Burma back on the map: Tourism returns to South-east Asia’s forbidden land

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Burma has plenty to entice visitors – and with the travel boycott at an end, they are sure to arrive in numbers, says Simon Usborne

I arrived in Yangon – or Rangoon, as the British knew Burma's old capital – half expecting not to make it beyond the airport. I'd heard stories about interrogated journalists and swarms of all-seeing secret police. I had a tourist visa and had listed my profession as "management" but my bag contained a laptop and note pads. A web search of my name would expose me in a second. And I'm a hopeless liar.

"Good afternoon," said the bored immigration officer after my flight from Bangkok. She glanced at my passport while tourists and business people waited behind me in the gleaming arrivals hall. "Thank you." She waved me through. "Are you sure?" I almost asked.

I was in Burma to write a travel article but I had questions about a country emerging, blinking and nervously learning to walk again, after decades of confinement by a brutal military dictatorship. Most people answered with anxiety bordering on fear. One Burmese man, who works in tourism but asked not to be named, said: "Probably it's OK now: nobody will listen. But nobody knows what's going to happen. Maybe they will come back in six months and ..." Here, he mimed somebody yanking him away by the neck.

If I was being watched during the following days, I didn't notice. To the retired European in a beige hiking shirt and sandals (I saw lots of these), Burma probably feels not unlike Laos or Vietnam, but there are signs of change. I walked from my hotel along Bogyoke Aung San Road, named after General Aung San. He was assassinated six months before his negotiations helped win independence from Britain in 1948. He is also the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy leader and would-be president of Burma, who was released from house arrest in November 2010.

Tiny bells tied to the wheel of a sugar cane press rang out across the crowded pavement. There were bookstalls and plastic stools arranged around pans of fish broth. And on a corner, a man selling calendars. They featured photos of Suu Kyi, affectionately known in Burma as "The Lady". Very recently, the calendars could have earned prison sentences for the seller and printer, and a police escort to the airport for me for buying one.

Suu Kyi had discouraged foreign visitors since the 1990s, when it emerged that the concrete being poured into new hotels and roads was mixed with the sweat and tears of slaves and displaced villagers. Many travellers stayed away until Suu Kyi herself invited them back last year.

There are no vacancies now. I visited Burma last month with Intrepid Travel, which plans 20 fortnight-long trips in the coming year, starting next month.

Like most responsible operators flocking here, it does everything it can to direct money to people, not the generals (Intrepid says 85 per cent of its customers' money goes this way). People such as Ma Gyi. She is 56 and has exceptionally strong legs. In her youth, she was one of the only women leg rowers on Inle Lake, a body of water fringed with verdant hills, 350 miles north of Yangon. The peculiar rowing technique involves standing at the back of a canoe on one leg and hooking the other around a long oar. It frees the hands to cast nets, but today Ma Gyi cooks rather than catches, serving fish at Four Sisters Inn, which she runs with, yes, her three sisters.

Fifteen years ago, Four Sisters was one of just five guesthouses in Nyaung Shwe, the biggest town on Inle Lake. Now there are dozens, as well as a swish, Swiss-owned restaurant where I sipped a gin and tonic. Earlier, Ma Gyi joined me for a trip across the lake. We pulled into a grid of canals and houses on stilts. We watched women weave silk and girls roll cheroots. Outside, the sun had peaked and the water was glassy. We putt-putted past floating farms of tomato vines and gold-painted stupas, the balance of the rowers untroubled in our wake.

After a dinner of Inle carp and a warm salad of peanuts and green tomatoes, Ma Gyi produced an old guidebook to Burma. It opened to a faded photo of a young rower. She wears a tamein, a traditional wrap skirt, and her cheeks are smeared with thanaka, a paste of ground bark that women use to protect skin against the sun and wrinkles. "It's me," she said, smiling to reveal the only lines on her face.

As Ma Gyi's journey from the photo shows, the tourism boycott didn't put off everyone. By 2010, Yangon airport was welcoming 300,000 visitors a year, including 5,000 from Britain. In the same year, more than 15 million people travelled to neighbouring Thailand. But those who stayed away disappointed people whose livelihoods depended on visitors in one of the world's poorest countries. "I understand about The Lady," says Gabriel, my Burmese tour guide, "but we wanted tourists to come."

