14 Jul The Ugly Side of Emerging Tourism in Burma
Visiting Burma, which was until recently shut off from the outside world and boycotted by tourists, was an eye-opening experience. On the one hand we met some of the loveliest, most welcoming people, many of whom wanted to pose for photos with us and have their children shake our hands. There was also a raw beauty to the places we visited in Burma which shows through in our photos, particularly of the spectacular sunsets and sunrises we witnessed. On the other hand though, we encountered an uglier side of the emerging tourism trade in Burma which led us to question our role as travellers and the damage we can unwittingly cause.
There’s a dilemma that we – and I’m sure many other travellers – often struggle with. While we’re constantly searching for ‘authentic’ experiences and long to get to the real heart of a destination, to witness its ‘natural’ state, at the same time the very act of our us being there can sully a place. Tourism is a double-edged sword; while it can bring economic benefits for local communities it can also totally transform a destination – arguably for the worst. Furthermore, while we love to have genuine interaction with people in the countries we visit we have to also accept that many of those people see us merely as opportunities to make money; to some we’re just a necessary evil. So how do you deal with these issues and travel responsibly without leaving a negative impact – is this even possible? We struggled with these dilemmas throughout our trip but particularly in Burma.
Bad Tourism in Burma
On the whole we found Burmese people to be incredibly kind and welcoming, so when Ohan approached us in Bagan we assumed he was another typical friendly local who wanted to chat with us. Ohan told us about his life as a university student in Mandalay, how he was currently visiting his family in Bagan and the sad story of his girlfriend, who recently died in a motorcycle accident. We felt so at ease that we readily agreed to let Ohan show us around the best temples; “For free, so I can practise my English,” he told us.
About half an hour later Ohan pulled some wooden carvings from his backpack and asked us to buy them; it was then that the penny dropped and we realised the entire meeting had been leading up to this sales pitch. Feeling dismayed and awkward we declined the carvings while Ohan got increasingly insistent and agitated with us. In the end, we felt so guilty that we gave him some money as a tip for the tour and to our shock, he then promptly upped and left without so much as a goodbye – that wasn’t the last we saw of him though. Later on that day we spotted Ohan chatting to another pair of tourists; although we were stood just feet away, he completely blanked us. I felt stunned and more than a little bit conned, especially when I realised the story about his dead girlfriend was probably a lie concocted to gain our sympathies.
This wasn’t the only time we felt awkward while travelling in Burma. While in Mandalay we hired a taxi to take us out to the surrounding ancient cities, stopping at a famous monastery where hundreds of monks live. At 10am the monks gathered for breakfast, silently queuing while, in a repeat of the daily alms giving fiasco in Luang Prabang, Laos, hundreds of tourists watched while talking loudly, stepping in front of the procession and snapping photos in the monks’ faces. We were ashamed to be part of the crowd and lingered near the back, eager to leave.
Next we visited one of the ancient cities, which is on an island accessed by a short boat ride. As we stood waiting to board we were hounded by children trying to sell us hats and trinkets; this is nothing new and something we encountered regularly in Cambodia, where we made a personal decision never to buy from child sellers on the basis that it only keeps them out on the streets where they’re at their most vulnerable.
When we arrived on the island we were surrounded by people asking us to hire a horse and cart, which is also something we’ve made a decision never to do. The response we got from our refusals shocked us; while some touts aggressively pestered us, others mocked us by cruelly mimicking our polite replies of “No Thankyou”. The episode left a very bad taste in our mouths, especially since we’d experienced such kindness from other Burmese people we’d met.
Are we to Blame?
Looking back on these episodes, I cannot blame these Burmese people for the way they interacted with us. This is the uglier side of the tourism trade that wouldn’t exist if we all stayed away from the country in the first place; so can we really blame people for sometimes seeing us as walking ATMs or for resenting us when we refuse to buy their goods or use their services? Are we ruining the country and its culture by visiting in the first place; should we stay away?
Unlike neighbouring countries such as Thailand, Burma doesn’t yet have a developed tourist infrastructure and visitors are still a bit of a novelty. While most of the people treated us like welcome guests and asked nothing of us, a minority see the emerging tourism trade only as an economic enterprise and they perhaps view tourists as nosy, spoilt westerners (a valid interpretation). Given all that, why shouldn’t the Burmese people take every opportunity to make money from us, especially when there are still so many political problems in the country and so much widespread poverty, corruption and oppression?
There was another dimension to these issues for us; the fact that Burma was colonised by the British. We couldn’t help but feel residual guilt because of this, especially when reading George Orwell’s Burmese Days while travelling through the country. Time and again many of the people we met asked us about our lives back in England and our previous jobs – all told us how lucky we were and how they’d love to have the opportunities we have. These conversations were sobering and reminded us of how randomly lucky we are to have been born in the UK.
These issues exist to some extent in all of the Asian countries we’ve visited but because tourism is relatively new there, we found them most starkly visible in Burma. There are no easy answers or resolutions to the problems I’ve mentioned but we’ll no doubt continue facing them the more we travel.
How do you deal with the issues surrounding the ugly side of tourism?