“This is Burma, and it is quite unlike any other land you know about.” -Rudyard Kipling
There are no 7-11s here. Most people, both men and women, wear skirt-like longyi instead of trousers. Cheroots (a kind of Indian mini-cigar) are more popular than cigarettes. Women paint their faces with light yellow-colored makeup, emphasizing their cheeks with big round circles. People still chew betel nuts and spit on the street, the spray the color of blood. It is indeed unlike any other land I know about.
Myanmar was not on our original itinerary, but a Canadian man we met in Indonesia recommended it wholeheartedly. He had visited a few years ago with his daughter and loved it. As if to seal the deal, he mentioned that AirAsia, a popular budget airline, flies to Yangon. I had thought that flights might cost about $200 round-trip from Bangkok- not too bad, but a little pricey for Southeast Asia- but on AirAsia, they are as low as $50 round trip.
Why did we have to fly, anyway? It’s right next to Thailand, isn’t it? Yes, but the border area is unstable. There is on-and-off internal fighting in Myanmar, between the government and ethnic minority rebels, in the eastern part of the country, near the border with Thailand. There are also certain places where overland travel is off-limits to foreigners, as decreed by the government. So while there are a few border crossings, most of them are only open for day-trippers (used mainly by merchants selling goods on either side of the border, or foreigners renewing their Thai visas) and the few that are open, might as well not be, because foreigners can only get so far before reaching an “off-limits” zone and having to hop on a plane. The main areas of interest to visitors are primarily in the center of the country, and these areas are very far from the fighting and any accompanying nastiness. So the best bet, as of now anyway, is to enter by air.
In the past, the leader of the Burmese pro-democracy party, Aung San Suu Kyi, has encouraged a total tourism boycott. This was in response to the government’s “Visit Myanmar Year” project in 1996, in which forced labor was used to construct roads and airstrips to ready the country for what it hoped would be an influx of visitors. (Less than 200,000 came.) And that’s just one episode. Every day, human rights abuses are rampant, people lack basic freedoms such as free speech, and next year marks 50 years under military rule. Nothing appears to be changing, despite recent “elections.” Yet Aung San Suu Kyi has changed her position. The reason is, she says, because she’s realized that foreign tourists can be a boon to Myanmar, if they avoid government-owned hotels, transport, and restaurants in favor of privately-owned businesses. Myanmar has one of the lowest per capita GDPs in the world, and they desperately need the money that tourism can bring. While every business must pay federal taxes, an independent tourist can make sure 85-90% of their spending goes in the pockets of ordinary people. Based on our experience, this is really not hard to do. Private businesses make up the bulk of businesses in Myanmar, especially at the budget end of the spectrum.
The other benefit tourism can bring is awareness. The Burmese we met were always keen to ask about foreign countries and likewise encouraged us to tell our friends and families about Myanmar. Several people told me “come back next year” and “bring your mother, father, sister, brother.” If there was ever a citizenry that should not be judged by its government, it is the Burmese. In contrast to the government’s secrecy, the people we met were very open and talkative. They are hopeful that they will see real democracy soon, and anxious for support of the international community. They watch the news- everyone we met was very interested in politics- and one man wanted to talk to me about what was happening in Libya. He was heartened by the decision to implement the no-fly zone, and he suggested to me (in total seriousness) that perhaps the US could invade Myanmar next, to help the people overthrow the military junta.
One of my friends told me that Myanmar is very high on his list of “places to never go.” I understand the sentiment, because it seems like it would be a difficult place to travel, that it might be dangerous for a capitalist devil Westerner, or that it would just be too sad to visit a country where the people lack so much. However, I told him to reconsider his list. Myanmar is full of surprises. It’s safe, easygoing, and we encountered no problems with government officials. Everything we ate was delicious. The temples are incredible and the ruins of Bagan rival Angkor Wat. Best of all are the Burmese people. They are poor, but the most generous I’ve ever met. We, who have comparatively huge bank accounts, were given gifts and treated to several meals, with no expectation of reciprocation. Whenever we were lost, people went out of their way to help us find the right bus or even walk us to where we wanted to go. It’s a fantastic place to visit and I would encourage anyone to go. And bring your mother, father, sister, brother.