‘This is Burma’, wrote Rudyard Kipling. ‘It is quite unlike any place you know about.’ Also known as Myanmar the reason this country can be considered an eco destination is that it remains relatively unchanged from how the British found it in colonial times. The Western way of dressing isn’t mainstream here yet, so you will still see men wearing longyi, like a sarong or pareo. You won’t see the fast food outlets that have infiltrated every other corner of the world. You likely won’t have cell service, and the internet will be sporadic and slow. Plan to disconnect from the rest of the world during your visit. Slow down and enjoy the sights, and give yourself plenty of time to get anywhere because you will be sharing the road with a horse and buggy.
The country sits between India and China, and also shares a long stretch of border with Thailand. The culture is distinct from the other countries, though it does blend in aspects of each. The people are predominantly Buddhist, about 80% of the 60 million people, and this has a great influence on their lives. They are also very traditional when it comes to family and taking care of their elders.
The Moral Question
On the other hand, you have to decide whether or not to go to a country where the government has such a lousy human rights record. In the past, the National League for Democracy has discouraged visitors because to spend your tourist dollars there meant lining the government’s pockets. In a way, it’s a very similar argument that we have about tourism to Cuba. To go there supports the Castro Regime, to stay away means a lower quality of life for those who rely on tourism to keep their heads above water. In Burma we’ve heard of forced labor crews working on developing tourist areas. It’s hard to wrap your head around.
The New Regime
In 2011, a quasi-civilian government was sworn in, and the NLD has done a 180 and reversed the tourism boycott in the hope that responsible, thoughtful travelers can help create changes in Burma. The Burmese are very welcoming, and it is possible to enjoy a trip there while making sure that most of your tourism dollars get into the hands of the people, rather than the government. The Lonely Planet’s website has a list of government run attractions to avoid, including most organized tours which will often steer tourists toward businesses with ties to the government, and tips on how to spend your money at small family run restaurants and hotels.
Leave A Small Footprint
Myanmar is a safe country for tourists to visit, and locals should be treated with a great deal of respect. Just like in Cuba where you will get standard and safe answers from locals if you ask how they feel about their government, it’s wise to avoid talking politics. Ask permission to take photos of people or their children. No one wants to feel like a tourist attraction because of the way they look.
A bicycle trip is probably the best, and greenest way to explore the country at handlebar level. Enjoy the warm hospitality, the delicious food, and the amazing scenery, while being unassuming and approachable.
Prepared by Tamai Lam. Tamai helps professionals and tourists learn Burmese by engaging in Skype lessons to improve conversational skills.