So how can I ensure my visit is as ethical as possible?
As always in Asia, the first rule of responsible tourism is to stay local, eat local and shop local. Try to choose family guesthouses and local cafés rather than big hotels and their upscale restaurants and souvenir emporia.
Travelling by bus or local boat is also better than taking a tourist cruise or flying – just about all the country’s airlines have military links (although admittedly it’s hard to avoid taking the plane to reach some destinations).
And where should I go?
Get off the beaten track if you possibly can. Despite the exponential rise in tourist numbers the overwhelming majority of visitors go to just four places: Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake – that’s in a country bigger than France. Heading to places other foreigners don’t visit helps neglected communities share in the benefits of liberalization and the growing tourist industry.
A stop off en route to Bagan or Mandalay at places such as Pyay, Meiktila or Taungoo, for example, offers a fascinating taste of everyday Burmese life away from the foreign hordes.
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.
I hear the locals are a pretty friendly bunch?
Absolutely. The Burmese are amongst the most welcoming people on Earth, and interacting with them is one of the great pleasures of travel in Myanmar.
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.
© wong yu liang/Shutterstock
Anything else to remember?
Myanmar is one of the world’s most mineral-rich countries, with huge quantities of precious stones on sale – but be aware that many come from government-owned mines, with workers labouring in appalling conditions. Burmese rubies and locally quarried jade are to be avoided in particular.
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.
One last thing – Myanmar or Burma? Which name should I use?
The use of Myanmar (as the generals renamed the country in 1989) versus the old colonial name of Burma (preferred by the NLD) was a highly charged issue back during the era of the generals and Aung San Suu Kyi’s years of house arrest, but no longer raises the passions it once did.
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
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