And just like that, all of the sudden I was traveling in the most controversial country on this planet. Myanmar, a place I’d say many Americans had never heard of, was in the center of global news.
And suddenly I was getting all sorts of flack for my travels. From friends. From internet strangers. Everyone had an opinion. It’s important to remember that freedom of speech isn’t a right worldwide. In Myanmar people (including foreigners) have been jailed for posting on social media. As such, I made a very conscientious decision not to say anything until I had left the country and returned to Thailand where I am now. WiFi there was sketchy at best, but whenever I was able to log in, I always found several posts on my Facebook wall with links to articles. I couldn’t delete those posts fast enough. I do understand that they were out of concern and curiosity, but what no one seemed to understand is that they could have gotten me in trouble while I was in Myanmar.
Now that I am out of Myanmar and back in Thailand, I am able to freely share my thoughts on the country, the crisis, and why I still chose to travel there.
The Rohingya genocide is horrific, no doubt. The military of Myanmar has a long and horrendous history of inflicting pain on its people, especially those of an ethnic minority. In Myanmar, the Rohingya are not even recognized as citizens. They truly are stateless people. I do hope that with the influx of global news about the situation that the pressure is put on the Burmese government and military to change this soon. Right now, that looks grim, but with continued bad press and international response, this can change.
But I still chose to visit Myanmar. And I am happy to have this chance to explain my thoughts and motivations behind this.
The most important thing to remember when visiting another country is that people are not their government. Very rarely, will you find that a government represents the everyday people. Being a US passport holder myself, my god, I hope everyone knows this. I abhor Donald Trump and am disgusted with how he is running the country. I would never want anyone to judge me based on his racist decisions.
Responsible travel is something I preach about. There is a way to travel in Myanmar quite responsibly, ensuring that as little of your money goes to the military and the government. In Myanmar, more than anywhere, I made an effort to support only localized businesses, privately run companies, and personal enterprises. It’s sometimes hard to know, but I diligently researched every guesthouse I stayed in, every restaurant I ate at, and every transportation option I used. Although flying domestically was often tempting, as it would save time and the agony of the infamous roads in Myanmar, I vowed not to as the airlines all support the military whereas the bus companies are privately owned.
But the bottom line is that travel helps the good people of Myanmar, and that is the definition of responsible travel. Travel to Myanmar has gone back down, and the locals are suffering because of it. Myanmar is a poor country and many people, with zero government or military affiliation, rely on travelers’ dollars to provide them with an income. Tourism has always been a smaller industry in Myanmar than its neighboring countries, but even with their small industry seeing decreased numbers of visitors, many people are struggling to provide for their families. I heard this throughout my time there, from guesthouse owners to horse cart drivers, the crisis is impacting their bottom line the most and the government the least. And that is why I was happy to spend my hard earned money directly with the people in Myanmar.
What touched me most about Myanmar was its people, who I was fortunate enough to get to know. Never have I been in a country with such honest, friendly, and hospitable locals. I couldn’t walk two meters without a cheerful “minglaba” (hello in Burmese). And it was not because people were trying to sell me something. The people were genuinely friendly, welcoming of visitors, and wanted to make sure that I felt at ease there. Whenever I found myself lost, a friendly local always came to my aid, without me even asking for help. On one occasion, shortly after I arrived and was still getting used to the currency, I unknowingly gave a vendor a 10,000 kyat note for a 1,000 kyat purchase. Not seeing the extra zeros, I started to walk away, but she chased me down to give me my change. In fact, Mynamar is the only country in the region where it is not necessary to bargain, as you are usually offered a very fair price upfront. In Myanmar I could leave my bags unattended while I bought a train ticket or used the toilet, confident that nothing would be stolen. As a seasoned traveler, I always have my guard up, but in Myanmar, I realized that I could let that go to some extent. I was still careful, but not overly protective as I’d be in Thailand or Malaysia. Never in my travels have I felt so safe in a country so different from my own.
More than anywhere in Southeast Asia, the people of Myanmar still preserve their traditions, making it one of the most unique places I’ve ever been. Outside of the big cities of Yangon and Mandalay (and even often in them), the common attire for men is still the skirt like longyi . The aroma of burning trash, agriculture, and betel nut spit permeates the air. Myanmar has a unique smell. And women and men alike still paint their faces with thanaka, partly for aesthetics and partly as a natural sunscreen. Power cuts are a daily occurrence, even in the bigger cities. And you are lucky when the WiFi works. Bus and rail trips there are an eventful adventure and there is always a story to tell after a 10+ hour harrowing bus ride or a three hour train trip covering less than 40 kilometers. Being in Myanmar was like being in a whole different era, Southeast Asia before it became super commercialized. As someone who has been in over 50 countries, this one was more unique than most other places I’ve visited.
Like everywhere, the crisis with the Rohingya is fueled by religious extremism, in this case, Buddhist nationalism. And that thought does not represent the average citizen of Myanmar. I highly doubt that the kind owner of my Nyaungshwe guesthouse, who went out of his way to help me when I contracted a mild case of dengue fever, is wanting to kill Muslims on the Myanmar/Bangladesh border. The people of Myanmar are the Myanmar I wish the world could know, not the bad press, not the genocide, and certainly not the military.
Am I disappointed with Aung San Suu Kyi and the government? Of course I am. As a noble prize recipient, and a victim of the regime for many years herself, I wish she would speak out against the flagrant human rights abuses against the Rohingya. And do I hold the army accountable for genocide? Most certainly. They are the ones committing the atrocities in Western Myanmar. But what about the people who live there? Is this their fault? Is Donald Trump my fault? I think that answers the question.
(Traveling to Myanmar solo, without a tour is doable! That is how I did it, and that is really the way to go. But there are many ins and outs and tips and tricks to it. Ready to travel to Myanmar? I’d love to help you plan your journey there. I have contacts all over the country of individuals who own guesthouses, drive taxis, rent ebikes, and even a Bagan horsecart driver. It is possible to travel there minimizing the amounts of money that goes to the military and the government.)