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‘Get there quick before it changes’ : Myanmar myths

‘Get there quick before it changes’. Really?!!!

I rushed to book my trip to Myanmar. As an emerging destinations enthusiast, I felt 2 years too late. It didn’t help that those who were visiting before me all joined an elite group saying ‘get there quick before it changes & gets commercial. ‘ I felt left out but I also kept wondering what exactly they meant. Here ‘s the true deal…
Myanmar is Evolving. Name one country that isn’t. Whilst tourists will be found at major sights, they won’t be ‘commercial’. They’re people who’re interested in immersive & meaningful travel, care about the culture & customs and express genuine regard to learn about Myanmar life. Having stayed here in some of the most beautiful luxury hotels, overall, the other tourists I’ve had the pleasure of meeting & speaking to have been mostly 50+, European (French, German, Spanish), very well-dressed, smart, polite and discerning world-travellers. They’ve been stimulating in conversation, enjoy living well but aren’t afraid to get involved, feel the grit in their teeth and get hot and sweaty to explore on a more local level.

The change in the country’s political situation is the beginning of major transformation. The country recently opened it’s doors to international tourism and business, and the opportunities are driving the world interests here. In fact, those in the know were waiting for the gates to open and are already thriving here (Businesses from Japan, India & Britain). There’s a buzz about the place combined with a sense of anticipation. It’s not an ‘if’ anymore. It’s a ‘when’.

One place where change stands out is Inle Lake. It’s a popular spot for tourists. Traditionally, the most famous photographs from here are the local fishermen who stand at the foot of their wooden narrow boats, steering through the waters with one foot balancing on the other whilst immersing a net to catch fresh fish. But it’s not as easy to see this as you may expect. Don’t expect to spend a few days at Inle and see it everywhere. Since tourism has increased, I learn that most such fishermen have given up traditional fishing, bought motor boats and now ferry tourists on the lake, as this earns them a lot more money. That’s not to say you won’t find traditional fishermen. But you will have to go looking for them. Ask your travel agent specifically about this point to try to get a local small boat right into the labyrinthe waterways through the heart of villages to see true local life. In this way, life is changing.

Another example: Loikaw is off most tourist trails. It’s hard to reach, costly to get to and even then with a blanket ban on tourists to the area in Kayah State ( which was only lifted in 2008), you still need a driver and guide to enter and getting permission takes about a month. Here, older ‘Padaung’ tribe women traditionally wear brass rings around their neck, in that Nat Geo style photograph. But the young generations are more interested in Korean dramas & Myanmar pop singers. They refuse to wear the rings & show little interest in traditions. Sadly for me, the elder women don’t mind. They consider their wearing of bronze coils a sign of lack of education. They say they couldn’t learn at school & so had no knowledge. Instead they want their children to study. Admirable. But also sad to see unique tribal culture being lost forever in this way.

Markets are perhaps the singlemost onvious sign of change in Myanmar. They traditionally sold fresh fruit, meat, fish, vegetables and meat to locals. But now, as tourists increase in frequency, they’ve started selling more souvenirs. It’s at the point now where many markets purely cater to tourists, selling souvenirs. Thus its more difficult to find a genuine authentic market. But on the right day and with a good guide, there are many spectacular ones to be found. And these will long be around.

Names of places within Myanmar have changed Eg. May Myo botanical gardens (legacy of the British) are now ‘national park’.
In the markets, people have wised up to tourists. Many will now ask for money if you wish to photograph them. And good for them, I say. Entrepreneurial spirit starts at grassroots and a few coins means little to us but directly helps the people that truly need it.
I did overhear one sentence that really annoyed me… An English woman (60’s) travelling with a group through local market in Bagan said to her friend, ‘the local girl keeps tugging on my arm & it’s driving me mad. ‘
There are people begging. If they beg a hundred tourists a day and get change from 5 of them, they can feed their family. If you were desperate to survive and saw opportunities, trust me, you’d take them too and would be silly not to try. Droves of tourists walk past them bearing their expensive cameras, bottled water & beautiful clothing. If you saw that whilst in need, you’d try your luck.

The country is still developing and requires patience, understanding and tolerance. It’s not the best in terms if high-end service, the English language skills of those in the hospitality industry are still very limited & can be frustrating at times, and if you visit busy local markets you will get some hassle. But if you don’t expect that, why would you come to someehere as emerging as Myanmar? These little things add to the ambiance and character of the country. It has so many positives in comparison.
It’s safe for a solo female to wander around, hire a bike at dark, explore alone & likely meet no bother.
The people are the friendliest I’ve encountered anywhere. Yes, it’s tiresome hearing, ‘You ‘re very beautiful ‘ and then getting the hard sell to purchase souvenirs. But more often than not, I hear ‘you’re beautiful’ and they’re not trying to sell me anything at all. They’re a very genuine, kind-hearted and slightly naive people. As practising Buddhists (majority of population), tranquility and softness are characteristics I see in the eyes of Myanmar people. And there aren’t many countries left in the world, if any, where such beautiful innocence is predominant. Myanmar infuses tolerance and compassion foremost. Although it is changing, I believe these fundamental characteristics will live on. So there’s no need to book the first flight out to Myanmar. When people say its changing, it is. But just research your destinations in the country to ensure you really get to sample local rural life. It’s easy to find and isn’t going anywhere fast. This country will take decades to become anywhere near as commercial as Thailand, for example. And even then, it doesn’t stop people visiting in their millions.

4 thoughts on “‘Get there quick before it changes’ : Myanmar myths

  1. I like this. Traveling Southeast Asia now, I can’t tell you how many times people have told me to ‘get there before it’s ruined’. I think, as you said, we could all benefit from remembering that every destination is evolving, no matter whether the borders have recently opened or not.

    • Thanks Callie. Just my personal take on it, truthfully.
      I love your photo from Hoi Chi Minh City ‘Rising Smoke’. Really captures the essence… And can virtually smell the incense!

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