The writer with monks on the top of Mandalay Hill. Picture: Gavin Fernando
IT CAN be difficult not to feel cynical in parts of Southeast Asia.
Sex workers line the busy backpacker streets of Bangkok, roided-up meatheads pick fights in Kuta, and drugged-up backpackers party in Vang Vieng.
Of course, there’s so much more to these countries than their party districts, but these areas have unfortunately earned themselves reputations as hedonistic playgrounds for young westerners.
However, one particular country offers a different setting. Myanmar only eased its border restrictions a few years ago, with tourism increasing from 300,000 visitors in 2010 to 4.7 million in 2015.
Here, you’d be hard pressed to find anything resembling the noisy scenes of Khao San Road or Pattaya Beach.
Myanmar’s appeal instead lies in small, simple pleasures — a solo bike ride weaving through isolated temples, a hike through the untouched mountains, a sunset boat ride in the vast lakes.
But as tourist figures rise and the country rides through a period of rapid change, is this unspoiled haven in jeopardy?
A COUNTRY UNDER DRAMATIC TRANSFORMATION
A temple in Bagan, in central Myanmar. Picture: Gavin FernandoSource:Supplied
For a long time Myanmar – also known as Burma – was closed to the outside world.
In 1996, the leader of the country’s pro-democracy movement Aung San Suu Kyi urged tourists to stay away, as their money would go straight into the hands of the country’s oppressive then-rulers.
“Visiting now is tantamount to condoning the regime,” said Suu Kyi. “Burma will be here for many years, so tell your friends to visit us later.”
By the end of 2015, “later” had arrived – Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory and ended almost five decades of military rule, sparking a revolution.
If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to see a place rapidly transform right before your eyes, jump on a plane to Yangon or Mandalay.
Just five years ago, less than 10 per cent of Burmese people owned a mobile phone. At the time, North Korea was the only country that had less.
To put that into perspective, this was the same year Facebook recorded more than one billion active users worldwide. While Australian toddlers were being raised on new iPad minis, basic SIM cards in Myanmar were available only on the black market, and cost up to AU$2000, keeping them exclusively in the hands of the rich and powerful.
Fast forward to 2017, and the changes are astounding. WiFi has gone from virtually non-existent to readily available across the country’s growing number of international hotels, shopping malls and restaurants.
All sorts of world cuisines – Italian, Chinese, Indian, Thai – can now be ordered from the same menu.
Earlier this year, the city of Mandalay even celebrated the grand opening of its first KFC.
A SIM card will now set you back only $A1.50, and according to The Brookings Institution, there are now more than 45 million mobile phone subscriptions in Myanmar.
With all these rapid developments, there’s one piece of advice travellers offer so frequently it’s practically a cliché: “Get in now before it’s too late.”
HOW MYANMAR IS DIFFERENT
No filter required. Picture: Gavin FernandoSource:Supplied
I stayed in Myanmar for just under four weeks.
The contrast to its neighbours was immediately felt. Instead of crossing the road to avoid drunk groups stumbling out of bars, I was crossing isolated roads lined with tens of thousands of temples and pagodas on a motorbike.
Instead of being propositioned for drugs and sex on busy street corners, I was propositioned by young Buddhist monks wanting me to participate in their incense-burning rituals.
Instead of getting wasted on cheap beer, I went on a three-day hike through the Burmese mountains, staying with local villagers and being swallowed up in vast, breathtaking landscapes of green and orange.
But perhaps the greatest contrast between Myanmar and the rest of the region is its drinking culture – or lackof.
Alcohol isn’t forbidden, and local men enjoy pints together in outdoor “beer stations”, but even the major cities tend to close well before midnight.
Small bars geared towards tourists are slowly opening up serving inexpensive cocktails and beers, but they’re not a key part of the country’s nightlife. Shots and dance floors are virtually non-existent.
It feels like the Burmese people are still figuring out how to best handle and capitalise on rising tourist numbers.
Most major sites charge an exclusive but inexpensive fee for foreigners, which has risen gradually over the years.
Entry into the cities of Bagan and Inle Lake cost $A25 and $A15 respectively.
Mandalay Hill, a famous 1729-step temple overlooking the whole city, now costs $A1 for non-locals.
While it’s hard not to feel like a walking dollar sign in Asia, Myanmar is decidedly less intense about it. Touts are less aggressive, and violent crimes against foreigners are extremely rare.
I had two local guys abruptly join me for drinks at a bar in Yangon one night – and I’m ashamed to admit I was on my guard the whole time.
In the end, there was no catch. They just wanted to talk to a foreigner.
Hiking is one of the big attractions of the country. Picture: Gavin FernandoSource:Supplied
WHERE IS MYANMAR HEADED NEXT?
The question remains – can Myanmar remain an “untouched paradise” forever, or will its culture eventually cave in to its growing number of tourists?
I put this question to Wai Lin, a local tour specialist who works for the popular south-east Asia travel agency Backyard Travel.
Wai Lin is part of Myanmar’s “next generation” — the under-30s group that will shape the country’s rapid change and development in the coming years.
He described a different “type” of traveller here to what you might expect in Kuta or Phuket – they’re more interested in outdoor activities, ancient history and temples than partying and luxurious resorts.
“Temple visits are most popular in Myanmar and 90 per cent of clients include these kinds on tours,” he said. “Then adventure activities like trekking to local villages and cruising are also experiences that the tourists are looking for – a more off-the-beaten-track experience in Myanmar.”
A boat ride on Inle Lake. Pictyure: Gavin FernandoSource:Supplied
But Wai Lin has concerns. He said rising tourist figures are slowly taking a negative toll on the Burmese people’s culture and conservative lifestyle.
“The local people copy the lifestyles of the tourists and outside influences, and to a degree, we are losing our own customs and traditions,” he said. “And the government still can’t take good action on that yet.”
On the plus side, tourism brings obvious economic benefits, especially job opportunities for the locals.
My hiking guide, a warm and friendly girl named August, didn’t share the concerns for tourism destroying her country – perhaps because all her interactions have so far been incredibly positive.
She’s working as a tour guide to put herself through university. One tour can bring in up to $A400 not including tips – a big sum in Myanmar.
“I wouldn’t have this job if tourists didn’t come here,” she said. “I like that people are interested in experiencing my country.”
But Wai Lin said concerns about Myanmar becoming another clichéd “party” destination are definitely felt throughout the country.
“We all have this fear honestly,” he said. “If the government is not able to protect well, Myanmar might become one of those countries too, especially in tourist destinations like Bagan and Inle Lake.
“The government would need to draw the suitable rules and regulations on tourisms. At the same time, we have to educate the local people how and why we need to protect our destinations.”
He noted that it’s getting more difficult to preserve temples and other historical sites in cities like Bagan and Mandalay, where he says rising tourism numbers have contributed to their damages.
At Inle Lake, the rise of international hotel chains now threaten the area’s natural beauty. Beaches like Ngapali, in the country’s west, face similar problems.
“Some of Myanmar’s tourist destinations, such as Bagan, Inle and Kyaiktiyo, are already under environmental and social pressure from the effects of tourism, which is affecting the livelihoods of local inhabitants and long-term viability of these places as tourism destinations.”
At the end of the day, he says it will just be a balancing act for the govenrment. But until then, Myanmar remains a special gem in the region.
On that note, I can only reiterate the cliché: Get in there now.
Myanmar – go before it is too late.