Burma (or Myanmar) is one of the most dynamic and fascinating countries on Earth. And since it’s recent “openness” (read: lifting of sanctions and issuing more tourist visas), everyone from Anthony Bourdain to the New York Times is touting the country as the place to go in 2013.
But Burma is more than a tourist destination on the backpacker trail or a hotspot featured in Travel & Leisure. The country has a rich, polarizing, and brutal history, a legacy that holds to this day. And while the shift toward an open Burma was unthinkable even five years ago, it still has a long way to go before it becomes a democracy and its people can experience true freedom.
For me, it is one of the most gripping and resilient countries in the world. I have traveled through the country at a time of fierce revolution and natural disaster and have also learned about the challenges of daily life. As the world cheers for the new and open Burma, I remain cautious, both of the Burmese government and of the newfound “development,” but I am optimistic about how lifting travel restrictions will let travelers learn about the country and understand the local people.
If you have the curiosity and intrepid spirit to go, here are some important things to keep in mind.
Know Your History
Of course, there is no way to share Burmese history in 100 words. But before you visit, it’s important to know what has happened over the last 200 years, because it has everything to do with the way the country is now. Burma has been around for about 13,000 years, through many dynasties, geographic border shifts, and political battles. But over the last 70 years, it has also become known for a brutal military regime that has killed, kidnapped, and jailed thousands of students, monks, and activists. (You can read more on BBC's profile of Burma.)
The government appears more “open” now, and it’s released a majority of political prisoners and activists, including Burma’s most famous democracy activist, Aung Sung Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest because of her work with human rights and democracy and her ability to mobilize the Burmese people. However, journalists' and activists' emails and phones continue to be tapped, ethnic and religious tensions remain high (there are more than 130 ethnic groups in Burma), and human rights violations exist, even though we may not hear about them. If you go as a tourist, you will likely be guarded from this, but to fully understand the country, you must know the history and politics.
Myanmar or Burma?
What do you call it again? In 1989, the military government announced that Burma would now be called “Myanmar” in order to reshape the history and past of the country’s ethnic minorities. The Burmese people had no choice in the matter, because the government wasn’t democratically elected. “Myanmar” is recognized by foreign presidents and the United Nations in a strategic foreign policy move to recognize sovereignty and engage the country’s government, but the people still call it Burma.
Personally, I still use “Burma,” too, because it shows that I support the people of the country and not the military regime. Still, while you’re there, you may want to use Myanmar—especially if you’re in business and policy meetings because that is the “official” name. Either way, know that this choice can be very political, and be ready to decide which name you will use depending on the setting.
Watch What You Say and Where You Go
Being “open” to tourism means there may be less secret police on the road, the government may be tapping phones and computers a bit less, and there is more freedom to move around outside the tourist hotspots. But, you still have to be careful.
It’s unlikely that you will be put at risk, but if you visit a place unannounced or talk to someone about a sensitive issue, know that they could get in trouble. Before it was an open country, there were stories of villages being raided or interrogated because foreigners went off the government-regulated trail to visit. Just know that your presence can still have an impact on the people when you leave. It’s really important to be aware of your surroundings, not take pictures of any government buildings, and understand that “open” doesn’t mean democratic.
Support Local Businesses
It used to be that if you visited Burma, you would have to stay in government-run hotels and only go to the places your tour guide advised you to go. Now, you can travel a little more freely, but it’s still challenging if you don’t know where to go.
I recommend supporting local food stalls and restaurants, rather than eating at tourist traps and government-run facilities. They may be a bit harder to find, but you can find delicious food like lephet thoke (tea leaf salad), Burmese curries, and dishes like Shan Khauk Swe (Shan Noodle) on the street and be able to eat it safely. Such places would be so happy and hospitable, and they'd welcome you with open arms.
Also note that many of the stalls selling handicrafts in Burma can be run by local government officials or foreign business owners. But there are a number of fair-trade and income-generating projects (both in Burma and on the Thai-Burma border) that keep traditional Hmong, Karen, and Shan weaving traditions alive, such as Borderline Café, WEAVE, and Karen Women Organization. In order for people to make a sustainable living as the tourist industry takes off, it’s important to put your money where locals, not the regime, can benefit.
People are genuinely kind and gentle in Burma—their resilience and warmth to outsiders is really unsurpassed. As you travel through the country, I urge you to learn a few phrases, respect the culture and various religions, and learn as much as possible about the food, stories, and people.
One of my biggest concerns about the “New Burma” is that with rapid “development” comes rapid decline—there will be an increase in tourism in a place that doesn’t have the infrastructure to handle it. Will it lead to drunken tourist streets, chain restaurants, and an even larger economic and social divide, or could Burma possibly do tourism right? You as a traveler must realize your important place in this historical moment. Think about where you spend your money, keep the party hard attitude at bay, and treat the people with the same kindness and respect they show you. It will go a long way.
I hope to visit Burma again not for work, but as a tourist in the near future. Still, I am not sure when that will be. Some of my Burmese friends, upon their return, will spend 18 years in prison because of their human rights activism in previous years. So the “openness” of Burma may in fact only be for a few.
Nonetheless, if you are lucky enough to get a tourist visa to go, then I encourage you to travel ethically and responsibly. I hope many more travelers come visit the country and spread awareness about this beautiful place. Simply put, Burma will forever change your outlook and impact you for a lifetime.
Photo of Burma courtesy of Shutterstock.
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.More from this Author