Our next destination after the down time in Chiang Mai was the country of Myanmar, also known as Burma.
It was a place I knew next to nothing about. I have vague associations in my mind for most of the countries on our wish list. Technicolored images from books or movies, travel stories from people I know, information snippets from news articles or just some sort of gut reaction will arise when I think of places like Cambodia, New Zealand, Peru… I had none of this for Myanmar.
The only thing I knew then was that Roman really wanted to go. Researching it while we were still in Thailand, I began to learn some about the complex political situation in the country. In reading I found there are compelling reasons on both sides of the debate about whether tourism benefits the people of Myanmar or condones and financially supports the dictatorial government there. A decent overview on this topic is provided in the Lonely Planet guide: http://www.lonelyplanet.com/shop_pickandmix/free_chapters/myanmar-10-should-you-go.pdf
I don’t feel like I know enough to have a fully informed opinion of tourism in Myanmar or the situation there in general. But speaking purely from my own experiences and feelings, I am so glad that we decided to go and I would encourage anyone who is interested to travel there – with the caveat that they do so as responsibly as possible.
That means avoiding package tours and informing yourself as best as possible about the places you are staying and how you get around. Putting at least some money into the government is pretty much unavoidable, but we made an effort to keep it to a minimum. Spending as much as possible with private hotels, shops and other businesses is a small way to support the Burmese people.
Beyond that, it’s hard for me to see how the side effect of the isolation of the Burmese people is worth the results achieved by boycotting the government (especially as Asian countries like China and India are investing substantial sums of money in the country).
What I do know is that our time there was magical. The landscape is stunning, the culture rich and the people we met were gentle, generous and just lovely. I have a feeling the three weeks we spent there will be one of the big highlights of our time traveling, and I’m so grateful we had the opportunity to get experience this incredible country.