Asia,  Myanmar/Burma,  Travel

Has Tourism Already Ruined Myanmar?

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Myanmar had been on my radar for over a year. I knew when I made my plans to come to Southeast Asia I HAD to visit, and although things were a bit up in the air with the election, and my original plan of 12 days was cut to 7, I made sure to make it work.

I had a vision in my head of the country. How different it would be from everywhere else I have been. Since the borders have only been open for about 4 years, it’s still relatively unknown. Although with the announcement that the first ever Dunkin’ Donuts opened, I knew I had to get there fast; before tourism exploded and the previously undiscovered country became a hot spot for chain restaurants and massive tour groups.

My friends who have been over the past couple of years agreed. “Go before tourism ruins it” they would tell me.

And so I did. But I might have been too late.

Myanmar tourism

My friend Karina of Wisdom Trails was probably one of the first backpackers to explore the country right after they opened their borders. She described an entirely different world; one with no western food, no wifi, no tourist busses and limited public transport, but incredibly kind and humble people. I loved hearing her stories and, although we both knew that a lot could change in 4 years, I still hoped that most of the magic would be there.

It was. And it wasn’t.

The ride into the city from the airport was eye opening; I saw locals piled into dump trucks, and some of the most hectic and seemingly unorganized traffic I have ever seen. I saw cows in the streets, and both men and women wearing the traditional longyis. It was so different than anywhere I had every been, and I couldn’t keep the ridiculous smile off my face in anticipation of exploring this new country.

My school bus as a kid was just a little different
My school bus as a kid was just a little different

When we arrived I walked for over an hour trying to find a currency exchange. I felt a bit like a unicorn; not only for being white and a solo female, but also just for walking around instead of taking a taxi or motor bike. I was stared at a lot, but not in a bad way. I would smile and receive a huge grin, often partnered with a wave, back. Within an hour I knew what my friends meant when they told me that the Burmese are the friendliest people around.

The unicorn feeling continued throughout the week. Local boys at a restaurant/bar caught me playing the air guitar with a couple friends, and soon started mimicking me causing us all to burst out laughing. A toddler ran after me blowing kisses in the street. Monks came up to me to ask where I was from and tell me a bit about the pagoda I was visiting as an attempt to practice their English. My all-time favourite moment was when I put the traditional thanaka on my face that all the locals wear, and an old Burmese man bee-lined over to take a photo of me. He didn’t speak, but gave me a big smile and thumbs up before wandering off again. Of course some people didn’t talk or engage and just stared, or took photos, but that was ok too because as soon as I smiled and waved they did the same.

Getting the traditional Burmese Thanaka
Getting the traditional Burmese Thanaka

But things changed as I hit the touristic spots. No longer was I the unicorn to practice English on, but I was the tourist full of money. The first hint was the photography fees; if you want to take pictures in some of the major attractions in Myanmar, expect to pay some money. I’ve come across this before and wasn’t completely shocked, but I wasn’t expecting it here. Then came the toilets; locals got in free but tourists had to pay. Most menus in restaurants didn’t have set prices either, we all wondered why but after one situation we realized; tourists pay more.

And so it continued.

But what was worse than being seen as a dollar sign was realizing that by being a dollar sign, we had changed things.

My first clue was on a day trip from Mandalay when four of us had a taxi take us to some of the nearby sites. We visited a teaching monastery for 10:15am, so we could see the monks line up for lunch. As we arrived we saw a number of other taxis doing the same. There were probably about 30-40 of us waiting for the same thing which struck our group as very touristic.

And then the busses of Chinese tourists pulled up and that number more than quadrupled in size. I watched sadly as middle aged Chinese came out all carrying plastic bags, the leader yelling on her headset, and them following blindly behind. They swarmed up, pushing their way up front and pulling boxes of cookies and candies, pencils and paper, out of their bags.

