The largest, most diverse and least-known country in Southeast Asia, Myanmar is now firmly back on the tourist map after decades of isolation.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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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