Myanmar is disappearing

February 05, 2013  •  2 Comments

Shwedagon Pagoda in the mist

Myanmar, as we knew it, is disappearing

I have been to Myanmar three times, first in 2005, next in 2010 and just lately, in February of 2013. It is startling, and depressing at the same time, to see how the country, as it changes, is being distorted by the influx of tourists.

Of course I understand that most of the changes are good for the people and the country, more openness, more goods, more exposure to the outside but, at the same time, the initial crush of tourists, essentially unregulated, has changed the ambiance of many of the beautiful areas so greatly that it is almost painful to see.

In 2005, my first visit, the only entry to the country was through Yangon. The streets were crowded with bicycles, trucks and very old cars in execrable condition. The sidewalks were broken and, after dark, the streets were dark. And the noise, it was always noisy because there was little or no central power except very late at night and every business or house that could afford it had a small Japanese generator sitting in front on a tire to dampen its vibrations. The only things lit brightly at night were the Traders Hotel, where all the rich people stayed, and, just down the street, the Sule Pagoda. Any passerby with a Western face was pestered by touts wanting to change money or to rent you a car and driver. Yangon was a place to leave quickly and, except for the Schwedagon Pagoda complex, had little to see.

No one changed money at the laughable official rate; the requirement to change some hard currency into FECs (Foreign Exchange Certificates) had just been dropped. Every goldsmith and jeweler would change hard currency, perfect bills only, into kyat (pronounced as 'chat') and things were incredibly cheap. Air conditioned rooms for $8-12 were common, payable only in dollars and only in the few places licensed to allow foreigners.



_0791059-Edit The other real centers of tourist interest were Bagan and Nyaung Shwe, the town that abuts Inle Lake. Both of those places were relatively quiet. There were a good number of guesthouses and hotels at both places but the number of tourists was relatively small and an independent traveler could come into town on a bus and actually poke around and have a choice of rooms. Tourists got asked to buy things and go on rides, either ox cart or boat, but mostly the towns went about their business and the tourists swam in and out.

Independent travelers went between cities on long distance buses. All seats were reserved and, when you boarded, you had to sign a roster with your passport number and that roster was given to a police kiosk as you left town. The roads were horrible beyond belief, usually one lane, built by hand, the only mechanical aid being a roller that would compact the stone that was laid and smoothed by gangs of women.

In 2010, I made a 14 hour bus ride between Bago and Nyaung Shwe – about 250 miles; the bus stopped every few hours and everyone had to show their papers while a sleepy policeman wrote down your vital info.

I went back this year with three friends, all of us photographers, but two of whom had never traveled independently or in a developing country. Now, instead of being constrained to fly to Yangon, we could fly from Bangkok to Mandalay and the changes in the country were obvious. The old wrecks of cars had been replaced with much newer cars and small minivans and the flood of tourists just overwhelmed the relatively new, but spartan, Mandalay terminal. The baggage was taken from the plane and dumped in the reception hall where you were left to find it yourself and then, if you were compulsive, go through the security screening to exit.

Our driver was quite proud of a new road from the airport to the city, some of it divided but all of it about 1.5 lanes wide and crudely surfaced, as if put down by hand. Later we realized that that is how roads are still constructed there, by hand.

For this trip, not wanting to look for hotel rooms for four people at each stop, I had deviated from my usual behavior and actually made reservations everywhere. Even in Mandalay, not a huge tourist destination, we met Westerners who were looking for rooms and finding full-up situations. Room rates were about double or triple what they had been only three years before.

It was in Bagan where the enormous changes in Myanmar were obvious. The approach to every single temple was lined with stands selling all manner of tourist souvenirs. Touts selling fake or low quality gem stones or relics dogged you at every opportunity. We quickly learned to say 'Dough Bee' the phonetic equivalent of a Myanmar phrase that means, 'No, I don't want anything, really, Go away.'

At Inle lake, in the town of Nyaung Shwe, there were many, many new hotels and many being built. The town was thronged with tourists and the long tail boats that gave tours around the lake had multiplied  three or four times in number.

What had been a quiet town catering to backpackers, adventure tourists and the occasional high end tour bus has turned into Disneyland. Even the fishermen, with their unique conical fish traps, had turned into tourist leeches. Some fishing boats would cluster around the end of the canal where boats would enter the lake and the fisherman would perform for the tourists in return for tips.

The 'market places' still catered to local people but fully half the stalls sold tourist souvenirs and any tourists had to pass by a line of these stalls to enter or leave any marketplace. The distortion in the way people live induced by the surge of tourists was appalling.

And, in spite of the tourist surge, the infrastructure of the country hasn't changed that much. Except in Yangon, the largest city, roads are still horrible and made by hand, telephone and internet communications are spotty and weak. Throughout the country, sidewalks, if they exist at all, are only concrete slabs laid over culverts and, often being broken or missing, are traps for the unwary. After dark, everyone walks in the street.

Currently, there are still barriers to the flood of tourism. Credit cards can't be used in most places and then only with a very high premium. ATMs are scarce and supposedly only in Yangon and Mandalay. That means that tourists must deal with travel agents and must wire funds to Thailand to pay for any reservations. Tourists must accumulate and travel with new, pristine hard currency or risk having banks refuse to change money. This is an enormous impediment to most travelers and holds back the flood of people who would wish to see places like Bagan or the Schwedagon Pagoda.

If the country is ever opened to normal banking commerce, whatever existed of the old Myanmar will just disappear under the flood of tourists and money.

Two Girls in Myanmar Yes, the great proportion of the people are still the same wonderful, honest, generous people I knew from previous trips.

Yes, there are still parts of the country open to foreigners that haven't suffered this tourist plague.

But the heart of the beauty of Myanmar has changed and it is spoiled for me.



Lew Lorton Photography
Thanks for the thoughtful comment. It was really upsetting to me to see that the Myanmar I fell in love with in 2005 is disappearing. A young Intha woman who ran one of the silver shops (they are the people who live in the stilt houses on Inle Lake and the surrounding marshlands) wasn't happy at the throngs of tourists but she said that it was good for her shop and for the Intha people. I spent 3 days with a Burmese friend in Mawlamyine, south-east of Yangon. It is not easy to reach and doesn't have the tourist draw of Inle, Bagan or Mandalay and so is relatively free of tourists but even there things are changing dramatically.
What a thoughtful and somewhat chastening account Lew.

I guess to a degree, things like this are happening around the world, but it doesn't make it any easier to digest. Part of me wonders whether some of the things that made exotic cultures and "foreign" countries so unique and interesting will end up slowly being leveled out over the next decade or so. The desire for certain Western goods & lifestyle is understandable but seems to arrive at the same time as some of these people decide to drop many of the things Western visitors find interesting.

How will we know what they used to be like? BY a few faded remnants that someone remembers to put in a museum, video, plus sites like Lew's :)
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