I was on a tight schedule, with six days to get a feel of a country that is bigger than France, albeit one with limited access (vast regions riven by tribal conflict remain off-limits). Logistics had conspired to exclude Bagan from my itinerary, which is like going to Cambodia and skipping Angkor Wat. You will go there and marvel at a vast plain dotted with more than 4,000 stupas (I'm quoting a guidebook). I, however, flew to Mandalay, Burma's second city, to see some comedy.

The Moustache Brothers have spent time in prison breaking rocks for telling jokes. The three men, now in their sixties, had performed traditional Burmese folk opera for years, then a few satirical jokes at a performance for Aung San Suu Kyi in 1996 earned two of them seven-year jail terms. Released in 2002 but banned from travelling, they turned a room in their house into a tiny theatre. Despite police harassment, they have developed a nightly routine in English for tourists.

"I went to a dentist's in Thailand," Lu Maw, the third brother, told the small audience through a rusting microphone. "He said, why do you come here to see a dentist? I said, Because in Burma we are not allowed to open our mouths."

But what room for satire amid such change? "Suu Kyi has been released but General No 1 (President Thein Sein) is still in charge," Lu Maw said. "It's new bottle, same wine." The brothers' comedy wouldn't win awards but such ballsy dissent is thrilling to hear. "Every night we skate on thin ice," Lu Maw said, "but with tourists here the generals are afraid. Tourists protect us."

Tourists also bring money – and it has never been more welcome. From Mandalay, I travelled south to Kalaw, a hill town and haven for trekkers nestled in the pine-forested mountains of the Shan Plateau. I walked through tea plantations and paddy fields to reach remote villages.

In one, a woman emerged from her bamboo house as if surprised to see me and my small group. She invited us in. Inside were a flask of green tea, a bowl of oranges – and some scarves for sale. Over another cup of tea in a larger village, which already sees several guided tour groups pass through most days, the chief's wife said: "Tourism is good for the country because now it is peaceful. If we don't see foreigners for two or three days we don't eat well."

Whether it brings physical or financial security, Burma is preparing to cash in. It's not an especially cheap country. Basic rooms that would cost $5 a night in Cambodia are more like $20. Operators are now warning of imminent new price rises as hotels, airlines and restaurants struggle to meet demand.

As many as a million people are expected to go to Burma this year but is the country ready for a sudden tripling of visitors? At Amarapura, my bus pulled up at U Bein bridge, which links the former royal capital with Mandalay. Said to be the longest teak bridge in the world, the narrow construction of posts and planks stretches for a mile across Taungthaman Lake. Already, monks and locals jostle for space with tourists and hawkers. There are no railings and one section is worryingly wobbly. Litter floats on the water as tourist boats circle for sunset shots. It is still an impressive sight, the blood-red sun silhouetting old bicycles and monks' maroon robes, but that bridge cannot support many more people.

In Yangon, there are crowds, too, at Shwedagon Pagoda, a mountain of gold visible from across the city. The witness to all of Burma's modern upheaval soars to a diamond-tipped point almost 100m in the sky, like a giant upturned spinning top. It is a startling sight. For Burmese, who come here at least once in their life, it is also the holiest of the countless payas that dot the country. It has survived earthquakes and raids by colonisers. It has been the site of protests and revolutionary speeches. But now it is peaceful. And busy. As the evening light faded and the gold took on a richer shade, tourists struggled with low-light settings and moved clockwise, taking pictures of Burmese praying to the relics of old Buddhas.

Burma has been bled dry by colonisers, picked to the bone by military dictators and, in 2008, all but drowned by Cyclone Nargis. It would be a cruel fate were it now to be buried under the weight of tourism. Conservation efforts are patchy. Unesco reportedly declines to award Bagan World Heritage status because of the unsympathetic methods being used to preserve it. In Yangon, grand colonial-era architecture is being left to rot – or eyed-up by developers. Shwedagon, meanwhile, has been decorated in some places with blinking neon fairy lights.

