Should I go to Burma/Myanmar?
October 7, 2009 2:37 AM   Subscribe

Should I go to Burma/Myanmar?

I'm idly considering off the beaten track holiday locations for a trip at some undefined point hence - and one of the options is Myanmar.

Now, there are two broad schools of thought:

1) Go - you're contributing to the economy and helping open up the country
2) Don't go - you're only filling a murderous dictatorship's coffers

I'm aware of the ethical considerations for and against, but even ethical tourism companies diverge on their advice and increasingly people seem to be suggesting that it isn't unethical to travel there.

Has anyone been, or know someone who's been, who could give me more of a feel on what Burmese people actually feel about this when their views aren't being monitored by the secret police?

And are there better/worse ways to organise a trip so that the junta benefits as little as possible?
posted by MuffinMan to Travel & Transportation around Myanmar (Burma) (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Personally, I'd be worried for my own personal safety. Who knows whether the junta will decide you're a spy, a foreign journalist, or a rabble rouser.
posted by Netzapper at 3:40 AM on October 7, 2009

I'd go, but I believe in experience over security.
posted by rokusan at 3:48 AM on October 7, 2009

The reason for the conflicting advice is because the reality is you're doing both.

Your flight fees and much of the transport you'll take in-country, not to mention visa and various other sundries will go directly to supporting one of the world's worst regimes.

However, a lot of your accommodation, the food you buy, etc. etc. will go to Burmese people who could no doubt use the money. It's arguable in some cases that most of the Burmese who can afford to sell those things will be some of the relative 'winners' from the regime, and that you probably won't see many of the 'losers'. You could make a case that's pretty nit-picky, as well.

It's a tough situation and I would be reluctant to judge someone whichever they chose.
posted by smoke at 4:20 AM on October 7, 2009

I've met a few people who went. The Burmese were, by all accounts, lovely. They were apparently reluctant to discuss politics - and it is probably worth keeping quiet about yourself.

That said, I think people romantacize certain places when they know they are off the beaten path. I've been to places that were rarely visited but highly praised and left feeling quite underwhelmed and wondering what the fuss was about.

No one I met seemed to think they were in any sort of danger while there, but I'd still be cautious.
posted by backwards guitar at 4:26 AM on October 7, 2009

Sorry if I don't answer your query but I just want to share a book I picked up over the weekend.

If you do decide to go to Burma,you might want to read 'Finding George Orwell in Burma' by Emma Larkin first.
posted by kryptos at 5:17 AM on October 7, 2009

I would email the overseas Burmese democracy organizations (e.g. the Working Committee for the National League for Democracy, and simply ask them. During apartheid, for example, the ANC explicitly asked people not to tour South Africa.

My guess is that you would be defeating the intent of the international sanctions currently in place against the regime. Such sanctions will be lifted if the regime reduces the oppression.

Also, check with the State Department. Burma may be under the proscribed list along with Cuba and North Korea.
posted by musofire at 5:25 AM on October 7, 2009

I went to Burma about 10 years ago and loved it. Yes, the government is evil and oppressive, and yes, they will track you closely and randomly prevent you from visiting places, but the people are lovely and they really appreciated meeting outsiders. It's also a very safe society (people generally carry their money tucked into the back of their waistband out in the open). I balanced the anger I felt at having to exchange $300 U.S. dollars for FECs (official currency) at the border (in a blatant government tax grab) by shopping like mad in the local markets (bring lots of extra U.S. cash), eating in local food stands, etc. In my experience, the people felt a sense of hope in being able to talk with me and hear about the rest of the world. It's also a really beautiful place. Just don't do anything blatantly anti-government, and keep your passport close (mine was almost "accidentally" taken away by a guy at a totally random checkpoint on the way to a historical site).
posted by Go Banana at 5:39 AM on October 7, 2009

