Last Updated on October 26, 2023
Myanmar is one of the loveliest countries in Southeast Asia thanks in no small part to decades of isolation that left the culture and old customs in place while also preserving many important historical sites. Like most of Southeast Asia, colonialism, location, and history profoundly shaped the country. You see these lingering legacies in everything from the current political climate to Myanmar’s rich culinary history, which features amazing regional specialities from the many ethnic minority groups living in every corner of the country. Although Myanmar, alternately known as Burma for a long list of reasons, was once a no-go destination for responsible travel due to the repressive military regime in place for later half of the 20th century, much has changed.
The question is no longer “should responsible travelers visit Myanmar?,” but rather how travelers can make a positive impact given the country’s challenges. Even with an iffy political situation, sustainable tourism provides an essential avenue for money to effectively move from wealthier countries into regional economies all over Burma. There are absolutely some ethical challenges, and you must know them before you go to Burma. But in general, GV advocates for travel to Myanmar as a needed step in supporting communities and local economies while giving travelers a unique experience they won’t find elsewhere in Southeast Asia.
Responsible Travel in Myanmar (Burma)
More so than any other country in Southeast Asia, it’s imperative that responsible travelers (in fact, any travelers) understand the Myanmar’s political climate over the past decade. In late 2011, Myanmar was poised to become the fastest growing tourism destination in Southeast Asia. Social reforms looked promising in the wake of changes in the ruling military junta, which ceded control to a quasi-civilian government. The U.S. lifted sanctions and began a relationship with the country’s leaders. Elections in 2015 brought to power Aung San Suu Kyi, a beloved leader of the pro-democracy movement. In those intervening years, tourism exploded—some estimates contend the industry grew from 300,000 tourists in 2011 to upwards of three million by 2015. This was a great thing for the economy, and for travelers—Myanmar is truly a special country.
Human Rights Concerns
Progressive social reforms and equitable justice for the people of Burma seemingly came to a screeching halt. In late 2017, the UN described the Burmese military’s actions against the Muslim Rohingya community as nothing short of ethnic cleansing and this is an ongoing humanitarian crisis still unfolding in the western Rakhine state. In light of these events, travelers must understand the situation before traveling in Myanmar; this piece outlines the conflict while this longread gives essential back story contextualizing it.
Ethically, responsible travelers now have a perplexing situation—tourism is a great boon to the local economies elsewhere in the country and it’s overwhelmingly safe to travel most other states in Myanmar. The government’s actions, however, have caused just international outcry. It’s GV’s opinion that travelers can still ethically and responsibly visit Burma so long as they take actions to make sure their money is doing the most good for locals in each place they travel. Myanmar’s political climate is complex, but that doesn’t negate the fact that tourism is a force for good when used to promote sustainable growth and development directly within local economies.
This human rights issue is the primary concern facing travelers in Burma. While many general responsible travel issues found throughout Southeast Asia exist here too, it’s to a lesser extent. Decades without tourism influences means things like large-scale elephant riding camps, tiger temples, and Cambodia’s orphan industrial complex haven’t yet taken hold. That doesn’t exempt Myanmar from some other concerns though, because they exist.
The Human Zoo Effect
As Myanmar rapidly developed a tourism industry over the past several years, many optimistically hoped that the country would manage development and mitigate possible exploitation through tourism. Instead, the country is developing some tourism practices as flawed and unsustainable as those found in neighboring countries. As noted for responsible travelers in Thailand, the Kayan ethnic minority group is perhaps most known for the women in the tribe who wear rings around their necks. As tourism has grown in Shan state, Kayan women are sometimes a human zoo for tour companies. These women, while beautiful and unique, often receive nothing from tour operators who roll in a busload of tourists, all happy to snap exotic photos before boarding the bus and leaving.
The GV community reports there are particularly egregious instances of this around Inle Lake. Responsible tourism is about finding cultural exchanges—home-stays, village visits, locally guided treks. These Kayan communities now living by the lake have moved there for the tourism money, but not just as a photo-subject—they sell handicrafts and goods and are also people with fascinating stories if you stick around long enough to ask questions and engage with them. The below video outlines just why this type of tourism is so challenging, as well as the locals’ hopes for sustainable changes in their future.
