Should you go to Burma (Myanmar)?

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First published 17th June, 2013

So we're just back from our first trip to Burma/Myanmar -- a trip we waited 20 years to do. While we had hoped to come away with a clear view that you, too, should visit Burma, we still think deciding to travel here remains a very personal choice requiring careful research and consideration.


We'll be the first to admit that unfortunately nowhere in Southeast Asia is exactly a beacon of human rights and political freedom. All have their issues -- disappearances in Laos, blogger arrests in Vietnam, extrajudicial killings in Cambodia, and that's just for starters -- but Burma has consistently managed to hit rock bottom in this regard.

It's true that the junta is no more, but like many things in Burma, the reality is far from black and white. The elections of 2010 were wildly regarded as fraudulent, with the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party winning over 250 of the 330 contested seats (the National League for Democracy did not participate). Many of the generals now hold ministerial posts within the government -- they've just switched the khakis for more casual attire -- and regardless, the military retains 25% of seats in parliament.


Old meets new in Bagan.
Old meets new in Bagan.

Burma still holds political prisoners, continues to use forced labour, has been alleged to be involved in ethnic cleansing with regard to the Rohingya and was named as the fifth most corrupt nation in the world by Transparency International. According to Human Rights Watch, Burma's human rights situation remains poor despite some noteworthy actions by the government toward reform and reports of using rape as a weapon continue to be levelled against the Burmese military.


Where those generals really belong.
Where those generals really belong.

As during the junta days, the (now-ex) generals are surrounded by a bevy of hangers on, commonly referred to as cronies, who continue to grab land and enrich themselves at the expense of all others. The tentacles of these tycoons stretch across all facets of the Burmese economy, including tourism, banking, schools, energy, cement, drugs and weapons. Where in the past, travellers who cared could work to minimise the amount of money they gave to the government, today, with the ever-expanding crony network, this becomes far more difficult.

Yes, there are some simple ways to reduce what you pay into government coffers, by for example not using the train network, but it's quite unrealistic and unworkable for travellers to steer their money completely clear of the all-pervading cronies.


Putting your money in the right hands.
Putting your money in the right hands.

And even if you think you've got your boycott list sorted out, you've got the 969 movement to deal with. This is a Buddhist anti-Muslim hate group that appears to be at least tolerated by the government. Led by a vitriol-spewing monk named Wirathu who spreads his message of hate via sermons and widely distributed CDs, many businesses, especially taxis, proudly display the 969 sticker. These are businesses that informed travellers should boycott.

Politics and religious affairs aside, visitors to Burma will come face to face with a very heavy-handed double-pricing system put in place for trains, buses and some hotels for foreign travellers. Your hotel may well be double the cost of that paid by a local. While we accept the we-pay-taxes argument when it comes to public services, we're not convinced by this when it comes to the private sector.


A beautiful country - even in the pouring rain.
A beautiful country - even in the pouring rain.

Significant stretches of the country require a government permit to visit on an organised trip. When we enquired at Myanmar Tour & Travel -- the government tourist agency responsible for permits -- about travel to Mrauk U in western Burma, we were told a permit was required and the tour cost (ex-Yangon) would be around $700, with the permit taking "five or so" days to arrange. Consider that a polite way of saying, "We don't want you to go there."

On the upside, every Burmese person we talked to supported foreign tourists visiting their country. By visiting, you'll be able to support small, family-owned businesses and the money is welcome -- particularly from those who make the effort to try and put it in the right hands. Also, by visiting Burma, and as with any country really, travellers are presented with an opportunity to better acquaint themselves with the situation on the ground. One would hope that an increased number of visitors to the country will help in some way to further open up the country for travel, in as positive a way as possible.


Plenty to meditate on.
Plenty to meditate on.

And what of the country's sights, people, food and so on? Burma is a completely fascinating place to visit. From the temples old and new to natural beauty and simply people watching on the streets, you won't be short of things to see and experience. We found the people by and large to be extremely hospitable and welcoming. And like everywhere in Southeast Asia, Burma boasts an excellent cuisine -- thick curries and tasty fresh noodles, often made by hand -- and it deliciously explains away the culinary transition from South Asia to Southeast Asia. Yes, there's a lot of oil free of charge, but it's easily eaten around, and the fresh salads and Shan noodles are delicious.

So if you do decide to go, what can you do to do it responsibly? Try not to use government services like trains, opting instead for private buses -- although note that some of these may be owned by cronies. If it's all getting too tricky to nut out - and it most probably, realistically, will -- then travel however you like, but do put aside some of your budget to make a donation to an organisation doing good work in the country. Try to support businesses doing good stuff, such as the Golden Harp Taxi Service in Yangon. Tourism Transparency has some suggestions for activities worth exploring.


