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By Bertie Lawson
After two generations of despotic military rule, the country which now calls itself Myanmar is opening itself up to the world once more. For many, the new name may still be unfamiliar. ‘Burma’ however, continues to evoke a romantic allure.
Rudyard Kipling was one of the first figures to bring the country into Western consciousness after he visited Burma, then regarded as a dangerous imperial backwater, for a few days towards the end of the 19th Century. His poem ‘Mandalay’ and whimsical remarks on ‘tinkling bells’ in a ‘greener, cleaner land’, have largely dictated the prism through which Myanmar is viewed in the West, politics aside. Somerset Maugham later remarked that since Kipling’s poem, the name ‘Mandalay’ had a magic all of its own and only fools would travel there and expect for the city to live up to those lilting syllables of Kipling’s verse.
Myanmar is, of course, more than a place that’s just ‘green and romantic’; it’s as complex and intricate as any other – but when marketed as a tourist destination, it’s often reduced to the postcard image Kipling conjured over a century ago.
Countries such as India, Sri Lanka and Thailand have become adept at not only marketing but delivering Orientalist fictions to travellers, offering up seamless and comfortable vacations. The perfume of cardamom scents the air but that of rubbish doesn’t. Most tourists witness children diving into the twinkling Mekong River, but not working in sweatshops.
Myanmar’s tourism industry remains in its infancy. The country cannot offer the spotless streets of Luang Prabang or the lavish resorts of Koh Samui, but what it does have is something altogether more wonderful: it has a rawness, an open authenticity and this gives it an exciting edge.
For example, ATMs have only recently appeared in Myanmar. KFC has arrived, but McDonalds and Starbucks have not, as yet. Most Burmese prefer to smoke the local cheroots rather than Marlboro Lights. Women and children still paint thanaka bark paste onto their faces for sun protection and in the countryside oxen and cart is often the most common form of transportation. Pagodas are peppered all over the countryside. Bells do indeed tinkle in the warm breeze and vast swathes of the land are taken up with luscious, green paddy fields.
All of this renders much of Myanmar effortlessly photogenic. Its arrested development has led it to be repeatedly called ‘lost in time’; itself an unconscious play on Kipling’s assessment that the country was ‘timeless’.
Where Authenticity Is The Real Luxury
Myanmar is not a luxurious place to visit in the strict sense of the word, but it is undoubtedly a heady, idyllic place for the curious traveller. There’s not much of a beaten path, meaning that it is easy to lose the track well trodden and instead find opportunities to engage with real, unfiltered life. The generous hospitality, easy salutations and ready smiles of Myanmar people mean that they are often cited as the best thing about a journey in Myanmar; better even than Shwedagon Pagoda and the temples of Bagan.
More and more travellers are finding their way to this ‘Shangri-la,’ and a tourism boom is projected. Naturally a country that is still developing and has had limited interaction with much of the world for so long is vulnerable to the effects of a rapid increase in mass tourism.
The Impact of Tourism
Inle Lake, one of the ‘Grand Four’ tourist destinations in Myanmar, is already suffering. The construction of hotels on its banks has, amongst other factors, led to the depletion of the lake, so that today it is already half the size it once was. The noise of boats ferrying tourists around has frightened off much of the wildlife and polluted the water.
Around Inle Lake, children on the popular trekking route from Kalaw can now ask for presents in a handful of different languages and their peers in resplendent Bagan realise that they can make more money than they have ever had by bunking off school and selling ‘hand drawn’ postcards to tourists.
However, these are still minor cases, and luckily, conscientious and entrepreneurial locals are fast building up a sustainable network of products and services upon which to build a responsible tourism sector. to illustrate, having seen what has happened at Inle Lake, the small group who provide kayaks and binoculars to travellers on Myanmar’s largest lake Indawgyi, call themselves ‘Lovers of the Lake’ (‘In Chit Thu’) and work for Indawgyi’s protection in tandem with their service to tourists.
In addition, social enterprises such as Hla Day and Pomelo in Yangon collaborate with an array of artisans living on the fringes of the city to present their handicrafts to tourists. The Kuthodaw Library in Bagan combines a cookery class for travellers with a library for local children and the Nyaung Shwe Horse Club is luring travellers off the famous track between Inle Lake and Kalaw.
In essence, Myanmar is offering a new definition of ‘luxury travel,’ as people begin to search for not cultured scenes but authentic interaction. Travelling in small groups is not only less intrusive upon the place and people being visited, but it is also a more intimate venture for those travelling. Buying authentic local food and handicrafts not only supports local economies and sustains cultural heritage but also allows for new and exciting experiences.
This synergy between luxury and sustainability is a beautiful thing. It helps countries such as Myanmar become not only better places to visit, but also better places to live. Kipling’s greatest misstep was to simplify a country, and in doing so refuse to actually see it. A panoptic approach to travel, a green approach to travel, is a boutique, luxurious approach.
Myanmar simply cannot be summed up by a name (or two), or by lilting, poetic syllables, but instead through thousands of small interactions, smiles and, yes – now and then – ‘tinkling bells’ too.
For more info on travelling to Myanmar, please click here.