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Responsible travel in a broken nation

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Myanmar 'Take Care of Tourists' sign My first visit to Myanmar was made by foot: a short walk across the Friendship Bridge which spans the Moei River and links the pariah state with the Thai border town of Mae Sot.

My passport was examined at the immigration checkpoint on the Thai side of the bridge; ten minutes later, upon arrival in this land which for decades had concealed itself from the world, I purchased a Myanmar visa for US$10, had my passport stamped, and was commanded by the stern-faced, uniformed immigration official lazing on a chair inside the checkpoint to leave it in his possession as I explored the town of Myawaddy.

Feeling both uneasy and conspicuous – I saw only one other westerner there – I failed to make a deep incursion into this riverside town. I walked the streets closest to the bridge, browsed the shops and tried to converse with locals, but the language barrier and the looks of surprise my presence provoked made meaningful engagement impossible.

I was in Mae Sot to interview Burmese refugees and migrants who were about to graduate from an Australian Catholic University liberal arts program. Back on the other side of the border, en route to my guest house, the mini bus I was travelling in was stopped by armed Thai police, who examined the identity documents of the other passengers, all of them Thais and Burmese. The tension radiated by those students I had interviewed, by the people on this bus and by the broader population of Mae Sot – a city that contained several Burmese-filled refugee camps – was palpable.

My second visit to Myanmar happened just days later, when I took a boat from the southern Thai town of Ranong across a strip of Andaman Sea to the most southerly city in Myanmar, Kawthoung. Our small party was hosted for the day by a Burmese Catholic priest; he drove us in his rattletrap Jeep to the town's lookout, showed us around a Catholic primary school and took us to the home of a local family for lunch. All the while, I felt that we were being watched, followed. I vividly recall the motorbike and its two occupants that had crested the lookout close behind us, and which had appeared again in our wake as we drove towards the harbour, the driver expelling a draught of betel-stained spittle as he kept us locked in his gaze.   

A year later, I spent two weeks travelling around Myanmar; the tension of those early visits had lifted, though the generals' presence still loomed large, in the uniformed officials that occupied public buildings, the road blocks that operated on many routes and the look of dispossession cast across people's faces.

I was privileged to return to Myanmar just a few weeks ago – two years after my last visit – on a travel assignment for Fairfax. The past, I discovered, was a foreign country: the rigid, authoritarian atmosphere had been replaced by a distinct sense of optimism and possibility; commercial high rises were shooting up where defunct government buildings once stood; teenagers who just a few years ago didn't know what a mobile phone was now sat bent over devices of their own. I almost laughed when my guide, in response to my query about a flower I had seen, whipped out his tablet and said, 'Let me Google it'.

Myanmar is metamorphosing like a vast time-lapse image, sloughing off its old skin and replacing it with a glittering new facade. But decades of military rule cannot be dismissed so easily, and there is much for the traveller to consider when visiting this newly-emerging destination. In the first place, is it ethical to visit at all? Travellers have long taken their cue from Myanmar's beloved democracy advocate and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who for many years supported a boycott against her country. But more recently she has welcomed tourism as a mechanism for bringing about fundamental economic change and for encouraging further advocacy against too-slow reform.

And what is one to call this country that once bore the romantic moniker of Burma, a name which evokes scenes of steamy, colonial paradise? Locals don't seem to mind what you call their homeland, for both names are indigenous, and both bear some historical offense: Burma - denoting the ethnic Burman majority - was chosen for the country by its British colonisers; Myanmar - though not inherently disagreeable - was applied by the brutal military junta.

This nation by any name is just as broken, and its future just as hopeful. If there is anything foreign tourists should do, it is this: travel responsibly, shine a light on ongoing injustices, and help in some small way to bring Myanmar into the embracing, universal fold.

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a journalist and travel writer. Her Myanmar travel feature will be published in Fairfax’s Traveller on Saturday 11 April. You can follow her on Twitter at @zizzyballord.

Topic tags: catherine marshall, Myanmar, Burma, travel, Aung San Suu Kyi



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Existing comments

certainly we can go as responsible tourists there, but I'd prefer to do that as soon as Aung San Suu Kyi is allowed to run for top office, all political prisoners are freed, censorship of the press is lifted, and the military voluntarily leave office.

walter p komarnicki | 10 April 2015  

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