Is Myanmar overcrowded?
For several decades, Myanmar has been hesitant to open up to tourism. As could be seen in neighbouring countries, tourism has quite a few unwanted side effects (sex tourism, drugs etc.). The Myanmar authorities wanted to avoid those and consequently opted for a cautious approach towards tourism. In the past, the number of visitors was controlled by strict rules (e.g. the ‘8-days-stay’, opening only a few places for visitors etc.) and comparatively high prices. Until this day, Myanmar is more expensive than neighbouring Thailand. And, yes, it is true: gone are the days when Axel Bruns arrived there for the first time in 1977, being one of 20,000 arrivals in that year. So sometimes worried clients-to-be ask us, whether it isn’t ‘too late’ for a trip to Myanmar. Surely, the country must have been ‘overrun’ (or even ‘messed up’!), now that there are more than three million visitors coming there every year. Now wait a minute! Firstly, it is not three million visitors, but three million arrivals. That means, if the same person (e.g. people like Axel) enters the country five times (and that is not a lot!) a year, that’ll be counted as five arrivals. Secondly, the majority of those arrivals are most probably ‘day tourists’ (such as border traders and one-day visitors or foreigners on the ‘visa run’.) Taking a closer look, you will see that the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon 2016 did not even attract half a million foreign visitors (numbers based on tickets sales) and we guess that at least 50% of them were Thai pilgrims… The picture gets even clearer when you look at the number of visitors in Bagan, certainly the major tourist attraction in the country: just 150,000 tourists (i.e. not even 5% of the total ‘arrivals’) found their way to the temple city in 2016. Those are the facts! The number of Germans visiting Myanmar is unlikely to have exceeded 30,000 in 2016. By comparison, in 2016, almost 900,000 Germans came to Thailand! You see, there’s nothing to be worried about! Please come soon!
It cannot be denied that Myanmar had a miserable reputation in the international press for a long time: reports of military dictatorship, riots, civil war and natural disasters dominated the headlines – that didn’t sound inviting at all. As far, as such reports existed: for a long time reports on Myanmar resp. the former Burma, were extremely rare. Since the beginning of democratization (2010) this has somewhat improved, although the allegedly very slow process of democratization was viewed skeptically by many observers. The problems mentioned above have restrained the development of the country since independence in 1948. The democratically elected Prime Minister U Nu, who ruled until 1962, tried very hard to keep the multi-ethnic state with more than 120 ethnic groups together, but finally didn’t succeed. When the rulers of Shan State demanded secession from the Union of Burma, the military took power in 1962 and held the country in its iron grip until 2010. The military leader, General Ne Win (ruled 1962-1988), embarked on a strategy he called ‘Burmese Way to Socialism’ – all private enterprises, down to the retail shop level, were seized by the state. His politics proved to be a dead end street and led to the impoverishment of the country. As a consequence, an omnipresent black market and the people of Myanmar suffered a lot. In addition, Ne Win isolated the country: tourist visas were limited to one week and only four destinations were open for foreign travellers. In 1988 the people of Myanmar staged an uprising and Ne Win stepped down. The new government was also run by the military and one of their measures was to change the country’s official name: the colonial term Burma was replaced by Myanmar, which was the original name of the country. The Western nations imposed a wide ranging boycott of Burmese goods and cut the relations to the new regime down to the essentials. As a result, Myanmar leaned more and more towards China and became rather dependent on in giant neighbor to the North. In order to counterbalance the Chinese influence the generals decided to introduce democracy. In 2010 the first democratically elected government since 1962 took over, dominated by the general’s party USPD. In the second election (2015) the main opposition party NLD under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi won an overwhelming victory and since then this party is in power. However, even in the new democratic Myanmar, the military is a powerful force that holds three key ministries and a blocking minority in parliament.
Many of the country’s problems are rooted in the British colonial era (1852-1947), when the ethnic minorities (especially the Karen) as well as the Indian immigrants were played off against the Burmese majority. At the outbreak of war in the Far East the Japanese invaded in 1942 and put an end to British rule after nearly one hundred years. Burma became a battlefield for four years and most of its infrastructure was destroyed. So the country had a very difficult start when it became independent in 1948. Whoever wants to understand the modern history of Myanmar should read ‘The River of Lost Footsteps’ by Than Myint Oo, the grandson of the former UN Secretary-General, U Thant. Then it becomes obvious that the history of Myanmar could not have taken a different course…
,Myanmar – a journey into a lost time’ is the title of a film by Roman Teufel and it is precisely this ‘lost time’-feeling that fascinates many older visitors and reminds them of their own childhood – oxcarts are still a common means of transport. The mechanization of agriculture is still in its infancy and only 23% of the population is connected to the national power grid. The rest depends on diesel generators etc. In the big cities, on the other hand, modernization is proceeding relatively quickly: traffic jams are rather common occurrence and high-rises pop up at every corner. There are certainly many beautiful countries in the region but Myanmar has always been quite different from her neighbours. As the British poet Rudyard Kipling put it so aptly: “This is Burma and it will be quite unlike any land you know about!”. And this is true to this very day! One of the reasons may be the geographical situation of the country: horseshoe-shaped mountain ranges separate Myanmar from her neighbours to the East, West and the North. To the South the country opens up to the Andaman Sea but quite far from the main shipping routes to the Far East. So it was less affected by foreign influences than other countries of the region and able to keep its traditions better than those.