I ask Gabriel what he thinks. He is 29 and met his first foreigner – an American – on a train when he was 12. He is engaged to a beautician in Yangon. He is proud of a country and a people of great warmth and beauty. Gabriel is also excited about the ground-shifting change there. But he, too, has concerns. "I think there needs to be some sort of cultural change," he said. "We welcome more foreigners but it's possible that they will threaten our culture. It's our responsibility to take care of Burma."

At Inle Lake, Ma Gyi keeps her old oar propped up in the dining room of Four Sisters Inn as a souvenir. Above it, hangs an old portrait of her parents, a taxi driver and a cheroot maker. She can have no idea how much more Nyaung Shwe will develop. "Tourists come to appreciate, we will have to find a way to maintain it," she reassured me. "Now I'm just very happy because so many people come and my rooms are full."

Travel essentials: Burma

Getting there

* Direct flights no longer operate between the UK and Burma. The usual connection is via Bangkok, but Kuala Lumpur or Singapore are also possible hubs. A typical return fare from Heathrow via Bangkok on Thai next month is £730.

* Intrepid Travel (0844 499 8487; intrepidtravel.com) offers a 15-day "Best of Burma" group trip from £1,230, excluding flights. The circular itinerary takes in Yangon, Bagan, the Ayeyarwaddy River, Mandalay, Kalaw and Inle Lake. It includes 10 nights' hotel accommodation, three nights in a guesthouse and an overnight berth on a boat, as well as most breakfasts, some meals and transfers.

More information

* British passport-holders need a visa, which costs £14 for visits of up to three months. A visa can be obtained from the Myanmar Embassy, 19A Charles Street, London W1J 5DX (020-7499 4340; myanmarembassyuk.co.uk.

* The official tourist site is myanmar-tourism.com

Burma still has a long road to travel

By Peter Popham

If the promise of recent reforms bears fruit, we may not have much longer to enjoy the peculiar charms of Burma under the junta: the beaten-up Nissan taxis; their drivers' furtive quest for bootleg petrol, delivered by jerry can at the side of the road; the vast discrepancy, almost unchanged in my 20 years' acquaintance with the place, between official and black market currency exchange rates. Then there's the paranoia that starts at the airport: why are staff on the tourist desk so insistent that Happy Land II is the only place worth staying?

The modernisation of Burma got off to a false start in the early 1990s, as General Ne Win, dictator since 1962, faded away and the generals who replaced him decided Get Rich Quick was a preferable ideology.

Everywhere was renamed, including the country itself. Rangoon (Yangon) was tarted up. Even the tatty old Strand Hotel became just another stop on the heritage trail – all gleaming brass and green onyx – and multi-storey hotels sprouted downtown.

The process came grinding to a halt when Aung San Suu Kyi told Harriet O'Brien of The Independent that, in her opinion, the best response to the regime's "Visit Myanmar Year" campaign was to stay away. The world took notice, giving the generals a reminder of the influence Suu Kyi had. A year later, the Asian financial crisis hit. Efforts to turn Burma into a destination to rival Thailand, or at least Laos, were shelved.

And that is how things remain. Most tourists still fly between three or four destinations – correctly urged not to try the trains – and they stay in mediocre, over-priced billets. But change is afoot and some main roads have been improved, so overland journeys are better.

A year ago, my son and I drove from Rangoon to Hpa-an, capital of Karen (Kayin) state, and visited Thamanya, a pretty town famous for its temple. From Thamanya temple's highest point you can see across miles of dense forest to the Thai border. The civil war had meant all border areas were out of bounds and the only way to see this, as a journalist, was to enter surreptitiously from the Thai side.

But if the peace which the Burmese government has now signed with the Karen National Union sticks, these little-visited regions will be accessible at last. Then Burma would really be on the map.

Peter Popham, a foreign affairs specialist at The Independent, has visited Burma seven times as an undercover reporter. His biography of Aung San Suu Kyi, The Lady and the Peacock (Rider), is out now.

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