Burma. The Alternative Guide. A Review

This is a review I wrote some time ago for Burma Center Prague. I remembered it after the NLD seems to be fine-tuning now their boycott on tourism, giving up their previous hardliner policy.

Many travelers are increasingly concerned about ethical aspects of tourism. While it can serve as an educating, connecting and emancipating force, it might also leave indelible footprints from a powerful, sometimes ruthless industry, when recreation outweighs liberation. A particular, passionately disputed case is Burma, a country suffering for decades under military rule. In Burma, the ruling junta would not be able to continue exploiting its people without strong foreign political and economic support. For a dictatorship where an estimated half of the state budget goes to the army and is spent to maintain the luxurious life-style of the ruling families, it is not surprising that the question of investments becomes an issue of eminent ethical importance.
The democracy movement is divided on the question whether tourism to Burma would rather empower small business, encourage the Burmese people and help to circumvent the junta’s embargo on information or, on the other hand, inevitably feed the Generals, while any beneficial impact entirely misses the ethnic minorities living unseen in Burma’s officially declared no-go areas. Moreover, the role of tourists as righteous envoys of freedom and human rights seems more than doubtful, considering the nature of package tours and travelers escaping their dull lives in the quest for pristine beauty and unspoiled exoticism.
The famous advice of the Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, to visit Burma only later during better times, bears the risk of being outdated, having failed to foresee the regime’s durability. So, how to respond to the conundrum of whether to go or not?
Burma. The alternative guide. front coverBurma. The Alternative Guide by Elena Jotow and Nicholas Ganz does not try to answer this question. Rather, it chooses to offer a comprehensive picture of Burma, comprising “the richness of culture” as well as “the tragic tales recounted by refugees”. Complementing the information on culture, people and tourism sites with what tourists’ eyes are not able to see is certainly a promising approach to escape the moral pitfalls.
It is justified that the authors decided to limit the travel-related chapters to places that are officially permitted to tourists. Dedicating more space to hard-fact travel aids, however, would be worth consideration for future editions. This comprises preparatory arrangements like visa applications, vaccinations and malaria prophylaxis, dietary precautions, addresses of Western embassies, availability of telephones and Internet and a handful of town maps that help you find your way through the streets with their Burmese names, as well as some hints about expected behavior in pagodas, tipping in restaurants and dealing with unyielding taxi drivers. Particularly for the purpose of responsible traveling the reader would appreciate getting some practical advice on how to avoid junta-related business.
What makes this guide outstanding from others is its valuable chapters about the invisible and often ugly sides of Burma, without which no guide could possibly reach beyond a shallow tourism facade. You find informed articles about the “Saffron Revolution” and the situation of selected ethnic minorities. Ethnic armed forces have received much of the authors’ attention but their presentation reveals a debatable inclination to apply softer standards here than actually needed. Also, the selection of images, obviously stemming from the armed groups’ self-promotion kits, would certainly gain by a critical filtering with journalistic rigor. However, among the highlights of the background information range the chapters about Burmese migrants and political prisoners.
Now that the renowned Guide to Burma by Nicholas Greenwood has long vanished from the shelves, this book has the best chances to become a new benchmark for ethical traveling to Burma. Offering up-to-date and unvarnished information, the Alternative Guide by Jotow and Ganz fills a gap where other travel books have failed to explain the obvious contradiction between gold-covered pagodas and the use of bullets against unarmed demonstrators. Although it does not solve the question about traveling or not, even those who choose to stay at home will value the book as an enjoyable step towards understanding Burma.
Particularly the very outspoken parts about the hidden face of Burma make this guide a book that Burmese custom officers certainly would not like to find in your luggage. Not least for this fact it is highly recommended reading for prospective travelers who care about the people living at their destination.

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