Part of the reason I love living here is Bangkok is because it’s a breeze to travel around Southeast Asia. However, planning a trip to Myanmar (formerly Burma), which borders Thailand, required much more thinking, researching, and planning than visits to other neighboring countries.
STEP 1: Deciding. The first essential question to consider before planning a trip there is, asking yourself, do I really want to visit Myanmar? This question is ask-able now that Myanmar has (recently) opened its borders to tourists.
Visiting Myanmar means supporting a country who has sustained one of the most persistent and corrupt military dictatorships in the world. The military regime has, more recently than not, rejected aid and volunteers during natural disasters (leading to many preventable deaths). They have imprisoned and tortured writers, journalists, teachers, politicians etc. for speaking out against the regime. They held Aung San Su Kyi, a prominent political activist working to bring Democracy to Myanmar, under house arrest for 20 years.
Myanmar’s military regime holds one of the worst track records for violating human rights, and one of its worst offenses may be denying an entire nation of people the use of their voices through extreme censorship. Myanmar is a beautiful country full of natural resources, but only very few see this wealth; the majority of the people are poverty stricken and are faced with overwhelming sense of isolation and despair.
You cannot travel in Myanmar without a portion of your money falling into the deep pockets of the current ‘Union Solidarity and Development Party’ (military-backed) which seems to continue keeping its citizens repressed. So, one is faced with a tough decision.
Step Two: Researching. There are ways to spend wisely in order to keep more of your money in the hands of the people. I found that traveling solo meant that I could be more responsible for where my money goes.
There are some fees that go directly to the government which are hard to avoid. For example:
However, I tried to keep government fees to a minimum. I stayed in a privately owned guesthouse, ate local food, did sightseeing without a tour group, and chose activities which were free or required less spending. I recorded every single expenditure during my 5 days in Yangon. I spent about 228,000Ks (about $228), and I know that 43,278Ks (about $43) went directly to the government. This means that about 18% of my money went directly (and probably more went indirectly) to the government.
Step 3: Preparing. Apply for a ‘Visa on Arrival’ from a trustworthy company online, and get your hands on some brand spankin’ new dollar bills, which you can change into kyat… on the street. Which brings me to my next point…
Step 4: Mentally Preparing. Advice given to people traveling to Myanmar is often counterintuitive to the travel advice we have heard all our lives. Like, don’t worry about being pick-pocketed; if someone has your money, they are probably returning it to you because you dropped it. Or, always change your money on the street, it’s a better rate. (Both true.)
Furthermore, solo female travelers have been trained to turn a cold shoulder to men who approach them looking for conversation. Well, intuition and human compassion trumps travel advice. The people here have stories that need to be heard.
A Yangon resident in my old tattered Lonely Planet says, “Don’t come in with your camera and take only pictures. We don’t need that kind of tourist. Talk to those who want to talk. Let them know the conditions of your life.” Prepare yourself to stop and listen, and be open to the random interactions.
Step 5: Go, but don’t let the facade fool you.
Myanmar has been closed off for many years. This has been a blessing on hand, as Myanmar retains the innocence of a country untouched by globalization, and an almost unbearable burden on the other. As more tourists start to infiltrate this beautiful, lush country speckled with gold temples and genuine people, we can’t forget that we don’t always see what happens behinds closed doors. My best advice came from a lively young man who was eager to practice his English with me. He left me with these words.“Look deeper. There is very rich, very poor here. People come here and go to the sites, la de da, but you have to look closer- information doesn’t leak right away…”
Although Myanmar may have the facade of your average underdeveloped country, it goes way beyond that. Myanmar’s brutal, violent history seems to seep into the every facet of present and weigh the country down in a perpetual state of fear, which is masked by an artificial facade of normalcy. Emma Larkin reminds us that, luckily, “history has shown that regimes which rule against the will of the people cannot last.”
I can only hope that hope, opportunity, listeners, and learners have been building up around Myanmar’s borders and will be able to continue flooding into the country. The people of Burma are looking forward to the 2015 elections, and the work that Aung San Suu Kyi is doing with the National League for Democracy (NLD) will hopefully continue to bring more positive change to the country.