Mayanmar is a “hot” destination these days. My travel writer colleague at USA Today told me she had a very hard time getting hotel reservations. My experience was quite different. We made plans online and stayed in family-owned little hotels and guesthouses. We went to see the ancient Buddhist temples, and meet the warm, gentle, humorous, and engaging Burmese people. We hired local guides from the hotels and met many, many locals.
We were extremely careful to leave the bulk of our tourist dollars in the hands of local guides and family-owned hotels. Why? Because tour companies and large hotels are owned by or share profits with the military generals, thus supporting the dictatorship.
We didn’t pay for services or tours in advance. We paid for everything in cash. Since there are no ATM’s in Myanmar and the only places that accept credit cards are government-owned, we were forced to carry all our money for the entire trip in my money-belt. Crisp $100 bills.
Every inconvenience and discomfort was rewarded by our experiences with the locals.
From Yangoon to Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake, we talked to people who would talk and learned about human rights abuses and the conditions of their restricted lives. We gave our English books away, as locals cherished outside contact. Despite all odds, they remained hopeful.
We watched our former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and our President Obama meet with Nobel Peace laureate and opposition leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi. We hope that this marks the beginning of the freedom many have dreamed of for so long.
*Aung San Suu Kyi is the longtime leader of Burma’s pro-democracy movement. She spent most of the last 20 years under house arrest. And even when she was free, she never left Burma because she feared military rulers would not let her return.