May 25th, 2012
12:11 PM ET
By Paula Hancocks, CNN
Yangon, Myanmar (CNN) – How’s this for a vacation schedule? Get up at 3 a.m., put off sleep till 11 p.m., and spend almost the whole day alone, in silence.
It’s a typical day for a foreign tourist at the Mahasi meditation center here.
Founded by the late Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw, the center opens its doors not only to Burmese residents but also to foreign visitors wishing to learn Buddhist meditation techniques.
One recent visitor is a 23-year-old American Christian named Kym Cole. She said that doing up to 10 hours of meditation every day was difficult but it yielded unique rewards: “It feels like a different world but in a good way.”
Cole is among the thousands who are taking the opportunity to experience what was once one of the most isolated countries in the world as the nation institutes reforms and opens up to outsiders.
Myanmar does not keep statistics on spiritual tourists, but tourism to the country generally has doubled in the past four years. And more meditation centers here are catering to foreigners, capitalizing on their swelling numbers.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, is overwhelmingly Buddhist and much of society revolves around its hundreds of thousands of monks. Temples and pagodas define the landscape.
It is believed that well over 10,000 temples have been built in the ancient city of Bagan alone. More 2,000 survive today. Some Burmese boys learn to read and write at their local monastery, and many go for Buddhist education at some point in their childhood.
Cole recently finished a three-month internship with the Khmer Rouge tribunal in Cambodia and said she wanted to clear her mind. And she wanted to experience spiritual tourism in Myanmar before the country changes too much as it opens up to the outside world.
“Tourism can alter a country greatly and one of the attractions to me was this notion of a country lost in time and that was removed from westernization and globalization,” she said.
Cole avoided the country during the brutal, decades-long rule of the military junta because she thought “my presence would have been supporting that government.”
High-profile opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who assumed her new seat in Myanmar’s parliament earlier this month, had long cautioned that tourism would provide support to the regime that kept her under house arrest for much of the past two decades.
But a new civilian government was sworn in last year. Although it is still heavily influenced by the military, Suu Kyi is free has stopped discouraging tourism.
One of the head monks at the Mahasi center, Asain Veluriya, said the center’s meditation techniques are popular in the United States and Europe – his tradition has 50 branches worldwide - but these days he sees more foreigners coming to Myanmar for a first-hand experience.
And he said there doesn’t have to necessarily be anything spiritual about it.
“Personal meditation is not only for Buddhists but also for everyone,” he said. “By practicing meditation we can become a happy person, we can create a happy life, a meaningful life.”
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