It’s no surprise that wanderlust in the heart and a career in tourism can go together. For Lin Lei Lei Tun, co-founder and managing director of Destination Myanmar, becoming a travel entrepreneur was more than just about her love for travel. It springs from her desire to present the beauty of her homeland to the whole world—the Golden Land of Myanmar.
Prior to starting Destination Myanmar, she studied film and worked as a video editor for Sony Pictures Entertainment in Singapore. Filmmaking had always been her dream, but she still says steering onto a different road was an easy decision for her.
What inspired you to start a travel business of Destination Myanmar?
I’ve been an avid traveler since the first time I’ve ever traveled, with my grandmother to Laos back in 1993. But of all the countries I’ve visited, my homeland became the major inspiration for the business. I lived with my parents between 1993 and 2003, and since my dad is a government official, we get to live in many remote parts of Myanmar.
Then I moved to Singapore in 2004 to study filmmaking and eventually found work there. In 2012, I went home for a vacation together with a friend who had never been to Myanmar. On that trip, my friend prompted the idea about a travel business because she found it really difficult to plan the whole trip. Finding a reliable travel agency in Myanmar wasn’t that easy—there were times that you wouldn’t even get any response!
We started to work on the idea soon after we returned to Singapore. For me, it was not a very difficult decision after all. I love my homeland. The country had been closed to the outside world from 1965 until now, and I really want the rest of the world to come, see, and experience life in Myanmar.
The travel business is one of the most competitive industries. Was there a time when you had doubts about whether this was the right field for you?
Yes, definitely. Back in 2013 a lot of players came onto the scene. Being a newbie in the industry, our first year in the business was entirely a learning period. There was even a time that our travel license was at risk of being revoked. The Myanmar Hotel and Tourism Ministry is quite strict and they expect our office to be open during office hours to inspect, but we were managing operations online at that time as we were traveling. Well, we weren’t in when they showed up, and that took some explaining!
We traveled extensively in Myanmar, capturing beautiful sights for our marketing materials, making connections with business partners in other cities, inspecting hotels and checking out new attractions. We faced many ups and downs, but overall it was a fun learning experience.
You have traveled to many countries around the globe, what do you think sets Myanmar apart from all these countries?
I think it is unique and beautiful in its own way. A lot of countries in the world are extremely developed, while Myanmar feels to me like it’s trapped in a certain time. A lot of the local customs still exist. Many locals still wear longyis (traditional Burmese cloth) on a daily basis, women use thanakha (yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground bark) as a cosmetic, street peddlers are common, as is chewing of betel nuts, and a lot more. The strong tradition of giving and donating is also still very much alive in Burmese culture. Myanmar has managed to preserve its identity due to its long disconnect from the world.
With a number of social and economic issues surrounding Myanmar these days, foreign tourists may have a bleak image of the country. How do you deal with these negative impressions?
Just like any other country, Myanmar is also lacking in certain aspects. Myanmar is developing socially and economically, but civil wars with local armed groups, religious tension, problems in the state of Rakhine—these are some of the difficult issues we face every day and they severely affect the travel industry.
It is disheartening, what is happening in Rakhine. There are many different stories about the situation and, to be honest, I am not sure about what is real or not real anymore. But then, I’m still hopeful and positive because outside of Rakhine things are very peaceful and everything’s business as usual. Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, and Hindus live peacefully everywhere else in Myanmar.
If you have to pick only one place in Myanmar for a traveler, where would that be and why?
I highly recommend Bagan. This ancient city gave birth to modern Myanmar. I know a lot of people say that this city has too many temples, but that is what makes Bagan pristine. I like exploring the temples on a bicycle when it’s not so hot. It’s great to take the time to see their unique designs because each has a special story to tell. The sunset is also beautiful in Bagan, but the most magical experience is watching the sunrise from the top of the temple, where you can see the hot-air balloons taking off early in the morning. You can even try riding one of the balloons. It’s unforgettable!
What’s the best thing about being a travel entrepreneur?
The best is that I get to travel all the time. I get to stay in different hotels all over Myanmar when I inspect them. Also, I love meeting new people from all over the world. Many of our clients are very friendly and nice, so we even hang out in the evenings for a meal or a drink after wrapping up their day’s activities.
Who has helped you most on this entrepreneurial journey?
First of all, I’d like to thank my Dad. I owe my Dad so much, all throughout my Destination Myanmar journey. I lived overseas for most of my adult life, so I didn’t know how to deal and communicate with local government officials. My Dad patiently guided and helped me out.
Another person is my friend, Yean Tan—Destination Myanmar’s co-founder, investor, and my business partner. I can’t thank her enough. In the first two years of our business (both Destination Myanmar and our car rental company, Yangon Rent-A-Car) I learned so much from her. Without her, Destination Myanmar would never have been born, or become what it is today.
How would you like to present Myanmar to the world through Destination Myanmar?
I want the world to see Myanmar as a peaceful country where everybody can coexist in tranquillity. There are unfortunate problems and conflicts, but if you look closely, especially in the heart of Yangon, you’ll see locals happily living together. Mosques and churches stand side by side—a sight all of us rarely see.
Myanmar is full of local flavours and distinct traditions, which you won’t get anywhere else in the world. For tourists to really appreciate the best of what Myanmar has to offer, I like to present my homeland in the most immersive way possible. It should be all about authentic experiences—a mantra Destination Myanmar stands by.
Many people may view her decision of leaving the video industry as an act of abandoning her dreams. However, Lin now sees her filmmaking background as a blessing in disguise, for it lets her use her professional lens to show the world the beauty of Myanmar.
Her positive perspective extends to all of Myanmar, as she remains hopeful despite the struggles it faces. Truly, her inspiring journey is about more than just running a successful travel business; it’s about how she puts her heart into the country where she was born and raised, and shares it with the world through her business.