A 23-year-old Dutchman working in Thailand decided to come to Myanmar for the water festival back in 1996. Tourism was quite different that time and travelling meant going by bus or train overland through the whole country which he did several times as a tour leader. He is still around, sharing with others the beauties that have captured him here for so long. Min Ye Kyaw, meets Edwin Briels, Founder & MD of Khiri Travel Myanmar to discuss his pursuit and plans for the future ahead.
What is your background?
I studied Facility Management in the Netherlands which is a bit of a “Jack-of-all-Trades” study. I started working in tourism because I wanted to travel a lot. Of course, as a fresh graduate, you don’t have that big of a budget so I decided to work as a tour leader which meant I could travel and earn a living at the same time. Besides, I also worked for a French travel agent, Bagan Cybertech (Myanmar’s first internet service provider), managed a hotel construction project in Putao, and worked with a Ballooning Company. After my first 6 years in Myanmar, I went back to Thailand for 3 years and came back 8 years ago to start Khiri Travel Myanmar.
What made you start Khiri Travel Myanmar?
I noticed that travel programs offered overseas were all focusing on visiting temples and pagodas. Personally, I think the best thing about Myanmar isn’t the temples but rather the people, so I wanted to start a company that would let visitors experience the hospitality and friendliness of the Myanmar people and to connect them with the communities. We created programs including home cooked meals so visitors could experience the Myanmar home cooked food and meet local people. Sometimes we put visitors on a train or bus – just for the experience as we know for sure that whatever train or bus our clients travel on, they will meet friendly Myanmar people and have a great experience and story to tell afterwards.
How does your company innovate? How does it work?
At Khiri Travel, we innovate! We are also very flexible with clients and are able to adapt programs according to their wishes. As a company, we take sustainability very seriously. I think that every company in Myanmar, and other parts of the world, should not just try to avoid causing a negative impact on the environment but actively search for ways to have a positive impact on People and Planet. Khiri Travel Myanmar supports local NGOs and communities through our projects (www.khirireach.org) like building wells in the dry zone, planting trees and setting up Burmese Star Tortoise information centre in Minzontaung. We select our suppliers carefully and check if they are sourcing ethically, take good care of their staff and of the environment. We also started helping individuals to set up their own businesses – like a cooking class, a travel agency, bike rental, kayak rental or just providing meals for travelers at their home.
What are your passions for travel industry in Myanmar?
Sending clients to remote areas. Of course, people know about highlights like Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan, and Inle lake. We try to tell our clients to skip one of the highlights and go to a more remote area like Hsipaw, Mon & Kayin state, Kayah state and Salay or Yandabo instead. Generally, they always come back and say they’ve enjoyed going a bit off the beaten track. I believe, that in such a big country as Myanmar, we should create good job opportunities all over the country rather than only in the big cities. The Myanmar youth should get opportunities in remote areas where they were born and show their own cultural heritage – that’s why we develop tourism in those areas.
What are your thoughts about the travel industry? Is it failing?
It’s not failing, it sometimes goes up and sometimes goes down. We had some peak years a while ago and it’s normal to experience a decline after that because of ‘bad publicity’ but there could have been other reasons for a decline as well. Overall the tourism industry is slightly growing every year, as the number of Asian and domestic tourists is growing which compensates the slowdown of European tourists. An important factor for the Myanmar economy and the tourism industry is to look at the average spending per day and we see that many Asian tourists do spend more per person per day than European. In every geographical market there are travelers who spend a lot and travelers who spend a bit less; I think we need both types for the tourism sector to grow sustainably. It is important to get more tourists to Myanmar during the green season so people working in tourism can earn a livable income all year round. Of course, there’s a lot of room for improvement but things take time.
What was your biggest fear when you started Khiri?
My biggest fear, actually, was not to “overpromise and under deliver” to local people and small suppliers. We help people all around the country to set up or grow their own business with a network of 12 offices in Myanmar. We don’t own these business but we simply support them as well as other suppliers. I was afraid of not having enough clients to support all these different branches and suppliers for them to sustain themselves. But, it worked out pretty well in the end, even during the last couple of years, we succeeded in supporting all of them.
How do you see travel in several years?
Positively, it will develop since people around the world have got more awareness about Myanmar as a tourist destination. I’m confident that the number of tourists will increase. What I do hope is that tourism will be spreading out to different areas to boost the economy of remote areas. Myanmar is a “visit the whole-year-round” destination and every season has its own advantages or disadvantages, so it is nice for travelers to visit throughout the year.
What are your plans for the future?
To continue growing, and come up with new ideas to improve tourist experiences for travelers and to increase income for local people working in tourism in Myanmar. We’re now working on a trekking adventure at the three lakes: Inle Lake, Samkar Lake and Pekon Lake – to go from one lake to the other on foot. We have new programs in Mon and Kayin State and we’re opening in the coming months a small lodge south of Ngapali beach to support the community. A lot of plans, as always and thanks to the excellent Khiri team around Myanmar we always manage to succeed.
Where is your favorite destination in Myanmar?
I like so many places here, but if I were to list a few, it would be “the opium trails.” It’s a path from Kyaingtone to Taunggyi over land; so much beautiful scenery and lovely hill tribes. Not many people do it, but we enjoy overland trips. We first discovered this area when we were organizing the TV shoot for BBC’s Top Gear and we then asked permission from authorities to show more travelers this beautiful area.
And the three lakes, Inle, Samkar and Pekon lake. Many tourists tend to focus more on Inle Lake but all of them are equally beautiful. And of course, Ngapali. When people ask me what it’s like, I’d say, “Imagine the best beach in Thailand, but without all the tourists businesses, bars, souvenirs shops and all the noise; That’s Ngapali.”
What’s your advice for people who intend to visit Myanmar?
My first advice would be for people who live in Myanmar. I see a lot of people from Yangon taking a flight to Bangkok during long holidays like Thadingyut, Thingyan or Tazaungdaing. If you want to support Myanmar and the economy, it’s better for everyone to go on holiday in Myanmar. That’s what we need.
Secondly for every tourist: Keep your country clean. As a company, we support the Bagan Plastic Campaign and create fully paid jobs for two local people to collect litter around Bagan so we know first-hand how much litter there is, unfortunately. So please, keep Bagan clean and keep Myanmar clean and don’t throw rubbish in the nature.
And for people who come to Myanmar from overseas: make sure you meet local people. I see many travelers who want to do everything on their own, without a guide and end up not having a proper conversation with any local Myanmar person to understand the country and culture. Most information they get is from other travelers, guide books or online media while I do think it’s worth to get to know a local perspective of the culture. The best part of Myanmar is its people, so make sure you meet the locals and have great conversations with them. Ask them about life, the country and the traditions.
Find Edwin at Khiri Travel Myanmar on 5/9, Bogalay Zay Street (lower block) 1st floor, Botahtaung Township, Yangon or at khiri.com.