Guest article from my friend Laura from Birmanie Responsable:
How did your love story with Burma start?
It all started by reading an article about Aung San Suu Kyi in 2008 in a french magazine for women. Seems they can sometimes be useful! I started to research about the country and soon thought of visiting… but I didn’t want to travel under a dictatorship only for tourism purpose. It didn’t sound ethic to me. I wanted to have a real project and bring my skills and help over there, or bring something back. So I gave time to time, and ended up with “Responsible Burma” which is a campaign dedicated to tourists and to raise awareness about responsible tourism.
This meant traveling around the country interviewing Burmese people and asking them about tourism. I was looking for answers to the main question: “how can a tourist have a positive impact on Burma and especially on its people?”. I am working on several cultural productions that will come out of this: a free guide for travelers, a photo exhibition, a movie, and a book. A lot for a first professional independent project abroad, but a thrilling adventure!
This is why I came with my colleague and friend Alice in September 2015, ready to discover the country and interview Burmese and expats about good practices for tourists while they visit Burma.
I stayed until June 2016 collecting ideas, tips, having long conversations and getting deeper into the understanding of their culture.
What does it feel to travel in Myanmar for 8 months?
Eight months in a country in transition is very exciting. Solo-traveling in Myanmar and working for 8 months also means being exhausted, but totally worth it!
A lot happened while these time in Burma. I witnessed three months of election campaign, attended the NLD headquarters in Yangon to celebrate their victory, Christmas, Independence day, Easter, new president investiture, and Burmese New Year (Thingyan). I even had time to loose my passport and make a new one, proudly issued in Yangon!
Eight months in Burma also means hours of conversations in teashops, hours of traveling in buses, seeing many full moons, attending some crazy festivals, hearing hundreds of people singing nonchalantly (something we don’t have in our country anymore), and seeing people smiling at me in the streets (that we definitely don’t have in France).
I had the chance to see much of what happened, and explore various areas of the country, from Kawthaung to Hakha through Shwegyin, Loikaw or Kyaukse. Touristic cities too, of course, but not only. I have met Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Jewish, people who believe in nats (spirits), and I am still waiting for inter-religious tolerance to become common and natural in coming years. Even better: a norm, although unfortunately it is not the case in France, my own country. I still remember this monk I saw in the streets of Yangon who had “I love Jesus” tattooed on his arm. Through my book project, I am collecting stories of young Myanmar people from all religions, different minorities, different states. I was happy to hear that most of them don’t judge people on religion.
But they also raised a lot of questions: women’s rights, education, poverty, freedom of speech, healthcare, internal conflicts, lack of initiative. I feel that the new government will have a lot of work to do and a lot of problems to solve, and it might not happen very fast.
After 45 video interviews and 30 written interviews for your book, not even counting friends interactions, what could you say about Myanmar people?
This is a common question asked by my Burmese friends. I definitely enjoy Myanmar people, who are the most welcoming persons I have ever met! Helpful, talkative and always happy to share their culture. But I was disappointed by one thing: it’s frustrating as a foreigner to have people apologizing in the street because of their broken English, it’s frustrating as a photographer to ask for a portrait of someone in the street and hear in reply “Oh, but I’m ugly!”, it’s frustrating as a human lover to hear that people are being sorry for just taking my time for a few minutes talk.
I feel that Myanmar nation suffers from a massive lack of self-confidence from their citizens. That’s why I want to ask my fellow traveler to take time to explore the country, to stop by and exchange a few sentences with the locals you come cross, or practice the few words you know in Burmese at the tea shops. The experience will be enjoyable for both.
And getting back to your research field, what about responsible tourism?
Although it might not seem so easy at first sight, yes, it is possible to travel responsibly in Myanmar. I have collected a lot of tips during my travels. Here I share 5 key advise from my guide of good practice:
- Talk with people and… SMILE!
First, because this is the way you will learn the most about the country, and second, because it is definitely enjoyable and fun. Before snapping a picture, please make some gesture or exchange a few words. Talking about this, many locals pointed out how rude it is to take a shot without asking first…please ask!
- Clothing and respect
Cover at least shoulders and thighs. Short cloth showing a lot is considered as shocking. Mini-short pants and spaghetti tops will attract attention for sure and not in a good way. It also becomes completely disrespectful in holy places (pagodas, churches, monasteries…) and villages. On the other hand, if you wear the traditional dress (longyi) or thanaka on your face, you will be particularly popular in the street.
Regarding shoes, take them off when entering people’s homes and monasteries, and even in some shops. Keep your eyes open, if you see flip-flops outside, you got your sign!
- What to avoid so you don’t put Burmese people in an uncomfortable situation
Filming and interviewing was actually easier than expected. Politics is not a taboo anymore, even in the street, but there are still some sensitive topics that you may want to avoid asking someone in a public place.
One of the main situations where you can put your local friend at risk is homestay. It is still prohibited, although the law may change in 2017. Unless you are registered or going with a guide, don’t consider staying overnight even if someone invites you. Local authorities could put your new friend in a dangerous situation, and nobody wants to see them be threatened just for being friendly… But nothing all good if you are invited for tea or a meal.
- Experience and feel local!
Don’t hesitate to try local shops like hairdressers, barber or beauty center. What is a better way to integrate than offering yourself a Justin Bieber haircut?
Feel local also means joining local events, exhibitions, football or chinlon games… there will always be someone to welcome you.
Also, if I had to choose just one of these tips, that would be to take your time, don’t rush to just tick the tourists sights. Take your time to visit the country, the villages, and interact with the people. According to our interviewees, this is the only way for cultural understanding, ethnicity particularities and learn from people stories.
I think this article is the right place to say kyezutinbadeh to every Myanmar person and friends who helped me on my way, connected me to other people, supported me, answered my tons of questions and generously gave time to Birmanie Responsable and to myself. From what I have experienced while traveling in more than 30 countries, time, hospitality and good heart are much more valuable that material things, and I feel quite honored to have experienced it so many times while in Myanmar. Don’t lose that!
Merci à tous.
Laura Talias is a French traveller, passionate with projects, photographer and professional in communications. She also studied tourism development and she now spent 8 months in Myanmar for her non-profit association to promote responsible tourism in Myanmar: Birmanie Responsable. (Also on Facebook)