Visiting Burma: How To Do It Responsibly

Burmese Older Woman, Smile - Toungoo, Burma
A wise and weathered smile in Burma (Myanmar).

While reading Nicholas Kristof’s opinion piece on Burma (Myanmar) last month I was consumed by a rush of memories – conversations and images from of our month-long visit there last year. My comment on his article shares my views regarding the effectiveness of international sanctions in changing the behaviors of the military government (junta). I also address whether or not travel to Burma helps or hurts ordinary people.

I felt there was more to say about the junta and life for ordinary Burmese. But I looked back at a perspective piece we wrote last year – Myanmar, Where Hope Dies Last? – and realized that we already covered the reality and challenges that Burmese people face on a daily basis. We also explained at length why we are glad to have traveled there.

However, we continue to field questions from readers who are interested in traveling to Burma but remain unsure. We’ve already discussed what to do, see and eat there.

So here are a few thoughts regarding your decision to visit, what you might encounter while applying for a visa, safety concerns, and how to travel responsibly when you are in-country.

Making the Decision to Visit Burma (2008)

While we are glad we visited Burma, each person needs to make his/her own personal decision whether to travel to a country with an oppressive government. Do your research and read arguments on both sides of the issue. Consider the benefits of your visit, both to the government and to ordinary people.

Shy Burmese Girl - Kalaw, Burma
Peeking out.

We believe our visit contributed more to ordinary citizens of Myanmar (including money we spent in private establishments) than to the government (via taxes and fees). Additionally, our understanding of the country – including the difficulties of everyday life for people and the actions of the junta – is now more sophisticated, for it is rooted in actual experience.

It’s no surprise that travelers serve as some of the best advocates for Burmese people.

Getting a Visa: Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok (2008)

Oh, this doesn’t seem so bad.”

Our first impression of the visa application process at the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok wasn’t so bad. The employees were exceptionally friendly and courteous, after all. (It might be useful to note that we had recently spent five months in former Soviet Union dealing with frowning bureaucrats)

As we transacted our business at the visa window, we noticed one of the consular officers checking the name and employer of every applicant against two blacklists – one hand-written, another in Microsoft Word – that were heavy with journalistic and human rights organizations.

We were thankful that our company didn’t fit into one of the blacklisted categories and our “consultant” profiles didn’t raise any red flags. Word to the wise: when applying for a visa to Burma, make your employment and professional background sound as boring as possible.

Is Burma Safe?

We have been asked this often, including from our concerned parents before our departure. Yes, Burma is safe for ordinary travelers. The military government – in spite of its faults – does not target travelers. Provided that you adhere to some easy guidelines, you will likely find yourself friction-free.

Kids on the Road - Inle Lake, Burma
Village encounters while riding a bike around Inle Lake.

This doesn’t mean you can get away with distributing human rights pamphlets in broad daylight or venturing into areas where a permit (eg, parts of Shan State) is required. And if you are Nicholas Kristof, you may have something to be worried about. But, if you are an average traveler and act responsibly you shouldn’t experience any problems. We felt safe throughout Burma — much safer in fact than we do in some places in the United States.

It is also worth noting that we had no problems getting our laptops and camera equipment in and out of Burma. We were never questioned or hassled at the airport in Rangoon (Yangon).

Responsible Travel in Burma

It’s impossible to prevent any money from falling into the hands of the junta, but there are ways to make conscious decisions that reduce the net benefit of your visit to the government while maximizing it with local people.

Friendly Burmese Family - Mandalay, Burma
A friendly stop in Mandalay, Burma.