It is going to be a long haul.
It is going to be a long haul.

What will we at Travelfish be doing? We'll have three writers there in the coming months and will be adding limited coverage for Burma to the site through 2013, primarily concentrating on the destinations most visited by independent travellers, and we'll re-assess the situation at the end of 2014.

We do feel that Burma is a destination that warrants further research by travellers in order to make an informed decision regarding whether they should visit or not. We waited 20 years -- if you're not sure yourself, give it a few more years.

Further reading

Democratic Voice of Burma
Tourism Transparency
Irrawaddy
Human Rights Watch on Burma
The National League for Democracy


About the author:
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton and he spends most of his time in Bali, Indonesia.


Read 5 comment(s)

  • Stuart it's great that you have been to Burma, born witness and can now comment through first-hand experience. What you say is all true but I think the tone of your report here is unfairly negative and, especially since the changes of the past couple of years, flawed by its reliance on brazen double standards.
    First, the double standards.
    Much of what you write about Burma is correct:
    1. It's corrupt. Government cronies pocket a lot of money.
    2. The military does and has done a lot of bad stuff.
    3. The 2010 election (not to mention 1990) was not exactly free or fair.
    4. Some money you spend will go to bad people.
    Equally correct is:
    1. Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand are also corrupt. Perhaps not as bad, but it's a marginal thing. Did any of that stop you going to or living in these places?

    2. The Vietnamese military has suppressed hill tribes for decades.
    The Thai military is responsible for how many coups (not to mention disabling Rohingya refugee boats and towing them off to sink in the Indian Ocean, targeting Muslims in the deep south, etc)?
    The Lao military has persecuted the Hmong for 40 years and, as you mention, were the last people seen with vanished Som Phan.
    The Cambodian military does whatever it wants and is directly involved in displacing people from land, illegally logging half the country's forest, illegal gem mining, etc etc.
    As for the Indonesian military, need I mention West Papua or Kopassus' record in Timor. Did any of that stop you going to or living in these places?

    3. Elections... where do I start. Vietnam, Laos and Singapore have never had a meaningful election (Hello Brunei and, ahm, China on this count, too). Cambodia might have had one in 1994, but that didn't end well, either. Thailand's electoral process is a farce burdened with vote buying. Malaysia just had an election, though Anwar Ibrahim wouldn't describe it as either free or fair. Did any of that stop you going to or living in these places?

    4. Some of your money goes to bad people/oppresive governments/government cronies every time you buy a ticket to Angkor Wat, every time you withdraw money from an ANZ Royal ATM in Cambodia, heck, every time you make a phone call, stay in a hotel, take any kind of transport in all the places mentioned above.
    (I don't have time to reference all these claims but the evidence is out there, as you know. If you cast the net further, you could probably lump all of Africa, Russia and Caucuses, most of the Middle East and a good chunk of South America into this stinky pot as well, and on the election point some Americans might have issue with a certain 2000 result, too.)
    Things change
    As you say, things are not as black and white as they might appear. A lot has happened in the past couple of years and in spending most of your piece referencing the litany or crimes of the past I don't think you've adequately acknowledged these.
    1. In 2010 the NLD rightly boycotted the elections, which as you say were a sham. But in 2012 the NLD ran in byelections for 44 seats and won 43 of them. These elections were widely described as free and fair and would have been unthinkable even a few months before they happened. When I was there last year, everyone I spoke with was greatly enthused (and not a little surprised) by the results. Worth acknowledging, I think.

    2. The constitution does ensure 25 per cent of seats are held by military officers and clearly that means it will be hard to have a fully functioning representative democracy. But Aung San Suu Kyi and her party have chosen to engage in this process. And while fully acknowledging all the bad things they have and continue to do, seeds of change have emerged from the top of the military. The senior general last year replaced a bunch of his captains and majors in parliament with more senior ranks because the former were not prepared to vote on issues, rather than as a bloc (and who can blame them, no doubt they were too scared that they'd get in trouble for doing the wrong thing). The result was that -- and who would ever have conceived of this a couple of years back -- most military members voted with the NLD to defeat at least one unpopular proposed legislative change late last year. This is worth noting and closer watchers of Burma than me have written that at the national assembly level Burma's democracy is more functional than just about any other in the region.

    3. Among the many new laws that have been written and passed into legislation are those banning forced labour (originally introduced by the British -- according to newspaper reports in Burma some officers have been court marshalled for not abiding by this), legalising unions and strikes, vastly reducing (if not entirely ending) press censorship (better than Laos and Vietnam and Khmer language press in Cambodia, at least), and perhaps most significantly but least reported, making ‘village chiefs' directly elected rather than appointed, thus reducing the power of regional authorities and giving local populations the say over what communal labour they perform (previously they were just told to pack up and go and build a road or some such for a weeks without pay).

