So you’ve decided to go to Burma/Myanmar?
Let’s make it a great experience for both you and the local community.
A good number of travel guides provide readily-available advice on making your travel easier and simpler. Here, we have decided to add information that we feel is useful from the perspective of responsible traveling.
Responsible Travel to Burma 101
Before You Go
Do some research before deciding on a trip. Aside from learning about popular tourist attractions, try to dig deeper and find out more about the history, current political situation and any recent controversies that put in jeopardy human rights, natural resources or equitable distribution of economic resources. Some basic orientation in local culture and a few words in Burmese go a long way to having a good start on your trip.
Getting There and Around
Take care when choosing an airline. Burmese/Myanmar airlines are still linked with the government and as of 2013, the government still spends more than 20% of the national budget on the army (compared to 3.9% on health and 4.4% on education); flying government-controlled airlines feed this budget.
Within the country’s borders, the best way to avoid adding to the government coffers is to go by bus with a private company.
For transport in towns and villages, you can use privately-owned rickshaws.
Tip: In Rangoon, try the Golden Harp Taxi Service – this is a collective of taxi drivers made up of former political prisoners. Riding with them gives jobs to people who still face a lot of discrimination because of their political activities. Plus, in a country where cabbies were taught not to engage with their foreign visitors, they will not be afraid to give you their frank assessment on (not just) the current political situation. To contact Golden Harp Taxi, call +95 9 428117348, +95 9 450019186, or +95 9 449004810
Where to Go
Burma offers so much – history, beautiful nature, relaxing beaches. The government makes an effort to steer visitors to a limited number of destinations on what’s known as the “tourist circuit.” Main destinations here are Rangoon (Yangon), Mandalay, Bagan, Inle Lake and a few beaches along the coast.
Try to add variety to your list of destinations – mixing popular sites with lesser-known ones. Limiting your travel to Burma’s biggest attractions does not necessarily guarantee the best experience – opting for a slower pace might allow you to see more of the “real” Burma.
Burma still retains the so-called “restricted areas” where foreign visitors can only enter with special permits. These areas often overlap with sites inhabited with ethnic minorities. A number of these zones are opening up with a few tourist agencies offering trips as part of full itineraries, which means the required paperwork can be done for you.
Why do the restricted areas exist? Aside from officially-cited security concerns, it is a convenient way for the government to exercise control while earning some extra cash (which is not likely to go to the people living in the places you visit).
You can find a listing of the restricted areas here.
Ecotourism is a catch phrase that is becoming more and more popular. You might want to do some independent research to confirm if a planned destination really meets your criteria for ecotourism site. Chin State is currently a big destination marketed for those interested in ecotourism. It is a beautiful part of the country and has been quite isolated up until very recently. Tourists often get offers to visit local villages and observe traditional customs. Use your common sense to determine how this can be done without treating the locals as a “human zoo.”
Where to Stay
Luxury hotels, despite their price tags, do not guarantee that you and the workers there are getting the best deal. Luxury hotels are often owned by cronies connected to the army (ex-generals, their friends and family members). Some luxury resorts were allegedly built on land confiscated from local farmers without rightful compensation.
We highly recommend responsible travelers to stay in smaller, locally-owned hotels and Bed-and-Breakfast establishments.
Please avoid hotels and other tourist services built on religious and/or cultural heritage sites. Yes, having a pagoda in the garden of your hotel might seem romantic but let’s remember that before the hotel wall was put up, this was a sacred place where people worshipped. Similarly, having a dinner party in the middle of a cultural heritage site is grossly insensitive and not likely to help preserve the site for future generations. Bagan is the place where you should look out for such arrangements.
It is also important to know that in Burma, foreigners are only allowed to stay in hotels and B&Bs that have a special license for housing foreigners. In some places, most notably on the very popular hike trails from Kalaw to Inle Lake, this rule seems to be disregarded by tour companies and local authorities alike. In other places, it is enforced quite strictly. Check out this article citing the Burmese Minister of Hotels and Tourism stating that it is not “appropriate” for tourists to stay in local homes.
Do you wonder why your hotel is the only thing that’s lit up at night? The power grid is very strained in Burma and the power supply is unreliable. It may come as a shock to many that power is sometimes diverted from local neigborhoods to service hotels. In addition, hotels and restaurants tend to have private generators to ensure power. Diesel generators are one of the least efficient and environment-friendly forms of producing electricity. Feel free to let your hotel management know that you could do with fewer lights, less air-conditioning or more solar panels to offset energy needs.
Where to Eat
Experiencing the local cuisine can be the highlight of any trip. Burma has many excellent dishes on offer. Eating and drinking in local restaurants and tea shops is a great way to support local businesses. Even if you are only staying in one place, do explore different joints and spread your money around. While luxury hotel buffets may look appetizing, chances are these are “Western” cusine. Ask yourself, did you travel this far to have pasta or steak for dinner?
In some locations, you might be tempted to try wild game. Don’t assume that because it is available, it is okay. Sometimes meat from endangered species is served because local business owners assume that this is what tourists want. This is illegal, disrespectful to the environment, and probably fuels a cycle of bribery so that officials will look the other way leaving restaurant owners alone.
What to Do
Have fun and mind the impact of your actions!
Choose shopping in small local shops over shopping malls and hotel gift shops. This way, you will be supporting local people rather transnational corporations or former army generals.
Facilities such as golf courses or swimming pools are a big strain on the environment, especially water resources. Alternatively, you may consider other activities that are more in sync with local circumstances.
Visiting museums and parks owned by the government directs your money to the army. A vivid demonstration of this is the Royal Palace in Mandalay. Yes, part of the palace is open to tourists and is considered an interesting historical building. But a bigger part of the complex was turned into a military base and warns tourists not to enter (or take photos). It’s not hard to equate payment of entrance fees as support for the guards who keep tourists off the other part of the property.
Want to help some of the most vulnerable people in Burma? You can donate money to monks or churches. Monasteries form an important part of the non-state-owned social system.
Respect the local culture and appreciate the quality of services available. Don’t expect to have pizza and a shopping experience like in Bangkok or Singapore. People in Burma are often inexperienced in their encounters with foreigners and believe they should offer you royal treatment. Be patient and open to learning.
Keep your eyes open and be critical.
Obviously, responsible tourists know that there is no way that child abuse nor sexual exploitation can be ever be considered acceptable. In case you witness questionable behavior from a fellow tourist, do feel free to let them know that you have noticed their actions and question whether they would do the same in their home countries.
Your money will not trickle down to all the people in Burma. So please consider supporting projects that help Burmese in exile and those living in remote areas. Urge your government, the governments of Burma’s neighbors, and foreign investors to prioritize human rights, ethnic rights, and a genuine and verifiable transition to democracy. Support Burmese free media and help spread awareness about Burma.
As part of our project, we would like to develop, together with partners, more practical ways to identify questionable businesses and to link to ethical tour operators.
Photo: Donna Cymek