Debate over whether or not travelers should go to Burma has raged for decades, boycotters claiming tourist money is used to support the government’s abhorrent regime. But a host of privately owned tourist facilities are now making it possible for tourists to avoid government services altogether. Do the old arguments still ring true?
Rudyard Kipling, the Indian-born author and poet travelling in the late 19th century, wrote, “This is Burma and it will be quite unlike any land you know about”. He was right. Scenically spellbinding, with teak wood forests, ruins of ancient civilizations along the banks of meandering rivers and among South-East Asia’s warmest and most welcoming people, Burma has all the elements of a perfect travel destination. But debate over whether or not tourists should visit has rung for decades.
Those in favour of the boycotting have a list of legitimate gripes, including the government’s abysmal human rights record and brutal ethnic cleansing, most recently effecting the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group from the country’s Western Arakan State. The onset of Visit Myanmar Year in 1996 was followed by claims that child labour was being used to build tourism infrastructure: new roads, the Mandalay Palace, airstrips. Residents were evicted from tourist sites like Bagan, which authorities claim was to protect the beguiling temples dating back to the 13th century.
The September 2007 uprising by Buddhist monks protesting against government fuel subsidies, shortly followed by the abhorrent reaction to Cyclone Nargis, which reportedly killed more than 140,000 people, added fuel to the fire. Going there, say the boycotters, helps affirm and finance the junta’s regime. It’s a stance that has been supported by the democratically elected Prime Minister, Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent much of the past 20 years under house arrest- although recent reports suggest her views on the issue is now wavering.
Opponents of the boycott argue that tourism breaks the isolation for citizens living in this pariah state. Foreign tourists- especially those from Western democracies- are vital for the psychological wellbeing of the Burmese. Tourism is also one of the only industries which ordinary Burmese can access hard currency and communication with the outside world. Besides, more than a decade of travel boycotts has not had a discernable impact on Burma’s brutal and xenophobic government.
According to Burma’s Ministry of Hotel and Tourism, only 200,000 tourists passed through Yangon airport last year (down from previous years), contributing less than 1.5% to the government’s kitty; loose change for the generals who benefit handsomely from selling the country’s natural resources of teak, gas and precious stones to their neighbours. The majority of these tourist dollars come from government owned hotels, museums, entry tickets to tourist sites, trains, the Inland Water Transport ferries and the national carrier Myanma Airlines.
Foreign tourists no longer have to exchange US$200 into Kyat at the government’s official exchange rate (which is .5% of the black market rate) and a slew of privately owned guesthouses and restaurants offer new lodging and eating options.
After nearly 12 years living and working in SE Asia, I decided it was time to go and see for myself. My boyfriend and I plan a trip to Burma’s greatest hits: Yangon, Bagan, Inle Lake and Mandalay. By travelling independently and, where at all possible, deliberately avoiding government services and businesses, we want to know how much of the boycotters’ argument rings true.
The first thing that strikes me when arriving in Rangoon (also known as Yangon) is just how relaxed everybody seems to be: from the immigration officers and airport staff who kindly help me find a trolley, to the sarong clad driver who chats endlessly on the dusty drive into town, then detours to the imposing Shwedagon Paya- a glittering shrine caked in tones of gold and topped with a 76-carat diamond – so we can get our bearings on this city of 4 million. Rangoon was the capital until 2005, when Senior General Than Shwe, apparently fearing a U.S. attack, relocated to Naypyidaw, 400 kilometers to the north, Yangon is a dusty jumble of 60’s office buildings and dilapidated Victorian buildings constructed during Britain’s 124 year colonial rule.
Rangoon teems with impromptu street markets flogging cheap Chinese goods, bootleg Hollywood movies and ageing copies of Newsweek and The Economist (most foreign media is banned). The second thing that strikes me is the lack of in-your-face billboards and neon-lit brand advertising, a welcoming change from Asia’s consumer frenzy. We check in to the Traders Hotel which is owned and run by Malaysian hotel group Shangri-La. It’s not the most charismatic hotel in town, but we are hoping the exceptional staff can help decode the country’s privately-owned long distance bus system; we’re heading to Pyay, a seven-hour trip in a rattling old bus.
