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Visiting Myanmar: It’s Complicated

Posted Date: Saturday, 4-Aug-2012

THE face towel was scented with lemon grass, and the welcome drink was fresh lemonade poured over crushed ice. Sultry breezes filtered through the open-air lobby decorated in colonial style, with wicker chairs, spinning ceiling fans, faux Southeast Asian antiques and pillars of solid teak. Footpaths wound past date palms, jasmine and frangipani; a swimming pool extended toward an artificial lake clotted with hyacinths. Beyond the lake lay one of the wonders of Southeast Asia: an arid plain speckled with 2,000 Buddhist temples.

On a scorching May morning, I had taken a break from touring these structures to drop by the finest hotel in Bagan, the ancient Burmese capital, an hour’s flight north of Yangon, Myanmar. Opened in 2005, the Aureum Palace Hotel sprawls across 27 acres and encompasses a sushi bar, spas, fountains, more than 40 guest rooms and 72 villas. The best of these, the $1,090-a-night Island Villa, includes a lap pool, a sun deck with temple views and a personal valet.

There was only one problem with the Aureum Palace Hotel: its owner. The hotel is the property of U Tay Za, reportedly the richest man in the country — and a close associate of its former military dictator, Gen. Than Shwe. Owner of Air Bagan and Asia Wings (the country’s biggest private airlines), five other luxury hotels and beach resorts in Myanmar, and the Htoo Group, a conglomerate that includes mobile-phone services and timber concessions, Mr. Tay Za has been described by the United States Department of the Treasury as a “notorious henchman and arms dealer.” After the 2007 Saffron Revolution, when the junta killed dozens of pro-democracy demonstrators and arrested thousands more, the Bush administration froze his assets and blocked him and his family from traveling to the United States.

In the new Myanmar, though, Mr. Tay Za has apparently changed his ways. Following the lead of Myanmar’s reformist government, this former crony of the junta is embracing philanthropy and what his son recently described to Reuters as “foundation work.” And even though he remains on the Treasury’s blacklist, it seems that Western tourists have begun to feel comfortable staying at his hotels. After struggling to fill its rooms for years, the Aureum Palace had an occupancy rate last winter of 80 percent.

Over the past year, Bagan and other destinations in Myanmar have drawn an increasing number of tourists, following the encouraging actions of President Thein Sein. Since taking office in an election that was stage-managed by the military junta in November 2010, Myanmar’s leader has freed hundreds of political prisoners, eased censorship laws and established a cordial working relationship with the Nobel Peace Prize-winning opposition leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Meanwhile, President Obama has eased most sanctions; in July, Mr. Thein Sein addressed American business executives gathered in Cambodia, urging them to invest in his country.

For the travel industry, the repercussions have been profound. Companies that once struggled to persuade clients to visit Myanmar have been deluged: Abercrombie & Kent saw a 90 percent increase in the number of Myanmar-bound tourists between the first quarter of 2011 and the first quarter of 2012; Indochina Travel, headquartered in San Francisco, reported that its Myanmar business has grown from 15 percent of bookings to 35 percent over the past 18 months.

“We believe that it will go up to three-quarters of our business,” said Patrick Morris, a director, who described visiting the country as taking a step back in time. “Even the most touristy place in Myanmar still feels authentic,” he said. “Nobody there knows that they should be selling you a T-shirt.”

With its lush landscapes, Buddhist culture and the mysterious allure of a country that for decades has had limited contact with the outside world, Myanmar has long held a special attraction for adventurous travelers. Tourists began trickling into this former British colony, bordered by China, India, Thailand, Bangladesh and Laos, in the late 1970s when the going was far rougher than it is today. Back then, the government usually issued one-week visas and restricted visitors to a prescribed itinerary. Today tourists typically receive visas that are valid for up to 28 days. Luxury hotels have sprung up, and only a few areas are inaccessible to travelers.

YET the question of whether it is acceptable to visit a country long ruled by a brutal military dictatorship has not gone away. Two years ago the answer was clear; today, it is less so.

Even though Mr. Thein Sein has ostensibly put the country on the path to democracy, Myanmar is hardly free from malign influences. The economy is largely controlled by individuals, like Mr. Tay Za, who amassed their fortunes through alliances with the dictatorship; hundreds of political prisoners remain locked up; and the army is still fighting rebels in northern Kachin State. In June, Buddhists in Arakan State, near the Bangladesh border, and Rohingyas, stateless Muslims who have long been discriminated against by the Burmese government, attacked each other after the rape and murder of a young Buddhist girl.

