It lures visitors with its stunning temples, sublime landscapes and time-warped traditional culture – but the considerable ethnic unrest still affecting parts of the country cannot be ignored.
So, is it ethical to visit? And, if you do, what’s the best way to make sure both you and your hosts get the most out of your time in the country?
Here, co-author of The Rough Guide to Myanmar Gavin Thomasshares what you need to know before a trip:
Most would-be visitors and overseas tour operators respected the call to stay out of the country until democracy returned.
Most alarming, however, is the long-running oppression of the Rohingya, a stateless Muslim people living in northwest Rakhine state, who are denied citizenship and almost all basic human rights.
Most Rohingya families have been living in the country since colonial times, but the government considers them illegal immigrants and insists they go “home” to Bangladesh. The Rohingya have been suffering staggering oppression for many years, although the situation has recently dramatically worsened, with thousands killed and many more displaced.
Any hopes that the Rohingya would find justice under the new NLD government have also been swiftly crushed. Aung San Suu Kyi’s own party appears as uninterested in their desperate plight as the previous military regime.
Indeed the Rohingya might plausibly ask for a tourism boycott of the country to protest their brutal treatment under Aung San Suu Kyi – a savagely ironic turn of events, given the years she spent fighting against government oppression and human-rights abuses.
Meeting the famous ladies of the Kayan tribe in their ancestral heartlands around Loikaw is far more rewarding than the stage-managed “long-neck encounters” offered to tourists around Lake Inle. And, equally, while hiking around Kengtung in the far east you’ll likely see only a fraction of the visitors who tramp the congested tracks around Kalaw.
Remember, though, that if you venture off the beaten track you might be one of the first foreigners local people have ever seen. In this sense, you’ll be something of an ambassador for tourism, and any rudeness, meanness or cultural insensitivity on your part may create lasting bad impressions.
Always ask before taking photographs of people, and don’t push someone to talk about politics or their personal views – feelings are still raw after decades of repression. And remember that the Burmese are relatively conservative. They will probably be too polite to say anything, but many are offended by scantily dressed foreigners.
The Burmese are still profoundly Buddhist people as well. Dress and behave respectfully in temples, and don’t go clambering all over the ancient shrines in Bagan for the best sunset views.
Plastic waste is a rising problem (as it is throughout Asia) – you might prefer to take your own purifier rather than adding to the mountain of dead water bottles.
Electricity is precious too, with large part of the country still starved of power – turn the lights off when you leave.
Virtually all Burmese call the country Myanmar, although no one will mind if you prefer to call it Burma.
Top image © Bule Sky Studio/Shutterstock