There are two associations that probably pop up in your mind the moment you think about Myanmar (Burma). First of all, Buddhism and giant golden temples. Secondly, specially if you are a little updated in worldwide news, the Rohingya crisis, as they like to call it. To me it should rather be called genocide.

The Rohingya, all those who don’t know may be forgiven, are a muslim minority living in the west of Myanmar. Due to a hidden ethnic clearance program, the Burmese military has burned down their villages, killed dozens of innocent people and forced around 800.000 of Rohingyas to flee to Bangladesh, where they now live in huge refugee camps (if they actually make it there).

All of this, to the surprise of many, is happening under the approval of The Nobel Peace Price winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

Having traveled through Myanmar I can confirm that both associations are a reality. On your trip around Myanmar you will more or less trail the same route as everyone else. A well designed tourist path with international hotels, restaurants, fancy night buses and, of course, plenty of beautiful sights to see.

From the giant golden shining Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon –whose overwhelming gloom and spirituality drives tears to the eyes– to the old mysterious temple sites in Bagan. Dramatic sunsets on top of a temple ruin or floating at Inle Lake, watching the foot rowing fishermen doing their last catch in front of an impressing mountain scenery.

The tourist industry knows about the attraction of Myanmar, undoubtedly, and this poses a big problem.

Tourist pesticide

Mass tourism is a pesticide –even in a country that doesn’t have a single McDonalds and rarely a shopping mall. Temples that cannot be seen anymore because they are so filled up with souvenir stalls; hundreds of motorboats that replace the rowing boats at Inle Lake, destroying the ecosystem for carrying a huge amount of tourists across the lake on a daily basis. In spite of mass tourism, in certain places, Myanmese beauty and the richness of its golden temples is undeniable, and a sight you will never forget.

However, I have to warn you not to get blinded by Myanmar’s shining lights. You have to keep in mind that the government, who decided to open Myanmar to foreign tourists just recently (in 2011), designed this tour around Myanmar on purpose, building excellent infrastructures to keep people on the path.

They have created, together with the economic elites, a “picture perfect” of Myanmar, the buddhist, happy and tolerant country. All of this, in order to hide the racism, ethnical clearance and poverty that is hidden within Myanmar’s hidden paths. Most of these unknown places need a special permission to go and visit or they are completely locked to the outer world.

Most of the big bus lines, big hotels and airlines, as well as the national park and all “tourist entrance” fees, flow in one direction: the government pockets and those of Myanmar’s elite. Knowing that the government invests their money, money that also comes from tourists. into the military, one might start to question a visit to Myanmar.

By giving money incorrectly to the government, the tourists –you and me–, support a violent ethnic clearance of minorities in several parts of Myanmar, killings of  thousands of people through exclusion from medical care, food supply and massacres, the latest dated from August 2017All of this is happening just as we take a picture of a giant golden Buddha and let the tour guide show us the fair conditions in carefully selected Myanmese weaving fabrics.

So how could I, knowing all this in advance, still travel to Myanmar? Conscious traveling is the keyword. Keep an eye open and observe your surroundings, question what you see and don’t shut your eyes in front of poverty or children serving you at 10 pm in a restaurant. Children. Freeze these images deep in your mind, think of their causes and how these problems can be solved. Certainly not through locking Myanmar up for foreigners again or locking Reuters journalists, then we wouldn’t see at all.

Pay attention to whom you give your money to. Stay in a local guest house and pay the 21 years old taxi driver who only finished primary school to take you around the city rather than booking big tours or fancy hotels. Giving money to a bus company or paying an entrance fee to see a pagoda is not avoidable. I certainly didn’t make my peace with it.

Nevertheless, I think it’s the right thing to visit this stunning and suffering country and share the gained knowledge about what happens behind closed curtains with the outside world.

P.S. This recent article on The New York Times, titled ‘I saw a genocide in slow motion’, is a great account of what’s really going on with Myanmar and the Rohingya.