Kate, Burmese student | Bangkok, Thailand | December 6, 2009
Originally from Burma, Kate studies international business and communication at an university in Bangkok, Thailand. She was a teacher at an orphanage and a volunteer teacher to street children in Burma.
Tourism to Burma has been a controversial issue since the country’s National League for Democracy (NLD) Party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, called for a boycott to the government’s tourism campaign, Visit Myanmar Year in 1996. Burma has been governed by a military dictatorship mired by a slew of human rights abuses and corruption since it overthrew the last democratically-elected government in 1962.1 Supporters of the boycott argue that tourism revenue would benefit and prolong the power of the military junta.
Since winning the elections in 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi has been imprisoned and placed under house arrest for most of the past 20 years. She was finally released on November 13, 2010 and recently the NLD issued a statement saying it “welcomes visitors who are keen to promote the welfare of the common people and the conservation of the environment and to acquire an insight into the cultural, political and social life of the country while enjoying a happy and fulfilling holiday in Burma.“2
Despite the controversy tourism to Burma has been gaining popularity in recent years. In 2006, Burma received 263,514 tourists3 but by 2010 tourist arrivals increased to 300,000.4 In 2009 tourism revenue hit US$196 million.5
LPT: How long have you been living in Bangkok?
Kate: Almost 4 years, yeah.
LPT: Why did you come to Bangkok?
Kate: To get an education, to gain knowledge and get a better education. When the British colonized Burma, we used to have a very good education system and neighboring countries came to Burma to study, including the Thai King. Nowadays our education system is totally very, very old where it only emphasizes on memorizing and giving bribes to teachers. If you have money, you can easily finish school and get a certificate.
LPT: So people can buy their way to a degree?
Kate: Yes, for people who don’t have money, it’s very difficult to give bribes to teachers so they (teachers) don’t want to give a good grade to them. I don’t mean all the teachers are bad but they are apart of this community so they will want bribes. They are very happy to get bribes.
LPT: So do you think under the current government in Burma, tourists should go visit?
Kate: It depends on you. You know, the government will not take all your money; there is a limit. If you go to places where you have to pay (for entrance fees), part of that money will go to the government. If you don’t go to those places, you don’t have to pay for that.
For example, in Mandalay, if you go to the Grand Palace you’ll have to pay a $10 entrance fee which will be taken by the government. But they will take care of the museum and anything left over might go to the government, just a little bit.
But if you don’t go to places like that, you don’t have to pay, right? You’re not supporting it then. You can support another place, a lot of other places and you still don’t have to pay.
If you explore other places, you’re supporting the local people, encouraging and letting them know you’re still with them and you still care about them by talking to the local people.
So you can still explore it (Burma) so don’t think if you go to Burma you’re supporting the government. I think I disagree with that, you know? It doesn’t make sense. People from the outside try to be against the Burmese government with boycotts. But you care about the people, right? You have to show your love for the people by going to visit them.
We feel like we’re still in a prison – we are in the prison – because nobody comes to visit us. We only hope, looking and waiting for people to show their love and support. If people don’t come visit us, our country falls behind and we think people don’t care about us; they just go to other countries. So what will we do? We will be more lonely and it’s like no one is giving us a hand.
People from the outside say, “Oh, we support Burma” and some say don’t go to Burma but I say, “Yeah, you should go and explore the local community, why not?” You can go to the street shops and have street food and have conversations with local people. You don’t have to talk about politics; you can talk about other stuff and exchange knowledge. That’s possible, why not?
LPT: Do you think the tourists who go to Burma now are giving opportunities for local people to make money?
Kate: Yes, I will say yes. For example, if you go to Burma and take a taxi, the taxi driver can have a job. Or if you go with a trishaw, you know trishaw right? The trishaw driver makes money then he can take care of his kids, family or grandparents, etc. In our country we care about our family a lot, you know. So by visiting Burma, it supports the local people a lot.
LPT: So tourism is giving some opportunities for local people?
Kate: Not only for making money and getting a job but for the language opportunity.
If you can speak English, you can tell us about your country. We don’t know anything, we don’t have Internet; we do, but we can’t go to all the websites.
You have everything. You have 24-hr Internet so you have more knowledge than our people. So we can ask visitors, “What does that look like?” or “Where’s your country?” We can talk and learn about your job, your country’s society, social security system, education system, etc.