Effects of the Logging Industry
The Myanmar logging industry still uses more than a thousand elephants, and there is just one ethical elephant camp in the entire country, Green Hill Valley, which has eight elephants at last count, each rescued or retired from logging. Logging is also leading to extensive deforestation. Be aware of these issues—you can’t stop logging, but you can spend your money locally and prioritize sustainable experiences in nature, such as trekking and rural homestays, which create a back-loop with locals and illustrate these natural resources can bring in money in other more sustainable ways.
Your Money Trail
Before 2011, many responsible travelers justified visiting the country because they looked for ways to ensure that their money supported local businesses and not the ruling military junta. With tourism growth and political changes, it’s actually much harder to trace that money trail now, and even harder to assess who is “worthy” of responsible tourism dollars. Instead, understand that a dollar spent at a local restaurant, paying for local guides and transport, and staying at a locally run hotel are still the most effective way to make sure tourism dollars directly support economic growth in the places you visit. Even more, however, take a close look at your planned route, too.
The UN ranks Myanmar as among the least developed countries in the world, and while tourism is a good start toward shifting money into economy, tourism is predominantly concentrated in Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, and Inle Lake. These “Big Four” locations receive the bulk of tourism activity and thus the bulk of tourism dollars. Responsible travelers should look for off-the-beaten path experiences to cities and states where tourism will make a large impact—these places are often equally fascinating sites and windows into the Burmese culture. By visiting these smaller locations, you are further ensuring tourism dollars support even the far corners Burma.
There are other things you should consider, like treading lightly on the land. Use something like a LifeStraw since trash disposal is a major issue. And avoid jade and rubies as souvenirs since these almost directly support the military state and have been likened to Africa’s blood diamonds.
Lastly, Myanmar is a conservative, religious country and women and men should always dress to match the cultural norms—wear bottoms well below the knees and tops that fully cover shoulders and chests. Insider tip: Buy a Burmese longyi at the local market when you land in Yangon as it’s fun to shop for one, the fabrics are beautiful, and its culturally appropriate attire (double plus: locals love travelers who make the extra effort!).
If spending money locally is so important—and it is!—then the harder part is often finding businesses and organizations where you can to spend your money responsibly and really make each travel dollar go further toward addressing local social issues.
If you’re planning an activity during your time in Burma—and it fits within the framework of an ethical and sustainable tourism activity—then use our vetted list of Burmese social enterprises to make your travel dollars go far on the ground. Truly responsible travel is not just about maintaining a neutral travel footprint, but also seeking activities that actively benefit the people and places where you travel. The social enterprise guide below includes businesses offering socially responsible tours, fair-trade sourced souvenirs, meals prepared and served by former street children, and more. Each business is a social enterprise operating with a strong social mission to use tourism as a force for positive change.
What is a Social Enterprise?
A social enterprise sells good or services and uses a portion of the profits to reinvest in the local community by addressing social issues, improving locals’ quality of life, conserving natural resources and the environment, preserving the community’s cultural integrity, and more. The social enterprise holds its strong underlying mission above financial gain, investors, or traditional commercial business ideals. Instead, common good is the primary focus and when a social enterprise succeeds, so too does the local society.
Supporting social enterprises is the core idea behind this site. Responsible travelers often align with the social enterprise business model because it’s not only good for travelers to understand a deeper story of a new place, but by supporting these businesses responsible travelers leave a place better than they found it. They effectively use travel as a force for good. Our “What is a Social Enterprise” post shares a deeper-dive into the social enterprise business model, how to locate these businesses, and why they are a core tenet of responsible and sustainable travel.
Bagan Social Enterprises
- MBoutik (Bagan): Shop for beautiful handcrafted toys, bags and woven pieces. MBoutik is a wonderful social enterprise which works with women from rural villages and provides support services which include literacy programs, HIV prevention, medical care and more.