Here are a few ways to travel responsibly in Burma:

  • Do not take a government tour. If you feel more comfortable taking a tour than traveling independently, make sure your tour company is a private company. Lonely Planet and several other publications provide lists of tour agencies in Burma that indicate which are government-owned and which are private. Apply the same principle to restaurants and hotels.
  • Travel independently. Although some areas of the country require a special permit for travel, the government has yet to ban independent travel in most parts of the country. Travel independently and you’ll likely enjoy greater access to and more interaction with local people.
  • Allow locals to introduce sensitive topics. You will undoubtedly speak with many people during your visit to Burma – it’s one of the joys of traveling there. If a person wishes to talk with you about politics and challenges, they will find a way to do it in an environment that is safe for them. They know the undercover police better than you.
  • Spread your money around. Stay at private guesthouses, eat street food, patronize private restaurants, buy water and snacks from street stalls, and collect your souvenirs from different vendors. In other words, buy from ordinary citizens and don’t spend your money all in one place.
  • Try to avoid government transport. The government of Myanmar makes it difficult to avoid this completely. However, if you can bear long, uncomfortable trips, buses are the least government-affiliated type of transport. Otherwise, consider the train or a private airline. Myanmar Airways, the government airline, is relatively easy to avoid when booking flights.

For recommendations on private accommodation and restaurants, check out the practical details section at the bottom of each of the following posts:

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Comments

  1. says

    Burma belongs to my most interesting and desired destinations. I have never been there but hope will go one day. Thanks for very interesting article:-)

  2. Tania Nesser says

    Burma has been one of my traveling gems. I joke and tell people I went because of a picture I saw of Ubein Bridge during sunset that a German backpacker took. I completely changed the course of my travels to go there after he basically told me everything you wrote in this post. I have since spread the word why I believe it is more important to go vs. avoiding.

    I was one of the first travelers to receive a visa on arrival at the Yangon airport, but a Google search has led me to believe the service has been suspended.

  3. says

    @Tania: I’m glad to hear that you had a great time in Burma. The country is a gem, so are its people — particularly given the unnecessary difficulties they face. Continue spreading the word, because in the word of one of the Burmese people we met: “Tourism in Burma…it’s the people’s business.”

    And I believe the Myanmar visa upon arrival at the airport in Yangon is long since gone. Even when we traveled, it was necessary to apply for a visa to Myanmar at the embassy in Bangkok.

    In any event, well worth the effort to visit the people of Burma.

  4. says

    Hi, you might also be interested in a new non-profit project that uses storytelling for raising awareness about responsible travel to Burma. Thanks!

  5. Sutapa Chattopadhyay says

    I commend you guys for travelling to Burma. I would be a little concerned, but then I suppose the Myanmar government has more to lose by mistreating tourists given how bad their rep is anyway, so they should let citizens of the world alone. Did you guys meet any buddhist monks? Just curious…I know so little about Burma (even though I am from the Indian subcontinent and travel to Burma before 1947 was pretty normal).

  6. Sutapa Chattopadhyay says

    The reason I ask about Buddhist monks is, they were at the forefront in the recent revolt against the Govt.

  7. says

    @Sutapa: We felt very safe during our visit to Burma and every traveler we have met who has spent time in the country has said the same. The government doesn’t want to be known for jailing travelers – unless you swim across to meet with Aung San Suu Kyi, you should really have no problem. Now, what you do need to be aware of as a traveler is that local people can be at risk of arrest. This means never initiating political or controversial topics – if a local person feels safe (i.e., knows there are no secret police around), then he/she will speak openly. People would tell us, “Burma is a rich country in resources; it doesn’t have to be a poor country. But the government controls everything now.” There was also quite a bit of frustration with selling food and natural resources to China for low prices, which in turn pushed up the local price because of reduced local supply.

    We did meet a few Buddhist monks during our trip, but this was mostly at temples where they gave us information about the temple. What many people don’t realize is that the initial cause for the demonstrations was the increase in diesel prices – they began as economic demonstrations and then turned into more political/human rights demonstrations.

    A good novel (but is grounded in historical events) about Burma over the 20th century is The Glass Palace. If you are back in Asia, definitely consider visiting Burma. It’s a fascinating place with incredibly warm people.

  8. Alastair says

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