Myanmar: To Go Or Not to Go?
Mention that you're thinking of going to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, and you're likely to get one of two reactions: scorn or a blank stare.
On one hand, the 'golden land' is untrammeled, extremely cheap and practically vacant by Southeast Asian tourism standards. The best diving on the planet is rumored to be located off Myanmar's unspoiled beaches. The ancient city of Bagan rivals Angkor Wat in splendor, yet no one is there. Two people will have a difficult time spending more than $4 for a full meal.
On the other hand, it is ruled by one of the most corrupt, oppressive military governments in the world. Western human rights groups have called for a tourism boycott and economic sanctions to protest the government's human rights record, particularly the brutal crackdown of pro-democracy demonstrators in 1988 and its failure to recognize the results of the 1990 elections. Burmese are strongly discouraged from having any contact with foreigners and the internet is off-limits.
So should you go?
There are a lot of good reasons why you should stay away. Myanmar's military government has set a high standard for abominable behavior. The junta that seized power in 1962 shut the country off from the world for 30 years. Then, they thumbed their noses at the results the 1990 election in which they were soundly drubbed by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD). They also killed 3000 pro-democracy demonstrators and have given comedians jail sentences for making mild jokes at their expense.
The economy is in shambles, though the country is not without resources. Myanmar exports a few high-end products that appeal to narrow subgroups of the population. It has been among world's leading producer of opium poppies. Rubies and emeralds are also mined and exported. Myanmar's Shan state keeps Bangkok's brothels supplied with teenage girls. By controlling the three most lucrative exports, the government has ensured that a few people become extremely wealthy and the rest live in grinding poverty.
Not only does the government's human rights record put it on the world's top-10 worst list, it also fails to provide basic services, including regular electricity, running water and waste disposal. Even the capital city, Yangon, has electricity only a few hours per day. What are referred to as roads in Myanmar, the U.S. Forest Service would be embarrassed to call their own.
But there are also excellent reasons to go and to go now. First, Myanmar is one of the few countries on the planet where Coca Cola is not sold and the Backstreet Boys have yet to invade. Indeed, very little has changed in rural Myanmar in hundreds of years. Most Burmese still lead very traditional lives. Nearly all men wear traditional sarong-like garments called longyis, though this, too, is mandated by the government. Because the American tobacco companies do not sell cigarettes there, few Burmese smoke them. For those seeking exposure to an Asian culture largely untouched by Western influences, Myanmar fits the bill.
Another reason to go is to experience hard core traveling without the luxuries provided by Bangkok's Khao San Road or Kathmandu's travelers' ghetto. Traveling in Myanmar requires time, patience and a spine of steel. The standard tourist circuit of the temples of Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake is a grueling, though fascinating, trip by bus. For example, a trip from Inle Lake to Yangon is just about 400 miles, though it can take 20 hours. One weary traveler characterized his trip from Yangon to Ngapali Beach trip as 'Nepalese drivers on Laotian roads.'
But for the adventurous traveler, challenges abound and the rewards are great. Beaches as splendid as Thailand's await, without the hordes. In the ancient city of Bagan, thousands of temples overlook the Ayeyarwady River. While government restrictions can make it difficult to take multi-day trips, the trekking centers of Kalaw and Inle Lake offer hikes into remote tribal settlements without the zoo-like atmosphere of Chiang Mai.
There is also a good, though potentially controversial, reason to visit Myanmar. Defying the tourism boycott can inspire disdain from Suu Kyi's vocal western constituency, but responsible travelers should make up their own minds about whether or not the boycott helps or hurts the Burmese people.
Independent tourists provide one of the few avenues of economic gain to which ordinary Burmese have access. Whether it's in the form of a payment to a guest house owner or a student guiding treks into the hills, independent travelers put money directly into the pockets of people who otherwise have few options. While it's impossible to keep all your money out of the hands of the government, careful travelers can make sure that the majority of it goes to enterprising Burmese who need it most.
Secondly, Myanmar's government oppresses in complete obscurity. Few westerners pay much attention to what happens there. If no one went to Tibet and saw what the Chinese are up to, it's doubtful we would have Tibetan freedom concerts. Myanmar probably will never capture the public's imagination the way the plight of the Tibetans has. But if a few more visitors gain an understanding of why people's eyes start to dart around when sensitive topics arise in conversation, maybe the world might start paying a little bit more attention.
Finally, visitors provide a critical information outlet that is shut off to ordinary Burmese. One activist who opposed the tourism boycott begged visitors to report what they had seen by writing letters to elected officials and contacting Myanmar embassies. It is hard to imagine that in the internet age such low-tech communications strategies are still needed, but outsiders who come in and leave are one of the few ways information gets past snarling government watchdogs.
Visiting Myanmar poses more ethical and physical challenges than most travelers want to address when planning a vacation. Meanwhile, Myanmar's golden temples, untouched beaches and easygoing culture beckon, while its oppressed people await someone to start paying attention.