Expedition: India, Bangladesh & Myanmar
A Balanced Look at the Realities of Traveling to Myanmar
Located east of India in Southern Asia, Myanmar was isolated from the rest of the world for more than half a century. Ruled by a brutal military dictatorship, its borders were permanently closed, and the country was traumatized by one of the longest-running civil wars in modern history.
In 2011, Myanmar (which was formerly known as Burma) fully embraced democracy. Its borders were opened and intrepid travelers started flooding in, eager to experience a destination that had previously been shrouded in mystery. Myanmar became one of the world’s hottest destinations to visit, right up there with the likes of Iceland and Cuba (after the U.S. relaxed travel restrictions).
What travelers found was a country rich in both traditional culture and natural beauty. Its mythical landscapes are dotted with thousands of temples dating back to the 10th century, and golden-gilded pagodas that glisten in the sunlight. There are countless fishing villages with floating markets, stilted homes, and local fishermen rowing wooden boats.
Even though the oppressive regime that plagued the country has officially ended, Myanmar’s parliament and major industries are still largely controlled by the military. So it is no wonder that the number one question most travelers have is, is it safe to travel to Myanmar?
IS MYANMAR SAFE FOR TRAVEL?
The short answer is yes. In general, most of Myanmar is considered perfectly safe. And while certain parts of the country are still experiencing political turmoil, there have been no reports of tourist-related violence in and around the main attractions (which are a considerable distance away from the regions currently experiencing conflict).
Those traveling within the typical tourist circuit of Bagan, Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake, Hsipaw, Kiyakto, and the Mergui Archipelago will be just as safe as they would be traveling through a developed country like Canada or Australia. The US Department of State currently recommends that travelers to these parts of the country exercise normal travel precautions.
The Burmese people are among the most welcoming and friendly you may ever meet as a traveler. After having been isolated from the rest of the world for so long, they are thrilled to interact with and introduce foreigners to their culture, proudly showing off their country. Even though many don’t speak English, they still go out of their way to make sure travelers feel comfortable. They will attempt to communicate, and you may even find yourself invited into a local’s home for tea.
If you do plan on exploring the country further and visiting more remote regions, it is wise to stay up to date on Myanmar’s political situation, as travel may become unsafe in the future.
UNSAFE REGIONS FOR TRAVEL IN MYANMAR
While most of Myanmar doesn’t present any safety risk for travelers, some areas are currently experiencing civil unrest. In particular, the ongoing persecution by the military that has forced some one million Rohingya refugees to flee the country.
In this predominantly Buddhist country, the Rohingya are an Islamic minority who populate the western state of Rakhine. The Myanmar government refuses to recognize the Rohingya as citizens. Instead, they’re treated as illegal immigrants, subjected to persecution and forced labor, and refused the rights to travel, marry, or access healthcare and education. Rakhine is one of the poorest and most remote parts of Myanmar, and travel to this part of the country should be avoided.
Other regions of Myanmar currently experiencing conflict include the Kachin State (which has recently seen air strikes) and the northern and central areas of Shan State (where military clashes with ethnic groups are ongoing). With so many refugees desperately escaping the country, border crossings have become risky due to an increased presence of armed groups and fighters.
If you do choose to travel to a region of Myanmar that is considered unsafe, it is important to seek professional advice on your security. You should be aware of the political situation, and take extra safety precautions, including having a contingency plan in place. Traveling to these parts of Myanmar will void most travel insurance policies, and it is unlikely that your government will be able to assist you in any sort of crisis situation.
It is important to avoid all political gatherings, including demonstrations, protests, and street rallies. These type of events have been known to turn violent, and local authorities don’t always respond predictably. Avoiding political protests includes not taking photographs of such demonstrations or the military.
You should also monitor what you say in public when visiting these regions, and keeping opinions about politics and the military to yourself is key to ensuring your safety. Following instructions given by the local authorities, abiding by imposed curfews, and monitoring the media for news of possible unrest is the best way to minimize the risk of travel to any hazardous areas.
REASONS TO VISIT MYANMAR NOW
Even though the country is safe to visit, many travelers are struggling to decide whether travel to Myanmar is ethical in light of the current refugee crisis, and continued military violence against ethnic minorities.
International condemnation and media coverage of the Rohingya has brought some demands for a total boycott on Myanmar travel. However, there is huge potential for Myanmar tourism to be used as a force for good. For those concerned about the Rohingya emergency, choosing not to travel could actually be one of the worst things you can do.
The violence against this ethnic group in Myanmar is not new. Persecution of minorities by the military has been happening in Myanmar for centuries. The difference today is that now the entire world is watching. Once cut off from the eyes of the international press, the country’s oppressive regime was free to commit human rights violations without raising global concern. A boycott of Myanmar now would isolate the country once again, and the persecution of the Rohingya would continue unchecked.
For those wanting to make a positive difference, traveling to Myanmar offers an effective way of keeping this issue visible to the international community. A strong argument could be made that the best time to travel to Myanmar is now, because of the Rohingya emergency. By raising international awareness and exposing local communities to foreign cultures, we can use travel to open a back door to diplomacy.
It may feel honorable to take a stand against human suffering, but a boycott does very little to positively affect the Rohingya emergency. The reality is that tourism dollars don’t fund the military junta. Instead, they help to fund the local communities who have come to rely on tourism for their livelihoods. It is important to note that the Burmese people are not the Burmese military, and they are not a reflection of their government’s ideals any more than any other country.
In truth, many communities are not even kept up to date on the conflict happening in other states. A boycott of Myanmar has the potential to hurt locals who live off the tourism economy. With tourism declining as a result of politics, these local communities need travelers now more than ever. Many communities in Myanmar fall well below the international poverty line, and the economic boost that responsible travel brings helps to alleviate this.
And of course, visiting Myanmar sooner rather than later means you’ll able to experience the country in its authentic form. Myanmar is still a culturally rich and authentic country, and remains relatively unspoiled, especially compared to some of the more popular tourist meccas it borders.
BIO: Megan Jerrard is an Australian Journalist and the founder and Senior Editor of Mapping Megan, an award-winning travel blog bringing you the latest in adventure travel from all over the globe.
Visiting Myanmar is best when traveling with expert guides and specialists. Join one of the following expeditions and get a unique and thrilling experience with our world-renowned expedition leaders:
- India, Bangladesh & Myanmar: Blend the natural and cultural treasures of the Bay of Bengal on a luxury small ship cruise from Chennai to Yangon. Visit sacred temples, bustling bazaars, rural villages, and four national parks and reserves, including the Sundarbans
- Plus our post-trip extension: Heart of Myanmar