Don't worry, we're not feeling lonely. The title refers to the current reality here in Myanmar where once bustling tourist sights and streets have been transformed into ghost towns. Strings of flashing lights still hang from restaurants advertising the best Burmese, Indian, Nepalese – and even Tibetan – food in town, but the sobering and obvious fact is that most of these restaurants have only a few customers per day…and that's on a good day. There are simply very few tourists here.
While we normally enjoy places that are off the beaten tourist path and offer a healthy dose of solitude, we're witnessing a dearth of tourists in small towns – particularly those whose economies revolve around tourism – that borders on the surreal.
We are currently in Mandalay, the country’s second largest city and where the dip in tourist traffic is less noticeable because of the volume of people and relative diversity of industry. However, in Bagan – our home for the previous four days and home to a plain scattered with 1000s of Myanmar’s beautiful red brick temples – the devastation to the local tourist trade was obvious.
The area of Bagan in which we stayed usually plays hosts to a sea of travelers around this favored time of year (the dry and cool season). Both locals and repeat visitors that we’ve spoken to estimate the drop in visitors at 80-90% compared to last year. The situation is so dire that the number of guest houses and restaurants appeared to outnumber tourists by at least four to one.
Small business and restaurant owners remain remarkably and genuinely friendly, but they remind us – less out of guilt-tripping than reporting of fact – that if this continues much longer, they’ll be going out of business. When you consider all the other suppliers who make a living from selling services and souvenirs to tourists, the situation begins to appear rather grim.
One thing we heard repeatedly from vendors was, “Please, lucky money.” Lucky money is money from the first sale of the day. We heard this many times close to sunset, meaning yet another day had gone by without any sales.
Looking Back, Looking Ahead
We've been in Myanmar for ten days now, traveling overland by bus and train. Hard wooden benches on trains and middle aisle plastic chairs on long-haul buses may not qualify as the most comfortable means of travel, but we have found them to be tickets to a fascinating, genuine, and interesting way to see the country and meet its people.
Myanmar is a complex place, but people here express their thoughts in simple yet surprisingly sophisticated ways. Given recent events here in Myanmar, we feel more comfortable opening up and sharing all of our stories once we are out of the country.
One quick note for anyone considering travel to Myanmar: if our experience is any measure, this country is very safe, not to mention that Burmese people have been living up to their reputation as some of the kindest people on the planet. Of course, that's not to say that we haven’t had to bargain occasionally to get a fair price or that we haven’t met a swindler or two. Overall, however, we have been amazed by the generosity and kindness of spirit here.
We have approximately two weeks left to explore Mandalay, get in some trekking around Kalaw, and relax near Inle Lake. Then it's a long bus ride (like 16-20 hours, if the bus doesn’t break down) back to Yangon before flying out. We had hoped to return overland to Thailand, but the special permits required are expensive and the application process time-consuming. Scores of international flights have also been dropped from airline schedules recently, because – you guessed it – there are no tourists.
We managed to find a place with regular electricity, a non-dial-up internet connection, and sophisticated proxy software to allow us the freedom to access our website and email. It's nice to be connected again to the world, for a short time at least.