I’ve traveled to Myanmar three times in the past 30 years: as a backpacker in 1980, as a journalist in 2010 after the release of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and last spring, in the wake of political and economic reforms. On my most recent trip, I spent much of my time in Yangon, Bagan and Inle Lake on the edge of restive Shan State. Throughout the trip I was keenly aware of the moral issues involved in traveling in Myanmar, and attempted to avoid patronizing enterprises that are owned by the country’s corrupt elite.

But not everybody, I found, had the same pangs of conscience. Pa Pa Win, the desk manager at the Aureum Palace, told me that most clients don’t care about Mr. Tay Za’s reputation.

“When guests come here they are focusing only for relaxing,” she said, pointing out that Mr. Tay Za provides employment to local people.

But U Bo Ni, my guide in Bagan, and a supporter of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, advised tourists to think twice before staying there.

“It is true that Tay Za has provided a lot of employment,” said the former English teacher. “On the other hand, he collaborated with the military government, so we don’t like him. He is a gangster.”

When I arrived in Yangon, I was eager to see how the atmosphere had changed since my last visit. Yangon has grown greatly in recent decades, but in other respects has barely changed: the downtown district beside the Yangon River is still filled with aging tenements, cracked sidewalks where used-book and betel-nut vendors ply their trades and crumbling colonial villas. The prosperous northern corner of the city is dominated by Inya Lake, site of the villa where Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi spent 15 years in house arrest and where she still resides.

I checked into the German-managed Savoy, an intimate faux colonial place. From there it is a 30-minute walk up a steep hill to Shwedagon Pagoda, the city’s most venerated landmark. Here Gen. Aung San, the beloved freedom fighter, celebrated Burma’s independence from Britain in March 1947, months before his assassination by political rivals. Here, too, his daughter, Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, rallied pro-democracy protesters during the blood bath of August 1988 and started her own political career.

Shwedagon is a Buddhist Disneyland, an exuberant confection of golden Buddhas and teakwood shrines laid out across a marble plaza. These are all mere accompaniments to the main attraction: a soaring gold-leaf-covered stupa said to contain several hairs of the Buddha in a sealed chamber.

During my last visit, I had been followed by two inquisitive monks as I walked around the stupa; these men, I later learned, were probably undercover agents employed by the dictatorship to keep an eye on foreigners. This time, I was not followed.

I was intrigued by another site that was off limits during my last visit: the home in which Gen. Aung San had lived between the end of World War II and his assassination two years later. (His widow and three children remained there until 1953.) The Bogyoke Aung San house museum was closed between 1999 and 2007, and then opened only once a year, on July 17, the anniversary of his murder. But the government lifted the restriction in March.

On a drizzly morning, I visited the 1921 structure with its circular verandas and elaborate turrets and got a glimpse of the Burma that existed in the hopeful days after the war. Here was the dining room table where the general’s family gathered, upstairs the chamber with three cots where the toddler Aung San Suu Kyi and her two brothers slept. In the library, the general’s bookshelves were jammed with volumes ranging from a small-arms training handbook to a history of the Anglo-Afghan wars. A black 1946 Wolseley sedan was parked in the garage.

Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s position on tourism in Myanmar has softened over the years. In 1995 she appeared to discourage all tourism, telling an interviewer, “Tourists better stay at home and read some of the many human rights reports.” Then in 2011 she urged individual tourists — but not groups — to come to Myanmar, if they go about their travels “in the right way, by using facilities that help ordinary people and avoiding facilities that have close links to the government.”

A FEW months ago, a spokesman for the National League for Democracy said that the opposition now welcomes all visitors, as long as they “promote the welfare of the common people and the conservation of the environment.”

I flew to Bagan on Air Yangon, a company on the United States’ list of sanctioned firms in Myanmar. Although I felt some scruples about patronizing the airline, there weren’t any satisfying options; the other airlines that fly to Bagan include Air Bagan and Asian Wings (both owned by the Tay Za-sanctioned Htoo Group), Air Mandalay, (partly owned by the Myanmar government) and Air Kanbawza (owned by the Burmese banker U Aung Ko Win, another confidante of the generals). I was reminded that, when dealing with hotels and airlines in Myanmar, it is difficult to find any that do not have some connection to the junta.

