All photos by Min Kha.
The Golden Rock pagoda is one of Burma’s most emblematic tourist destinations. Yet despite a huge spike in the number of tourists, most locals aren’t reaping the profits. A street vendor tells us that while a handful of businessmen are making good money, her living conditions haven’t improved one bit.
As Burma opens up, visitors are arriving in record numbers, so much so that the long-isolated country is having trouble keeping up: last week the government approved plans for Korean developers to build a new international airport, which could receive 12 million people per year.
The Golden Rock pagoda, located in Mon state, about four hours’ drive from Yangon, is a tiny golden pagoda built atop a boulder precariously balanced on a cliff. According to believers, the rock is held in place by a strand of Buddha’s hair.
The famed Buddhist pilgrimage site has seen a surge in the number of visits by both foreign tourists, mainly from Thailand, and Burmese pilgrims alike.
Burmese visitors at the Golden Rock pagoda.

“A few businessmen, most from out of town, control everything”

Burmese journalist Min Kha (not his real name) has researched the tourism industry in the area.
It’s sad to see that most locals aren’t benefiting from the booming tourism. The problem is that the local tourism industry is under the control of a group of businessmen – some local, but most from out of town – with close ties to the local government. They run everything – hotels, restaurants, tea shops and even transportation. When I visited the Golden Pagoda, I was forced to leave my car at the village and take a tour company’s trucks up to the mountain where the Golden Rock is located. No personal cars are allowed up there.
Porters carrying a Thai tourist.
Some locals are happy as the tourism surge means there is no shortage of jobs – however, their salaries remain very low. Most earn about 30,000 kyat to 50,000 kyat (23 to 38 euros) a month. They’re not the ones who are really profiting.
In Burma, the sad truth is that if you want to do real business, you have to have close relationship with the local authorities and their cronies – and that, of course, often means paying bribes. [Bribes are pervasive in Burma, which is ranked among the most corrupt countries in the world: 172nd out of 176, according to Transparency International’s latest index].
Porters at work.

“I still struggle to make ends meet”

Tin Tin Myint, 50, is a street vendor who sells hats to pilgrims and tourists. She lives in Kin Moe Chaung, the village closest to the Golden Rock pagoda.
Last year, we saw only about 300 to 400 visitors a day, most of them Burmese, with only a handful of foreigners. Now, we see at least 1,500 visitors a day, including about 200 foreigners. [Editor’s Note: Local shopkeepers gave similar estimations. Due to eased restrictions on internal travel, there has been a sharp increase in Burmese visitors, too.]
However, I haven’t seen my life change much at all. I don’t sell many more hats than I used to. The local businessmen who own tour companies ensure that tourists are driven directly to shops that they or their friends own. So street vendors aren’t profiting much at all.
Tin Tin Myint taking a tea break from her work as a street vendor.
While some people become richer and richer, for most of us here, our lives remain quite difficult. I earn between 2,000 and 4,000 kyats a day [about 1.50 euros to 3 euros]. This is not enough to make ends meet. My husband died four years ago, and I have three daughters to support. I have to borrow money from others every month to feed them, and I pay a very high interest on the loans. We live without electricity, and bathe in a stream. Many street vendors here live like me. Often, parents can’t afford to send children to school, and force them to work in restaurants, tea shops or as porters for tourists. Some children are even sent to beg in the streets.
A young woman working as a porter for tourists.
Personally, I don’t know how much longer I can pay for my children’s school fees. I think I’ll soon have to take them out of school, too.