NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar — With the borders of Myanmar (Burma) opened in the summer of 2012, travellers are flocking to this country to witness life from another era. There is minimal influence from Western corporations and chains to impact the culture, making tourism in Myanmar a fascinating experience for any traveller.
While the government heavily regulates where travellers can go because of civil wars and ethnic conflict, the recent election of Aung San Suu Kyi in November may have a positive impact on the country as a whole. At present, most travellers follow a triangle-style route, stopping in Yangon (Rangoon), Mandalay and Bagan.
The following is an excerpt from an interview with a local tour guide named Yola who works for Sam’s Family Restaurant and Trekking Company, which is featured in the Lonely Planet guide to the country. Yola is 22-years old and a student at the University of Taunggyi in Shan State.
Sam’s Family Restaurant and Trekking Company provides jobs and English language schooling to young people in rural villages, which allows for a new avenue for employment beside agriculture. The process to become a tour guide is lengthy – over a year of learning routes, how to present the trek to tourists in English and preparedness training. Nonetheless, tourism in Myanmar is becoming a desired profession. Furthermore, tour guides must be able to understand regional dialects when passing by different villages whose people may not speak Myanmar.
Borgen Project: How has tourism affected Myanmar, especially since the borders were open?
Yola: As the borders were opened, most of Burmese want to learn English and more and more people can speak English and have conversation with tourists. They can exchange their knowledge about their cultures [and]traditions [to know]about the different life of the people from different countries. [There are also] more and more buildings, such as hotels, motels and guest houses.
Some people who have no job can get on in taxi, carriers, porters, air transportation, land transportation, trekking guides, hotels and souvenir shops.[But] more tourists are coming and most of them want to do trekking and trekkers are always going to the rural villages’ family houses and staying overnight. So people need more firewood and they cut down the trees from the forest to cook. [The villages] don’t have electricity and they don’t use it for cooking.
During trekking, the guides need to carry all the food and most of the things are plastic. And after they used that they leave it in the villages. As the villages are so far from the city, there are no trucks to come and take all the trash. So they just throw it in the nature or to the canyon or to the bamboo forests or they burn it. So [tourism is]bad for the environment. Tourists buy the drinking water and they also leave the empty bottles. Sometimes it’s good if the villagers reuse those bottles. Finally, when the bottles are old, then they just throw it into the nature.
With tourism, there is the idea that the more tourists come, the more money we get. But one thing that I worry about is that some become greedy. After people see that tourists will pay more than locals, they can take advantage of the tourists. This isn’t good or fair to people.
And another thing is as most of the tourists are not Buddhist. Some tourists are wearing [revealing]clothes and some people in the city [follow that behavior]. Then they forget their own culture and become [disrespectful].
BP: If you could tell the American government anything about how to solve poverty in your country, what would you say?
Yola: If I have [the]opportunity to tell the American government, I would say to go around and help the people who are still in the “dark,” especially [in their]education and life. I cannot be quiet when I see someone who is more poor than me. I am always thinking [about]to help him or her. I want justice and show them how the world is. Because the [people of Myanmar]are always in their region and working in the sun and rain, so this is the only place or things what they see and know and get.
The people of Myanmar say that tourism is “a smokeless industry,” a reference to the alternative possibility of earning income from factory work. And billboards around the country say, “Be kind and warmly welcome tourists.” As a new source for income and prosperity, tourism seems to be hitting its stride in Myanmar.
– Priscilla McCelvey