Myanmar, for its incredible culture and natural beauty, receives only a handful of the tourists that flock to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. While Ko Phi Phi, Ha Long Bay, Siem Reap and Luang Prabang have become thronging backpacker hubs, only the most intrepid ‘free and independent’ travellers make it over the Burmese border.
When the bamboo curtain rose to open much of Southeast Asia in the 1970s, Burma remained in the thick of military oppression. A trip to Myanmar then consisted of a tightly-regulated 7 day whistle-stop tour before being swiftly shown the door.
In the early ‘90s the military junta’s position on tourism changed and they held the anticlimactic Visit Myanmar Year in 2006. Villagers were shunted to free up land for lavish government hotels, forced labour was used to construct roads and neon lights and gold leaf was applied to every Buddha and pagoda in sight. These unseemly preparations caused the distaste of many, including the pro-democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi, who called for a tourism boycott which was not lifted until 2012.
When the bamboo curtain rose to open much of Southeast Asia in the 1970s, Burma remained in the thick of military oppression
With a quasi-democratic government in place, tourism to the ‘Grand Four’ of Rangoon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake is growing.
Yangon, formerly Rangoon, remains the most diverse and energetic city in the country. Shwedagon Pagoda continues to draw pilgrims from across the globe and the downtown area has the finest set of colonial buildings to be found in Southeast Asia.
Bagan in the Dry Zone was the heart of the first great Burmese Empire which reigned from the 9th to the 13th Centuries. Over 3000 pagodas and temples now remain on the vast plain and, unlike Angkor Wat, Bagan continues to function as a sacred pilgrimage destination for all Buddhists in Myanmar. Whether learning about the scintillating history with a guide, or exploring the smaller temples on a bicycle by yourself, few who travel to Bagan are not awed into silence by its enduring majesty.
Somerset Maugham wrote that sensible men should never visit the old royal capital of Mandalay as no place could live up to the romance conjured by its elusive, lilting syllables. The ‘cleaner, greener’ city that Kipling wrote about in his poem in the 1880s, was largely destroyed by bombs in the Second World War, but there is still much charm to be found. Mandalay’s wide streets are used by as much wildlife as by motorbikes, giving the city the impression of a very large village. There are more teashops than offices, or so it seems, and at sunset the streets are used as scruffy football pitches.
The ephemeral Inle Lake at the heart of the country is famous for the Inthar ‘Sons of the Lake’ who steer their fishing boats by the use of one leg, allowing both arms free to cast their nets. Nyaung Shwe, the ‘gateway to the lake’, is the closest thing that Myanmar has to a backpacker scene. Here young and exuberant travellers wearing baggy elephants trousers happily get lost on bicycles before flopping down in cafes serving Moscow Mules and chocolate samosas.
These backpackers however are not the same as those who cause the rukus on Bangkok’s Khao San Road or in Vang Vieng. Instead, those who make it this far are keen and willing to roll up their sleeves and get down with the townsfolk; and for now at least, the townsfolk are game. Local entrepreneurs have had their shoulders to the wheel setting up a horse-riding club, new trekking routes and lodges, cookery classes and other services offering experiential travel products that have both the development of the local community and protection of the environment at their heart.
Somerset Maugham wrote that sensible men should never visit the old royal capital of Mandalay as no place could live up to the romance conjured by its elusive, lilting syllables
Mass and uncontrolled tourism has tarnished a lot of Southeast Asia. Fragile Inle Lake, and conservative Myanmar in general, is vulnerable. However the prognosis is good. The great influx of tourism to Myanmar has not happened. Instead of a booming there is a blossoming, allowing both locals and travellers to work out how best to appreciate and safeguard this country that was isolated from the rest of the world for so long.
Though it has come late to the party, Myanmar may be nailing this tourism thing much better than its neighbours.
This article was written by Sampan Travel, a tour operator based in Myanmar, creating tailor-made journeys throughout the country with immersive travel experiences.