We left Myanmar with smiles on our faces and a warm, fuzzy feeling in our hearts. We both agreed that it was our favorite country out of the 15 we had visited so far on this round-the-world trip. And we’ve talked to many other travelers who feel the same. So what is it about this country that leaves you feeling like you’ve just received a tiny puppy on Christmas morning? Sure, there are pretty temples, good food, unexplored mountains, serene lakes, and beautiful beaches, but many other neighboring countries can claim those types of attractions as well. In Myanmar, it is the people you will take home in your memories.
We’ve mentioned it throughout our posts on Myanmar, but the people left such an impression on us we couldn’t help writing about it once more. Time and time again, when least expected, we were surprised by the generosity, openness, and warmth of the people we encountered. It can be difficult as a tourist to really interact with locals when traveling. Sure, you’ll always interact with hotel staff, waiters, vendors, guides, and bus drivers, but having conversations with random people on the street just doesn’t happen too often.
In Myanmar, all different kinds of people talked to us, wanted to know our story, and even gave us gifts. It’s not just the memories of specific interactions with people we didn’t know–all the people we spent election night in Mandalay with, many of whom gave us NLD gear and hugged us and thanked us for supporting them; the woman who stopped her motorbike while driving past us on the back streets of Mandalay, only to give us a bag of sugary, coconutty donuts she had just purchased; the small, shy girl near Inle Lake who ran up to me to give me a flower she had just picked; the man who wouldn’t let us get on his son’s boat until we drank all the tea he made us and took all the cigars he offered us–it’s an overall, pervasive feeling that they are generally good, positive, welcoming people. They’re happy to see foreigners in their country; they’re genuinely curious about you: why you’re there, how long you will stay, where you will visit, where you’re from and what you do at home; and they’re willing to go out of their way to help you for nothing in return.
The people of Myanmar have been through a lot, and their country is on the cusp of change toward democracy. They do not see too many tourists (around 300,000 per year, compared with 14 million in Thailand!), but that is sure to change as the word is getting out about what a wonderful country it is, and with other countries starting to lift sanctions as they view positive changes in the government. Myanmar has a chance to develop a tourism industry that reflects their people’s kind-heartedness and good-nature. I’ve been thinking a lot about how a surge in tourism will affect them, and really hoping they don’t turn into neighboring Thailand, where tourists roam the streets of Bangkok in barely more than a bikini, drug and sex tourism seems the norm, and tourists are seen as walking wallets who are just waiting to be ripped off. Myanmar is a long way from that (prostitution is rare, you’d be hard pressed to find a bar even in the capital that stays open past 10 pm, and prices quoted are almost always fair), but with increased tourism often comes greed. Generosity and warmth toward tourists often turns into annoyance, hostility or indifference. I would absolutely hate to visit Myanmar in ten years and see that it has turned into that. So please, if you go (and you should!), be respectful, and show them the same warmth and generosity that they show you.