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In 1999 National League for Democracy leader and Nobel Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi, called for a tourism boycott in Burma believing that money spent by visitors would be supporting the military regime and show international support for its practices.
In November 2010, right before I first moved to Thailand, she called for a lifting of the boycott saying that while the money spent by package tourists still went into the generals’ pockets, independent tourists were welcome and important to help better understand the country and its people. After living in northern Thailand for so long, most of the people I know have either traveled to or spent time living in Burma – it’s close, you can reach the Burmese border from Chiang Mai in just a few hours. I usually don’t hear of people having a moral dilemma of whether or not to visit the country, and therefore in some way support the military, but there are still many factors and ethical questions to consider when it comes to traveling responsibly in Burma.
Additionally, the country has seen a boom in tourism over the past three years but doesn’t have the infrastructure or procedures in place to handle it. There was a 93% increase of tourists visiting Burma in 2013 from 2012, and then another nearly 50% increase from 2013 to 2014. There are already many places in Southeast Asia where increased tourism has led to poor development. With such sharp increases in visitors to Burma, you can’t help but wonder what special places in the country are going to be completely taken advantage of overdeveloped, especially if the people visiting are unaware of the impact they have on the region.
My friend and I only spent a quick seven days in the country, so I’m in no way an authority on traveling in the region, and it’s impossible to always fully know where your money is going, what type of companies or people you’re supporting or what the full implications of your patronage are anywhere, but there are several simple ways to be mindful of how you travel through Burma (or any country for that matter).
While package tours may have seemed like one of the only ways to travel before, many roadblocks that were in place making it difficult to travel independently in the country, such as a lack of ATMs and the need to bring new, crisp American dollars to last your whole stay, no longer exist. (I had no problems using ATMs in Yangon, Inle Lake and Bagan, though they’re still only found in the country’s main tourist centers.)
If you visit Burma, some of your money will certainly go to the military government – required fees for your visa and entrance into special regions such as Bagan or Inle Lake are in place by the government and must be paid – but you can minimize how much you hand over by trying to patronize independent companies and endeavors. While some tour companies may be making an effort to provide tour options that support small businesses and communities, you will have more control over where your money goes (and have it go further) if you organize your own travel plans.
Found a driver you love? You may feel like you want to stick with them, but try to spread your travel dollars around by not always using the same services or eating at the same restaurant (or hotel bar), but instead by trying different modes of transportation, and seeking out small, family-owned operations. (Another note on transportation, it’s better to use local transportation or ground transportation over flying and organized tours as the domestic Air Bagan and Asian Wings Airways are owned by a Burmese billionaire that has close relations with the government.)
Along with not supporting expensive package tours, stay out of the luxury hotels as well. Personally, I would feel uneasy staying in a luxury property in a country where most of the people would never, ever be able to even come close to affording a stay there as well, but it’s thought that many of the luxury hotels are also strongly connected to the government. (Note that only specially-licensed properties are able to house foreigners and people can get in trouble if they welcome foreigners into their homes or have them stay the night.)
As with anywhere, giving money and treats to begging children only helps keep them stuck in a cycle of being forced to beg instead of attending school or learning how to work elsewhere. It seems harsh, and feels terrible, to look at a begging child and tell them no, but instead of playing into that system you can find other ways to help groups and communities, such as donating to a respected NGO or school.
Leaving Inle Lake I met a traveler with a hideous necklace around his neck that he claimed was made with tiger teeth. He had purchased it that morning from a nearby market and was clearly proud of his find. Who knows if it was really real, but the fact that this guy was willing to buy a product made from threatened and endangered species is sad and ignorant. Buying products like this supports the mistreatment and poaching of animals as well as a twisted black market.
Again, I would imagine it’d be difficult to tell whether that “antique” you’re eyeing is real or not, but regardless, it’s better to stick to purchasing sustainably produceable arts and crafts by the country’s talented craftsman. Taking antiques out of Burma is taking away part of the country’s culture and heritage…and they’ve already had an awful lot taken from them.
Eating at places not geared toward tourists is almost always cheaper, better and more enjoyable wherever you go. It also helps supports the local community and workers instead of larger chains.
Coming from Thailand, we wanted to see if “Burmese massages” were similar to traditional Thai massages and found a massage shop on one of the main roads while at Inle Lake. While it may have been family-owned, I’m glad we waited because we later came across a small private home, complete with laundry in the front yard and half dressed children running around, where one of the women and her mother gave massages. The family, consisting of the matriarch and her three daughters were taking care of their combined eight children. Knowing what I know of the system of bribery and corruption in Thailand, I’m sure the family probably pays a certain amount to the local police or government for being able to run their small business, but it felt more right to be able to hand over cash to these women with their family right there, than giving money to a more established looking shop.
It’s impossible to always do and say the right thing when visiting a new country. On a (loooong) train ride we asked another foreigner and her Burmese colleague how much longer we had until our stop. She warned us it was considered rude to ask how long things would take…there’s no way we could have known that before! While some situations will be completely unexpected or out of your control, there are plenty of common practices that are easy to pick up on such as taking off your shoes and socks when entering the grounds of a pagoda, not showing public displays of affection and not touching a monk. Any guide book will clearly list out the basics – pay attention!
Part of traveling responsibly is adapting to a country’s customs and expectations. In Burma, as with much of the rest of Southeast Asia, part of that means dressing conservatively and covering up wherever you are, but especially while visiting temples. Long loose layers also help keep you cooler and protect you from the scorching sun (it got up to 116 degrees Fahrenheit – 45 degrees Celsius while we were traipsing around Bagan!)
It’s funny how when someone visits a foreign country they suddenly feel like everything, and everyone, is on display for their own personal photo shoot. I find this especially true in places where the visitors are coming from richer, more developed countries and find where they’re visiting “charming” – it makes me incredibly uncomfortable. Instead of truly interacting with people, they’re trying to get shots of them, sometimes discreetly, sometimes blatantly. While some people are fine being photographed, others aren’t and a responsible traveler should make sure it’s okay first before snapping way. I try to always ask someone if I can take their picture before doing so or at the very least sneak a shot where you can’t see their face. When I’m at a place where it’s okay to take photos, such as an artist’s workshop, I still try to ask and leave a small donation or make a purchase. If not, I don’t take the photo. (Also, if you do take a picture of someone, show it to them! Children especially love seeing their faces fill the screen.)
Interestingly, in Burma, as with India, who’s taking pictures of who changes as locals will come up asking to take their photo with you – we even had a young child monk motion for us to take a photo with him and his companions.
While we received mainly smiles and warm welcomes from the Burmese, it’s important to be aware that they need to be careful in the way they interact with foreigners so as not to cause suspicion with the government. With this in mind, let locals lead the conversation and don’t ask direct questions about the military and government. Our young guide for a day tour of Inle Lake was happy and knowledgable in answering our questions about his culture and life. Part way through the day I asked who was in some photos found in an important temple and he replied they were some of the army generals cautiously asking me if I had heard about the government. I replied that I had read a little and he said, “Yeah…everyone knows our government. They’ve done a lot…”, before changing the subject.
Additionally, reconsider visiting places that seem to treat ethnic minorities as oddities and attractions, such as the “long-necked” Paduang women in the Shan State (like around Inle Lake).
Have you visited Burma? What did you try to do to travel through the country responsibly? While it’s not very thorough, this tourist booklet highlights some of the main things to keep in mind to travel responsibly in Burma.