- Sanon (Bagan): A delightful Burmese and tapas restaurant serving up tapas, smoothies, cocktails and more! Sanon is a FRIENDS International social enterprise and provides vocational training for marginalized youth.
- Three Treasures (Bagan): Dive deeply into the local culture with this tour company much more than simply tours of Bagan (though they offer that, too). Take a bamboo crafts workshop, cooking class, boat tour and more. All proceeds benefit community programs.
Kalaw Social Enterprises
- Clover Social Enterprise Gift Shop (Kalaw): Find a gift made locally that benefits the community when you shop at Clover Social Enterprise Gift Shop. This shop sources goods from other social enterprises and offers a surprisingly nice range of unique offerings that you won’t find in other spots (alongside some of the more classic options like paintings and crafts).
- Green Hill Valley (Kalaw): Located 45 minutes outside of Kalaw, this small operation is both locally owned and run by a family dedicated to rescuing elephants from the logging industry, as well as countering the negative effects of logging with reforestation projects.
- Sprouting Seeds Cafe & Bakery (Kalaw): Using locally sourced food this spot offers a respite from the city in a quite spot. Indulge in fresh homemade baked goods, ice cream, veggie dishes, and delicious meals in a traditional Kalaw house. A portion of proceeds go toward the cafe’s social mission: to support disadvantaged youth with training and support.
Yangon Social Enterprises
- FXB Myanmar (Yangon): This innovative souvenir shop in Yangon uses proceeds to support health, education, vocational training, and income generating activities for vulnerable people in Myanmar. The showroom sells colorful and well-crafted textiles.
- Helping Hands (Yangon): Teak furniture, however large or small, is a Southeast Asian souvenir that many enjoy shipping home. At Helping Hands local artisans work alongside former street kids to teach them the art and skill of furniture restoration.
- Hla Day (Yangon): Buying beautifully made scarves, bags, jewellery and other high-quality products from Hla Day is one way to ensure your money supports local artisans. Hla Day works with local artisans from disadvantaged communities to provide design training as well as a marketplace for artisans to sell their creations.
- Linkage Yangon (Yangon): Dine on Burmese and Chinese fusion dishes at this social enterprise restaurant which provides education and training to children and youth from poor communities. They also sell beautiful paintings created by local artists.
- Pann Nann Ein (Yangon): Instead of buying a generic travel journal, consider buying one from Pann Nann Ein, a social enterprise which specializes in paper products. Many of the staff are disabled and through Pann Nann Ein are able to support themselves and their families.
- Pomelo Burmese Boutique (Yangon): A fair trade boutique selling handicrafts created by Burmese people from disadvantaged communities. Pomelo provides a sustainable marketplace, skill training and creative input to its artisans, allowing them to support themselves and their families.
- Shwe Sa Bwe Training Restaurant (Yangon): Enjoy a tasty meal or find a place to sleep at this training hotel and restaurant, which allows students to acquire real-life experience from experienced trainers. The food is beautifully presented and worth a stop by for a bistro lunch or a French-inspired dinner menu.
- Uncharted Horizons Myanmar (Yangon): Take an off-the-beaten-track tour of Yangon and China State. Learn about Burmese culture while supporting marginalized communities in an area with little tourism but great potential.
- Yangon Bakehouse (Yangon): Everyone loves delectable baked goods, and this café is one of the best. Many disadvantaged women take advantage of the job opportunities, skills training and fair wages of the bakehouse, which also provides training in areas beyond hospitality.
Yangon Heritage Trust (Yangon): Take a fascinating walking tour of Yangon with a trained tour guide who will lead you into the heart of old Yangon with stories and anecdotes from its colorful and layered history—travel from the city’s earliest beginnings to the modern day.
Other Social Enterprises Around Myanmar
- Inle Heritage (Inle Lake): Take a learning journey through this organization, which is committed to preserving the region’s unique cultural heritage while offering interesting tourism experiences—proceeds contribute to the local community. With a boutique hotel, cooking classes, an award-winning restaurant, Inle Lake tours, and more, there’s a range of ways to support this organization’s work.
