Star Travel Review
Founder and Managing Director of Selective Asia
Visiting Burma - why now could be the best time
For over forty years, the people of Burma (Myanmar) have known one of the harshest regimes in modern history, under military rulers, known as “the Generals”, who are well known for corruption, their imprisonment of members of the opposition and their refusal to accept huge majority public votes for change.
Healthcare and social development, have seen little investment, and public protest has been violently repressed. In terms of international visitors, the country was almost completely boycotted until 2011, when many travellers and tourists began to return.
When I started taking clients to South East Asia, I did not include Burma, even though I love the country and had been wanting to share it since my backpacking visit in 2003. The reason for this being that along with many other travel companies, I was honouring the boycott of Burmese tourism called for by Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winning democrat and leader of Burma’s National League for Democracy (NLD) who at the time had been under house arrest for over 20 years.
Changes in 2010 prompt renewed interest
In November 2010, Suu Kyi was released after a civilian government was inaugurated by the Generals, although they continue to receive much of Burma’s income. Package tourism benefits the government hands, although the NLD has started to favour tailor-made holidays and travel (as opposed to group travel) to visit Burma and explore the country.
I cautiously welcomed the news – and could finally tell others about a wonderful country without negative feelings. However before doing so, I decided to go back and take another look for myself. Burma’s press coverage is oscillates from reassurance from the government who want to build package tourism revenue, to serious articles by brave and committed people who are dedicated to supporting Burma’s oppressed people. The result is some confusion and myths about the country and the situation its people encounter.
The warm welcome and hospitality
As a fairly privileged Englishman who has travelled extensively around the world, I can only give a truthful account of my own experiences in their country. Back in 2003, I was constantly amazed by the warmth and openness of the people I met. It’s common to read about this from a traveller returning from Asia, Cambodia or Sri Lanka, but Burma was in another league. Many people clearly lived in a very harsh environment, facing real threats, and constantly being watched. But their generosity and willingness to share the love for their incredible country, despite all the challenges, gave me lifelong memories.
On arduous 15 hour rides on dilapidated buses, my companion and I made new friends and were welcomed into their homes on arrival, or when the buses inevitably broke down. Bagan and the Shwedagon Pagoda were jaw-dropping and I could have stayed in Kipling’s Mandalay forever. But the unexpected extras were what made our trip special – an ancient monk, serving tea in a roadside pagoda while we awaited a replacement wheel – the motorcyclist who gave us a lift, one at a time, up 5 miles of broken track for the best view.
Tailor-made holidays in Burma
On my return in 2011, I had to embark upon hotel inspections, creating itineraries, ensuring vehicle standards, and meeting the guides. It was also a crucial opportunity for me to speak to people on the ground – to try and understand more about the changes that had taken place since the 2010 election.
What did I find out? It would be incorrect and misleading to say that a holiday in Burma will not benefit the government at all, but there are definitely ways that travellers can minimise keep the Generals’ commercial gain. For example, it is usually possible to avoid working with government agencies, as well as government-owned hotels, restaurants and services.
Private hotels do still pay tax to the government which cannot be avoided but the same hotels employ many Burmese people, all of whom desperately need an income. At tourist sites I met local traders, selling handicrafts and souvenirs, each dependent upon visitors for their income in the same way as the waiters, the shop owners, the guides and the drivers… and many more.
Arranging tailor-made holidays in Burma requires me to be completely honest, both with our clients and with myself. I don’t expect this to be easy, nor should it be. But I do firmly believe that responsible tour operators can offer enjoyable holidays in Burma, enabling tourists to travel in a way that will enrich their lives – as well as, crucially, the lives of many Burmese people.
Nick Pulley is founder and managing director of Selective Asia, which specialises in travel to South East Asia. Nick began travelling to the region at the age of 17 and has since returned more than 25 times. He was responsible for launching the first Half Moon Parties on Thailand’s Koh Phan Ngan and now works with local people to set up community based tourism initiatives.