Burma seems to be Southeast Asia’s latest hotspot. The ‘opening up’ of Burma’s and talk of it being like Asia 30-years ago (not the first time that one’s been used) has seen tourists flocking to get a piece of the action before it’s overrun with tourists. Unfortunately that’s already happened. In 2012, Burmese tourism soared 43% and its infrastructure is struggling to keep up.
There’s little wonder tourists are coming to Burma. The people are charming, smile at ease and, unlike some with of its neighbouring countries, you feel comfortable that they’re not going to be ripped off every time you slip your hand into your money belt. There are some big-hitting sites to see too. The scale of Yangon’s crumbling colonial grandeur is matched by few cities in Asia, maybe just Mumbai. The bizarre one-legged-paddling fishermen, floating villages and surrounding vineyards of Inle Lake are cool, although one does get a little souvenir-shop fatigue. And cycling between the 4,000+ temples that dot the grassy paddocks amongst goat herders and ox-pulled ploughs is right up there with Amritsar’s Golden Temple as my favourite things to do in Asia, or pretty much anywhere.
Burmese Tourism Peak Season Inundation
We visited Burma during in peak season – the three month window when the weather isn’t stupidly hot and sticky or raining cats and dogs. Although peak times generally need a little more planning and expectations of higher tariffs, Burma is the extreme. Hotels in all of the country’s popular tourist spots were pretty much booked up. It’s not like other SE Asian destinations where you can just show up and wing a room somewhere, there were no rooms available anywhere. Literally. We were lucky, after ringing ahead to about a dozen guest houses, we always managed to be squeezed in somewhere. But everywhere we stayed, there was a constant stream of wary tourists lugging big packs, with a look that was expecting to hear “no vacancy” when asking for a room.
Basic ECON101 supply & demand ensured hotel rooms that were $8 or $12 in the 2011 Lonely Planet were $30: rudimentary lodgings where you’d be lucky if you got a dribble of hot water in the shower. While we were staying at one $30 shack ($12 a year earlier), people who called about the following night were offered it for $45.
Regardless of the high room rates during peak season, Burma is still worth a visit. I’m sure the enterprising nature of the locals will mean that the supply will soon catch up with demand and room prices will be more comparable to neighbouring Asian countries. The overnight bus trips and roads will only get more comfortable and the likelihood of a plane crash should diminish.
Some Burmese Locals Look a Little Bit Like Rugby Players After a Good, Muddy Game
The Asia-30-years-ago rings true in some regards in Burma, with no signs of the usual global tentacles of McDonalds, KFC or Starbucks. Even Western Union doesn’t have any branches, although they’re coming soon making money supply a little easier. But one of the most eye-catching signals of the little outside influence is thanaka, a bark-sourced, pale earth-coloured paste on many Burmese faces. Even in the big cities, there’s no sign of Nivea, but every second women and child, and a good few males, have what looks like dried dirt smeared across their dials. It’s used as a facial cosmetic, cooler and sunscreen and looks like a muddy-rugby-player-cum-witch-doctor; all very interesting. Even with the lack of influences from abroad, you’ll still hear Gangnam Style blasted at full noise by enthusiastic locals in the middle of nowhere.
Chinese in Burma
It’s an interesting time to be in Burma. It’s pivotal position between two of the world’s hyper economies, China and India, is attracting a interest from all corners. Over the past few years, China has become the biggest foreign investor in Burma sinking tens of billions of dollars into the country. Not all of it has been warmly received with some local animosity to some of the mines and other Chinese-run businesses in the country. Even the souvenir peddlers at the temples complained about Chinese tourists, claiming “they don’t buy anything, all they do is take photos and eat!”
And then after all the political support China has given the Communist Government, after all the investment into Burmese infrastructure, Obama rocks into town for 6 hours, and it’s all about the U.S of A. China who? But the Chinese have been in Burma for a long time, make up sizable communities and dominate the restaurant scene where the locals eat out. I’ll be watching with interest to see how things pan out in the future.