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.
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.
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.
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.
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: