IN January 2018, the governments of Myanmar and Cambodia are expected to ink a “sister city” agreement for Bagan and Angkor, with plans to jointly promote both sites – two of the most culturally significant cities in Southeast Asia – as key tourist destinations.
Despite its troubled past and conflict-ridden present, Myanmar has made significant strides in tourism development since 2011, a historic year for the nation as it marked the end of decades of military rule.
Bagan once the capital of the ancient Pagan kingdom and currently the site of over 3,000 remaining Buddhist monuments, is one of the most visited areas in the country. Tourists to the site are allowed to climb the many stupas spread across the vast open plain in the Archaeological Zone to watch the sun rise and set, and can hire electric motorbikes to weave along dirt tracks and look for the perfect viewing spot.
Due to its historical heritage, Bagan is often compared by travelers to Cambodia’s Angkor, a Unesco World Heritage site and home to the world-famous Angkor Wat temple complex, along with hundreds of others.
But although both sites are home to relics dating back to the 9th century and are both deemed historically significant archaeological locations, they differ greatly on annual visitor numbers.
While more than two million visit Angkor Wat’s temple complexes every year, Bagan only draws something like 300,000 tourists annually.
But this isn’t much of a surprise. As a country just climbing out of decades of military rule, Myanmar’s tourism sector still lags behind that of its neighbours in countries like Cambodia.
This “sister city” agreement – part of a tourism campaign dubbed “Two Countries, One Destination” – is therefore a particularly important one for Myanmar, and has the potential to be hugely rewarding.
What are “sister cities”?
Born from the devastation of World War II, sister city or twin town agreements were seen as a way to forge cultural and diplomatic links across the world, helping to maintain peace between nations.
However, while it is clear how a sister city relationship could be mutually beneficial culturally through programs such as student and cultural exchanges, it’s a little more difficult to estimate the economic benefits of such partnerships.
But there are promising examples, such as the sister city relationship between Kuala Lumpur and Chennai announced in 2010, which was signed in conjunction with a free trade pact between the two countries, worth an estimated US$7.1 billion.
In 2015, India’s government under Narendra Modi said it was overhauling its more than 100 sister city arrangements to ensure on top of fostering closer cultural bonds, the partnerships would also attract foreign investment and bring economic gain.
There is also the sister city partnership between Kobe in Japan and Seattle in the US, which recently celebrated 60 years of “economic investment, cultural exchanges and strengthened civic institutions.”
The Bagan benefit
An important expected benefit to arise from the Bagan-Angkor partnership is establishing direct flights between the Siem Riep and Nyaung U airports, which will simultaneously improve connectivity between both sites and result in a boost to Bagan’s visitor numbers.
However, whilst Siem Riep has an international airport, the Nyaung U airport is only equipped for domestic travel, meaning significant upgrades will be necessary for international flights to be possible.
In the interim, Nikkei Asian Review reported in August that talks were being held with Emirates, which in July launched daily flights originating in Dubai that connect Phnom Penh with Yangon, Cambodia’s and Myanmar’s capitals respectively.
Meanwhile, U Kyaw Swa Min, a member of the recently formed Working Group Committee for the Angkor Wat-Bagan tourism cooperation, said the similarities between the two cities mean they fit well as part of a reciprocal relationship.
“Angkor Wat and Bagan are similar in natural features and were founded in the same century. They are also quite unique, and that is why we grouped them for development as one destination,” he told The Myanmar Times late June. The committee is expected to hold its second meeting later this year.
Officials in Cambodia have expressed similar sentiment. Cambodian National Tourism Alliance secretary-general Ho Vandy said the agreement will be mutually beneficial.
“The campaign will boost [the number of] tourists between the two countries. It is a good model of development for the tourism industry, similar to what we already have with Thailand.”
Much like the Bagan-Angkor agreement, Cambodia and Thailand have a Memorandum of Agreement for tourism cooperation called the “Two Kingdoms, One Destination” campaign, along with other trade and economic arrangements.
What the locals say
During a recent trip, Travel Wire Asia spoke to several local residents in Bagan and Nyaung U about the potential benefits of the partnership with Angkor.
The locals, many of them employed within the tourism or hospitality sector, were amenable to the idea, saying an increase in tourists to the area would be more than welcome.
Their positive responses indicated a willingness to further embrace tourism and its economic benefits and largely echoed points raised by officials in both Bagan and Angkor.
As U Hla Myint, Myanmar’s director of tourism promotion, pointed out in the Nikkei Asian Review report: “If they (Angkor and Bagan) are sold as a package, Bagan will get more tourists.”
The Bagan-Angkor “sister city” MOU will be signed at the Asean Tourism Forum to be held in Thailand’s Chiang Mai end-January next year.