Why you should still travel to Myanmar (responsibly)

From the ancient temples of Bagan to the iconic fishermen of Inle Lake, Myanmar is one of Asia’s most alluring cultural travel destinations. Yet the continuing Rohingya crisis has led some travellers to question whether it’s ethical to visit a country whose de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been criticised for her ongoing reluctance to address the humanitarian disaster in Rakhine state, and the government’s role in it.

I’ve never been a fan of travel boycotts – which, in my opinion, only serve to drive global communities further apart – and thus I don’t think there’s a valid argument that travelling here inadvertently supports the horrific persecution of Myanmar’s Rohingya population. It’s not like your tourism dollars are directly propping up a military dictatorship in Myanmar anymore  – with tourism playing such an important role in the Southeast Asian nation’s fledgling economy, your hard-earned can help to support locals who are just as horrified about the claims of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya as you are. Visiting also provides an opportunity to gain a better understanding of Myanmar and its people, which may assist you in finding a meaningful way to help the Rohingya, if that’s your intention. Here are a few tips on how to make a positive impact on your visit.

Remember to observe religious and cultural etiquette while travelling in Myanmar © Sarah Reid
  • Educate yourself about the Rohingya crisis before you go and investigate if there is anything you can do to help. The New York Times recently published a great article on organisations responding to the crisis you may wish to support.
  • Educate yourself about the destination in general to help prevent causing offence to locals, and minimise negative impacts associated with your visit. Did you know, for example, that the Burmese are just one ethnic group living in Myanmar? Its citizens as a whole are Myanmarese, not Burmese.
  • Be respectful of Buddhist cultural traditions (as well as that of other religious minorities) by adhering to cultural etiquette such as dressing appropriately in temples, and avoiding displays of affection in public.
Don’t forget to pack a reusable water bottle © Sarah Reid
  • As is the case in many developing countries, plastic pollution is a huge problem in Myanmar. Do your bit to avoid contributing to this colossal issue by packing your own reusable water bottle and carry bag. For those times when kettles aren’t available to boil water in your hotel room, consider investing in a Steri Pen, Life Bottle, or other water purifying method (I’m currently test-driving an OKO bottle). Avoid other single-use plastics (such as hotel toiletries) where possible.
  • Myanmar only has a fledgling recycling system. If you have room in your luggage, consider packing your rubbish out with you to recycle properly in your home country.
  • Resist the urge to climb on the temples of Bagan, even though everyone else seems to be doing it. Myanmar’s government is moving to ban this activity that has caused great damage to the temples over the years as part of its application to have the area listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Help preserve Bagan’s iconic temples by keeping off them © Sarah Reid
  • Sharing is caring. Make an effort to chat with locals to learn about their culture, and share yours.
  • Choose operators that are invested in the local community and environment. Where this information isn’t available on the company’s website, ask the company what initiatives it takes to limit its impact on the destination, and invests in the local community and/or environment. Intrepid made it easy for me to avoid plastic bottles on my trip to Myanmar by ensuring drinking water was always available in my tour bus and in the guesthouses we stayed in, and my knowledgeable local guide Joseph did a wonderful job in educating our group on local life and culture, and ensuring we minimised our impact on the destinations we visited.
Visiting a community tourism project was the highlight of my trip to Myanmar with Intrepid © Sarah Reid
  • Support community-based tourism however possible. On my trip with Intrepid, we visited a fantastic community-based tourism project that has helped to improve living conditions and provide sustainable employment opportunities to four villages north of Bagan. Read more about my visit on the Intrepid blog.
  • Unless you’re a journalist and know what you’re doing, steer clear of conflict zones. Aside from the fact that you are likely to void your travel insurance by going there, you may put innocent people in danger.
Schedule some souvenir shopping at social enterprise store Hla Day in Yangon © Sarah Reid
  • Avoid mass-produced tourist tat in favour of buying directly from authentic artisans and shopping in Yangon’s excellent social enterprise boutiques. There are some beautiful hand-made products in Hla Day and Pomelo in Yangon.
  • A few simple phrases such as mingalabar (hello) and chézuba (thank you) will go a long way. When I visit a new country, I learn how to say “it’s better for the environment” in the local language to help explain why I decline plastic bags. Though this is a little tricky in Burmese!
  • Sadly, there are not enough fish left in Inle lake to sustain the livelihoods of many local fishermen. This has led some fishermen to supplement their income by demonstrating their unique fishing technique for tourists. Pay fairly for the service they provide you (an amazing photo op) – around 2000 kyat per person (US$1.50) is acceptable.
The fisherman of Inle Lake are turning to tourism to supplement their income © Sarah Reid
  • Do your research before signing up for a volunteering project, especially if it involves interacting with vulnerable children. See my post on 3 questions you should ask before volunteering on holiday for more information on why your participation could be counterproductive.
  • Do not visit orphanages as a tourist. See thinkchildsafe.org for more info on why this is never a good idea in any country.

Thanks to Intrepid for supporting my trip to Myanmar.