Active + Adventure

World's Most Controversial Destinations

by Susan Hack

MYANMAR (BURMA)

Why go: The devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis—much of the country flooded, as many as 100,000 feared dead and 1 million made homeless—means a long recovery period for tourism in Myanmar (formerly Burma). In the long term, however, the Southeast Asian nation has much to offer visitors. The country is awash in golden temples, and destinations such as Inle Lake, the former royal capital of Mandalay, Ngapali Beach, and Bagan, an ancient city of temple complexes similar to Angkor Wat, receive just a fraction of the tourists crowding neighboring Thailand and Cambodia. Hill tribes in the mountains around Keng Tong remain culturally intact; the newly opened far north Putao district offers five-star adventure safaris with elephant treks, white-water rafting, and hiking in the Hukawang Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, Asia's largest tiger reserve.

Why not go: We'll obviously discourage visiting a country undergoing a disaster on this scale—and the government's reluctance to accept assistance from other countries has hampered the relief effort (check out the International Federation of the Red Cross for more information and how you can help, www.ifrc.org). But even before the cyclone, there were reasons to skip a visit: In the 1990s democratic opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi called for an international tourism boycott to undermine the then cash-strapped military government, which looked to tourism as a source of income. Apart from canceling the 1988 election won by Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy Party, putting her under house arrest, and shooting thousands of student protestors, Myanmar became notorious as the only country in the world to use forced labor to build hotels, airports, and other tourism infrastructure. The ruling junta has conducted ethnic cleansing campaigns against indigenous Karen and Kachin people, while neglecting and mismanaging the country's economy. In fall 2007, military violence to end marches by Buddhist monks protesting fuel price hikes and other hardships killed at least 30 people and led to the detention and disappearance of more than 3,000.

Experts say: Since government tax on private tourist revenue amounts to just seven percent, many outside observers and Burmese opposition groups, such as the Free Burma Coalition, feel that tourists and their dollars are essential to help individual families avoid hardship while showing Myanmar's citizens that the world has not forgotten them—especially as it recovers from the storm. On the other hand, Suu Kyi has called for tourists to stay away—though since she is unable to make public statements, it is not known whether her position has changed.

If you go: You should work with specialists such as Colorado-based Asia Transpacific Journeys (Tel: 800-642-2742; asiatranspacific.com) or Yangon-based Good News Travels (Tel: 95-137-5050; www.MyanmarGoodNewsTravel.com) which both arrange independent travel and can steer clients away from government-owned or -connected enterprises.

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Information may have changed since date of publication. Please confirm details with individual establishments before planning your trip.

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