To say that getting around Burma without the aid of trains and planes is trying is an understatement; perhaps, I think, its a conspiracy to keep self-regulating tourists on the beaten path. There are no real dramas getting to Pyay- a chirpy university town famous for Thayekhittaya, a collection of temple ruins dating back to the 5th century AD- but rather getting out again. The one bus heading in the direction of Bagan terminates half way and is sold out for days.
That night we meet two French men living in Madagascar. Eric and Thierry were also on a 10 day jaunt to Myanmar’s big four- and hoping to do it without using government-owned facilities. Did they have any qualms about visiting the country? “I don’t think my money will make an inch of difference to politics here” says Eric, who teaches English. “But it may to the people”.We decide to hire a car together to travel the 300 or so kilometers to Bagan. I mention this to the waiter and wake the next morning to a chorus of touts outside our guesthouse peddling their brothers/ cousins/ friends vehicles. A rusting Chinese pickup would have us hanging onto the wooden slats in the back. The shiny black 4WD only had two seats and wouldn’t budge for under US$500. We finally agree on an old but functional station owned by a suave businessman with a highly prized mobile phone glued to his ear (official mobile phones in Burma’s cost more than US$1400, more than the average annual wage).
We drive for more than 10 hours on a dusty, unmade road when the car starts to choke, slowing our 60 km/ h march to a snails oace. Then, with a final wheeze, the car stops. Pushing, fiddling, praying – the car doesn’t so much as croak until a truck rumbles by and offers a tow into the nearest town. But the town is off limits to foreigners, so although the wee hours of the morning, we have to find an onward ride to Bagan. Luckily in Burma, there’s always somebody happy to make a fast buck.
The eleventh-century capital of King Anawrahta, who is credited with bringing Theravada Buddhism to Burma, Bagan is one of Asia’s most beguiling treasures. Peppering a vast flat plain bordering the Irrawaddy River, several thousand temples, pagodas and monasteries sit amongst goat herders and grazing cattle. Far too big to contemplate on foot, we hire a man and his horse and cart to clip clop through the countryside, visiting little known temples and groan at the government’s watchtower and golf course plonked unceremoniously amongst the crumbling spires, returning to the village of Nyaung-U when the sky turns cherry pink and sinks down over the river.
Our next destination is Inle Lake in the eastern Shan State (Eric and Thierry have given up and buy air tickets back to Rangoon). We know the journey isn’t going to be easy, but when the bus picks us up at 4 am, I think there’s some mistake. Half the outside panels are missing and inside, the seats are so close together that I have to sit with my knees huddled against my chest. This is probably just as well because our luggage is on the floor, alongside sacks of rice, bundles of cotton and cages with clucking chickens. Three hours into the excruciating 11-hour journey I count 37 passengers inside the 18 seat bus, plus another three on the roof.
Days pottering around Inle Lake- trekking through the surrounding mountains, visiting the floating gardens and watching men paddle with one foot while fishing on the mirror-like lake- help to fade memories of the bus. There are a couple of privately owned resorts scattered around the edges of the lake- like the pretty Inle Princess Resort – but we prefer the convenience of the township of Nyaungshwe. We rent a huge cottage from a family, with wooden floors and planters chairs on the balcony, for US$30 a night.
A few days later I find myself wandering into a wooden shack advertising “Travel Arrangements”. I want some professional assistance planning the next jaunts, to Mandalay and then back to Rangoon. I also know there is an airport at Heho, 40 kilometers from Inle Lake, offering flights from a number of carriers- some, I have been told, privately owned. There are also “luxury coaches” running to Mandalay and Rangoon. I retell our epic adventures while avoiding government taxes to the travel agent, who finds it hilarious. “One day things [in Burma] will change”, he says, requesting I don’t use his name. “But for now, were just happy you came”.
Excluding visas and airport taxes, I roughly calculate that we spent roughly AU$1200 on our two-week holiday, including souvenirs purchased straight from the artisans. Less than AU$100 of this has gone to pay the mandatory 10% tax on hotels and restaurants.
This article appeared in the November 28, 2009 travel pages of the Sydney Morning Herald and Age newspapers.