For a long time I’ve dreamed of visiting South-East Asia with its tropical climate, supreme natural beauty and rich cultural heritage.
My desire to visit stems from being inspired by the people I met at university, the stories I heard from their travels and the pictures they shared. As is usually the case.
Anyway, as you all know by now I eventually made it to Asia with my Chinese girlfriend in tow (to help me blend in with the locals better).
Over the first year of our travels we visited numerous countries in SE Asia and loved them.
However, we never really felt like we’d gone off the beaten path or did anything spectacularly unique. Thousands if not millions of tourists (particularly young western backpackers like us) had gone to these places before.
We met people on our travels who’d visited Thailand in the 1980’s, Bali before it was famous and Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge were still in town. We turned green with envy (Less so with regard to being shot at by the Khmer Rouge whilst trying to visit Angkor).
We wanted (want) to be like them. We want to see what they’ve seen, experience what they’ve experienced and have similar unbelievable memories to last a lifetime…
With the development of technology, the growth of budget airlines and the boom in tourism our world is considerably smaller today than it ever has been. Few places remain untouched by globalisation and tourism.
We wondered where we could go (without putting our lives in danger) that would feel a little more unique, or pioneering perhaps. That actually had some interesting places to visit.
As far as we could see, nowhere truly fulfilled this criteria until we somehow stumbled across ‘Burma’.
This was our little gem, this was the one
A little further reading told us The Union of Myanmar (as it’s now officially known) has long been the subject of western sanctions. Largely in response to the governments brutal suppression of the 1988 uprising and subsequent imprisonment, torture, execution of protesters and general total disregard for human rights.
A tourism boycott of Burma had been in place since 1996.
“Democracy activists described the encouragement of tourism as a cynical effort to support the armed forces with foreign tourist money in the form of taxes. They also said it benefited travel companies run by the regime’s cronies.
“Burma will be here for many years, so tell your friends to visit us later,” Aung San Suu Kyi said at the time. “Visiting now is tantamount to condoning the regime.”
Most western tourists heeded ‘The Lady’s’ words, with few visiting Burma.
We know people who’ve travelled quite literally all over the world, but we’d never met anybody who’d made it to Burma. My grandad during World War II doesn’t really count.
“However the 15-year-old, opposition-inspired tourism boycott of Burma has been declared over after the party of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi said it would now welcome foreign travellers.
In 2010, Win Tin, a senior leader of the National League for Democracy, told The Times during an interview in Rangoon that foreigners should visit Burma and see for themselves the suffering of the people under one of the world’s most stubborn and repressive military dictatorships.
“We want people to come to Burma, not to help the junta, but to help the people by understanding the situation: political, economic, moral – everything,” said Mr Win Tin, a co-founder of the NLD and close friend of Ms Suu Kyi, who has spent 20 years as a political prisoner.
“For the outside world to see, to know our situation, that can help our cause a lot, we think. It’s rather difficult for us, but very recently Mr Tin Oo [the NLD’s deputy leader] and myself decided that really we can’t ask people not to come to Burma.” – The Australian
So it’s now actually more ethical to visit, providing you spend your money responsibly.
Is Burma safe for western tourists?
Perhaps surprisingly, it’s very safe (Except for hygiene standards, roads and healthcare provision – which applies to most of Asia). Despite the poverty it would seem the Burmese are good Buddhist folk. The penalties for crimes against foreigners are also incredibly harsh, which probably helps.
The more we learned, the more we wanted to go.
We read of a place so majestic in its beauty, but so heart-breaking in its tragedy; of a nation sandwiched between the 21st century super-powers of China and India, yet frozen in time; of a people who are desperate for knowledge and freedom, but prevented from having it; of a country steeped in history and tradition yet crying out for progression and development.
The few accounts we were able to read described Burma as one of the greatest travel experiences around and entirely off the beaten path
It sounded like an adventure.
We soon realised this country probably has more to see and experience than most others in the region. Yet nobody has really visited.
Information is scarce for prospective travellers (In stark contrast to the rest of SE Asia) and travel seemed relatively difficult. Obtaining a tourist visa also seemed a potential minefield, with conflicting information provided by various different sources, including the Burmese Embassy itself.
We ended up relying on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree Travel Discussion Forum, a guidebook we bought in Cambodia, and a friend of a friend (Who’d visited in 2010) who very kindly gave us some tips and pointers – which was much appreciated. All of these helped to prepare and inform us for our trip.
For months prior to departure, we’d been eagerly anticipating our arrival. We kept up to date with the latest information and followed developments closely. Reforms were supposedly underway with Burma reportedly now opening up to the outside world.
What a time to go we told ourselves, before the tourist masses inevitably arrive and word spreads.
Eventually, we got ourselves organised and everything fell into place. With a great sense of adventure, nervousness and excitement our Burmese adventure began.
We didn’t quite know what to expect, except for expect to expect the unexpected.