Why the Time to Visit Myanmar is NOW
Edit 9/17/2017: It has become clear now that Myanmar's government has launched a violent campaign against the Rohingya people, a Muslim minority in Myanmar. The rapes and killings have been denounced by the international community as a "textbook example of ethnic cleansing," with more than 400,000 Rohyinga fleeing their homes into Bangladesh. Aung San Suu Kyi has yet to speak out against the violence. I loved the time I spent in Myanmar, but I am horrified at the human rights abuses that continue to take place in this country. If Myanmar is on your bucket list, please think long and hard about how you can be an ethical traveler in this country. I'm not sure it's possible, given the current state.
Myanmar, which was previously called Burma, was never on my radar when I started this trip. If someone had mentioned this little country to me (fun fact: it is actually the 2nd largest country in Southeast Asia, right behind Indonesia), I would have had no idea where it was located. But as I kept backpacking, Myanmar kept coming up. Backpackers who had recently visited the country couldn't stop talking about how kind the locals were, how beautiful the countryside was, how stunning the temples at Bagan were. And you know what they all told me?
"You have to go now. The country is already changing so fast. Go before it’s too late!"
So I went. And you know what I think? Everyone is right: You have to go to Myanmar NOW. And if that sentence alone doesn't invoke a sense of urgency, here's six reasons why now is definitely better than later.
- Entry fees will likely increase. Myanmar is not the cheapest country to travel to in SEA. In fact, it's one of the most expensive. For example, you must pay an entry fee when you arrive at Bagan and Inle Lake. Three years ago, the fee for Bagan was 15,000K / $12USD. As of May 2017, that fee is now 25,000K / $20USD. The fee for Inle Lake is 12,000K / $10USD. As tourism increases, entry fees will also increase. The fees supposedly go to conservation efforts, but the money goes to the government first (a 2016 Myanmar Times news article stated that less than 2% of the fees actually goes to the preservation of the temples). It's better to visit now while you can still get some bang for your buck.
- Climbing Bagan's temples may soon be off limits. Many of Bagan's largest temples have stairwells that lead to the temple's terraces, which offer amazing views of the sunrises and sunsets. I was told by several Bagan guides that the government plans to ban climbing the temples in late 2017. The government already attempted the ban in 2016 due to tourists "dancing, sleeping, and wearing inappropriate clothing" on the temples. The ban was reversed, but after a 2016 earthquake heavily damaged many of Bagan's temples, the government is revisiting the ban in order to protect the 1,000-year-old structures. The ban could heavily impact tourism, as many tourists come to Bagan to catch the sunset over the temples.
- Western chains haven't encroached... yet. When Myanmar opened its doors to tourists in 2012, it also opened them to international consumer brands. KFC opened a branch in Yangon in 2015; Pizza Hut followed shortly after. Starbucks isn't far behind. Much of Myanmar's charm is the fact that there are no Western retailers, unlike the ubiquitous 7-11s of Thailand or the dizzying malls of Malaysia. But it won't stay this way for long - businesses recognize that the time to build their brand and cater to a new demographic in Myanmar is now, so everyone seems to be scrambling at the door.
- There are simply fewer tourists here. 32 million people visited Thailand last year. 4.3 million visited Laos. While it is difficult to track Myanmar's genuine tourist arrival numbers as the government touts tourism, a good indicator is the entry fees that each person must pay when visiting Bagan or Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. In 2014, 505,000 individuals paid the entry fee to Shwedagon Pagoda -- a humble number compared to its SEA neighbors. In Bagan, the temples are not overrun with backpackers, even during the high season. In Yangon, locals ask to take photos with foreigners. In Inle Lake, there seem to be more locals utilizing the long boats for daily errands than tourists utilizing them for boat tours. Myanmar is still off the beaten path for many tourists and backpackers, but it is not going to stay that way for long.
- The country is the best of both worlds. Over the past five years, Myanmar has built up its tourism infrastructure. There is decent wifi in hostels, 3G mobile networks in cities, a solid schedule of day and night buses, accommodation with the expected amenities, a basic understanding of English by locals, and enough backpackers making the trip that it's not hard to make friends. On the other hand, much of Myanmar is still unexplored by backpackers, you'll be hard-pressed to find a convenience store or any kind of shopping mall, and the country proudly retains its culture and character that it is becoming so well-known for. Basically, Myanmar is a relatively easy country to travel through with all the benefits of a country that is not easy to travel through.
- The political and human rights situation is slowly improving. After 50 decades of military rule, the military junta was dissolved after the 2010 general election. In 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi's political party won a majority in both houses (however, the military retains 25% seats in the both houses as outlined by the constitution). While there continue to be civil war clashes near Myanmar's borders and progress will take many years, Myanmar has improved its relations with foreign countries, its record on human rights, and its trade and economic sanctions.
I know there are a lot of questions about Myanmar - much of the information I had when I entered the country was outdated. I'm working on putting a quick guide together, which will include tips for handling money, finding accommodation, and booking transportation. But either way, if you're debating about going to Myanmar, don't! Just go.