The Irrawaddy has dedicated a large portion of its February issue to the sensitive issue of traveling to Burma. I have been inspired to write what I believe of this issue. Note that readers should not be persuaded or dissuaded by my opinions.
I visited Burma from December 2005 to January 2006, during the tourist peak season. My family went for many reasons, including celebrating the 20th anniversary of my aunt and uncle’s marriage, which they celebrated at a monastery in Rangoon. But my family ventured out of Rangoon, visiting Pagan, Mandalay and Shan State. Considering it was my first time visiting Burma, and because my parents were emotionally tied to their homeland, the experience was wonderful.
But, there are drawbacks. Of course, when one visits Burma, he is undeniably providing money to the military regime. Corruption is prevalent in Burma. Even if one were to stay in a small guest house, the owners must likely pay bribes to government officials to remain open and approved. Or if one decides to travel in luxury, and stay at a major hotel like Traders in Rangoon, which was built by Asia World Co., owned by the son of drug lord Lo Hsing Han, he still contributes to the government and illegal activities. To say the least, there is no way to avoid paying the government–if you don’t want to pay, don’t go.
Some people argue that traveling to Burma can be interpreted as a “stamp of approval” to the military regime. The National League for Democracy advises people not to travel, as does Aung San Suu Kyi. But, I personally believe that the best way people can get glimpses of Burma and the conditions under which people live, is to actually go there. The government may try to steer tourists clear of the intense poverty, but it’s unavoidable.
But from personal experience, Burma offers an almost authentic experience of the “old ways”, which has quickly disappeared in other heavily-visited countries like Thailand and Malaysia. Not to say that Burma has been westernized–in the decade following opening of Burma to the outside world, the country has undergone radical changes. Rangoon and major cities like Mandalay have undergone rapid transition, while towns like Pegu and Taunggyi have been nearly untouched.
But, traveling to Burma is still difficult and services are rudimentary. Exchanging money in the black market is difficult if you don’t arrange with tourist agencies or have local relatives and friends; the daily exchange rate varies and many will dupe unknowing tourists (because my family had no relatives in Taunggyi, we exchanged US dollars with hotel operators, who exchanged fewer kyat per dollar to make money). Also, traveling around is sometimes a hassle and potentially dangerous. Airlines do not follow many safety standards, although they have improved. The government, in a scramble to renovate potentially lucrative tourist sites, have quickly renovated or rebuilt sites across the country, failing to maintain historical accuracy in many cases. The Mandalay Palace is an example; it’s been rebuilt, with usage of corrugated sheet metal for the palace’s rooftops. In Pagan, an eyesore of a watchtower is being built to serve tourists who want to see Pagan in a panoramic view.
People also advocate boycotting travel to Burma because the influx of foreigners destroys local culture. This is true in many instances, of course. There has been rapid “Burmanization” of ethnic Inthas in Inlay Lake. In Mandalay, there has been increased Chinese influence, partially because the city is now half Chinese, predominantly those who recently arrived from Mainland China. Most tourists, who are from Europe or East Asia, have little contact with most people, though. But, Westernization and erosion of local culture is unavoidable; it is what is occurring in all countries.
What annoys me most about pro-democratic Burma advocacy and activist groups is that they are dogmatic in telling people what to do. They blacklist companies which publish tour guides for those who may want to travel and need resources to understand the country. I think it’s a personal choice, something people should decide for themselves. However, tourists are often ignorant in many cases, regardless. They do not make themselves aware of the political situation and visit purely for leisure and recreation. This is wrong–tourists should always at least know what they are getting themselves into.