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Published March 8th 2015
Things to be aware of when enjoying yourself in Myanmar
It was only a few years ago that a holiday in Myanmar would have been unthinkable. Overseen by an oppressive military regime right up until 2011, the South East Asian state was the scene of a catalogue of human rights abuses as the authoritarian junta refused to cede power.
With the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in 2010, and the dissolution of the military junta the following year, Burmese society began its movement towards democracy. It continues to be a bumpy ride, but modern day Myanmar is more stable than it has been in recent years, and is cultivating a steadily flourishing tourist industry.
That said, Myanmar continues to have its fair share of problems; problems which visitors to the country need to be aware of if they are to have a positive impact on a society desperate for tourism revenue.
In an interview conducted by Lonely Planet author Austin Bush in 2008, democracy activist and politician Aung San Suu Kyi outlined her view on tourism in Myanmar;
"Foreign tourists could benefit Burma if they go about it in the right way," she said, "by using facilities that help ordinary people and avoid using facilities that have close links to the government."
Aung San Suu Kyi's house, University Avenue, Yangon
As the veracity of Myanmar's election results are disputed, and the nation continues to feature high on international corruption indexes, visitors are advised to try to give their money directly to the local people that need it most.
It is impossible to visit Myanmar without putting some money directly into the hands of government officials – for starters, you must pay a visa fee, and then pay subsequent fees to visit major tourist regions such as Nyuangshwe and Bagan – but a responsible tourist can minimise this.
For example, you can shop around when booking tours. Where possible, try to book tours from local operators and not government sponsored entities. You can also try to spread your money by visiting different, locally-owned restaurants and attractions in each area you visit, ensuring that a larger number of impoverished locals receive valuable business.
It is easier to do this for an individual tourist than one on a (usually government sanctioned) package tour.
An even more active way is to donate money directly to local construction or redevelopment projects. The Burmese are a friendly bunch, so at some point during your stay you will probably hear about some kind of community endeavour taking place in the area. Offering to help out in a polite way is great way to make sure your money goes where it's needed most.
Don't Cause Trouble
As mentioned above, it's fairly likely that at some time in your holiday you will end up having a chin-wag with a local. It goes without saying that this is encouraged, and is emblematic of a nation that is steadily opening up to foreign visitors and joining the international community.
That said, it's vital that you don't do anything that could get your new friend into trouble. Don't engage them on political subjects, even if they seem happy to discuss them. Tourists are constantly under surveillance in Myanmar, and if the wrong person hears the wrong thing, the repercussions could be severe.
If a local resident does decide to share something potentially incriminating with you, don't name them on your travel blog, even when you are back in the comfort of your own home. There have been instances of the Burmese government trawling travel blogs and causing big trouble for the citizens named in them. So just be careful and responsible when sharing your experiences with the world.
Lastly, think twice before blaming someone or reporting someone following a crime. For example, if you have your wallet stolen on a bus and you report it, the police will find punishing the innocent driver much easier than chasing shadows and trying to find the real culprit. Before reporting a crime, stop to think if the person you are planning to shop is really to blame!
Myanmar's traditional values may be a little different from your own, so it's important to remain respectful and careful when in the country. Seemingly innocuous things like pointing at someone with your feet can cause offence in Myanmar, so be aware of this.
Traditional Burmese longyi, as modeled by the author
Touching monks and nuns is frowned upon, as is wearing your shoes inside a temple or on sacred grounds. Also, while Myanmar can be a stiflingly hot country at times, try to refrain from taking your top off or walking around in swimming trunks. You will notice that most Burmese tend to dress pretty conservatively, using long, flowing fabrics to combat the heat, so try to do as they do.
Myanmar is a beautiful country and one that definitely should not be missed on any trip to South East Asia. Through responsible tourism and a true traveler's attitude, visitors can work together with the Burmese people to help the country develop further in the coming years. It just takes care, respect and compassion.