For years, Myanmar—better known by its colonial name, Burma—has been high on my list of places I wanted to visit. But the tourism boycott called by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and the country’s unstable politics held me back. The military junta’s brutal crackdown on monk-led protests in 2007 also left a bad taste for many a conscientious traveler.
Recently, though, the country has opened up a bit following elections last year—which admittedly were engineered in favor of the military-backed party—and Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest. (Suu Kyi also reversed her stance on tourism two years ago.) The chance to go to Yangon—or, Rangoon—cropped up recently, and I leapt at it.
Yangon was once a key port in the British Empire and vestiges of that glorious past are evident everywhere. Downtown Yangon is filled with crumbling but still stately colonial buildings—they look like the architectural equivalent of Miss Havisham. Many of the older people that I met spoke flawless Queen’s English and students were streaming into the American Center, which features prominently in George Packer’s insightful 2008 New Yorker piece.
It is hard not to notice how far behind Yangon is compared to other Asian cities. Clapped-out Toyota Corollas serve as the taxi fleet—forget about air-conditioning—while the jungle reclaims once-gracious colonial villas. Western brands are all but absent due to harsh sanctions and boycotts. The city is remarkably safe, but at night you have to navigate carefully around the crater-sized ditches that riddle the streets and sidewalks.
Still, there’s a sense of optimism in the air. “Change is coming, but slowly,” one driver told me. Tourists, mostly European, are packing the city’s hotels. Locals are remarkably candid and forthright about their country’s politics—perhaps even more so than in Thailand, where I live. At one gallery hung a painting of Suu Kyi, entitled “Mother,” which would have been unthinkable a year ago.
So should you visit Myanmar? My opinion is an unequivocal yes. It’s a fascinating country with a unique and rich culture, and you’ll meet remarkable people. And frankly, isolation has not helped ordinary folks, the majority of whom say having visitors will help the country to open up further. In fact, tourism never did prop up the military rulers—Chinese, Indian, and Thai investment in the country’s vast resources did and still does.
If you do go, there are steps that you can take to ensure you’re traveling ethically. Avoid the government-run hotels and properties run by cronies. (In Yangon, head straight to the Governor’s Residence, one of the loveliest hotels in Southeast Asia). Patronize local businesses and make sure to spread your money around. If you’re using a travel agent, investigate to see if they can arrange for a donation to a clinic or school. Or better yet, use a travel agency that has a community-development program. If you use a travel agency in the U.S., find out if their local partner is a private company, rather than a state-run one. Talk to locals but let them bring up politics. Don’t go on tours that treat ethnic minorities as freak shows, such as the exploited “long-necked” Paduang women in northern Shan state.
One final tip: pack a couple of paperbacks with the view of giving them away. There’s always an eager student who would be happy to receive them.
Jennifer Chen is Travel + Leisure's Asia correspondent. You can follow her on Twitter at xiaochen6.