Myanmar (Burma) is known because of the dictatorship settled since 1962 and the lack of respect for human rights, but is still quite unknown as a touristic place. The country is slowly opening to international relationships since a new president was elected in 2010.
After a few weeks of experiences and observations spent there during summer 2014 and beyond the lovely place description of the touristic guides, it remains for me a strange and fascinating country in many ways. Its development being stuck by dictatorship, daily life remains close to the British colonial time. Going to Myanmar is like jumping back in time while integrating technology of the 21st century.
It is a mix of tradition, modernity, superstition, kitsch style, spirituality and swarming commerce peculiar to South- Asia. In summer 2014 for example, most people, men and women, still wear the traditional long skirt-like longyi. Jeans do appear, but in the cities only. Women cover their faces with the traditional make-up Thanakha, a yellow mixture done with the tree bark of the same name. Many people chew betel leaves which dye their saliva in red, letting them appear like vampires! One drives on the right, and pretty often with a right steering-wheel car, as the cheapest cars are coming from South Asia or India. Outside of the main cities - Yangon in the south and Mandalay in the centre - only a very few tarmac roads exist. Horses are still used to pull carry carts. No chance to find a “7-eleven” or to use your western mobile phone, as there is no roaming. As in many other under-developed countries people are poor but most of them have a smartphone!
Myanmar is also the place where people don’t have family names but unique names determined by astrological calculation of the day of the week the person was born based on Burmese lunar calendar year. Superstition is something very present as well as religion which takes an important place in the daily life.
Buddhists represent 85% of the population. That is why you can see bare foot monks everywhere, both men and women, who are begging for their daily food as tradition dictates. Buddha, pagodas, stupas in infinite number are each one more golden and worshiped than the other and for a European tourist each time surprisingly outstanding and incredible. Kitsch decoration lovers will be spoiled here: colour changing LED lights blink around the ancient Buddha heads to symbolize their radiance and pagoda grounds are covered with colourful bathroom-like tiles. A lot of money is donated for these places of prayer by people who paradoxically do not have much at all. The religious system is done in such a way that diversified education is integrated and accessible even for the most destitute, allowing more than 92% of the population to be literate, which is a miracle for such a low-developed country.
Beyond all these considerations, Myanmar is also a place where people are kind and smiley, courageous, generous despite their poverty, and proud to present their country to foreigners. Communication is quite easy as more and more people speak English.
The wind of tourism and change has started to blow, and everyone has understood that there is a lot of money to earn from it. Everything is changing very quickly now, and many things I just described are already outdated or meant to disappear in the next few years.
So, if you decide to go there do not forget Burma is still a dictatorship and the government still uses tourism to grow richer without letting people participate. So pay attention to where you spend your money. Ideally, be aware of the political and social landscape and act accordingly. Where possible, avoid businesses owned by the government or those closely linked to it and prefer local businesses. To find more information on responsible and sustainable tourism in Myanmar, visit tourism transparency.