This way, by speaking English, by practicing English, we can also improve our language ability. We can also gain more knowledge from you. It’s nothing to you; no sweat, but it’s very helpful for the local people so we love to do that.
LPT: What are other job opportunities for locals? If tourists didn’t come, what other opportunities are there for local people?
Kate: We’re totally in the dark if people don’t come. If people come we feel like we see a little spot light in a dark room. We still love this. We get more opportunities and at least still have hope when the tourists come. It’s a great opportunity we need.
You can say we are very rich, our country’s resources (diamond, gold, titanium, a gas line etc. ) are very rich but we don’t have knowledge, we don’t have any education. What are we going to do with that? Nothing.
So by coming and visiting you’re giving us a little knowledge. By giving a little of your knowledge to the local people, it’s helping the country so that’s a great opportunity. If you didn’t come or there’s no tourists in our country, we’re totally in the dark; no light. Does that make sense?
LPT: What are some negative influences about tourism you think?
Kate: We would like to develop our country and develop tourism to better our economy but I worry we might lose our culture. That’s the worse thing, you know. That’s like a nightmare for me.
When I came to Thailand, I see there’s Madonna, Starbucks, 7-11, shopping malls, internet and many developed things; everywhere, you know. We don’t have that in our country and would love to have it, right? We envy that but we don’t envy that they’ve lost some of their culture. They try to be westernized and discriminate by looking at you skin color. They already have an impression of white people, regardless of whether they are rich or poor. If they see white skin, they automatically think they have money.
LPT: In Thailand?
Kate: In Thailand and also in my country, it’s the same; they still think that way.
LPT: Right now, how do you think tourism has changed the local culture?
Kate: From my point of view, I would say a positive thing is that we trying to develop the internet. Almost all young people have internet and emails. Whenever they see each other they ask, “Do you have email?” and exchange email addresses. Before that, they had no idea what’s email because we’ve never shared information like that before, not even our home address. Sometimes we don’t even have house numbers so exchanging information like that has never come up before.
That’s the one thing that’s changing. We know that email is the first thing we need and should have so we can communicate easily. That’s a big change.
LPT: And that’s because of the influence of tourists?
LPT: From your experience, do you think tourists who visit Burma are respectful of the local culture?
Kate: I would say half and half, yes and no. Yes, some of them are very respectful and learn about Burma, our culture, and the do’s and don’ts before they come. But some of them are always complaining like “you don’t have any traffic lights, it’s dangerous” or “you don’t have American food”. If you like to have the same things then why are you here? You want new experiences on your trip so you should have different things.
Some tourists only complain, “Your country has no discipline, no rules, and no law because people are jay walking and the cars don’t stop (i.e. no traffic laws).” Yes, that’s a good point. They complain about it because it’s dangerous for the people.
But complaints like “you don’t have email, you don’t have this or that”; that’s not our fault.
LPT: Is that offensive to local people when they hear complaints like that?
Kate: Sometimes we feel so bad about it. When tourists complain about the government, we don’t feel anything because we’ve gotten used to it. Everybody complains about the government but when they complain that people have no discipline or this or that, we feel so bad.
One time when I was riding my bike to English class, I saw an Italian tourist pointing to some vegetables with his foot as he was bargaining with the seller in the market. That’s totally rude and makes the seller feel like she’s going to have bad luck for the rest of the day. It’s not just in our country but in Asia, it’s very impolite. I couldn’t stand the sight of it so I stopped and said, “You shouldn’t do that.” When tourists come to Burma, they should know at least some basic do’s and don’ts in our culture.
LPT: What are some things you enjoyed from your experience with international tourists in Burma? What are some things you enjoy talking about with tourists?
Kate: To share experiences such as about their education system, travel experiences, etc. For example, if you’re a computer science student, you can share your knowledge with us.
Especially the social security system in your country, we don’t have that in my country. We don’t know what health insurance means. We don’t know the meaning of tax. I mean, we know the meaning of tax but we have no idea what it is. Things like that.
Also, one thing I hate and tourists should care about when they visit my country is giving money to beggar kids. By giving them money, tourists are encouraging the kids to be beggars and not going to school.
Sometimes tourists give candy which the kids will then resell. Candy is somewhat ok, but instead of giving them money or candy, why don’t they give them a pencil, book or crayon? By giving them this, it let’s them know you want them to be educated. That’s a very important thing tourists should be aware of.
LPT: Can you tell me more about why tourists shouldn’t give money to street children?