- Laguna Ecolodge (Ngapali Beach): Winner of a 2017 ecotourism award, enjoy relaxing beach-side days at this lovely eco-resort.
- Myanmar Adventure Outfitters (Lashio): Organize a memorable day trip chock full of adventure activities, or take a custom motorbike tour of the region from Lashio toward China—an experience completely different from anything you can do elsewhere in Myanmar.
- Plan Bee (Pindaya): Although you could buy some deliciously locally made honey from this non-profit collective, the beekeeping tours and workshops are fascinating and unusual—you won’t find anything else like it in Myanmar. This social enterprise has taught farmers in nearby villages how to cultivate healthy and thriving bee colonies.
- Veranda Youth Community Cafe (Hpa-An): A lovely small spot by the lake where you can read and enjoy local coffee from plantations located in Shan highlands, juices, vegetarian food, and more. The Veranda Youth Community Cafe has a social mission attached and is a meeting place of like-minded locals and travelers.
The database of social enterprises in Thailand is always expanding as GV Ambassadors map the world of projects and businesses that need support from responsible travelers. Wondering how we pick a social enterprise for inclusion? Make your time in Thailand a better force for good by visiting and supporting businesses committed to environment, social, and community welfare.
Interested in Volunteering?
Unlike the well established volunteering industry in Thailand, and the developed and incredibly complicated volunteering industry Cambodia, the same factors that prevented mass tourism in Myanmar also handicapped many development and aid projects, let alone international volunteering. During the decades of military junta rule, aid and development workers were under strict visas, and no internet or cell phones in the country for most citizens made it less popular for all but the most intrepid volunteers. The GV database does not offer any volunteer opportunities in Myanmar, and this is mostly because it’s such a new industry. That said, there are a fair number of opportunities in Northern Thailand to volunteer supporting Burmese refugees if it’s the cause and not the country that motivates you to share your time.
Since those decades of little outside influence, so much has changed. Internet is widespread and NGOs are popping up all over the place. It’s at the social enterprises that you are most likely to find independent volunteering programs in Myanmar if you’re a responsible traveler with time to offer. My suggestion is that you select a few of the social enterprises above with missions that resonate with you, then reach out to them and see if they have need for your skills. I know for a fact many of them run partner programs in villages that need English teachers, or have a need for the skills of marketing professionals—they just don’t have formal volunteer programs organized yet, so it’s impossible to list those projects on GV. In the future, the GV database may include programs if GV Ambassadors find opportunities that meet our standards of solid business practices and independence from multi-national volunteer companies.
Additional Resources for Responsible Travelers
If you’re planning a trip to Myanmar, or Southeast Asia in general, these travel resources are essential for travelers focused on sustainable and responsible vacations.
- The Responsible Traveler’s Guide to Southeast Asia
- 8 Behaviors of Socially Responsible Travel
- Review: Travel Insurance Options for International Volunteers
- Should You Give to Child Beggars?
- How to Pack for Long-Term & Round The World Travel
- Travel Planning Resources
- ALA Free Travel Guides for: Thailand and Vietnam
- Lonely Planet Myanmar
- The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook
Books to Read Before You Visit Myanmar
Understanding a country’s history and culture is a fundamental aspect of responsible and informed travel. Plus, you’ll enjoy your travels so much more when you have context to wrap around your interactions and experiences.
- From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey by Pascal Khoo Thwe
- Burmese Days by George Orwell
- The River of Lost Footsteps: A Personal History of Burma by Thant Myint-U
- Under the Dragon: A Journey Through Burma by Rory MacLean
- The Glass Palace: A Novel by Amitav Ghosh
- “The Tamarind is Always Sour” an online longread on the current Rohingya humanitarian crisis, as is this essential read.
Shannon O’Donnell is an award-winning travel writer, speaker, and author of the acclaimed “Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook.” She’s been traveling the world for over 20 years, and is passionate about helping others use travel as a force for good.
She was the 2013 National Geographic Traveler of the Year for her work in responsible travel and tourism, and has appeared everywhere from NPR to the BBC to CNN as an expert in travel and international volunteering.