Determined not to stay at the Aureum Palace, I checked into the lodge where I’d stayed once before, the Bagan Hotel River View, with lush gardens dominated by the ruins of an ancient pagoda. The place had some ragged edges: the cavernous lobby was dark, the rooms charmless. The place was owned by the Kaung Myanmar Association, a Burmese group with holdings in construction, agriculture, forestry and the hotel business, that, at least, does not appear on the Treasury’s list of sanctioned individuals and companies.

I rented a battered bicycle and pedaled through fields studded with temples. The spires of a pyramidal stupa near my hotel would serve as my beacon in case I got lost. In the distance I could see Mr. Tay Za’s most controversial creation: a 200-foot-high viewing complex. With three restaurants and a conference center, the tower, which opened in 2005, is reminiscent of a grain silo, and it has been criticized by Unesco for blighting the landscape.

An hour into my tour, a thorn tree branch caught in my spokes and punctured my tire. I’d lost sight of the stupa and had no idea how to get back. I saw a Burmese family encamped beside some ruins and, with their help, reoriented myself. Ninety minutes later I stumbled to a horse cart stand and headed back to my hotel.

The next day I went with Mr. Bo Ni to one of the grandest temples in Bagan: Dhammayazika, a 12th-century bell-shaped pagoda that towers above the plain. Dhammayazika was the favorite of Gen. Than Shwe’s chief rival, Gen. Khin Nyunt, who served as chief of military intelligence and prime minister and lavished a fortune renovating the temple with jewels and gold leaf. Gen. Than Shwe deposed him in 2004 and placed him under house arrest and Dhammayazika fell into disrepair. “Khin Nyunt lost his power, and his pagoda fell apart,” Mr. Bo Ni told me, as gold flakes fluttered away in the breeze. But now Gen. Than Shwe has stepped down and Gen. Khin Nyunt, freed last January, recently visited Dhammayazika.

“He felt very sorry to see his pagoda in that state,” I was told by the caretaker, a gaunt man with gums stained black from chewing betel nut, and plans to cover it again in gold.

It’s not just rehabilitated generals who are pumping money into Myanmar’s attractions. Income from tourism is allowing hotels to undertake renovations and has made significant improvements in the lives of those tapped into the tourist economy.

“It’s good that foreigners connect with this country, spread their knowledge, assist the economy and observe what is happening inside Myanmar,” I had been told earlier in Yangon by U Ba Dhat Aung, a democracy advocate who was recently released from prison and is now a leader of the 88 Generation, an organization of former prisoners.

Mr. Ba Dhat Aung, whom I accompanied to a rally of striking workers at a Chinese-run textile plant outside Yangon, added a few caveats. Some tourist revenue, he pointed out, inevitably ends up in the hands of the government, in the form of taxes and entry fees to tourist zones like Bagan and Inle Lake. Moreover, he said, hard-liners remain a force in Myanmar’s government, and many of them seem determined to thwart Mr. Thein Sein’s reforms.

“Tourists should proceed cautiously, and think about where they are spending their money,” Mr. Ba Dhat Aung said.

A Western diplomat who asked to remain unidentified told me that “most of the owners of hotels, airlines and other parts of the travel industry are cronies” of the former junta. The sanctioned figures include Mr. Aung Ko Win, the airline owner and associate of Myanmar’s former second in command, Gen. Maung Aye; and U Tun Myint Naing, known as Steven Law, the son of a 1970s opium trafficker and the managing director of the Asia World conglomerate, which has a stake in Yangon’s Traders Hotel, a favorite of well-heeled travelers.

“If you have a sensitivity about these things you might want to think twice” about patronizing such places, the diplomat said.

However, U Myint Aung, who spent seven years in the regime’s gulag for his role in the 1988 uprising, and who now runs the Former Political Prisoners’ Association in Yangon, said he believed that it was time for reconciliation.

“Let the tourists go to Tay Za’s Aureum Palace Hotel,” he told me. “Three years ago, we would have said, ‘Don’t go.’ But now we say, ‘Come, we have no feelings of revenge.’ ”

After two days in Bagan, I flew east to Inle Lake and hired a taxi for the hour drive to Nyaungshwe, a ramshackle market town and the jumping-off point for motorized longboats that take visitors to the resorts that line the shore.

Inle’s attractions are its floating markets, monasteries, golden-spired Buddhist temples and surrounding hills, populated by exotically attired tribal groups. I bypassed another of Mr. Tay Za’s resorts, the Aureum Palace Inle, and spent the night at the Inle Princess Resort, owned by U Ohn Maung, an ethnic Shan and former political prisoner. Tucked on a hyacinth-dappled pond, the hotel consists of 46 chalets, each with teak furnishings and bamboo roofs.

