Shwedagon Pagoda Yangon
Inle Lake leg-rower
Stupors at Inle Lake
Burmese Cigar Smoker
The road back to Burma
"When we see tourists, we eat well," I was told by the mother of a village chief when I recently visited Burma. She was referring not to the income tourists bring - although some villagers welcome the opportunity to sell hand-woven garments or tea to visitors - but to the fact that tourists signify peace in a country that has long been under military rule and where rebel uprisings have been common.
Burma's popularity as a holiday destination has soared in recent months and tourist numbers are predicted to grow to one million this year. Of course, that's still a far cry from the numbers that visit neighbouring Thailand and other south-east Asian countries, but it's a significant change for a country that has been boycotted by most tourists since 1996.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of Burma's pro-democracy party called for the boycott after Burma's generals designated 1996 'Visit Myanmar Year'. Forced labour was reportedly being used to build and repair infrastructure to support the expected tourist influx, so she suggested that it be made the year that tourists didn't visit Myanmar. The world listened to 'The Lady', as she is affectionately known and most travellers stayed away.
If you read or watch the news, you'll know that changes are currently taking place in Burma. Suu Kyi was released from long-standing house arrest in 2010 and in a recent by-election her party, the National League for Democracy won dozens of parliamentary seats. Hundreds of political prisoners have been released and on his recent visit to the country, David Cameron called for economic sanctions to be suspended in recognition of the changes taking place.
Suu Kyi's party revised its position on tourism towards the end of 2010 and now encourages independent or small-scale tourism which benefits local people, rather than the government. A number of tour operators, including Intrepid Travel, have returned to Burma in recent months and most are travelling as responsibly as possible, using locally-run hotels and guesthouses, local restaurants, local guides, and locally-owned transport, so that the majority of the income from their tourism goes into the pockets of locals.
Whilst visiting Burma, I walked in the mountains surrounding Kalaw with guides from the Rural Development Society, a local NGO whose projects include building schools, libraries, water filtration plants and bridges in a number of remote villages in the Shan state. After hiking past pine forests, tea plantations and orange trees, we took a well-earned rest in one of the villages where locals invited us into their homes to share cups of tea. I was surprised to hear that even in these remote villages, they are accustomed to seeing tourists every day.
Part of Burma's magic is that having been cut-off from mainstream tourism for the best part of two decades, its traditions continue to thrive. At the picturesque Inle Lake you can see traditional leg-rowers, who stand on the prow of their boats with one leg wrapped around an oar, leaving their hands free to cast their fishing nets. Along the banks of the lake are temples, stupas and simple villages of wooden houses on stilts, where you can find silversmiths, weavers and cigar-makers plying their trade and selling traditional handicrafts.
Even in the larger towns and cities, the modern world seems far away: mobile phones won't roam and it's almost impossible to use a credit card unless you're staying in one of the country's few five star hotels. Changing money is also difficult; you need to bring pristine US dollars without folds or marks, and even then they might be turned down because the money-changer doesn't like their serial number.
Currency exchange is just one aspect of the infrastructure that will require rapid development to cope with the predicted increase in visitor numbers. Internal flights are already approaching capacity and hotel rooms are becoming difficult to find. Popular sights such as the U Bien Bridge near Mandalay are already become crowded. It is the longest teak bridge in the world and a beautiful place to enjoy the sunrise or sunset alongside monks and locals, but it's not hard to imagine it becoming over-run with tourists, and the hawkers selling cheap goods will undoubtedly increase too.
The pace of political change has created a buzz around Burma. Locals say that less than a year ago, they would have been arrested for carrying a small photo of Aung San Suu Kyi. Now she has a seat in parliament and there are posters and trinkets emblazoned with her image for sale on the streets of Yangon, the former capital where gold-gilded Buddhist temples sit alongside skyscrapers and colonial buildings that are falling into disrepair.
But campaign groups say that human rights abuses continue to be widespread in Burma and there is a long way to go on the road to democracy. The military passed power to a civilian government in 2011, but one former political prisoner I met said it is a case of "new bottle, same wine".
There's no doubt that Burma is a fascinating country. It has tranquil mountain villages, picturesque lakes, unspoiled beaches and the splendid Bagan, with thousands of ruined temples that rival Cambodia's Angkor Wat. Tourism has the ability to bring much-needed income to communities who have suffered as a result of international sanctions, but to travel there ethically people should ensure that they use hotels and services that are not linked with the government, or choose a tour company that can confirm it does this.
Nicola Frame, Intrepid Travel
- Intrepid Travel offers a 15-day 'Best of Burma' trip which visits Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay, Kalaw and Inle Lake staying in locally-run hotels and guesthouses, with one night aboard a boat on the Ayeyarwaddy River. Intrepid estimates that at least 85% of the income from its tour supports locals. Entrance fees to some historical sights and taxes that are paid by local businesses are paid to the government. intrepidtravel.com (0844 4998487)