Oh, and no one I met in Burma calls it Myanmar. That surprised me. I guess the whole "Myanmar" thing is a government construct.
posted by Go Banana at 5:40 AM on October 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think musofire has it (wrt the Burmese expat orgs... I doubt the US state department gives a toss). I answer only because I have a friend who went (years ago), while I stayed in Thailand. In Bangkok there were a lot (it seemed) of activist groups emploring farang not to go to Burma - but I gather you knew that. My mate took rokusan's view. Myself, I had no plans, time, or dosh...
posted by pompomtom at 5:46 AM on October 7, 2009

While in SE Asia this past spring I met several people in Thailand who had just come back from there. Go Banana's comments sounds similar - to me it sounded like traveling in Laos or Cambodia (where I have been) - where the main risk to your person is having money or valuables stolen, but is overall quite safe for tourists.
posted by MillMan at 6:22 AM on October 7, 2009

Best answer: I've been. We were there last December to visit my partner's family who live there, and the touristy travel stuff we did was a secondary proposition, though still an important part of my experience. When we were out and about, we were not with a tour guide but with the people I was visiting. This, obviously, gave me a chance to see more of ordinary life than I would have had otherwise, and it's the way I'd wish everyone could visit. I don't know what the state tours show you, but I doubt they're going to take you to a little tea shop, or get you out in the country-side to see people working the fields with oxen, or selling food by the side of the road, or show you the book stalls out on the street, or let you learn how to make any meals, or meet with Buddhist monks, or give offerings before sunrise at a pagoda, or integrate you in any way into the rhythms of daily life. Perhaps you'd still get just as fine a sense of the country by following the tour but keeping your eyes open as well to what you're going past on the way to somewhere else, and I certainly think, depending on your reasons for going, you could still satisfy them, at least in part, though what I wonder about is your use of the word "holiday" and what exactly you wanted to see/do while you were there.

If you're looking for a beach, yes, you could go and sit on some gorgeous ones (I'll probably be doing a bit of that myself next trip). But I'd think a trip to Burma should be a learning experience, above anything. The reason I advocate going is for the outside world to learn about the country, and for the country to learn about the outside world. I think it's important to emphasize the junta's tyranny at any opportunity, but I also don't want that tyranny to be all the world knows about Burma. The people are incredibly kind, generous, stoic, and welcoming. They have a beautiful country, a rich heritage, and a strong and meaningful Buddhist culture.

You will feel the effects of the trade sanctions as you go about and see the reduced products available. Personally, I'm in favour of engagement over sanctions, because I think they're a dead end in terms of bringing change. But that's a discussion for another question. The point is, with economic sanctions come emotional sanctions. Are you helping the country more by being part of it or staying away from it? We've tried staying away, and it only meant leaving Burma to suffer alone. I think we should try going. If you do it wrong, yes, you are adding to the problem. Even if you do it right, some money from your visit will end up in the hands of the junta. But so too when visiting any country. What you also send, though, and what the government can't take away, is a sign that the outside world is interested, and has its eyes open. Don't go to teach; go to learn, and not just about government or the situation in aggregate but about culture and daily life for the individual. Next time, I'd like to try to engage more with people we meet: to ask more questions, have more exchanges that weren't purely visual. Traveling with family, that will be difficult, but we'll see.

As for safety, I was much more concerned about the well-being of those I saw around me than I was about my own. I expected to feel watched all the time (by the junta, that is) but mostly I just felt like the government had vanished, leaving people to fend entirely for themselves. I'm sure, had I started to behave suspiciously, I would have started feeling some eyes on me pretty quickly. But as it was it was astonishing to see so little authority, when I had expected to find so much.

My one piece of advice if you do go is to wear a llongyi (the traditional sarong-type dress, worn in different styles for men and women: Burma is one of the few countries left in the world where traditional dress is still worn regularly in all levels of life, formal to casual). I found, as a medium-tall white bearded male, that I stood out, particularly the further we got outside Rangoon. But I never found that status uncomfortable. On the contrary, I've never felt so popular: everyone looked at me, and I had a sudden understanding of the unreality of what movie stars must feel like all the time. But as soon as I made eye contact and smiled back, everyone erupted into the biggest smile I've ever seen. It became a game almost. I think there were maybe a handful of people who didn't smile in friendship when I did. I think they wanted to test me, to see if I was coming with good intentions. I think the fact that I was sent a message that I was there to see the people, not just the scenery they happened to live inside.