“We are now celebrating the Buddhist Lent period,” read a note accompanying a pair of earplugs on my nightstand. “Throughout the night you may hear the voices of monks praying.”

The next morning, in a 30-foot longboat, with a young guide named U Min Min, I crossed the still waters of the lake. Inle was filled with fishing boats, propelled by oarsmen who balanced precariously on one leg, the other entwined around a paddle.

Following a network of canals, the boatman threaded through the narrow sluice gates in bamboo dams. We docked and hiked for a mile to a deserted scene. Here, like a child’s version of Bagan, stood more than 200 small pagodas, constructed by the Pa-O people hundreds of years ago. The jungle had all but consumed them. Weeds crawled over ornate lintels. A palm tree sprouted umbrellalike from a pagoda.

“Asia lost in time,” was the way the photographer and journalist Gary Knight recently described Myanmar to me; the fragile ruins of the pagodas almost literally illustrated his comment.

BACK on the boat, Mr. Min Min and I discussed recent events. Just one week before, the Shan State Army, which has been fighting for autonomy, signed a historic peace deal with the Myanmar government and agreed to help fight drug trafficking across the border into Thailand. It was, Mr. Min Min and I agreed, a sign of progress.

Still, I thought, as I watched the shores slip by, there was reason for caution. From the fawning headlines in local newspapers about various generals, to the handsome villas of the junta cronies near Yangon, to the cautious statements of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, I was continually reminded that the new Myanmar remains a work in progress, and that, as a tourist, the debate over where to spend one’s money remains relevant.

As for Mr. Min Min, he was pleased by the influx of visitors and the rise in his income, but was skeptical about recent developments, including the peace treaty.

“I don’t think it will last,” he said, as we made our way across Inle Lake.

CHOOSING CAREFULLY

If you are a conscientious traveler intent on avoiding travel-related companies owned by the Myanmar government or its business associates, a little advance work is required. Before leaving for Myanmar, I contacted a reliable travel agency, SunBird Tours in Yangon (104-106 52nd Street; 95-1 293464, sunbirdtours@gmail.com, tintin@sunbirdtours.com.mm) and asked it to put together an itinerary that would be as free of government influence as possible.

I immediately eliminated hotels like the Strand, a joint venture of the Myanmar government and a Singapore company. In some cases, like that of the Savoy Hotel in Yangon, ownership was not readily apparent. Those required phone calls to the establishment or, in this case, the hotel’s marketing agent in Hamburg, Germany. The Savoy is owned by a Burmese woman with “no connection” to the government, I was assured. At the United States Department of the Treasury, the Office of Foreign Assets Control publishes a list of sanctioned individuals and companies that provides further clarification.

The German-managed Savoy Hotel (129 Dhammazadi Road, Yangon; 95-10 526289, 526298 and 526305; reservation@savoyhotel-yangon.com) is well situated between Inya Lake (site of the United States Embassy and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s residence) and downtown. It’s a charming hotel with 24 rooms and excellent service; the Captain’s Bar in the lobby is one of Yangon’s favored expatriate watering holes. Prices for a double begin at 91,981 kyat, or $110 at 836 kyat to the dollar.

Just across the Strand Road, right on the river, are my favorite restaurants in Yangon, the Golden Duck and the Junior Duck (95-1 249421, or 09-861-4554), serving excellent Chinese food at reasonable prices. Lunch or dinner for two costs 20,904 to 25,085 kyat.

In Bagan, I stayed at the Bagan Hotel River View (Near Museum, Old Bagan; 95-61 60316, 95-61 060317, 95-61 60032; baganview@kmahotels.com, sales@kmahotels.com). The sprawling complex along the Irrawaddy River has 107 rooms from 58,533 to 91,981 kyat a night.

The best hotel at Inle Lake is the Inle Princess Resort, with 46 chalets on a pond on the eastern bank of the lake (Magyizin Village Inle Lake; 95-81 209055, 95-81 209363, 4 and 5; inleprincess@myanmar.com.mm). A chalet, booked through SunBirds, costs 137,972 kyat a night. There’s a fine bar and restaurant serving both Burmese and European food, with alfresco dining on a porch overlooking the lake. Dinner for two, with wine, costs about 66,895 kyat.

Sourced: travel.nytimes

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