Why did Myanmar remain off the tourist map for so long?
In 1996 the National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, asked for a tourism boycott of Myanmar in protest at the despotic military government then ruling the country – and as a way of depriving it of much-needed foreign funds.
Most would-be visitors and overseas tour operators respected the call to stay out of the country until democracy returned.
So, it’s OK to visit now?
That’s right. The NLD lifted its boycott in 2010, and Myanmar’s unexpectedly rapid return to democracy – with an NLD government elected in 2015 in the first free and fair elections in half a century – has gone faster and more peacefully than anyone might have dared expect.
But it’s not all peaceful, is it?
No, sadly not. There’s still considerable ethnic unrest in remote areas of the country, with fighting continuing sporadically between the government and Shan and Kachin separatists.
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.
And don’t the military still control much of the economy?
Dodgy businessmen linked to unsavoury army figures certainly haven’t vanished overnight – some might argue that they only allowed political reforms because it was in their own best business interests.
Many companies (including leading hotel chains, major banks and airlines) have links to the old ruling junta, although equally they provide a livelihood for many innocent, hard-working Burmese. And they pay their taxes too. In this sense, the situation in Myanmar is no different from those in many other countries in Asia.
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.
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.
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