Kate: For you as a tourist, $1 is nothing so you can very easily give it out. But $1 is a lot for the local people. The kids won’t want to go to school and try to beg, you know. So instead, if they look hungry, give them food. If they look thirsty, give them water. Aside from that, please don’t give them money and please don’t give them candy.
Give them a book, pencil, crayon or some other book. Supposing you give a dictionary, Burmese people will very much appreciate it. It’s very expensive for us to buy it. Also, it’s better for their future. Also, the kid realizes that you want them to be educated.
LPT: How do you think tourism can develop in a way that is respectful to the local culture?
Kate: Tourists should read about the basic cultural do’s and don’ts of a country before they visit.
LPT: Do you think the tourism industry can help tourists become more respectful? Is it the responsibility of the tourist or the tourism industry?
Kate: It’s better for the tourists to have self-discipline before they come. It’s very important to respect other cultures. For example, taking photos of locals without permission, that’s too bad. It’s ok, as long as the person agrees. Sometimes the local people are upset because they feel they have bad luck because of this behavior.
Some people are very superstitious and religious in my country. For example, have you even been to the Big Rock Pagoda, Kyaiktiyo? It looks like it’s almost falling over the cliff?
LPT: Yes, I’ve seen pictures of it.
Kate: In this pagoda, women are not allowed inside. If a woman goes inside, we feel bad things will happen in this region. So one foreigner (this story is very popular in our country) who looked exactly like a man, went inside. After that, a lot of bad things happened. They might have been just an accident but that’s what we believe and we feel bad.
LPT: And that’s all because of one female tourist?
Kate: Yeah, she went inside the temple even though there was a big sign that said women are not allowed inside.
LPT: She did not respect the local custom so the local people felt they had bad luck?
LPT: Do you think tourism in Burma should be more structured? Like in Bhutan, the government only allows tourists to visit if they are on a group tour so they can have more oversight over outsider influences.
Kate: I don’t like it that way. Maybe we should have something similar. Tourists want to travel freely; it’s better, right? The most important thing is that it doesn’t matter if you obey the law of the government or not; local people don’t care. We know that even if you make a mistake you can still go back to your country.
But for cultural things such as a sign in the temple that shoes are not allowed, you should respect that. Because it’s not from the government, it’s from the people who believe in it, you know.
The local people need to be happy with tourists visiting. Tourists come to our country and local people benefit from jobs, money, and knowledge so they are happy. But, if you disrespect the local culture, locals will be unhappy despite the economic benefits of your visit. Local people won’t enjoy your visit, won’t welcome you and they’ll get scared. It shouldn’t be that way.
It’s the same for locals; we should be respectful of regional culture. Even for Burmese, we still make mistakes when we visit other provinces or divisions because of the different customs. If you’re not aware of the differences, people can forgive you. But if you don’t know and don’t care, the local people will feel very bad and think you have no respect.
LPT: Do you think that sometimes local people are too shy to tell tourists what the right and wrong things to do are?
Kate: Yes, they do. According to my experience, local people think tourists are better then they are. Tourists know everything, we believe that. But, actually, tourists are here because they don’t know about our country so locals should help them with guidelines. But we’re shy to speak with tourists and are afraid to tell them about the do’s and don’ts.
Tourists should ask locals to tell them if they’re making mistakes. You have to ask locals firmly and they will tell you what you should and shouldn’t do.
Locals are also worried that if they tell tourists the truth, they might be angry and very upset with them. So tourists should request that locals tell them if there’s anything wrong. Locals will be ready to tell you privately and confidently if you let them know it’s ok to tell you the do’s and don’ts.
1Burma Campaign UK | http://www.burmacampaign.org.uk/index.php/burma/about-burma/about-burma/human-rights
2National League for Democracy, NLD statement No 10/05/11 released on 20th May 2011 regarding tourism in Burma, May 20, 2011 |http://www.nldburma.org/media-press-release/press-release/316-nld-statement-no-100511-released-on-20th-may-2011-regarding-tourism-in-burma-.html
3Myanmar Tourism Promotion Board | http://www.myanmar-tourism.com/key_stat.html
4PATA, 2010: A Good Year for Myanmar, Jan. 26, 2011 | http://www.pata.org/news/2010-a-good-year-for-myanmar
5 MSNBC, Release of Suu Kyi May Boost Myanmar Tourism, January 13, 2011 | http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/41059012/ns/travel-destination_travel/t/release-suu-kyi-may-boost-myanmar-tourism/