Monks looking everywhere but the cameras flashing in their faces
Monks looking everywhere but at the cameras flashing in their faces

As the clock ticked closer to 10:15 the monks started to line up. The youngest ones came first, only to be completely bombarded by cameras in their faces. And as the procession started they were literally being thrown candy and sweet snacks like it was Halloween. There was so much it was to the point where the sweets were falling off the monk’s dishes in excess. I watched the monks; old and young, keeping their heads forward, eyes down, just walking along. So different than those with the friendly smiles I had met earlier. But I didn’t blame them; they must have felt like animals in a zoo. I turned from those on the street and watched the ones who had already gone past and were back in the safety of their buildings. Away from prying eyes and strangers they were smiling and laughing- like they should have been all along, and probably would have been if we hadn’t invaded their daily routine.

Back in our taxi I asked our driver for his honest opinion: Did tourists ruin the country? He told me no, it was good for business and for people to learn more about the western world. But as the day continued I wondered, to what extent?

At nearly every major temple we went to I saw young children selling post cards or knicknacks. Children that should have been in school. I ignored them; difficult for someone who loves kids, but knowing that supporting them would encourage their families to keep them out there. I made an exception for a girl about 16-17 years old who I met at a watch tower on Innwa. After ‘arguing’ about who was the most beautiful (I thought she was but she said I was) she told me the bit of history she knew about the place. She was a pleasure to talk to so when she tried to sell me a beaded bracelet she made herself, I happily spent a bit of my money to support her.

My bracelet making friend
My beautiful bracelet making friend

But as my travel through the country continued I saw much of the same. One asshole even shoved a tiny, little boy in my face when he saw me smiling at him. The man was trying to get me to buy the flowers clutched in the little boy’s pudgy hand. The child was terrified at being pushed at a stranger and burst into tears. I glared angrily at the man and told him to get away, but seeing those tears streaming down the little boy’s face crushed me. I caused him that fear because as a tourist, I represented money and this man thought parading around a cute baby was a sure way to some easy cash, no matter the cost to the child. I hated him for it.

I know its common in many places, but using children for money really bothers me and seemed to be an extreme here. As soon as I arrived in Bagan I had a little boy, no more than 7 years old, run up and grab my hand. He walked with me, holding on tight as I haggled with a taxi. As soon as there was a pause in the conversation he tugged my hand. “Money?” he asked, rubbing his little fingers together. Knowing he was just another child being used by his family I shook my head and took away my hand, watching him scamper off to the next visitor in line to try again.

Things only escalated in Bagan. My newfound friends and I rode around town on our rented e-bikes only to be jumped on at every major temple we visited. Men, women, and children alike had postcards, elephant pants, books, sand paintings and more. Some kids even drew their own photos on lined paper with pens or coloured pencils; of crooked temples and red balloons in the sky, trying to sell them. And for some strange reason I seemed to attract them all. My friends laughed as I ended up in full-blown conversations with the local vendors, and although many just wanted to know about Canada and snow, (along with selling me whatever they had on hand) I heard a lot of interesting stories as well which made me re-think my original assumptions.

One girl was selling elephant pants to make money for her dream job; to become a tour guide in Bagan. Another man worked as an artist, and although he did sand paintings like many others, his were all based off stories in a certain temple and he refused to sell to locals, meaning his work couldn’t be mass reproduced like all the others. He was teaching his children, both under the age of 12, to be artists as well and proudly showed me their work along with his. Another woman told me about her family and children; a single mom trying to raise them on her own. She happily introduced me to one of her daughters and, at the end of the conversation, we decided she would be my adoptive Burmese mama too.

My Burmese mama...and 'boyfriend' in the background
My Burmese mama in front of her ‘shop’…and my ‘boyfriend’ with the hat in the background

The more I spoke to these people the more I realized that, unlike so many cheap vendors in the western world, these people weren’t taking an easy way out to prey on tourists. Sure, they tried just about everything to get people to buy, but I came to learn that even a couple sales a day earned them far more than they could ever hope to make as a farmer. And with dreams of a better future, artistic skills, and families to take care of- I couldn’t blame them for trying.

