There are few corners of Asia upon which Western culture has yet to stamp its distinctive seal. For those of the adventurous persuasion, then, it is clear to see why Burma has become the holy grail of travel destinations. Breathtakingly beautiful and barely changed since British Colonial times, Burma is one of the last places on earth where your mobile phone will not work, where there is no such thing as a cashpoint, and where the preferred mode of transport is often the horse and cart. There are few sunrises to rival the one shimmering over the 4,000 sacred stupas of Bagan; few white-sand beaches quite as unspoiled as those of the Bay of Bengal; few sights as breathtaking as the Golden Rock poised vertiginously on the edge of its chasm.
Burma’s beauty remains untouched with good reason, however, and for those planning a trip the responsibility of ethical travel is no light burden. One popular option is to book a tour with an organization who know the country well and are committed to responsible travel. It may seem strange to advocate group travel to Burma, given that there is no other country in which tourism and oppression have been so closely linked: there is evidence that tourist destinations have been built with forced labour, and that entire villages have been cleared to make way for high-end hotels.
It is these reasons amongst others that led opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to urge travellers to stay away. However, the situation is moving tentatively forward, and Aung San’s NLD party is encouraging visitors to witness the country’s situation for themselves. It’s worth noting that this is the same attitude adopted by the Dalai Lama, who urged tourists to share their first-hand experiences of Tibet’s oppression when they returned home, thus bringing the plight of his country before the eyes of world stage.
For travellers going it alone, however, a huge difficulty remains not knowing where their money is going. All travellers must accept that a portion of their cash will end up in the hands of the junta through visa fees and taxes, but it remains difficult to distinguish which hotels, restaurants and attractions are state-owned and will therefore funnel your money straight into the pockets of the regime. This means that small organised group travel is a popular choice as it ensures that as much of the profit as possible goes directly to the local people.
The possibility of ethical travel in a country such as Burma will always be contentious. However, in a place where the political is so very palpable, you will doubtless come away laden with new-found knowledge and understanding of the Burmese people’s situation as much as with tales of the floating markets and stilt towns of Inle Lake: this in itself, as worldwide awareness of the Tibetan plight has shown, can be worth its weight in gold.
Bio: Lucy McCormick lives in Chengdu, Sichuan province. When not writing or teaching, she spends her time climbing mountains, sipping bai cha in backstreet tea houses and dodging traffic – with limited success – on her bicycle.
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