Just Back: Myanmar—Why Go Now?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Chen is Travel
+ Leisure's Asia correspondent. You can follow her on Twitter at xiaochen6.