my head and begins reciting something from scripture. My eyes brim with tears. I'm lost in time.
The dry zone of central Myanmar, though one of the country's most populated regions, receives fewer than 30 inches (76 centimeters) of rain a year. The land is brown and parched, patches of cactus providing the only green. Each day the heat reaches at least 115�F (46�C), dust clouds blooming at any suggestion of wind. It's next to impossible to stay hydrated, my only shade being the four-inch (10 centimeter) brim of a hat. As I paddle, streams of barges overloaded with old-growth teak logs come at me like leviathans; it's a wonder there are any trees left. The river, passing numerous towns, becomes covered for miles with raw sewage.
As I kayak through floating trails of excrement, I am bolstered by the memory of a local woman named Than, 35, whom I met squatting on the rocky shore near the town of Myitkyina. Her wiry forearms were burnished a coffee brown from the sun, and she wore a dirty sarong around her tiny waist. All day long she raised a mallet over a pile of rocks before her, cracking them into halves, then into fourths, to sell to the roadbuilders. Her two-year-old son, naked and with a bloated belly, stood nearby; her two daughters, ages three and twelve, helped gather the rocks. I asked how long she'd been doing such work. "Ten years," she said. There was no bitterness in her voice. Just the crack of her mallet on a new stone.
Since 1996 the Myanmar government has sponsored a campaign to encourage tourism, but there's been much debate in the West about traveling to this country. Suu Kyi advises against it, arguing that tourism funds the government's oppression; other Burmese exiles believe tourism creates much needed jobs for local people and provides foreign witnesses to internal conditions. Shortly after I'd arrived in the country, I shared a taxi with a stranger in Yangon who suddenly started telling me about his support for Suu Kyi and his expectations of the collapse of the country's military leadership. There seems to be a need among people to talk to someone—anyone—from outside the country. To tell the world about a hidden, deep suffering. Unwittingly, I find that I am viewed less as a tourist than as a witness.