6 reasons Vogue’s advice on Myanmar is dumb and racist

Someone named Claire at Vogue last week gave us “8 Reasons to Skip Thailand and Head to Myanmar Instead”. It is a treasure trove of casual racism and factual inaccuracy that reveals a lot of what’s wrong with former imperialist societies and how they see the developing world.

We agree that you should visit Myanmar. It’s amazing. And you should visit Thailand, too, if you can – who said you can only visit one? But if you’re looking some factual, 100% non-racist advice on how to enjoy Myanmar, you’d better get it from someone other than Claire.

Here’s why:

1. Blatant Columbusing

Claire refers to Myanmar as “undiscovered”, “secret”, “uncharted”, “untouched”.

Actually, Myanmar’s existence has never been secret to the people who live here or to people who’ve seen a map. But Claire wants the credit for revealing Myanmar’s existence to everyone else.

This is a textbook example of Columbusing – when you “discover” something that has existed forever. The act often includes telling people from your own community about your “discovery”.

 

Treating Myanmar as a discovery is vomit-inducing because it implies that Myanmar, its people, and its cultures didn’t matter until Claire decided to they might be interesting to people who speak a European language.

Congrats, Claire. We’re naming the continent after you.

2. More racism

Claire tries to sell her readers on Myanmar food with this gem: “The local people truly live off the land and try to make use of everything in their dishes, and not waste food, which you’ll note as you nosh on Shan noodles.”

These are not statements you can make about the entire population of a country, where there are urban and rural environments and many ways to prepare and enjoy food. But I guess saying Myanmar is also home to doctors and teachers who use plastic bags and love KFC isn’t #exotic enough.

In her attempt to praise this false generalization of Myanmar people, Claire engages in some textbook use of the “noble savage” trope, which posits that people outside one’s own culture are “uncorrupted” by “civilization”. It sounds nice, but it’s dangerous.

In the 19th century, the idea was even used as a “scientific” justification for European imperialism.

Claire’s call for Vogue readers to cross oceans to get to Myanmar looks a little more sinister in that light.

3. Ridiculous factual inaccuracies

Claire refers to Bagan’s temples as “relatively untouched archaeological sites”. Um, actually Claire, Bagan’s temples are so touched that they’ve been rejected by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites since 1996.

You may need to pull your head out of your elephant pants to learn that in addition to abusing Myanmar’s people for decades, the generals also subjected the temples of Bagan to “baseless, conjectural restorations” that are now slowly being rectified.

Also, Shwedagon Pagoda’s “2,500-year-old history” is as factual as the myth of its founding, in which eight Buddha hairs shoot out light, cause earthquakes, and cure the blind. In reality, historians say the earliest versions of the pagoda were built by between the 6th and 10th centuries. The pagoda you can see now was built even more recently.

Claire also calls Inle “the nation’s largest lake”. Come on, Claire.

4. Utter incoherence

Claire writes: “Even more undiscovered (barf) are the southern parts of the country, which include Hp-Pan and Hpa-An.”

Wow Claire. Can’t wait to go to both of those actual, real places.

5. Financial ignorance

Claire thinks Yangon is cheaper to visit than Bangkok. Never mind that to get here cheaply, Vogue readers will almost always have to stop in Bangkok or another regional hub to get to Yangon.

Beyond that, Myanmar has a tenacious reputation among people who’ve visited for being unexpectedly expensive.

But Claire wants to talk about hotels: “A three-star hotel in Bangkok generally costs more than $110, while a hotel of the same caliber will cost just $60-70 in Yangon.”

OK, there are probably some three-star hotels in Yangon that are cheaper than some three-star hotels in Bangkok. But do a quick Agoda search. The lowest-price three-star hotels in Bangkok are half the cost of the ones in Yangon.

We also found a cost-of-living comparison that shows that it’s 19% cheaper to live in Bangkok than in Yangon.

6. Missing the point

Thank you, Claire, for recommending the Taunggyi Hot Air Balloon Festival. It’s one of the coolest events in Myanmar. But why did you have to out yourself and say it’s “where you’ll find hot air balloons in all shapes and sizes floating around the unpolluted sky”?

Claire! Have you even been there? The best thing about the festival is the fireworks shooting out of the balloons that literally pollute the sky!

Nah, but you don’t feel like mentioning the fireworks. Or the fact that they have killed people. Because you don’t care about what Myanmar is really like. You just want people to think Myanmar is a more backward, less touristy version of Thailand.

Myanmar is much more than that, Claire.

(I apologize for mansplaining.)


Stay juicy. Like Coconuts Yangon.

A journalist in Yangon chronicling the fast-paced lives of Burmese babies.

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