A controversial take on Myanmar in 2015

A beautiful country tainted by tourism? I know this opinion will not be very popular but I felt it was worth sharing our true experience in Myanmar as well sharing the undeniable beauty of a country so different from its neighbours.
Before I start, I’d just like to say that the country is beautiful and everyone is extremely friendly. The pagodas are breathtaking and it’s true – Myanmar offers a very different vibe than the rest of Southeast Asia. Some of my favourite views and most spectacular photographs have come from Myanmar – the beautiful Bagan. However, the new burst of tourism has resulted in some less positive outcomes.

Much of Southeast Asia is so accustomed to tourism that the scams at big tourist attractions are minimal – there’s so many people coming to visit they don’t need to make a lot of money off a few people because they’re making money off us all. Don’t get me wrong, the scams and “foreigner prices” (charging westerners more than locals) still exist but the prices are still low, really low. Food, accommodation and clothing is so affordable it makes travelling on a budget easy. Right now though, the same cannot be said for Myanmar.
The reason I’m writing this post is because we were both so excited to experience a country in its natural state – untouched by tourism… But unfortunately that’s not really the case.

It was in Bagan at a pagoda that the reality of what tourism can do really stuck us…

We walked to the shwezigon pagoda in Nyaung-U and, as we approached the pagoda, a group of women tried to usher us in their direction, trying to tell us that was the way to the pagoda. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but what we should have done is politely smiled and waved and walked on past. They were actually taking us on a detour to their own souvenir stands. We were “tagged” with small handicrafts. This “ritual” occurred whilst we were in Sapa (Vietnam) and Battambang (Cambodia). It is the locals way of marking you as theirs so you only buy from them. If you have a “tag” the other locals are not supposed to hassle you.

This was the first sign. Myanmar is a country new to tourism and already they’ve picked up on how they can make quick money. As tourists we go to these sites to visit and experience a different culture and expand our knowledge of the world, but this is a prime opportunity for less privileged individuals to try and make money. This is bad for a number of reasons, most importantly because it encourages kids to sell souvenirs at tourist sites rather than go to school, because of the money that they can earn. The reason it works is because the locals know that we are financially better off than they are, and they play on our guilt to try and encourage a sale. We can’t blame them for trying and we should compliment their business minds but it doesn’t mean we can’t be a little disappointed it has to happen.

The girls told us to leave our shoes with them and look at the souvenirs on the way out. (In Myanmar you must remove your shoes and socks before entering any sacred place). By leaving our shoes at their stands we were forced to return to them.
As we continued to walk around the beautiful religious monument some other women stopped us to tell us of a “lucky Buddha”. We smiled politely, but fearing the tourism trap tried to move away. With money signs in their eyes, the women could not be defeated and we were ushered to this “lucky Buddha”. A few women conducted a ritual with us involving offering food and water to the Buddha. Afterwards, we said thank you and went to leave – knowing that some sort of financial donation would be expected. Much to our shock, however, one of the women demanded we pay her directly (not leave money as an offering to the Buddha – the usual process). The woman was asking for the equivalent of $8. Nowhere else have we experienced this. In temples throughout Southeast Asia you are expected to leave a small offering or donation but no amount is ever specified. Likewise, in many temples women will try to give you a bracelet of “good health” which you are then expected to offer a small donation in return. However, a demand of money in that manner, in what is supposed to be a selfless, Buddhist temple, was extremely shocking.

In addition to this, another women then tried to force us to leave an offering to the Buddha as well. This kind of guilt trip bribery astonished us. I am aware I am at risk of sounding ungrateful but as a tourist we pay entry to the majority of sites, and we leave offerings wherever we can afford to, but that amount of money ($8-10) is a crazy amount, particularly if they’re taking that from each visitor.

As we left, we had to return to the ladies souvenir stalls to collect our shoes. When we informed them that we could not purchase anything they snatched off Liv’s handcrafted tag and appeared to curse us in their own language.

We both left seething, ranting about the damage of tourism. It was really upsetting to see and not like anything like we’ve experienced in our travels so far. To make matters worse, I’m slightly sceptical as to the legitimacy of the sculpture they described as the “lucky Buddha”. The sculpture simply resembled a rock wrapped in beautiful silk clothing and I’m worried that this may have been set up purely as a tourist scam.

In addition to this incident we also experienced similar things throughout the rest of our stay. It is very common for the women to be extremely friendly and, for example, offer to put their local sun cream on your cheeks for “no pay no pay”. However, they then guilt trip you in to buying one of their handicrafts. They use their starvation and young children to pull at your heart strings. It’s a very difficult situation to be put in and the only advice I have is to be aware of it and politely decline their offerings.

It is also worth noting that transport and accommodation is considerably more in Myanmar than elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Hotel prices in Yangon have reportedly tripled since 2007.
Even the most traditional mode of transport – the horse and cart – which separates Myanmar from all its neighbouring countries, has been transformed into a business that involves the drivers hassling westerners for lifts. Additionally, the drop off bus station in Bagan (from Yangon) has been moved from its previous location in order to maximise profit and provide more taxi jobs (an understandable business move). As we stepped off the bus we were bombarded with men trying to get us in a taxi. This type of tourism business resembles the rest of Southeast Asia but it’s such a shame because it’s such a new transformation here. And it’s not a good one for tourists.

Unfortunately this has truly tainted such a beautiful country. Tourism is a wonderful thing but it has corrupted such a beautiful place.

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