Can Travelers Save Burma?

Schoolchildren in Burma.

"Come you back to Mandalay, Where the old Flotilla lay: Can't you 'ear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay?" —Rudyard Kipling

Myanmar, formerly Burma, is the continent’s most compelling country. Four years into a historic opening to a more democratic government after 50 years of self-imposed isolation, donor organizations, multinational corporations, and travelers continue to pour in to aid, profit from, and explore the treasures of this golden land, made famous in the writings of Kipling, Orwell, and other erstwhile visitors.

One of the the richest ports in the east In the mid-1800s, the country fell into the grip of a military junta and in the last half century saw poorer neighbors—Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand—overtake it economically. But it is staging a comeback. Elections last November put Nobel Prize-winning opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's party on top, and negotiations with the former ruling  (and still powerful) military party continue for a transition of power. A new president, expected to answer to Suu Kyi, will be installed in April.

The stream of travelers to the Land of the Golden Pagodas is fast turning into a flood. It’s the new cool kid on the tourism block, along with Cuba. International arrivals have already quadrupled to 4.65 million since 2012, when the U.S. started normalizing relations. The buzz holds promise for Myanmar’s stunted economy, but potential peril to its natural beauty and cultural bounty. I was there in December, and witnessed firsthand the tipping point Myanmar is in today: Without a long view there is much to lose, and the loss is not only to the country but to the world. As tourism infrastructure is being laid down, travelers can vote with their dollars and choices and voices.

Myanmar is at a tipping point: Without a long view there is much to lose, and the loss is not only to the country but to the world.

Shop local: The capital Yangon has become a boom town, with new construction everywhere, a rapidly digitizing citizenry, and the attendant traffic congestion of an urban plan designed for the 19th century. A cadre of young, hip Burmese, educated abroad, have returned to open restaurants and shops. Htet Myet Oo opened Rangoon Tea House in a restored colonial building; he serves modern takes on traditional cuisine. "It's often hard to get good ingredients locally because the best Burmese produce is typically exported to places like Japan or the Gulf states,” he told me. “But we are trying to change that." Other spots, opened by local entrepreneurs include the seafood-centric Port Autonomy and the Mex-Myanmar blend Fahrenheit.

Walk the streets: Yangon has one of the largest districts of 19th and early 20th century buildings, some British colonial but others Buddhist and Armenian that predate the British and some Burmese post-independence. No other Asian city, except perhaps Kolkata, has this kind of intact urban core. "In the push to modernize and lift people out of poverty, we must not forget to preserve the history and cultural treasures of the past," says Thant Myint-U, historian and founder of the Yangon Heritage Trust, which has effectively put the brakes on the wanton razing of historic buildings. “This is not just about preservation,” notes the grandson of the third Secretary General of the United Nations, U Thant. “If we can make Yangon the most attractive, beautiful, livable city in Southeast Asia, this is an asset worth billions of dollars." Travelers can pop in, like I did, to the Trust’s offices and check out old photos and drawings on display or sign up for walking tours. Free daily tours are also offered by volunteers at Free Yangon Walks.

Sleep in history: Don’t pick a soulless, big-box hotel; go small, historic, sustainable. I stayed at the Belmond Governor’s House, a colonial-era mansion turned luxury boutique hotel in a leafy district in Yangon. (Their breakfasts are legendary, with heaps of exotic fruits for smoothies and a mohinga soup bar.) Or try The Strand, a hotel in the heart of town from 1901 once called “the finest hostelry East of Suez" and newly updated to modern standards. Opt for hotel brands that are choosing to restore grand old structures, such as the Kempinski, with plans to turn the former Divisional Courthouse into a 200-room hotel slated to open in 2017. In the countryside, opt for small inns and lodges that respect the environment, celebrate the culture, and benefit the local economy, such as the new Hpa-An Lodge in Karen state, the Thahara Inle Heritage on Inle Lake, and the Thahara Pindaya, in Shan state.

Go with a responsible operator: Myanmar's richest and most phantasmagorical cultural treasures lie outside the city. Beyond Yangon, modernity recedes and the past comes to life. This is an Asia that no longer exists elsewhere, perhaps the one silver lining to a half-century of paranoid junta-imposed isolation.

The defining travel experience, then as now, is on the Irrawaddy River, the spine of Myanmar that starts in the Himalayas and courses down to the Andaman Sea. From the deck of a cruise boat designed like the famous flat-bottomed Irrawaddy Flotilla Company steamers of yore, passengers can watch longhi-clad farmers tending rice paddies, fishermen casting nets from colorful canoes, and stilted teak houses and gilded stupas lining the banks. Stops along the lower Irrawaddy include royal Mandalay and sacred Bagan. Fewer travelers venture north of Mandalay to Bhamo and beyond, though river cruise line Avalon Waterways has a new itinerary in this rural region. With little tourism infrastructure, the company is on the front lines of responsible tourism. It helped a logging camp near one of its stops in Katha transform part of its operations to tourism. "The presence of visitors helps provide income for the people and care for the elephants that are used to move timber," says Avalon Waterways Managing Director Patrick Clark. “We are working with locals to provide 24-hour veterinary care to elephants that have been in these work camps for decades while also providing an alternative income option as elephants retire."

Don’t give handouts: Help responsibly. Despite a widespread gentle demeanor by locals towards visitors, parts of the country seeing many tourists are fast developing a culture of pushy entrepreneurship—approaching tourists with trinkets and guide services. Not only does this detract from the guest experience, but it erodes legitimate local businesses and encourages children to stay out of school. Better to buy from fair trade stores such as Pomelo, in Yangon, that support artisans from some of the country’s 135 ethnic groups, pay decent wages, and raise funds to better communities.

U Htay Aung, minister for hotels and tourism, understands the role travelers can play. “We developed and published a booklet, “Dos and Don’ts for Tourists” so they can better understand Myanmar culture and customs.” Among its tips: Ask before taking photos; don’t touch a monk’s robe; contribute to communities, not to individuals; don’t give money or sweets to children. (Good tips that can be applied beyond Myanmar.)

No doubt, this is a country on the move. According to Derek Mitchell, the outgoing U.S. Ambassador (and a college pal of mine), “Burma is at a unique moment in its history. It has a chance to learn the lessons and avoid the mistakes made elsewhere in Asia. Given Burma's remarkable culture, history, and beauty, it will attract tourists. Over the long run, however, it must act thoughtfully in partnership with NGOs, businesses, and average citizens to develop the tourism industry in the best way and ensure the ultimate success of the Golden Land of Asia.” The ambassador wouldn’t tell me where his favorite spot is (it wouldn’t be diplomatic), but he did say he recently visited Putao, “a town in the northernmost reaches of the northernmost state of Kachin. There are some wonderful hikes around Hkakabo Razi, the country’s tallest mountain; you’re in the Himalayas after all.”

Most destinations are fragile, but Myanmar, experiencing a surge of tourism while building its infrastructure, is especially vulnerable. Travelers, please tread lightly. We’re all going to want to come back.

A version of this story was first published on the National Geographic website on March 11, 2016. Photos © Norie Quintos