Myanmar’s one of those rare places that is still undiscovered. It’s wild, unspoiled and a dream destination for any type of adventurer.
And now, this southeast Asian country has just leapt onto the radar of mountaineers and technical climbers from across the globe.
A joint American-Burmese climbing expedition made history last month by scaling the sky-piercing Gamlang Razi, which is now believed to be the highest point in southeast Asia.
The feat grabbed the interest of international media, putting Myanmar’s mountain-climbing potential in the spotlight. One of the driving forces behind the historic ascent was the Technical Climbing Club of Myanmar (TCCM), which aims to promote rock climbing within the country. Two members of the Gamlang Razi expedition are TCCM members.
It’s a whole lot of attention to be poured on what was just a rag-tag group a few years ago. But now, interest in rock climbing is growing quickly among both Burmese people and foreign adventure-seekers.
After interviewing TCCM founder Steven Davis about the club back in June, I connected with him again this week to get his thoughts on what conquering Gamlang Razi might mean for climbing and mountaineering in Myanmar.
Club aims to get people climbing
Myanmar holds tremendous potential as a rock-climbing destination, with killer granite and limestone peaks scattered across the country. But with tourism only starting to take off, there are just a few developed technical climbing routes.
Davis knew this when he traveled to Myanmar in 2008 on business, but he brought his climbing gear anyway. Just in case.
After arriving in Myanmar, he made contact online with a few Burmese people living in Mandalay who had an interest in climbing. He trained them and they started scouting for some decent rock. Eventually, a few local climbers discovered what they were looking for at a spot called Waterfall Hill, located about a 30-minute drive east of Mandalay.
So on January of 2011, Davis bolted at this 988-foot limestone valley. It was the first route ever in the country, but most likely won’t be the last.
The main goal of the TCCM is to get more Burmese people involved in climbing – something Davis thinks the Gamlang Razi feat is already helping with.
“I think that TCCM has a lot more legitimacy because of the expedition,” said Davis in an e-mail.
The club’s Gamlang Razi Facebook page got over 800 likes from within Myanmar as the 35-day expedition went on.
“The summiters returned to Yangon (the capital of Myanmar) to a huge welcome, with lots of Myanmar paparazzi,” said Davis. “This speaks I think to the depth of interest in climbing and mountaineering, as well as in Myanmar’s little-known northern mountains. I’m told that TCCM has gotten a lot of inquiries since the expedition.”
More attention from foreign climbers
Davis also received a number of inquiries from adventure-seeking travelers interested in their own Myanmar expeditions. It’s a good sign, considering that TCCM also aims to offer guided tours as way to bring more money to the local people.
“The challenge now is infrastructure,” said Davis. “The north won’t really develop for foreigners until there are more people in the game, more ways to travel to the north, more accommodations and types of accommodations, and a less cumbersome, more transparent permitting process.”
Tourism in Myanmar is complicated. Shortly after the election of a reformist government in 2011, following years of brutal military rule, travel restrictions in this southeast Asia country were gradually eased. Areas that were once almost impossible to get to can now be accessed, which means thousands of adventure-hungry travelers are putting Myanmar on their bucket lists.
Some critics worry about the cultural impact if tourism develops too rapidly; others point to the economic benefits this industry will have on a poor population.
Meanwhile, the grassroots TCCM will continue to help more Burmese people enjoy this awesome sport. And hopefully, a few folks can make a better living for themselves along the way.
Have you traveled to Myanmar? Share your experience in the comments below.
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