Myanmar: The New Tourist Mecca

Tuesday, 29 April, 2014

The Australian love affair with Thailand is no great secret. Rich culture and natural beauty entice office escapees in droves, while cheap flights, shopping and beer are too great a temptation for those with itchy feet and a slim wallet. In all, close to a million Australians set out every year on hedonistic pilgrimages to the tourist Mecca.

The attraction isn’t so great elsewhere in South East Asia. Just a few hundred kilometres and a border crossing away, the flood of tourists becomes a trickle. Only a fiftieth of those who pack their thongs, boardshorts and bikinis for Thailand do the same for Myanmar.

Change is afoot though. Myanmar’s strict military junta is gradually opening up to the outside world and the recent announcement of a tourism “master plan” is the surest sign yet of an attempt to shake their xenophobic tag. Their goal is to increase tourism sevenfold by 2020. These grand aspirations are matched only by the scale of the task ahead, but it still gives the fledgling industry plenty to celebrate.

Thailand’s tourist gems may have been polished smooth by the sheer volume of visitors, but those in Myanmar remain rough and uncut. A lack of infrastructure takes the shine off the industry, but the raw beauty and character of the natural and cultural assets is undeniable.

Yangon, the capital in all but title, is the first port of call­­—one of the only ports open to arriving foreigners. It’s a bustling city with thousands of street stalls selling everything from cassette and VHS tapes to used spectacles and dentures, Nazi military uniforms and paraphernalia (surprisingly common) to kitchen sinks.

Rickety public buses splutter in, around and out of the city. A few carry tourists, but most are travelling to restricted areas, all with axles straining under the weight of sacks of concrete and rice, livestock and furniture—anything that could conceivably fit in or on a bus.

North or further North are the usual options from Yangon. North to Inle lake where gardens and monasteries float, and fishermen and weed gatherers wrap their legs around oars to row.

North to the spiritual home of Myanmar—Mandalay, where orange robed monks are ubiquitous and tea houses are open 24 hours for late night philosophising.

Or further North to the Shan region, to villages where visitors still warrant friendly stares, women blacken their teeth in pursuit of beauty and endless games of Chinlone (think hacky sack with a cane ball) are played.

With huge, ornate temples stretching as far as the eye can see it is the valley and town of Bagan that best symbolises the beauty and potential of Myanmar. Temples currently outnumber tourists. Rickety bicycles and horse drawn carts are transport staples and gentle locals double as amateur tour guides.

There is nothing comparable in Thailand and even South East Asia’s star attraction, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, lacks the scale of Bagan. A strong case could be made for adding it to the tourism hall of fame—the “Wonders of the World”—now that the state imposed isolation is at an end.

Myanmar has both superlative inducing sights and bucolic, old-world charm. If the government can promote the former without losing the latter they will go a long way to mastering their “master plan” and the trickle of Australian guests should become a steady stream.

The lights are on and the welcome mat is out. The gracious hosts are just waiting on the guests. Hopefully Australians will embrace another South East Asian sweetheart.