Immediately after Myanmar opened its doors to the international community in 2011, the question on all adventurous travelers' minds, in addition to their excitement, was, "is it safe?" The country had been under strict military rule for nearly 60 years, with all forms of life controlled and regulated. The open doors were certainly promising, but could they be trusted? The answer to that question has been a resounding yes, though you'll still encounter members of the older generations in Myanmar who remain timid, will look away from your camera, and are nervous about holding a conversation with a foreigner. However, as the country continues to accept more and more tourists, the uncertainly regarding safety has only shifted to the recent turmoil and violence in the country against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority living in the northwest corner of Myanmar. This activity has displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and is currently one of the worst ongoing treatments of a people-group in the world. These actions pose not only questions of safety, but also of ethics. Is it safe to travel to Myanmar?
Is It Safe?
The primary areas tourists visit in Myanmar are Yangon, Bagan, Inle, and Mandalay. The country only continues to further equip each area with more amenities for tourists, and other than your expected hiccups in transportation or sanitation for a country coming out of 60 years of isolation, you have little to worry about regarding safety. Crimes in Myanmar, even "small" ones, carry heavy penalties, and heavily touristed areas also contain more security to help allay any fears. Additionally, in our experience, the people of Myanmar are generally some of the most genuine, hospitable, and gentle people we've met on our travels. We felt less safe walking the streets of our hometown in the United States than we did walking the streets of Myanmar's largest and most populated city, Yangon, late at night.
While the primary tourist spots are considered very safe, there are certainly places in Myanmar that you should avoid. With the current violence against the Rohingya, you should avoid all travel to these areas, which primarily constitute the north and north west of the country. While we typically don't recommend staying within the touristed areas, in this case, make an exception and stay between the lines. The good news, the trouble spots are quite far away, so you don't even need to be concerned about their proximity. Plus, you're really going to experience Bagan anyway, right?
Is It Ethical?
While it may be safe to travel to Myanmar, if the country is participating in the upheaval and violence against a group of people, would you be indirectly contributing to that effort by traveling to the country? You vote with your wallet, remember. In our experience, our dollars appeared to go straight to the local men and women we interacted with. Myanmar is a poor country, with many families still living on less than one dollar a day. Tourism brings certain disadvantages, but it also brings hope and help, some in the form of profits. Small businesses and families struggling to survive under the old regime can now take a step forward thanks to tourism, and we were witness to that everywhere we went. In no case did it appear any purchase was being controlled by the government or another party. If tourism were to drastically decline, it would be the local people who would suffer the most.
In Myanmar, a commitment to tourism can continue to spark hope and freedom in a country and a people that desperately need it. If you're reading this, you're asking all of the right questions, and rest assured that you can travel safely and ethically in a truly wonderful country. Plan your trip, stick to the must-see sights, and go!