Part of this, I suspect, was that I wore the llongyi. It felt like an easy way to communicate the message that "I'm here to understand and participate in your country; I don't just want to get chauffeured around, but want to feel what it is to live your life." I don't think it's cultural appropriation; I think it's respect. And wear sandals ALL the time, because you will be forever needing to kick them off to go barefoot.

In sum, I say go. And I doubt you'll find anyone who HAS gone who says otherwise. I expect the locals do resent tourists who whip in and whip out, as locals do in all places where such things happen. But I think the way they feel about you will depend a great deal on the way you feel about them, and how you choose to express that while you're there.

If you like, feel free to post some specific follow-up questions about your concerns or goals in going. I'll see if I can give more feedback particular to your interests, instead of this likely unhelpful ramble about my own experience there.

Oh, and if you'd like to see photos from my trip (flickr self-link, obviously) go here.
posted by roombythelake at 6:29 AM on October 7, 2009 [8 favorites]

If the Burma Democracy organizations aren't against folks traveling there, I would go. Not only to experience the loveliness of the people of that country. But to express, just by showing up, that they have not been forgotten by the rest of the world. Like roombythelake, I'm almost always in favor of engagement over sanctions.
posted by jeanmari at 6:42 AM on October 7, 2009

Should I go to Burma/Myanmar?

Yes. The people are lovely, and the country is beautiful. If tourists actually made the effort to research how most countries are run, and then decided which the countries they weren't going to visit based on sundry objections to the respective crappy governments of those countries, the number of destinations on the guilt-free list would be very limited indeed.

And are there better/worse ways to organise a trip so that the junta benefits as little as possible?

Not sure if it's been mentioned, but FECs are done with. When I was there, I put as little hard currency in the junta's pocket as possible. I did not go to Bagan or any other site which charged a USD (or local currency) entrance fee. Unfortunately, the guesthouses are required to hand over half the money you give them. Having said that, you can go and put money in locals' hands in markets, restaurants, etc.

I was there to interact with the people and get a feel for their situation. Unfortunately on one occasion I was invited into the home of a local family who had nothing but disdain for the junta. Within no time at all, the local authorities were in there questioning them.

I enjoyed Hsipaw and a village I went from there, but can't remember the name. Since it's so far out of the way, it's an opportunity to stay in a local's house without fear of reprisal. Ask around as tourists who make the effort often end up there.
posted by gman at 7:29 AM on October 7, 2009

I am an introvert and don't like visiting places where I do not have a basic understanding of the native tongue. So Burma would not be for me but to each their own. It sounds like a nice place if you can get past the Junta. If you do go I would take in the culture, the local foods, and the people. They sound like they are lovely. However I would keep my nose clean and not try to rock the boat. Trust me the Junta is an evil, suspicious bunch of assholes. You won't see them but their eyes will be on you.
posted by Mastercheddaar at 7:39 AM on October 7, 2009

Best answer: Aung San Suu Kyi is now in support of tourism to Burma. To me, that means a lot -- she was part of the 8888 protests and has been imprisoned for about 15 years trying to help the situation there; her opinion is informed and worth respect, and she's more than shown that she only wants what is best for the people there. In 2002, she asked people not to vacation there, but a few months ago changed her stance. From here (and the article is worth a full read):
"Burmese opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi has indicated that she is no longer opposed to tourism to her country.

