Heavily romanticized and, now, highly publicized, mysterious Myanmar (formerly Burma) has been thrust into the international spotlight for democracy-pushing politicians, aspiring capitalists, and trailblazing travelers alike. As the country rapidly emerges from the grip of a half-century of harsh military rule onto a promising path to democracy, Myanmar's political, economic, and tourism landscapes are changing at a breakneck speed. It's little wonder that tourism is taking off, what with spectacular monuments, stuck-in-time villages, vibrant culture, and remarkably hospitable people. The long-shuttered gates are officially open: Freshly back from a two-week tour, herewith five reasons to get to Myanmar now, before the masses—and McDonald's—do.
1. History is in the making
I arrived in Myanmar on the heels of President Obama—the first-ever sitting U.S. president to visit these long-isolated lands—who was optimistically received by the democracy-yearning population as validation of a new era of political reform. The Burmese are now seeing a light at the end of a tumultuous tunnel, marked by decades of brutal and totalitarian military rule, which inspired (now-eased) economic sanctions and tourism boycotts that left the country largely cut off from the world. With the quasi-civilian government that took power in 2011, real political change has come slowly, but surely, encouraging Aung San Suu Kyi—revered democratic reformist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was released from house arrest in 2010 and elected to parliament this April—to rescind the 15-year-old tourism boycott.
2. Globalization is coming
For the time being, Myanmar's commercial culture remains practically untouched by the West. With nary a McDonald's or Starbucks in sight, the country provides a refreshing exercise in travel, where familiar globalization touchstones are removed and a true sense of place is established. It won't last long: We observed the first signs of Western capitalism rolling in with Coca-Cola billboards cropping up in Yangon—predictions are that rampant international commercialization will soon be underway.
3. Money matters made easier
Operating on a cash economy, Myanmar was long devoid of ATMs and credit card capabilities, relegating travelers to carrying in enough crisp U.S. dollars to last them for the entirety of their trip. All that is changing: a handful of MasterCard-powered ATMS have just debuted (Visa is next), and the local currency is now floated at a fixed market rate (eliminating the old-standard headache of haggling for black market currency exchanges).
4. It sill soon be overrun, overpriced, and underserviced
Reports have estimated a million tourists will have already visited in 2012, a rapid-fire influx into the country's ill-prepared tourism infrastructure. With quality hotels, tour guides, and transportation options in relatively scarce supply, old supply-and-demand dynamics have allowed travel providers to spike rates (the government recently implemented a $150/night hotel cap to try and curb inflation). It will be years before enough new hotels open their doors to meet the growing demand, and for adequately trained hospitality professionals to emerge on the scene—go now to avoid the worst of it.
5. The warm and welcoming people
The devoutly Buddhist Burmese boast an innate sense of hospitality and a genuine curiosity and openness toward visitors. We regularly encountered endearing village children, who followed us around with wide eyes and cheeky grins, wanting nothing more from us than to satiate their curiosity. Gracious villagers invited us into their simple homes and workshops, while cheery monks happily engaged our questions. For the most part, the nature of the Burmese people has not been adversely affected by capitalism or mass tourism—that is, for now.