And so I caved. I gave up trying to put on a ‘bitch face’ and walk blindly past everyone with my sunglasses covering my eyes. I stopped to talk, answer questions, and sometimes shop. I bought elephant pants from my ‘Burmese mama’, asked the girl selling Thanaka to do my face, bought a sand carving from an original artist, and postcards from a couple children who led me through the temple and up the staircases (only because it was the weekend and they wouldn’t be in school anyway). Of course I couldn’t buy from everyone, but I frequently stopped to talk or listen. A lot of them were happy to have someone to practice their English on, and I was more than happy to spend some time with them. I even ended up with a Burmese ‘boyfriend’ for 5 minutes, who was probably all of 16. I told him I thought I was too old for him but he told me not to worry- he would grow taller. I couldn’t help but laugh at that.

The more I spoke with the locals the more I understood what my taxi driver in Mandalay meant when he said tourism was good for the country. Tourism would allow that young girl to become a tour guide. Tourism would support the local artists. And tourism would allow single moms a more realistic way for them to earn money to support their families.

Did I still feel like a walking dollar sign most of the time? Absolutely. Did I hate that by going to the teaching monastery and looking at the little boy made locals uncomfortable and upset? Of course. But although I started out with a completely negative view, I came to realize that not all change here is a bad thing. And as long as the McDonalds, KFCs and Starbucks stay away, I think I can deal with, and in some cases even support, the changes that tourism in Myanmar has brought.

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  • Samantha

    Reading your article I realized all the stories they told you are the same ones I was told when I visited Bagan. The girl selling elephant trousers also cornered me and I am sure it is the same girl. I bought some trousers mostly because it was too hot in the trousers I was wearing – but I wonder exactly how long it is going to take her to save enough money to get her dream job in Bagan as a tour guide when if it is the same girl, it has been two years already since I visited….and how many other tourists hear the same story….

    I loved Myanmar but one of the reasons I visited was because I had heard it wasn’t another Vietnam where everyone was out to rip you off or cheat you. But I am sad to see maybe it is becoming this way there too…..

      • Samantha Hussey

        Sounds like the same girl. 🙁 Its such an amazing place but you are totally right. We felt like had $$ written on our forehead and while the people there are genuinely lovely and kind, we didn’t appreciate feeling ripped off. We gave a ton of money to charities there that were registered and to the monastery we visited (way out in the sticks) as we felt this would help those who really need it. While we felt sorry for the girls at the temple and the man painting the sand artwork, we wondered how many times they had told these stories to tourists…

  • Sophia

    Hey, I really enjoyed reading this and I agree with you in some places I also felt that tourism had ruined the magic of Myanmar. There is definitely a “tourist trail” but we were lucky enough to get away from this and were treated exactly like locals which was amazing. The last town we stayed at we even became regulars at a place for breakfast and the family was always so happy to see us which was lovely. Myanmar is definitely a special country and I think in the end there are more benefits to tourism than cons. Or at least I hope so!

  • Shandos

    Loved reading your views on Myanmar. i still haven’t visited the country but hope to soon. I’ll now be expecting it to be quite touristy. At least I won’t have the problems some of my friends had when they visited about 4 years ago, and ran out of money… (I believe it was expensive from the start, but also there were no ATMs back then.)

    • Hannah Logan

      Thank you! Actually, ATMs can still be a bit tricky. They are easier to find but a lot of people had problems with the machine actually accepting their cards. I was glad I brought a chunk of American cash ahead of time. Although finding the pristine bills took me awhile

    • Hannah Logan

      Thanks Karisa! I (sadly) think tourism will only expand but I don’t think it’s too late. There’s still a whole lot of magic in Myanmar, and without a doubt its one of my favourite places.

