Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 30 May 2014
Simon Richmond is the coordinating author of several editions of Lonely Planet guidebooks on Myanmar, including the most recent edition of 2011, as well as the upcoming edition, which will hit bookstores on 1 July. The British-born writer talks exclusively to Mizzima Business Weekly about what it takes to produce the world famous guidebook in Myanmar, which is a country that has swiftly emerged from being an isolated pariah state to one of the new “it” destinations for travellers.
You’ve written or contributed to 50 Lonely Planet titles since 1999 – how did you first get this much coveted job?
Actually, I’ve lost count of how many Lonely Planet books I’ve worked on! I first contacted the company about working for them when I was working in Sydney as a freelance journalist in 1994. I had to do a writing test – which is still the case for would-be authors today – and having passed that I was then eligible to pitch to editors for guidebook gigs. However, soon after I started working for Rough Guides (writing the first editions of their guides to Japan and Tokyo, where I’d lived previously) – so I actually didn’t do my first job for Lonely Planet until 1999, which was covering Kazakhstan for their Central Asia guide.
Can you please explain what’s involved in being a coordinating author, the sections of Myanmar you researched for the upcoming edition, and how many other writers were involved?
Apart from me, there were four other authors working on the guide. My role, aside from covering Yangon and Around Yangon destinations, was to refresh the “Plan Your Trip” inspirational and planning front section of the guide and the “Understand” and “Survival” sections at the back. These latter two sections provide background information on topics such as politics and culture, general transport details and practical bits and pieces. I collaborated with the destination editor to create the initial brief, which we refined as went along, depending on what as a team we discovered on the ground. There’s often quite a bit of change to negotiate, as some researchers find that the areas they’re covering need either more (or sometimes less) space within the guide.
Is it fair to say that updating the previous edition was a mammoth task due to the political and economic changes that occurred since the December 2011 edition was published?
Yes, that’s pretty much true – large sections of the guide have been rewritten. Because the guide has been selling so well, we also had the luxury of being allotted more pages – areas that had been cut out of previous editions of the guide (because travel to them was either impractical or not permitted) have been reinstated.
What do you consider the biggest changes for travellers in Myanmar now as compared with the past, whether it be an increase in the number of more affordable hotels, the introduction of ATMs, new destinations that were previously off limits or providing better value for money?
I don’t think there was much so much of a problem with affordable hotels in the past – they were affordable but pretty basic (if not hideous to stay at!). In Yangon and Bagan we noticed that a few more decent hotels are opening up (though not nearly enough to meet peak demand). The introduction of ATMs and the ending of the black market for currency exchange is a real benefit, as is the government’s loosening of restrictions on where travellers can go – although there’s a long way to go before this really will make a difference due to a general lack of tourism infrastructure in these places. Overall, I’d say the biggest change has been in the atmosphere of Myanmar – the sense of fear, lack of trust and nervousness about everything in daily life that I’d witnessed on previous trips has dissipated – particularly in Yangon. Not to downplay ongoing human rights issues, but the change of atmosphere is truly wonderful and makes the country a much more pleasant place to visit.
What challenges remain in terms of Myanmar being able to attract a greater number of budget travellers?
Actually, as long as people don’t mind roughing it – that is, staying in the cheapest hotels, using buses to get around, or eating at street stalls – Myanmar is a breeze for budget travellers. The main problem at present comes during peak travel times, when demand for accommodation outstrips supply in the four main tourism hot spots of Yangon, Bagan, Inle Lake and Mandalay. But there are plenty of other equally interesting and less busy parts of the country to visit instead. Myanmar isn’t great either for those who are looking to party late into the night – although the influx of expats and returning Burmese to Yangon is shifting the dynamic there.
Lonely Planet writers in the previous edition wrote under aliases, whereas the 2014 edition will include your real names. Could you please explain the reason for this?
When we researched the 2011 edition, Myanmar was just beginning the process of moving away from a military dictatorship that had ruled the country for decades. Applying for a visa back then took a month and saying you were a journalist of any sort would have meant being rejected. Although there were signs that the country was opening up and becoming more liberal, we couldn’t be sure that this process would continue in a positive direction. So we took the decision to write under aliases so that if the political situation did deteriorate again, we’d still be able to safely apply for visas in the future.
Today, Myanmar is thankfully in a position where the likes of exiled media groups such as Mizzima can now operate within Myanmar. International news organisations such as the BBC have also set up. It took just two days to get my visa this time and I had no fear about writing on the form exactly what my profession was. There is thus no need to use alias this time around.
What’s the best and worst part of being a travel writer?
The best is that I get to spend a lot of time in places I really love and can deepen my knowledge through meeting many interesting people – it’s an ongoing education and a huge amount of fun.
The worst? Having to trudge on with the daily demands of on-the-ground research regardless of the weather or my physical state – I really do try to pace myself these days, but we only have a limited amount of time and budget to work with and there’s absolutely nothing I can do about the monsoon rains or scorching heat!
What do you love about travelling in Myanmar?
The people are Myanmar’s greatest asset – they are kind, friendly, gently curious about the world and outgoing. I’m a great foodie so sampling all the different kinds of cuisine here is also a pleasure. Some of the temples, which are so central to the nation’s spiritual life, are amazing and I really love the lingering historical legacy of the British Empire in downtown Yangon – there’s nowhere else like it in Asia.
Where do you predict will become Myanmar’s “hottest” new destinations?
Actually, after years of advising people to visit Shwedagon Paya and then hop quickly on from Yangon, I’d say that the city is certainly now a place to linger and experience – there’s a great buzz about it. Southern Myanmar is really opening up with overland access to the Tanintharyi Region and the beautiful islands of the Mergui Archipelago, and Mawlamyine deserves more attention from travellers. Trekking possibilities in Eastern Myanmar are also opening up as more of that region no longer requires travel permits. And using Pathein as a base to explore the lush Ayeyarwady Region is also worth a look – especially as a new railway line between Pathein to Yangon is set to open next year.