Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler first wrote about Myanmar (then Burma) in the massively successful Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, released in the 1970s.
The Irrawaddy’s Zarni Mann met him at the fourth Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Mandalay held from Nov. 3-5, where they discussed Myanmar’s developing tourism industry.
Tell me about your first time traveling to Myanmar.
In 1974, me and my wife Maureen flew into from Bangkok because flying was the only way in. It was when I was traveling around Southeast Asia. Back then, we could only get a seven-day visa. We weren’t allowed to go to many places as well. There weren’t many places to stay, too. In a week, there are only a few things we could do. So, we took a train to Mandalay from Yangon, and traveled to Bagan from Mandalay by bus. We were there for a couple of days and took a train back to Rangoon. What I remember is that the train took an incredible amount of time to reach Rangoon: it was about 24 hours or something. That was a terrible train. We took the wrong train. We should have taken another way so that we could have visited other places.
In Bagan, during that time, there were lots of little guest houses in the center of the old city. All the back packers stayed in those small guest houses. They were very nice and people were friendly. Then, the military government moved them away. They were all shifted out from central Bagan to the new area. That happened during my second visit.
Traveling around the city and other places back then, there was little transportation. The roads were empty. And most of the cars running were very old—old English cars and some Japanese cars, I think. And there were old Chevrolets.
During that time, nobody wanted to fly, because the only airline, Union Airline, was always crashing. There were so many crashes, nobody wanted to risk their lives. So people used to take the train or busses, but they are very slow and take a long time.
Are there any memorable moments from traveling during that time?
On the second visit, I heard there was a possibility of getting a small truck and to travel that way. It seemed a very good way for me, because I didn’t want to wait for the trains. It was in 1983. I arrived late in Rangoon and everything was closed. I walked to my hotel, the tourist office building by Sule Pagoda. Somebody just walked in and offered me a truck for hire, late at night. We hired it to travel to Rangoon, Prome, Bagan, Mandalay, Maymyo [now Pyin Oo Lwin] and Inle Lake.
Since it was difficult to buy petrol outside of Rangoon, there were lots of petrol containers at the back of the truck. When we got to Prome, it was getting late and that man, the driver, said we were not allowed to go as Prome was not open to foreigners. But once you are inside Prome it is okay, he said. There were soldiers at the check points on the way into Prome, so he told us to lie down on the floor of the back of the truck and put a sheet of tarpaulin over us. It was quite an adventure.
Since you are also a board member of the Heritage Trust Foundation, what do you think about the conservation and restoration work of earthquake-impacted pagodas and temples in Bagan?
Bagan received very bad restoration during the military government. They wanted to paint it all gold. There are already many suggestions and messages on what is good restoration and what is bad. Hopefully the responsible person will listen and not repeat the same mistake.
If people try to ruin the ancient monuments such as by writing and painting with white inks, people need to shame them. If they keep doing it, the monuments should not be allowed to be touched and would be better fenced off. Or someone has to watch it and clean them off as soon as people put their names on them with white inks.
There was an example of a Chinese youth, who wrote something on the monuments in Egypt. People wrote about him on social media to shame him and when he was back in his country, he got into a lot of trouble.
There are rules and regulation on what people should wear visiting certain monuments. Some of the tourists do not want to follow that. We see that in many countries. If people are so stupid not to know that, you have to keep telling them or occasionally arrest them.
How does it feel to be the author of the first edition of Lonely Planet and to have traveled through so many countries over the years?
I wrote the first edition of the book, and other editions. There were also other people who helped write the books. In that first edition, there was very little information. I look back on it now and I find it wasn’t very good because there was nothing else. There was only about a little bit of history, and about the limited number of the places you could stay. We could only go to Mandalay, Bagan and Yangon. I didn’t even know whether they allowed people to go to Inle Lake back then. It was very restricted to travel around [the country].
I was very proud to be the first one who could do the introduction of this country through Lonely Planet. Since there was not much information, I thought I was opening doors to the world. And I believe my articles and my travel experiences have somehow brought the interest of travelers. Now, there are lots of books and the country is also open to visitors. I enjoy visiting Burma very much. Because, there is that feeling that you are going to something unknown.
In your opinion, what is needed to boost Myanmar’s tourism industry?
There are still many places where people do not visit. For example, I’ve been to Mrauk-U and it is a very nice place. Until now, there are only a few people who visit there, maybe because there is some unrest in Rakine State. It is the same in the other places like Karen, Kachin and Chin states. If there is peace in the country, transportation and communication will be better. And if there is easy access to visit through borders this will attract more visitors.
And people who are doing business have got to be honest with the people. To be more attractive to people, there should be easy access for visitors. I’m talking about visas. Making visas easy is the biggest step for tourism.
What is your opinion on suggestions not to visit a country like Myanmar because of the sanctions, and now, the humanitarian matters relating to the unrest in Rakhine State?
There are two things: one thing is that there is not as much danger as people say there is, but sometimes where the government says it is dangerous. If you want to visit a place, you have to decide whether it is safe for you. I’m not going to tell people you should go there. But if you wanted to go there, you should look out there for stories on what has happened and what is happening there. Generally, I go.
I’ve been to Pakistan, which people said I should not go. But when I arrived there, things were not so bad as they said.
I would also like to say to the Burmese youth who start traveling, to go out there. See the world. You have to be wealthy to travel, of course. Travel needs a lot of money. If you do, you are going to understand more. You are going to explore more about the different aspects of people, you will learn more about other cities and countries. And from that you will enrich your knowledge.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.