Passion Points: Giving Back
Hardly a travel-news day goes by without some coverage of Myanmar (Burma). After decades of isolation, the southeast Asian country is all the rage and plugged-in travelers are hankering for visas, hotel reservations and first-visitors’ bragging rights. But even as the country is transforming at shocking speed—the most positive change has been the election of dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyui into parliament in April—anyone considering a trip there still has to be aware of what goes on behind the scenes.
Since my return from Myanmar a few weeks ago, I have read articles that range from oblivious (glossing over the recent history of military dictatorship) to uninformed (suggesting travelers buy gemstones in Myanmar, even though the country’s mining industry, with one of the world’s worst human rights records, should not be supported). Myanmar remains a country where travelers can make a lasting impact by choosing where they spend their tourist dollars and euros. For example, there’s no way around the fact that all upscale hotels have to pay a percentage of their earnings to the government (unavoidable, unless you decide to stay in a family-run guest house, which is not advisable for most). However, if you are aware of this, you can choose to make a point of supporting local shops and restaurants as much as possible during the rest of your stay. Don’t buy the token mementos on sale in the hotel boutiques; rather, find the wares in markets and independent boutiques. Don’t eat all your meals at the hotel, but venture out and leave a good tip for your waiters.
Myanmar is still a mostly cash-only society, so spreading the money you bring (there are no ATMs, so travelers have to bring enough cash) is easy. During my trip, my group visited a small orphanage and once the head monk in charge had talked about the kids and given us a tour, we presented him with a donation. It made for a somewhat awkward hand-off (how do you offer wads of cash to a religious man?) but it was infinitely more practical and convenient to give right then and there—an experience I had all across Myanmar.
And need there is. The country is greatly rural, and the majority of the population is poor and living hand-to-mouth. You don’t see a lot of destitution, due to the fact that as Buddhists, the Myanmar people do not beg (rather the monasteries absorb the most desperate cases). But you can rest assured that buying, dining and touring locally as much as possible makes a difference. The locals selling trinkets at the temples of Bagan, for instance, are not the organized clans of vendors found in European capitals. They are families whose permits allow them to sell at specific temples (many of them are also care takers of those ancient monuments), and buying sarongs, cards, books or lacquerware directly from them is—for the time being—a real source of income. (Giving just money or sought-after, Western-brand cosmetics to the children who have invariably figured out how to pluck at foreigners’ heart strings, meanwhile, is strongly discouraged.)
At no point during my trip to Myanmar did I experience the Western guilt that so often creeps up in Third World countries; my encounters there were among the most authentic and lovely I have ever had traveling in southeast Asia. But I felt obligated to read and know as much as I could about the country before my trip in order to make informed decisions once there and to not take everything at face value. (Journalist Wency Leung wrote a compelling piece about this for a Canadian Newspaper: read the article here)
Traveling to Myanmar is a transformative experience. It’s the kind of place that makes you feel inspired, excited and moved—and by extension, fiercely protective of it. At Indagare, we believe authentic experiences are endangered but that we can preserve them by traveling intelligently and responsibly. This is certainly true—and then some—of Myanmar.
Here are some tips on how to travel responsibly, as the country finds its voice and stance on the world map:
- Travel independently as opposed to larger groups (contact Indagare’s Bookings Team for help with a trip)
- Read everything you can before a trip. Here’s Indagare’s Reading List.
- Do research into the hotels you’re booking and/or your tour operators.
- Change enough cash (small bills) into the local currency, which is preferred at smaller shops and markets.
- If you know that you will visit social initiatives, bring English-language books for children (more coveted than pens and paper)
- Buy mementos at local markets throughout the country (not just in Yangon), especially if you visit more rural areas.
- When in Yangon, visit the Helping Hands Loft, a wonderful fair trade shop.
Read an interview with the founder of Amara, an NGO that did incredible work during the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis and remains active in the effected Delta Region.
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