Interview with Edwin Briels
Managing Director of Exploration Travel Myanmar
Please introduce yourself and your company to our readers.
My name is Edwin Briels and I’ve lived in Myanmar for almost 20 years, working in tourism and other industries. I started the Khiri Travel franchise in Myanmar 9 years ago and we are in the midst of ending the joint-venture to operate independently as Exploration Travel. Last year, I set up Lalay Lodge, a sustainable boutique lodge on an idyllic beachfront south of Ngapali beach and I am also the Managing Director of Grasshopper Adventures Myanmar, a biking company with bicycle tours in Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake.
Tell us about your background.
I studied Facility Management in the Netherlands before moving to Thailand in 1996 and Myanmar in 2000. My experience here includes working with a ballooning company, an internet server provider (Bagan Cybertech) and different travel agencies for a broad understanding of the social and economic structure of Myanmar.
When was your first time in Myanmar and how has it changed from then now?
In 1996, I was working in tourism in Thailand when I came to Myanmar for a 1 month holiday. I was enchanted by Myanmar and decided I wanted to spend more time here. Back in 1996, there wasn’t any internet or functioning ATMs in Myanmar and it has progressed with the world and times. Infrastructure has certainly improved, and there is greater economic freedom and mobility for people. I think the greatest change wasn’t so much of the country itself but the perception of the world towards Myanmar. From being the world’s favourite to being very critical on certain topics; I think the truth is that over the years the country has seen a steady upwards development that has been good for the people.
Could you tell the readers how you came up with the idea for a travel agency?
When we started Khiri Travel 9 years ago, it seemed to me that the classic programs offered by competitors aimed to overload a visitor with as many temples as possible. However, I think the most memorable thing about Myanmar is the people so we created a selection of experiences across the country to create meaningful interactions between our clients and locals. We found a niche for ourselves by keeping trips intimate and immersive, avoiding big bus tours, working instead on tailor-made holidays for individuals and families.
How are you surviving COVID and post-COVID periods?
It is undoubtedly very trying and difficult for all in the travel industry with borders shut and no incoming tourists. We have focused our efforts on the expats who remain in Myanmar and locals who want to really understand different regions in their country. To keep as many employed for as long as possible, we are using profits from the past to maintain salaries to ease the burden but we also had to reduce the number of staff. Driven by a need to keep our qualified teams active and motivated, we set up two social businesses – Kumel Myanmar is a platform connecting Myanmar people with volunteer jobs in industries they have an interest in. For example, we have many roles in education, medicine or conservation. The second is Honeybee Arts & Crafts, a social enterprise which provides a reliable channel for communities around the country to sell their arts and crafts. We have an online presence, deliver internationally, and have a physical shop in downtown Yangon. Working closely with the communities have kept us nimble and our most successful product is customised face masks with company branding. Our aim of keeping everybody motivated and creating positive value.