She is now saying that the development of the tourism sector can be encouraged, so long as it is part of private and not government enterprise, and that it might actually help draw more world-wide attention to the oppression of the Burmese people by the military junta. She made her views known through a member of her political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD)"
posted by Houstonian at 8:05 AM on October 7, 2009 [3 favorites]

As musofire said, the State Department has some good information for you.
posted by boeing82 at 8:26 AM on October 7, 2009

I went twice in 2005 and it remains one of my favorite travel experiences (out of a lot). The first trip was from Chaing Rai in Thailand up to Kengtung in the golden triangle. I mostly went to see the local tribes. Rules change all the time but back then I had to leave my US passport at the border in exchange for a hand made travel passport with my photo which was stamped at each police checkpoint on the way to Kengtung. They did this to track me and to make sure I didn't try to sneak into the restricted zones nearby.

A month later I flew from Bangkok to Yangon. This was before the capital was moved and before the big hurricane hit. At the time electricity went in and out and internet was sporadic at best. For the first week I was able to access email through my own server but my own website was blocked pretty quickly and I had no contact with the outside world for a month. English is fairly widely spoken, at least by older and more educated people.

Money was a problem as no credit or ATM cards or traveler's checks are available. I had to go to a bank in Thailand before I came in and get a lot of crisp US dollars. Myanmar isn't very expensive but two flights and a month of food, travel and hotels adds up. At the time those FEC certificates that were mentioned above were no longer required. I just traded money on the black market at a jewelry store.

Although I haven't kept up to date on the travel situation there I haven't heard anything about it being more dangerous than when I went. Granted, I go to some dangerous places and am fairly adventurous but I was also in my 20s and a female traveling alone.

There's no way you can give no money to the government. There's plane and train tickets, entrances to some sites that you'll pay to the government. Overall though you can help stimulate the local economy with your dollars and it will be appreciated. I haven't heard many people talk about this but almost all of the guesthouses I stayed in (usually the cheapest available) were owned by Chinese transplants as well as a lot of the restaurants. There's an amazing amount of tension between different groups of people as Burma wasn't under one common rule until fairly recently.

I have a pretty extensive travel blog, a map of the route I took in Myanmar and the costs (from 2005 though!). PM me if you're interested.
posted by Bunglegirl at 9:36 AM on October 7, 2009

Oh, and no one I met in Burma calls it Myanmar.

That's funny. When I visited there a few years ago, I met several people who were very insistent that it be called Myanmar. Whether they were government stooges and the silent majority preferred Burma, I don't know (and yes, I read the Wiki page on the origin of its name), but I vividly remembered conversations with people who argued vociferously that Burma was an unwanted colonial name.

I went pre-Nargis and pre-Saffron Revolution, so things might possibly well have changed dramatically, but Myanmar/Burma was by far the greatest and most fascinating country I've ever visited. The people there are so much friendlier, the touts aren't nearly as aggressive (or even existent), and I felt so much safer than the rest of SE Asia. I would make an especial effort to go there during Thingyan, the Buddhist new year.

My only suggestion is that you really try to go there for a full month. I went for a month to the major sites (Mandalay, Yangon, Bagan, Hsipaw, and Inle Lake) and probably spent a week of that time in interminably slow transit (day-long bus and boat rides).

This is my take on whether or not you should go. If you were to just stay at home because the thought of a single penny somehow making it into the junta's coffers offends your liberal sensibilities, that's all Myanmar will be to you: some sort of vague political position, to be filed away mentally next to your other half-thought out impressions on national health care and global warming. But if you were to actually visit, I guarantee that the people and the land will make such a deep impression on you, that you'll find yourself caring so much more deeply for this country. Which one do you think aids the military junta more?

Check out my pics!

Unfortunately on one occasion I was invited into the home of a local family who had nothing but disdain for the junta. Within no time at all, the local authorities were in there questioning them.

Interesting. I met more than several people who had openly nothing but acid disdain for the junta. Indeed, I was struck by this, when compared with having lived in China for a couple of years and how most foreigners assume that local Chinese bristle under commie rule but practically no one would admit as such to a foreigner. OTOH, I hired a tour guide outside of a temple in Yangon who was so staunchly pro-government, I began to suspect he was some sort of secret police.
posted by alidarbac at 10:14 AM on October 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

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