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Myanmar’s government has been in the news for the persecution of its Muslim minority, the Rohingya people. This has left many questioning whether they should visit the reclusive Southeast Asian nation. While traveler safety isn’t a concern and the burgeoning tourism industry provides much needed employment, visiting the country remains a complex personal decision, says Mika Itavaara, a Finnish expat, Myanmar travel expert, and the owner of tour operator Discovery DMC.
“In my opinion, you should visit for the people, not the government,” he says. If you do go, the country is packed with hidden gems, like the new Wa Ale Resort, one of the first hotels to open in the 800-island Mergui Archipelago. Its founder, American Chris Kingsley, has laid the groundwork for responsible tourism in the region. Wa Ale’s 9,000-acre namesake island is located in Lampi Marine National Park, almost guaranteeing it will never be overbuilt.
Since its opening in October, Kingsley’s conservation efforts have already helped save more than 7,500 sea turtles by guarding their nests from poachers, and have protected the surrounding coral reefs from damaging boat anchors by installing safer sea moorings. Built with reclaimed wood, each of the 11 tented villas and two luxe treehouses are assigned a private guide for exploring the maze of jungle-covered isles. Eight dive sites near the island promise sightings of whale sharks, dolphins, and eagle rays, while kayak excursions might include glimpses of white-bellied sea eagles unique to the archipelago.
Even more enticing than the wildlife is the chance to visit the floating villages of the Moken sea nomads who call the region home.
From Bangkok, it’s an hourlong flight to Rangong, Thailand, via Nok Air or Thai AirAsia, followed by a 15-minute boat ride across the border to Kawthaung. From there, a two-hour boat journey arranged by Wa Ale takes you to the resort. From $500 per person for a double room, all-inclusive.
The hotel is closed June through September for monsoon season. Annual average temperatures hover in the eighties, and light winds November through March provide calm, clear water for snorkeling and diving.
Chickpeas are a star ingredient in many Burmese meals, including Shan tofu. The polenta-like dish originated in the Shan State and is made of the peas in lieu of soy. At Wa Ale it comes topped with poached eggs at breakfast.
Discovery DMC’s Itavaara has been organizing tours across Myanmar for over 15 years. In addition to Wa Ale, some of his favorite experiences include trips to the 3,000-plus pagodas and temple ruins in central Myanmar’s Bagan Archaeological Zone, the 326-foot-tall Shwedagon Pagoda, and the Old Quarter in Yangon, the country’s largest city.