  • Becky Gaunt

    I had the same shock when I went to Cambodia in 2004–which I now know was naive of me to think I’d be wandering jungles and exploring ruins on my own, watching for land mines. Haha! It was a great experiencing, but much like Vietnam it’s hard being a dollar sign. Wish I I’d gone to Myanmar then, but going in was still pretty tricky and limited at that point.

  • Alana

    We visited this time last year and experienced many of the same things as you. Though I will say the vendors in Bagan weren’t to the point that you describe them, so I assume things have definitely changed in this last year. I would still encourage everyone to visit whether it’s in 2016 or 10 years from now. It is such a beautiful place with some of the nicest people in the world.

    I was actually just reading my journal from our time there and I wrote, “Most countries have foreigner and local prices. Myanmar is just more honest and upfront about it.” I always laughed when I saw signs with both the tourist and local prices listed!

    • Hannah Logan

      Haha yes, at least they made it obvious with the toilets “TOURISTS HAVE TO PAY”. In Bagan the boys kept getting off their ebikes to ‘save 300 Kyat’ before we hit the big temples. Couldn’t not laugh at that.

  • Ronald Robbins

    Very good read Hannah – sadly this is seen in many of the places I’ve traveled to (especially in southeast asia. While I was up in Sapa, Vietnam I went backpacking to some of the local villages to experience “authentic” cultural life. Low and behold, there were still western travelers who came into the area and, as you saw in Burma, the children were trying to sell various forms of knick-knacks.

    Although I wanted to support the village, I wanted more to see them as they usually lived. Eventually I did a little field testing and had told the children I had no money on me and their attitudes totally changed. They went from trying to “sell, sell, sell” to a little more relaxed state. I was able to see them play alongside each other and go amongst their daily rituals – outside of trying to worry about making money. It was an interesting experience, one that I am thankful for.

    But to get back to your story, I do believe the Western influence has already hit Myanmar. Sure, I haven’t been there yet, but from what you said in your story, it is quite prevalent and just 4 years of open borders can have quite the impact. :-/

    • Hannah Logan

      I heard they have similar ‘authentic’ experiences in Chiang Mai that are just tourist traps as well, so I avoided those. Hoping to get to Sapa next year so will keep my eye out for that too. It’s really too bad 🙁 ps: get to Myanmar, you will love it despite the tourist traps!

  • Shane

    I was feeling a little depressed half way through your post, thinking ‘well, that didn’t take long did it?’. Our experience of the country – only three years ago – was quite different. I don’t mind when people try to make a living and sell to me and, like you, I’m happy to chat away to vendors. it’s only if the mask abruptly falls on hearing the words ‘no, thank you’ that I feel like a walking wallet.

    Egypt is probably the most stressful place I’ve visited in terms of begging, blatant tourist prices and requests to buy, buy and buy again but it remains one of my favourite countries. No matter the result most people remained hospitable and friendly once the money conversation was over. Vietnam, on the other hand… Thankfully it sounds from your words the charm is still there in Burma.

  • Sarah at Nomad Capitalist

    Great article! I hope to get to Myanmar some time next year and I wonder how much it has changed by then.
    It’s such a shame though the way children experience tourism. They grow up being taught that tourists are money. Of course for some of them it opens up opportunities, such as for the young girl who wants to become a tour guide.

  • antonette - we12travel

    Interesting angle for a post and I can totally see how the taxi driver meant that it was good for the country. However, this does not always mean it’s good for its visitors. To be honest, I don’t think I’ll travel to Myanmar because it has become so popular now. I was one of those to visit Cambodia 10 years ago when there were no ATM’s (we had to bring all our cash we planned on spending in USD from Bangkok), no internet, nobody spoke English … Siem Reap was still authentic but I heard there is nothing left of that anymore. It’s a shame, but I think that if the locals are happy, it’s something we’ll have to accept and cannot change much about.

