Travel ethics: Is it okay to visit Burma?

TO go or not to go? This debate has been raging in travel circles for many years. But it’s an important question that every traveler should ask before packing their bags for Yangon or electing to go elsewhere.

Long considered a military dictatorship with a questionable human rights record, Burma (Myanmar) has faced both tough economic sanctions and a tourism boycott for a long time. For many years democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi herself dissuaded tourists from visiting as it was considered both a way of legitimising and funding the ruling regime.

Yangon, Burma

Yangon, Burma. Pic: AP.

Indeed travel was hard. Visas were limited, a certain amount of money had to be exchanged on arrival and used, and travel movement was restricted. But in recent times there have been signs of change in the nation. Cracks, or rather thaws in controls over Internet censorship, banking, travel and even politics have begun to emerge. Let’s take a look at some of these.

Since the nominally democratic elections of 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest and just yesterday registered her bid for a seat in parliament. She will stand in the April 1 by-elections for the lower house.

While the 2010 elections were marred by allegations of cheating, officials say these by-elections will be free and fair. They have also released political prisoners and had peace talks with armed ethnic groups. The outcome of all this however remains to be seen and many are cynical of any lasting change. There are still plenty of allegations of unfair imprisonments, political prisoners, corruption, abuse of power and more. See the blogs by Asian Correspondent’s Zin Linn for more details on these matters.

Burma's democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, right, receives flowers from supporters as she leaves the Yangon District Election Commission after submitting a candidates' list of her National League for Democracy for the upcoming parliamentary by-election. Pic: AP.

Outside information and technology
When I first visited in 2009 Yahoo, Facebook and WordPress blogs were almost uniformly blocked. It was possible to side step some of the controls but not always. WiFi was almost non-existent. Come 2011 and those controls seemed to be universally removed. Gone also is the need to register with your passport to use the Internet. WiFi seems to be offered now in a lot of restaurants and hotels in downtown Yangon.

Locals also reported to me that Internet access in the home is now reasonably affordable as were the purchase and use of mobile phones (once limited to ruling officials). Shops near Sule Pagoda are filled to the brim with phones, cases and accessories. Cable television beaming CNN and the BBC into homes is now more common as the cost of licenses has dropped significantly. Friends told me they once had to book into a hotel to watch these foreign media reports.

On the other hand I met an English woman that said two men entered an Internet cafe in Yangon and proceeded to stand behind everyone in the shop and read over their shoulder. She said they were not dressed in uniform but were clearly some kind of officials.

While this remains a source of consternation for some travelers, the process of exchanging money is easing. The best place to exchange money was once on the black market and travelers would head for places like Sule Pagoda and the Botatung market in Yangon and wait for the sidelong glance and whispers of “change money?” to make a deal.

Today this is unnecessary. Banks with foreign exchange apparently have a fixed exchange rate and the rate should not alter from place to place. However this of course may vary in practice.  It is also possible to exchange money at booths at Yangon’s airport for a good rate. However crisp, clean, unmarked U.S. dollar notes remain the only reliable currency to exchange – I also heard vague reports of the Euro and Yuan being exchanged. You will get the best exchange rates in cities. There is talk of international banks returning to Burma/Myanmar and the eventual placement of ATMs. Until then you still need to bring what money you think you need and then some more just in case.

If you do get stuck it is possible to get a cash advance against your credit card in Yangon, at a rather high interest rate. Ask at your hotel where this can be done. It is possible to use a card in big hotels like Traders and The Strand – they may insist on it for bookings. Some of the airlines’ websites seem to allow you to pay for half your ticket by credit card – I’ve heard conflicting reports on the ease of this.

Lighting candles at Shwedagon Pagoda. Pic: Joanne Lane,

Travel movements
The wonderful new highway from Yangon to Mandalay is certainly making travel within Burma easier.  In general there are few if any restrictions on movement on the usual travel circuit to places such as Yangon, Inle Lake, Bagan and Mandalay. Near borders or in areas of conflict with rebel groups, you will either require a permit or simply will not be allowed to visit. I came across places in the north last year where road were  closed at sunset to prevent after-dark movements. Violence does flare up from time to time and the situation can alter quickly. Keep abreast of current events if you can.

There seemed to be some misinformation about travel restrictions in my visit last year even from officials and travel operators. This didn’t seem deliberate, rather that they themselves didn’t actually know the situation. It was only as I got closer to my intended destination I could work things out – remember Yangon is a long way from other parts of the country and not necessarily the right place to get information. However one operator in Yangon did say the official position is usually to dissuade you from going if there is any hint of a problem. This may or may not mean you can go there however.

Locals were hopeful that foreign guests might soon be allowed in their homes also. Currently all visitors must stay in officially sanctioned hotels.

The local position on tourism

“Every day you are in Myanmar you are welcome.”
“Tell your friends to come and visit us. Don’t forget about Myanmar.”
“We feel a little bit less like we live in the jungle when we meet tourists.”

These are just some of the comments I have heard during my visits to Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi herself is now encouraging responsible and independent tourism (good comments in this article) which sees money go more directly to locals than through package tours.

The famous Bagan temple plain. Pic: Joanne Lane,

The conclusion
So has Burma really changed? Well there have obviously been steps towards greater transparency and freedom for its people, but there is no doubt still a long way to go. In no way should it be taken from the information presented above that all is well in the country; merely that there have been some promising signs of improvement. Some believe that the changes are simply PR tactics and more than one person has made a comment to me along the lines of “a leopard never changes its spots”.

Perhaps the real question should be not if changes are being made, but why? Beyond the benefits perhaps of foreign trade, I also had lengthy discussions about the Buddhist philosophy of “building pagodas” or accruing merit. Feel free to comment if you have any insights.

In any case restrictions are bound to ease up even further as the visa on arrival option is gradually implemented in coming years. This will no doubt make it an attractive option for those on the Asian circuit. In the end the decision is yours. But if you go, do travel independently, be informed and above all responsible. Tourism is new in many places and you can help it get off to a good start.

There is plenty of further information available in this PDF from  Lonely Planet for an informed decision.

This information has been prepared based on information gleaned during a visit in December 2011. The situation regarding these matters is in flux so do check for current information before you go.