Thai Tourists in Burma
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Thai Tourists in Burma


By Sai Silp FEBRUARY, 2007 - VOLUME 15 NO.2


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History book prejudices fade away as increasing numbers of Thais visit their largest neighbor

Ever since I was in Thai primary school, I have heard many ancient stories about our neighbor to the west. Unfortunately, most of them portrayed Burma in a negative light, and we were taught to see it as Thailand’s chief enemy.

 

But when I first visited this mysterious country a few months ago, all that changed. The trip was eye-opening, shattering many of my preconceived ideas. All of the images and evil tales I had absorbed about Burma disappeared.

Also, I learned I was not alone. Many of the Thai tourists I met shared the same feelings, saying their attitudes changed after visiting the country.

In spite of the “boycott-Burma” travel campaigns launched by some anti-government activist groups, increasing numbers of Thais are visiting Burma, as tourists or as business people, to see what the country is all about.

Among foreign visitors to Burma’s interior, Thais ranked No. 1 in 2005 and 2006. In 2005, some 16,647 Thais visited; in 2006, that number reached 19,747, according to the Burmese Ministry of Hotels and Tourism. The total number of foreign visitors in 2006 was expected to be more than 600,000, including cross-border day trips. Among the reasons for increased tourism by Thais are low-budget flights now offered by Thai airlines.

Many of the Thai tourists I met were middle class people who used Thai travel agencies to arrange package tours, called tour wai phra (pilgrimage tour). Aside from package tour groups, I also saw many younger, independent travelers who used public transportation and stayed in lower-end guesthouses.

The favorite destinations for Thai tourists are, not surprisingly, Burma’s big three: Shwedagon Pagoda, the famous shrine in Rangoon; Pagan, the home of the ancient temple complex; and Inle and Pegu lakes in Shan State.

I saw many Thai visitors paying respects at Shwedagon Pagoda, obviously impressed with its splendor and atmosphere. Wanida Thalong, a school teacher from Bangkok, said just visiting Shwedagon alone is worth traveling to Burma. As we watched the Burmese people pray at Shwedagon in large numbers, many of us Thais admired their devotion to Buddhism.

From Rangoon, I traveled to Pegu, about 50 km. Thais are familiar with Pegu’s old name, Hanthawaddy, the ancient capital where King Bayintnaung ruled during the time of the Thais’ Ayutthaya kingdom. King Bayintnaung, who founded the Second Burmese Empire, invaded Ayutthaya and has strong historical connections with Thailand.

A Thai princess, Phra Supankanlaya, the sister of Thai King Naresuan, became a consort of King Bayintnaung. She and her son were killed by a son of Bayintnaung. Supankanlaya’s name has become well known again in Thailand, and she is regarded as a heroine who sacrificed herself for her homeland. Many Thais believe she now lives o­n as a holy spirit. Because of this connection, some Thai tourists visit Pegu to pay her respect and to make a wish. King Bayinnaung’s former home is called Kambowzathadi Palace. The original teakwood building burned in 1599 and was replaced by two grand structures.

Panee Nanthawit, a Thai tourist from Bangkok, said the classic Thai novel Poo Chana Sib Tid (Conqueror of Ten Directions), a story about King Bayintnaung, has been in her mind since she was young. “I wanted to see this place o­nce in my life,” Panee said.

Kyaiktiyo Pagoda in Mon State, also known as The Golden Rock, draws many Thai visitors. This famous pagoda was mentioned in the award-winning Thai novel Chao Chan Pom Horm (Princess with Fragrant Hair), the story of a Lanna princess who had a deep belief in the holiness of the site and made a pilgrimage there.

The day I visited Kyaiktiyo, there were o­nly a few tourists. A Thai businessman from Bangkok told me his visit to the Golden Rock was a great moment in his life. A local restaurant owner said that during Buddhist lent, dozens of buses carried Thais to the temple. I was surprised to see a few guesthouses and hotels located very close to the temple compound o­n top of the mountain.

Of course, visiting Burma remains a controversial issue for many Asian and Western people. Personally, it gave me a deeper understanding of Burma.

A Thai couple from Nonthaburi, Thana and Nareerat Thumthong, who were o­n their second visit to Burma, told me they believed stereotypes and negative attitudes came more from Thais than from the Burmese people.

“Many Thais’ negative attitudes toward Burmese people come from past history,” Thana said.



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