    • Hannah Logan

      I’m still very happy I went to Myanmar, and I loved it completely but yes, I wish I went earlier. However not much I can do. Still need to get to Cambodia… your not the first to tell me how touristic it is but I’ll suck it up because I want to go anyway. haha

  • Becky

    Based on your examples, I don’t think tourism has ruined Myanmar. It may have ruined the experience you wanted, but it doesn’t sound like the country itself is changing for the worse. Kudos to you for supporting their country and *existing* culture rather than forcing it into something it’s not and let’s hope it gets the changes for the better and not all the ones for the worse!

  • Els Mahieu

    I was really surprised to read that Myanmar was already that touristy! Pffff! But I guess by now, every place on the earth has been discovered and since travelling gets easier every day, this is the price we pay. The story about the monks is really horrible though! It describes everything that’s wrong with tourism!! If I ever get to Myanmar, I’ll make sure not to go and watch this! Poor monks!

  • Trevor Thorpe

    Ahh! Hate when this happens. I love traveling and encourage everyone to do more of it, but it can be disappointing when a place’s charm gets ruined. I have thought about this quite a bit and I think two things need to happen in order for a place to not be ruined.

    First, and most importantly, the city/national park/etc. needs to control tourism growth and manage the TYPE of growth it experiences, particularly if natural beauty or uniqueness are key to its value. When a place goes from nothing to crowded, if there is no plan, the result is usually not authenticity.

    Second, tourists need to be respectful of a place; don’t carve your name into the trees and don’t pass the local business-owners by to visit the same chain businesses you can find back home!

  • Aye Waddy

    Hi there!
    I really enjoyed reading this; as someone who lives in Myanmar, it’s always refreshing to know exactly what someone like me (a local) does not experience when traveling around.
    Sometimes, and I’m sure you know this too but nonetheless, the children who are forced to work instead of attending school are working because they can’t afford to go to school. I just felt the need to point out that this is one of Myanmar’s main issues as a country that the still is developing.
    The part about the monks honestly shocked me too. Although I’ve mostly only traveled domestically, I have never witnessed this and it extremely bothers me that some tourists can view a religious practice as a display.

    Also, I have yet to find this Dunkin Donuts – I had absolutely no clue one was already opened here!

    • Hannah Logan

      Thank you for pointing out that some children can’t afford to go to school- I had no idea and appreciate the insight! And the monk experience was awful- I felt terrible for being there to be honest and tell everyone to avoid it. But overall, I LOVED Myanmar to pieces and hope to be back! (Ps: I was told by other travellers there is a Dunkin Donuts somewhere in Yangon, however I didn’t get there so I can’t say)

  • stephanie

    Thank you so much for this article!
    I have been to Southeast Asia twice and I am planning a trip to Myanmar in the future.
    I had no idea about this country, but this article gave me a very lively idea.
    Sounds like a great country to explore.

  • Kate - Travel for Difference

    Tourism is often a good thing for countries stricken with poverty.
    Although the problem often begins when the tourism begins to destroy the culture, the landscape and all that was once important to the country.
    Change is good, but it has to be regulated to stay that way. Otherwise what was once special to a country, will be nothing but a distant memory X

    • Hannah Logan

      Exactly. I actually just returned to Iceland after 5 years and the difference thanks to tourism is insane. It was pretty depressing, and after that I probably won’t return to Myanmar again. I don’t want to ruin my memories.

  • Amy - Page Traveller

    Hey there, I visited Myanmar in October last year and felt the same. It wasn’t quite the ‘untouched’ destination that some people had built it up to be, but it wasn’t as much of a tourist trap as much of the well-trodden backpacking track around Southeast Asia. Would love to go back.

  • Kat

    Great read! I am currently in Bagan and finding the pressure to spend unbearable (hence the Google search bringing me here). I did the classic southeast Asia route in 2004 and I don’t remember it being this difficult. I gave a ‘donation’ to a girl who showed me around her village today which I thought was completely reasonable – About the same as hourly minimum wage in New Zealand. But she asked for more. This happened in Mingun too…. The people seem sweet but pretty disinterested in interacting once the sale is off the table. A real shame as the country is truly beautiful.

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