Myanmar encompasses an area of 687,000 square km, about twice as large as that of Germany after unification. The distance between her northernmost and her southernmost points it is over 2,000 km, and it stretches more than 900 km from East to West. The total length of her borders is 4.640 km and her neighbours are India and Bangladesh to the West, China to the North and Laos and Thailand to the East. Myanmar has a lot to offer its visitors: 2000 km of coastline, lined with mangrove forests and beautiful beaches, the highest mountains of Southeast Asia (Hkakaborazi, nearly 6,000 m high) in the Eastern Himalayas, as well as secondary mountain ranges with an amazing wealth of forms (caves, Golden Rock etc.) as well as wide plains with long unregulated rivers (the main river is the 2,200 km long Ayeyarwady with its mighty delta, where crocodiles and freshwater dolphins still can be found. The Mergui archipelago in the South of the country with its more than eight hundred, largely undeveloped islands is another attraction, waiting to be discovered by visitors. The main part of the country lies between the northern tropic and the equator. This position and the aforesaid mountain ranges which shield it from the intrusion of cold air masses from Central
Asia cause the predominantly tropical climate, which largely depends on the regime of the monsoon. In the Northern summer (May to September), the SW monsoon brings up huge bodies of water from the Gulf of Bengal. On the coast of Arakan the precipitation exceeds 6,000 mm per year (compared to a little more than 600 mm in Berlin). On the leeward side of the coastal mountain ranges the rainfall decreases dramatically: Bagan, located in the dry zone, doesn’t even get one tenth of the rainfall of Sittwe/Arakan (200 km beeline). Here in Myanmar we call the rainy season ‘Green Season’. Even in the dry zone everything is green; the rivers are full of water – a good time to travel if you don’t want to visit coastal areas or – God forbid! – come for a beach vacation. Starting in October, the wind direction is turning: dry NE-monsoons dominate Myanmar’s weather and there is hardly any precipitation.The best time for travel is the ‘cool season’, i.e. the period from November to March. Especially around the turn of the year it can be surprisingly cool at higher altitudes (for example in the Shan state) at night. On the other hand, don’t let yourself be fooled by the name. During the day, temperatures are at least as high as those of Central Europe in the summer. It may also be quite hot in the ‘cool season’! The heat increases steadily from March to the onset of the SW monsoon and it can be rather unpleasant in April and May. Then even Burmese – as far as they can afford it – are looking for cooling-off in the hills. The Hot Season ist followed by the Green Season (see above) – my personal favourite!
The country and its people
Myanmar is a multinational state with a population exceeding 50 million people. The ethnic Burmese (self-designation: Bamar), who mainly populate the large river plains, represent about 2/3 of the population. Their language, Burmese, is the national language. In addition, there are more than 125 ethnic minorities of very different sizes, ranging from the Shan who represent almost 10% of the population, the Karen (7%) and the Rakhine (4%) to small tribes, which number only a few thousand. More than eighty different languages are spoken in Myanmar – plus countless dialects. Alongside the indigenous population there are minorities of Indians, Chinese and others who immigrated in the British colonial period (1852-1948). They are not considered as recognized ethnic groups even though they have Myanmar citizenship. The conflicts with Muslim Bengals and/or Rohingya in the Arakan region have even made it into the headlines of the Western press. Buddhism is the dominant religion of the country, about 90% of the population (especially Bamar, Shan, Rakhine, but also the Mon and many Karen) profess to the teachings of the Enlightened One. The rest of the population consists of approximately equal numbers of Christians and Muslims and there are Hindus and Animists, too. Muslims are mostly immigrants from India, while Christians are mainly to be found among the mountain dwelling peoples among whom the Christian mission was successful. The constitution of Myanmar grants freedom of religion but there are often tensions, especially between Buddhists and Muslims.
About a third of the population lives in cities. Since 2005 the Naypyitaw is the newly built capital of the country, located about halfway between Yangon and Mandalay. So far it is a purely administrative city and has little to offer, when it comes to urban life. Yangon, which was the capital from 1852 to 2005, is by far the largest city in the country: about six million people live here. Mandalay, the last capital of the Burmese kings, has about 1.5 million inhabitants. Other major cities are Mawlamyaing, Sittwe, Bago and Taunggyi.
Myanmar has a lot to offer: beautiful landscapes and old civilizations, whose traces can be found in many parts of the country.
Whether in the temple cities of Bagan and Mrauk Oo, or in the ancient cities on the Mandalay plain, whether on the golden Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, or in front of the gold-laden Mahamuni Buddha of Mandalay or the Golden Rock in the southeast of the country – the visitor can only stand in awe.But Myanmar’s most overwhelming feature are the friendly people. Whether in the metropolis Yangon, in a village on the Chindwin River or in the tribal areas: the foreign guest will be met with open, friendly cordiality, which seems to be a character trait of the inhabitants of Myanmar. According to our opinion, Buddhism is conducive to the fact that Myanmar people seem to be more content than people elsewhere – despite the dismal poverty in some places. In the mountainous areas of Myanmar, the minorities live on very different levels of civilization. Apart from highly developed societies such as the Shan, there are others which have just given up their existence of hunters and gatherers and settled permanently. The colorful variety of peoples will amaze Myanmar’s visitors – even if they don’t go to see the famous ‘giraffe women’ in Kayah State …
Myanmar is a very safe country, the crime rate is low. Not least, draconian punishment ensures this. Offenses against tourists are an exception, if one ignores the usual offenses such as theft or fraud on the money black market. And if the garbage pile here and there seems to spoil the landscape and the air in Yangon’s traffic jam seems to leave you breathless: Myanmar has CO2 emissions of 0.2 tons per head/year – the average German emits 50 times more!