Visiting Burma: How To Do It Responsibly

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.

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Burma’s Golden Kite

The Golden Kite of Burma (Myanmar): the trail connecting Rangoon (Yangon), Bagan, Mandalay, and Inle Lake. These four locations form a common itinerary for visits to the country. Their golden stupas, fields of ancient Buddhist pagodas, floating villages, and royal palaces tell a story of place caught between its modern-day struggles and an underlying narrative of a bygone era.

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Myanmar, Where Hope Dies Last?

News stories take on increased significance when we’ve actually visited the place being covered. For example, we've recently been reading more about the effects of a harsh winter on the lives of ordinary people in both Tajikistan and China. As we read these stories, images of the people we’ve met become superimposed on a piece of news that we might otherwise regard with detachment.

We now follow Myanmar (Burma) more closely, as well. Just a few days ago, the junta (military government) there made news by announcing another “road map to democracy” and elections in 2010.

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Lonely Myanmar

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.

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