The country was ruled by a monarchy based in Mandalay before the British took over from 1824-1886 and made it part of the Indian territory (it was later a separate administrative area). The country became independent in 1948, following WWII, and didn't join the British Commonwealth. General Ne Win took over via military coup in 1962.
The country's primary interest to the British was teak, which was logged in vast quantities and continues to be a main export - though forests are nearly depleted.
The country is primarily Mahayana Buddhist, with some Hindu, Muslim and Christian minorities.
It still retains a significant ethnic 'hill tribe' population, mostly in the north and border regions it seems. There are some 70 plus different ethnic groups recognized by the government.
Urbanization & Infrastructure
The country's 40 or so million are relatively urbanized, with about 6 million living in the former capital Yangon and a comparable number in Mandalay. Infrastructure is poor - major highways are 1.5 lanes and not always sealed. We observed quite a bit of road improvement over our 6 hour drive from Bagan to Kalaw. It was almost all being done by hand, and by women. They were laying rock and mixing/heating asphalt in drums b the side of the road. Once in a while there was the odd Komatsu bit of machinery rolling it down. The road was originally constructed by the government, but has since been 'privatized' and we paid tolls for road maintenance several times on our journey.
The rail infrastructure dates to the British, with many trains as slow as 15 km/hour. Large bed trucks transport goods and people - likely of Chinese origin, though we saw some that had been built by hand of wood and homemade engines. Air travel routes have been increasingly developed but are dramatically unaffordable. It's clear that it is hard to move goods in and out: air strips seem unlikely to be able to handle large aircraft form modern fleets - so things would have to be flown somewhere else then transferred to smaller planes.
Connections to the World
People here aren't cut off from the outside world. English is taught in schools from primary school, and there was a surprisingly high level of English. That bodes very well for their future economic development.
Foreign products are available - we see Nivea, Coca-Cola and apparently also European pharmaceuticals. Chinese products are plentiful - plastic goods etc. Motorbikes are increasing outside Yangon, where they're banned. A Chinese motorbike runs $300, and over 5,000 are smuggled into the country a day. Cars cost thousands of dollars to register and motorbikes cost significantly less.
Satellite TV is available (after a hefty government tax) and Korean popstars are visible all over. Imitation hairstyles have ensued. At two weddings, photos of Korean pop stars were decorating the festivities. (Look at top left in this photo).
Internet penetration appears to be advancing. Though there are blocks on sites like cnn.com and bbc.com, we have been able to find internet for as little as $0.40 in Yangon and it's relatively fast.
Cell phones are more of a luxury item. The cost of the phone is low, but to get a number you have to pay the government around $2,000. This ensures very few people have their own phone numbers. You can also buy a sim card that gives 1 hour of talk time and expires after 1 month.
When people say that Burma is 'unspoilt', I think it most aptly refers to the disposition of the people towards travelers. I see why they would be compared to Thais 40 years ago. The warmth and friendliness - and curiosity! They're not jaded or interested only in the business of tourism.
There are elections approaching. One person said, "We will all vote, because if you don't you're in trouble. But nothing will change; we know the outcome already." However, another remarked these elections were very important, because the military wasn't allowed to run, and they'd have civilians - though generals can conveniently retire just before elections to run as civilians.