Myanmar is a country with a dark history, and like many countries in Asia, Kings fought over it like dogs scavenging for the last bone. With a population of over 50 million, Myanmar is home to a large number of ethnic Chinese and Indians, along with 100 other ethnic groups, making it incredibly diverse, both religiously and culturally.
Tourism in Myanmar is a polarising topic. There are valid arguments both for and against visiting this country, and most guide books try to promote responsible tourism. Here’s some history, so you can understand why traveling to Myanmar can be a little controversial:
Burma (as it was known then), gained independence from the British in 1948, although it was then controlled by the military in a dictatorship from 1962. Unfortunately, corruption within the government was rife, and it gradually allowed the economy to shrivel up and die. The largest banknotes were suddenly worthless as the country headed towards socialism, and when citizens protested in 1988, over 3000 people were brutally killed.
When the government finally allowed an election in 1990, (after citizens waited for 30 years), they lost the election by around 40%. However instead of handing over power, they raided the opposition, killing, exiling, and imprisoning over 100 people. Aung San Suu Kyi (the leader of the National League for Democracy) was placed under house arrest, winning the Novel Peace Prize in 1991. Her husband died of cancer in England while she was detained, and she spent 15 years out of 21 in custody.
In 1995 the government was using civilians as “human landmine detectors” and forcing them to build railroads and roads for the planned tourism boom that was anticipated in a few months when they were to open borders and extend tourist visas. As soon as the rest of the world found out what was going on, a tourism boycott was put in place, and the government soon realized they wouldn’t get even a quarter of the visitors they were hoping for.
Unfortunately, the lack of aid and sanctions have been heavily detrimental to locals, and Myanmar simply turned to its neighbours, striking multimillion dollar deals with countries like Japan, India, Thailand and China.
In 2008 Cyclone Nargis hit, causing an estimated 10 billion dollars in damage, and killing thousands. Aid groups waited helplessly as the government denied them entry, leaving the Burmese without food, water, and shelter, and up to 300,000 people were killed or are still missing.
The question is, with the political situation the way it is, and with corruption visible in almost every facet of everyday life, should you travel to Myanmar?
When we look at developing countries like Myanmar, it’s important to understand that the government doesn’t care about tourism. They don’t give a crap if we encourage their citizens to learn English, give them opportunities to speak to foreigners and learn about the world, and stimulate the local economy. All they care about is money. So while it’s great to do all these things, our goal when visiting is to keep our money out of the hands of the government, and keep it in the pockets of locals.
This means eating food from small, local restaurants. It means avoiding the trains because we all know where the money goes, and taking local buses instead. While it’s impossible to prevent some of the money from tourism going to the government (visas, taxes from flights, etc), we can still be smart and try our best to ensure that any money we spend is impacting the country in a positive way.
While Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia, with some of the worst income disparity in the world, things are slowly improving. Tourists are attracted to the thousands of stupas and pagodas in Bagan, long-tail boat rides on Inlet Lake, and barely-visited beaches south of Yangon.
But it’s the people who make Myanmar one of the most incredible places I’ve ever visited. Tourism is new enough that we weren’t getting ripped off the way you commonly do in Thailand and Indonesia. Before grabbing a taxi in Yangon we would ask the owner of our hostel how much we should pay to get to our destination, and the driver always charged us what we were expecting. It’s almost as if it hasn’t yet occurred to the Burmese to demand more from tourists.
On our way from Bagan to Mandalay we stopped at a small roadside restaurant for lunch. The women didn’t speak a word of English, and we didn’t speak a word of Burmese, and yet they painted our faces with thanaka, while laughing and comparing our skin colour to theirs.
The thanaka felt cool on our faces, but once it was dry it was easy to forget it was there. It seemed to delight the women in the restaurant that we were wearing it, and the locals were craning their necks to see how we looked, smiling, and talking amongst themselves.
Wherever we went, the locals would practice their English, and were happy to open up about what life was like living in their country. A taxi driver gestured wildly as he ranted about Myanmar, and passionately decried the lack of democracy which “every other country has”. Above all, they were insatiably curious about where we came from, and determined that we would leave Myanmar with a good impression, and return soon.
I can’t express how glad I am that I chose to travel to Myanmar. But choosing which countries to visit is always a personal decision, and is entirely dependent on our own values and morals. There are countries that I won’t be traveling to any time soon, because I don’t think tourism is helping the average citizen, and I can’t abide by their stance on human rights (e.g North Korea).
So while I would encourage anyone to travel to Myanmar, I recommend traveling responsibly, and focusing on connecting with locals and doing your research before you leave. It’s well worth the trip!