The first question that people have asked me about our trip to Myanmar has been ” But is it safe”?.
My immediate answer is that we felt safer in Myanmar than most other places we have been to.
We saw almost no military or police personnel. Since Myanmar has had a military government for so long, I expected to see a huge number of armed soldiers wherever we went – I guess I expected something similar to Israel, where soldiers are everywhere and extremely commonplace – on the buses, in cafes, everywhere. But in Myanmar you don’t see this at all, at least not in the heavily Bamar areas where most tourists spend their time. In fact, the main evidence of authoritarian rule that one sees are slogans, on walls sometimes, or banners. But not in the form of military personnel.
A big reason for this is that internally Myanmar is divided up into Divisions and States. The Divisions are geographical areas largely inhabited by the Bamar people, who form the majority of the population in the country. The States are occupied by minorities (and Bamar people too of course), and it is in the States that tension does sometimes arise. The standard tourist route is heavily concentrated on the Bamar dominated Divisions, though Shan State is a major drawcard, as well as Mon State in the south, and that is because of treaties agreed upon by the government and state minorities. All one needs to do is briefly study the history of modern Myanmar to understand that at the time of independence in 1948, there were many minorities who didn’t want to join the newly independent Burma, and that is where tensions arose, and stayed, for decades.
The fact is that the places where tourists can visit have been carefully selected – it is very difficult to deviate from the tourist route – but in fact the areas that tourists can visit is vast – we didn’t come close to seeing it all. The government has no interest in tourists being exposed to any obvious dangers and so they make sure that travel anywhere off the standard route requires a series of permissions that we found are very difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. Permission that we sought to visit Kayah State was denied, though we met a couple of hardy Australians who had been travelling in Chin state with a guide, and clearly they had received permission. The States are not set up for tourism – the Australians slept on the floors of huts and traveled on the decks of riverboats for 24 hours at a time. A fantastic adventure , but not for a family with young kids.
Many times receiving or being denied permission depends on the facts on the ground at the time you want to travel. Kyaing Tong (Kengtung) was the best example of how the movement of tourists is carefully controlled and monitored. Since one goes to Kengtung to really visit the surrounding areas, we had to hand in our planned route daily for approval by the authorities. Also, to get to Kengtung one has to fly from elsewhere in Myanmar (unless crossing from Thailand)- but in fact, one can get there quite easily by a road that passes through other parts of Shan State. Unfortunately, that road is out of bounds to tourists, since it passes through tribal lands which have not been approved for tourists.
We did see some army bases – in Pyin oo Lwin, in Yangon and along the highway at times, but these were as unobtrusive as military bases anywhere – a big wall, a gate, some flags, and that’s it. In Yangon, the few soldiers we saw were riding bicycles, not tanks! The only time we did see some evidence of government control was when we had to stop on the road for about a 10 minutes while a convoy of four or five vehicles carrying VIP’s, with lights flashing et al, sped down the road. But we see this in Vancouver as well sometimes.
Walking on the streets, whether during the day or at night, we felt as safe as we do at home (which in Canada is very safe!). We were never accosted for money or by beggars, and we were never made to feel uncomfortable. We walked around at night, and felt 100% safe.
Did we feel welcome – the answer is emphatically yes. We’ve never felt so welcome anywhere.
(PS: I am now custom-designing trips to Myanmar. For more details click here).