The journalists went home and Jerry and I wondered whether we’d ever see their country again. But things changed. The Burmese government suddenly embarked on a democratic path, an apparent about-face that allowed for elections, foreign investments, political-prisoner amnesties, and new journalistic freedoms. The reasons for this shift remain a mystery, left to speculation—growing pains in the military ranks, desired access to international aid, efforts to avoid a violent “Myanmar Spring.”

Yet this is not a bloodless transition. Sectarian riots that began with Buddhists and ethnic Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State, along the Bangladesh border, have spread across the country in recent months. Clashes that evade simple explanation have left 200 dead and an estimated 250,000 displaced. Some analysts say the military can use this violence as a pretext for maintaining power. Others blame a controversial nationalistic Buddhist monk named Wirathu for inciting attacks against Muslims—which he reportedly denies. But, as a Burmese journalist recently told me, decades of suppressed education have fostered a populace often easily swayed by rumor and emotion.

In August 2012, when the government released a list of foreigners and exiles removed from the country’s blacklist, our names were there along with 1,145 others—including the late Philippine President Corazon Aquino and Sonny Bono. So we applied for visas through the embassy in Washington, and soon found ourselves flying through the miasma that cloaks Yangon.

We landed—giddy, anxious—and immediately recognized the airport lounge, the big glass windows and the longyi-clad crowd beyond, awaiting arrivals. An immigration officer stamped my passport and smiled. I said a quiet thank you, grabbed my bag and headed into a humid stew where I saw that same blazing fireball of a setting sun.

Our taxi was a beat-up white Toyota wagon with rusty doors. The driver, Tin, had grown up on a farm, then studied university-level physics. “I am ashamed to tell you,” he said, because his job didn’t reflect his education. He blamed the old regime for his lack of opportunity. “At that time we didn’t like the government. We hated the government. Now . . . different.”

The Yangon air smelled as I remembered—of mothballs and betel, fish and fried shallots, diesel and dust, sweet jasmine and human sweat. If only I could package those smells and take them home; aroma is key to memory and story, along with images, sounds, and words.

We passed construction workers repairing the road, toting bricks and shoveling sand. I spotted a shop, obviously new, selling smartphones. There were shiny Honda hybrids beside clunky old Toyotas and public buses crammed with commuters. The old vehicles still spewed noxious, tarry exhaust while the new ones idled quietly at traffic lights.

That night we ate fried fish with dried chiles and sour leaf soup at a sidewalk café with miniature tables and chairs. Our presence was a conversation piece. The restaurant was staffed by a couple of kids and their elders. The youngsters stared. They watched our every bite. When Jerry asked for the bill, the smallest boy smiled at the chance to practice English.

“Okay,” he said.

“Okay,” we replied.

“One thousand seven hundred kyat,” he said, carefully enunciating the words. About $1.88. Street food hadn’t changed.

“Okay,” we said, to peals of child laughter. Jerry forwarded the money plus an extra 100 kyat (11 cents). The kid came to clean the table, then chased us down the street to return the extra money. We tried to explain the concept of a tip, but he didn’t understand. He passed it to another boy and they puzzled over the faded bill. One day, those kids will no longer question a tip—and a little something about Burmese culture will have changed.

‘Mr. Knife’ Hsann Nyein, of The Modern Weekly News Journal. (Jerry Redfern)

The next morning we taxied along the riverfront, past modern condos rising beside old government buildings getting facelifts. Young men clung to bamboo scaffolding 50 feet up, working among paint-chipped columns of an edifice whose backside seemed to have been forgotten since the Raj.

We met our friend, Hsann Nyein, an editor at The Modern Weekly News Journal. We were four years late for the appointment. He had invited us to visit his office when we finished teaching in Mandalay in 2009. “I was waiting for you!” he teased. We joked about our unexpected “government vacation.”

Hsann Nyein’s colleagues affectionately call him “Mr. Knife.” Reporters initially write their stories by hand, then he edits. Under the old government, all news followed a weekly cycle—it took that long to pass the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division. But in August 2012, the government ended pre-publication censorship, and eight months later, daily papers were allowed to publish for the first time in half a century.

Karen Coates , author of Cambodia Now: Life in the Wake of War, is a senior fellow at Brandeis University's Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. Her latest book, Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos, co-authored with photojournalist Jerry Redfern, was published in December 2013.