How many countries are left in the world that still retain their own distinct national character? In many places modernization has been intertwined with Westernization, meaning that jeans and Beckham tee shirts dominate the streets, on which bill boards look down advertising western brands. Not so Myanmar, or Burma as it was once known and will be in this article, as preferred by Ang Sung Shi, the leader of the Democratic Party so instrumental in the recent opening of the country.
For years travel to this Asian country, located between the borders of Bangladesh, India, China and Thailand, was off limits, subject to sanctions and restrictions against its ruling Military Junta who refused to recognise the result of free elections. Ang Sung Shi’s long stint under house arrest in the capital Yangon (previously Rangoon) kept the pressure and International focus on and finally in 2009 small steps on the road to democracy started.
With her release “The Lady”, as she is universally known in Burma, urged for tourists to once more visit, letting the population see the outside world and the outside world get a better understanding of life in the country. She asked visitors to avoid the big, state owned hotels and airlines, and stay in smaller, family run hotels, putting their all-powerful dollars directly into the pockets of the everyday citizen.
Tourism started in 2010, when a few 10’s of thousand visited. In 2011 the number had boomed to 300,000 and during 2012 this number is expected to rise again to nearly half a million. It’s limited by the quantity of hotel rooms on offer and guides available at the main sites. It sounds a lot, but is still a tiny fraction of the number of visitors who visit its neighbours – In 2011 Thailand received over 19 million. It mean that the main sites and cities visited on the group tour circuit still free uncrowded and with a local flavour.
At the Shwapavan Pagoda in Yangon the handful of tourists there mid morning were heavily outnumbered by local worshippers and pilgrims. The men all wore the traditional longi (a full length sarong) rather than jeans and trousers. All signs and notices were in Burmese. It felt like being in a foreign country, a feeling that is becoming increasingly rare.
Perhaps Burma’s most famous attraction is the deserted city of Bagan (previously Pagan). Situated on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, this ancient capital thrived in the thirteenth century before falling victim to the Mongol armies of Genghis Khan. The wooden houses are long gone, but over 3,200 brick temples, stupa and pagoda are left, rising above the surrounding forest and scrub to create one of the most atmospheric sites anywhere in the world. Every tourist visits and explores, every tourist climbs one of the main four or five pagodas for sunset over the river. Every tourist can find a spot to sit and contemplate, in the tranquillity of dusk, the magnificence of what they are seeing. Give it a few years and it will be timed-ticket entry.
Get away from the main circuit and venture into the more isolated regions (many of which require a special permit and a government guide) and you enjoy a country hardly touched by the outside world. People smile and wave to you in the street. No tourist cafes, souvenir stalls or peddlers. Children are wary of you. Locals want to be photographed with you. People take photos of you as you sit eating just as we take photos of them. They ask questions about our lives just as we ask questions about theirs.
Go to Burma. It is one of the most fascinating and beautiful countries in the world. And go soon before it loses some of the character that makes it so unique and special.