RANGOON—If you are currently visiting Rangoon, perhaps it’s an idea to leave your guide book behind in the hotel, and instead add to your itinerary two new attractions that are probably never included in the tourist program.
The first sightseeing location would be the headquarters of the country’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). Previously any visitor to this modest building in Bahan Township was treated with suspicion, and the military authorities did not hesitate to take anyone loitering around into custody for questioning.
On Thursday morning, a tour bus pulled up in front of the NLD office, just a stone’s throw from Shwedagon Pagoda, and tourists of different ages from different countries descended the bus and immediately began snapping pictures of the NLD flag flying above the entranceway. Some even posed for snap shots with party members.
“In the past, we could only take pictures [of the NLD office] from a passing vehicle,” said Christophe, 45, a Frenchman who is on his second visit to the country.
Inside the building, the foreign visitors flock to the counter where they can buy party memorabilia ranging from key chains to coffee mugs to T-shirts bearing the image of pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.
“Does someone have any extra kyat?” a gentleman with a European accent asks, waving a US $100 note.
“We have foreign visitors every day who just come here to have a look at the office and buy some NLD souvenirs,” said Daw Le Le, 64, a member of the campaign finance committee. “Some drop in alone. Others come in groups.”
“This is the second time this week I have brought tourists to the NLD headquarters,” said a tour guide. “Our next stop is Auntie’s house.”
And so the visitors got back on the bus and headed north on the short drive to Inya Lake where the second stop on the day’s itinerary—and undoubtedly the most highly anticipated—was a visit to Suu Kyi’s house.
Even though they knew that they wouldn’t be allowed to go inside, the foreign tourists wanted to pay a visit to the famous Rangoon landmark “if only to catch a glimpse of her.”
Mary James, a retired teacher from Louisiana, said, “I can’t believe this is where Suu Kyi spent 15 of the past 20 years under house arrest. We have taken a few pictures outside the gate.”
Since the release of Burma’s charismatic opposition leader in late 2010, Burma has seen a steady increase in visitor numbers, and the Southeast Asian country suddenly became one of the hottest destinations in the region after Suu Kyi declared: “We want people to come to Burma” in the summer of 2011.
The NLD has withdrawn its call for tourists to boycott Burma, and has instead adopted a policy of calling for “responsible tourism,” or as the party says: “The NLD would welcome visitors who are keen to promote the welfare of the common people and the conservation of the environment and to acquire an insight into the cultural, political and social life of the country … ”
High recommendations from Lonely Planet, CNN and other leading publications naming Burma, or Myanmar, as one of the top places to visit in 2012 has resulted in a sudden influx of tourists, despite the fact that the country’s tourism industry is still not ready to handle mass tourism.
Inside some huts across the road from the NLD headquarters, armed security keep a watchful eye on the entrance to the office.
“We haven’t had any complaints from our visitors or reports that they were intimidated by the authorities for coming here,” said a tour operator.
Christophe admitted that he had felt somewhat nervous about Burma’s notorious military personnel.
“But we are only here for a visit—nothing political—and we are just buying some party souvenirs,” he said. “If it’s OK for other visitors to come here, I see no harm in it for me, too.”