    4. The government has also signed peace treaties with most ethnic minorities, ending decades of fighting in the border regions. These deals might not be perfect, and especially in far-north Kachin State, the military have been accused of committing real atrocities during the past couple of years. But it's a great improvement on the previous situation.
    Burma is changing probably faster than any country on earth. The task of building any kind of democracy can't be completed overnight. Last year several people told me that just changing the culture of a place (particularly in government institutions, ministries, police, army etc), where individual thought and decision-making had been discouraged for 60 years, would take years if not generations. And as anyone who's ever tried to manage even one or two people knows, getting people to change their ways is hard. Changing an entire country is epic.
    But the fact that the ruling regime, one with so much blood on its hands, has set forth down the road of reform needs to be celebrated. Yes, hold them to account for crimes past, present and when they happen in future, but equally give credit when it's due. That's only fair.
    On where your kyat goes, travel to Burma does put money in the pockets of ordinary people. And if money from your train ticket goes to the government maybe that's not such a bad thing, the railways need all the money they can get. Certainly, in five trips as a journalist and Lonely Planet guidebook author since 1999, I've yet to meet any Burmese - including many who have no stake in the tourism industry - who didn't want me to be there.
    Yes, travel to anywhere is a deeply personal thing. But before you decide that a few dollars going to a crony or corrupt minister is a dealbreaker, apply the same standard to the rest of Southeast Asia. If it's still a dealbreaker, buy a ticket to Europe (or the moon, that's free of corruption and cronyism).
    And for you, Stuart, if you want to apply these standards equally perhaps you better move back to Australia ;).

    Posted by Andrew Burke on 20th June, 2013

  • Well said Andrew. Really put the author in their place.

    Posted by Devon on 20th June, 2013

  • Hey Andrew,

    Thanks for the comment.

    A few points:

    On the double standard - yes am well aware of that and specifically raised it in the second par. I am completely aware that a story much like this could be written about many countries aside from Burma, but, well, this story is specifically about Burma -- and Burma is the only country in Southeast Asia who has been on the receiving end of a widely supported tourist boycott after their democratically elected leader was placed under house arrest. Should boycotts be put in place against Laos? Maybe. Thailand? They sure have democratic issues. So does the US. And Australia. But we're talking about a country here that actually has been boycotted and that boycott is now over; surely that means that travellers should think additionally about what there going there now means?

    I'm not telling people not to go, but rather trying to point out the importance on doing your research beforehand and doing it intelligently instead of just blindly going because "the people want us there" -- the links I supplied at the end of the story are a good starting point for considering how to do this.

    One point I am trying to make is that minimising your spend to the military elements still in government, and those friendly with the former junta leaders, is a bit of a big ask for an independent traveller. While this approach is heralded by publications like Lonely Planet, it's very difficult to implement.

    How does one establish the true ownership of a cafe/hotel/bus service? Should you indeed, as you say, cough up to pay for train tickets when this money may line the pockets of someone dodgy, or may go toward creating better infrastructure -- who knows? -- or should you try not to?

    It can be too hard to do, so our position is to perhaps spend on what you need to spend, but try to put aside money to make a donation to an organisation doing good work in the country. We will be writing more on this in the future, suggesting specific organisations we think are worth supporting.

    We do acknowledge that other NGOs in the region work hard to right wrongs as well -- that's why we promote and donate $100 a month to a different one each month across Southeast Asia, and suggest travellers to these areas considering making donations too. You can see those here:
    http://www.travelfish.org/feature/givingback

    Cheers & thanks for the comment.

    Stuart

    Posted by Stuart on 20th June, 2013

  • Hey there,

    I used Travel Fish for my last trip through South East Asia back in 2011. I am ready to go on another long stint starting next year and have been considering Burma so here I am back to Travel Fish lol. I really just enjoy anything new and do not have any particular wants or needs when visiting another country. Long story short I would just like to know, in general, what does Burma have to offer in comparison to the rest of South East Asia? I read an article wherein the author said Burma was like Thailand from 20 years ago. I want to see a new place but not if it is a problem going there or if I would be contributing to a corrupt government.

    Posted by ryanm24 on 12th August, 2013

  • What a negative review of a beautiful country with beautiful people.

    Sure there's a lot of corruption and "pocket lining" but then so is there much of the same in Europe.

    Free and Fair elections don't make for a Free and Fair country, again look at Europe, the EU hasn't even been able to get an official auditor for more than a decade because a large tranche of the money that it "spends" cannot be accounted for.

    Why on earth would anyone put off their visit to Myanmar for a few more years, the time to go is now before it is Disneylanded and you find a cold collation of global food outlets on ever corner.

    Posted by JoJo on 13th September, 2013

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