"This is Burma and it is unlike any land you know about.” Rudyard Kipling wrote in 1898. More than a hundred years later, it still hold true for me. I have travelled to a number of places, and yet, the country is truly different.
Myanmar or Burma (there is still an ongoing debate of what the country should be called), is a country surrounded by China, Thailand, Laos, India and Bangladesh. It was a country of kings and dynasties, where Theravada Buddhism became a prominent and important religion. In the 19th century, the British colonised the country, but it has since became independent for 65 years. Independence from the British, that is, but under a closely guarded military rule for most of those years. Elections came and went, and winning politicians were jailed or put under house arrest. However, in the last couple of years, since 2010 as a matter of fact, the country suddenly found themselves reforming and opening up.
It was with these history, and the recent onslaught of tourism, where we spent nine days in some parts of Myanmar that has been opened for tourism. Many places are still off-limits for foreigners. Tourism is still relatively new to the people in the country, many of the people we met and came in contact with, are friendly and welcoming. They seemed genuinely happy to see us, and many times, children and even monks, waved and smiled happily to us. Many would continue going about their daily lives, without regard to the tourists that seemed very interested in the things that they are, and have been, doing for centuries.
In Inle Lake, fishermen tried to find a quiet spot away from the speeding tourists boats that were all too interested in watching them fish. Women bathing and washing clothes by the river and lake tried to ignore the trigger-happy tourists with their cameras of different shapes and sizes. In a street in Yangon where the local carpenter were making wooden furniture, we were pretty much left alone to watch them work. In Bagan, farmers still use bull carts and cows to plough their land, and bring their goats out to graze the grass next to the temples. In the glistering golden pagoda and Buddha statues, prayers are made and flowers offered.
These made Myanmar an amazing country to travel around, and so unlike any other countries that I have been. In most of these countries, tourism became part and parcel of daily lives, and has even became an industry where the whole town or even island, is a part of. In places like Santorini and Bali, I felt that everyone I met are tourists like me, and even the locals are from other areas who went to work in the tourism industry. Many of the visitors to Myanmar are those who wanted to experience the country before tourism hit it hard. They are usually those who are prepared to rough it out, and not demand five star hotels and restaurants, because there are little, if any, of those.
In the cities and towns we went, we felt safe and welcomed. Smiles are plenty, with faces of women and children spread with a yellowish-white paste called thanaka, and men with red betel chewing teeth. In Buddhist temples, we left our shoes and slippers outside the temples without worry that we may find ourselves barefooted for the rest of the trip. I walked on the streets feeling safe from bag-snatcher and thieves. I bought souvenirs and shopped in markets without worrying that I have been cheated. Some haggling is necessary, but the prices quoted were usually pretty reasonable.
All that being said, I have noticed the impact of tourism to the ways some of them lived. In Bagan, more and more children are dropping out of school to sell trinkets and postcards. Many of them learnt English, Malay, French and other languages to communicate and sell to tourists. In some villages, children asked for money from tourists. In Inle Lake, resorts and hotels with creature comfort are being built on the lake. Restaurants are opened with more acceptable cuisine such as Chinese food and "western" food, amongst the Burmese cuisine to cater for varying tastes.
And so, I am torn. I am torn between asking people to visit the country while it is still charming and naive (for a lack of better word), and trying to keep it a secret with the hope that they will stay innocent to tourism and the good and bad that came with it. But from the way it looks, Myanmar is speeding, towards that direction - towards development and tourism, and trying to open up and hoping to catch the attention of the world. And it looks like they are not going to stop anytime soon.