Burma Is Slowly Reopening Its Door to Foreign Tourists After Protests


The souvenir shop owner took the bank note in his hands, held it up to the light and then kissed the grimy paper three times.

“This is the first money I’ve earned since August,” he explained. “It’s like I’ve opened up a new shop.”

Just down the main road of Pagan, another shopkeeper excitedly dusted off lacquerware boxes, teak elephants, tin gongs and gems of questionable quality.

“You are a good omen--first tourist for six months,” he whispered. “We have been selling our gold to buy food. Now business will be back soon. Buy something, please.”


Pagan, Burma’s royal capital between 1057 and 1287 but now a dusty town surrounded by hundreds of crumbling Buddhist temples and pagodas, still feels the effect of anti-government protests that brought the country to a halt last summer.

Almost totally dependent on tourism, it suffered a body blow when Rangoon decided in early August to stop all visits because of violent clashes between troops and marchers. Diplomats said 1,000 people were killed in the fighting.

Nobody Came to Buy

Although there was no unrest in Pagan, hotels and guest houses emptied in this sleepy town on the Irrawaddy River in central Burma. Nobody came to buy the town’s distinctive black lacquer ware or enjoy its fish curries and mustard-leaf soup.


The ban on foreign visits idled tour guides and drivers who were accustomed to shuttling sightseers around the brick and stone ruins scattered over 16 square miles.

Some of Pagan’s 5,000 residents became so desperate they dug holes in the fields and panned under the hot sun for specks of gold left over from its glittering heyday.

A good day’s panning among the temples, cactus trees and thorn bushes could yield up to a dollar’s worth of gold flecks washed off gilded Stupa shrines or left from gold-threaded cloth the Burmese royalty used to wear, residents said.

Craft sellers could normally make up to $300 a month from the tourist trade, they said.

Tight Restrictions

The army, which crushed the democracy movement last September, began readmitting foreign tourists in mid-December but the tight restrictions it imposed hardly made the visit a leisurely holiday.

A trail-blazing group of West German tourists were free to explore deserted temples and pagodas which, in English writer Somerset Maugham’s words, “loom huge, remote and mysterious, like the vague recollections of a fantastic dream.”

But they were followed by plainclothes police and barred from leaving their bus to shop. They were the ones who seemed remote and mysterious to the few people who saw them.


“They looked like prisoners,” one resident commented.

Glancing repeatedly over his shoulder, a visitor to an annual temple fair said officials drove through the bamboo hut town before the tourists’ arrival with loudspeakers telling residents not to talk to the rare visitors.

Visit by Correspondents

A group of 46 foreign correspondents brought from Bangkok on an unprecedented official tour in mid-January also passed through the town almost unnoticed except at the river side Thiripyitsaya Hotel where they stayed.

“I didn’t hear anything about them,” said one shop owner, who seemed disappointed over the lost opportunity.

Controls eased a bit by late January, when some West German and American tourists were allowed to roam the dusty main road and the narrow lanes of the market set up for an annual fair at the white-washed Ananda Temple in the center of Pagan.

But at least a dozen soldiers, barefoot out of respect for Buddhist tradition, patrolled the temple grounds as more than 200 monks and novices lined up for bowls of rice, bananas and other food donated by the faithful.

Outside, among the stalls selling used spectacles, repaired umbrellas and oil cans cut out of beer tins, young boys struggled to practice their shaky English with phrases like “Hello. What is your name? We want democracy.”


Underdeveloped Industry

Although more acute, Pagan’s problems mirror the difficulties of the underdeveloped tourist industry in all of Burma since August.

During January, usually the height of the season because of its mild weather, only 200 visitors came to Burma this year instead of 4,675 in 1988, tourist officials said.

Tourist Burma, which used to fill two Fokker F-27 planes with tourists on the Rangoon-Pagan-Mandalay-Heho-Rangoon circuit every day, now has only three flights a week on that run.

To add to its problems, Burma Airways’ safety record is so poor that several Western embassies urge their nationals not to take its flights. A Fokker F-27 crash in Rangoon on Feb. 3, the fourth in 18 months, killed 26 passengers, all Burmese.

As a result the cash-strapped government, which lost all foreign aid after its bloody suppression of the democracy movement, has forfeited most of the $4 million it would normally have earned during the winter season.

Foreigners watching a golden sunset across the Irrawaddy atop the steep Thatbyinnyu Temple-- Pagan’s highest vantage point--may enjoy the lack of other tourists, but shopkeepers eagerly await the return of packed tour buses.

Told more tourists should be coming now that the standard seven-day visas were available again, their common refrain was: “When? How many? Where are they now?”