Standing 98-metres high and encrusted with gold and diamonds, Yangon's Shwedagon pagoda is a timeless symbol of Myanmar.
|Myanmar's rich cultural heritage should be a |
big selling point for tourists
It is here that you can experience the deep devotion of Myanmar's Buddhists.
The country has been closed to the rest of the world for so long that relatively few tourists are around, even though this is Yangon's most famous monument.
This is the Myanmar the authorities want you to see - a land of golden buddhas and a place of genuine religious devotion.
The truth is though, most tourists just stay away.
At the Shwedagon pagoda, photographer Min Zaw is one of the relatively few people in Myanmar who make a living from tourism.
He is part of a group of young men that sells tourists snapshots of their visit to the complex.
Photographer Min Zaw says he was unaware
of calls for a boycott of Myanmar
His camera is an old Chinese model but he can make the equivalent of $4 on a good day - well above the average wage.
He said he had no idea that some pro-democracy groups want tourists to boycott his country.
Many of the tourists that come to Myanmar have only a vague idea of the political situation here.
Of those that are aware, many either do not care or have made a hard choice.
Amnesty International says this is a country where forced labour, extortion, and land confiscation by the ruling military have become facts of daily life. A place where harassment and imprisonment of human rights and pro-democracy advocates is routine.
One tourist we met at the Shwedagon pagoda took a different view, and one that is widely held.
"It's the government that's to blame for the situation not the people," she told us. "The people are lovely and the country is lovely and they need money and they need tourists."
Myanmar may need tourism to fund its desperately poor economy, but the military government is also very suspicious of outsiders.
Meanwhile some in the opposition, including Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, and her National League for Democracy, have backed an international campaign to isolate the government.
Combined, the government's suspicions and the opposition's campaign have kept the entire country pretty much off the tourist map.
In the centre of Yangon the recently renovated Strand hotel is a jewel in the crown of the city’s colonial-era architecture.
Built in 1901, in its heyday it was regarded as one of the top hotels in Asia. Now after a multi-million dollar renovation, it has revived much of that glory.
|Myanmar is trying to portray itself |
as an alternative to Thailand
But when we visited, amid all the colonial charm, there was just one thing missing – guests.
Last year the number of foreign visitors to Myanmar was less than 5 per cent the number going to neighbouring Thailand.
Nonetheless, tourism in Myanmar is on the rise. According to Myanmar government figures, it has tripled since 2000.
At Yangon's best known tourist spots, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Spanish and Italian tourists pose for photographs and bargain hard for the best deals.
A tourism promoter, told us Myanmar was being seen in some markets as a "decent", safe and cultural alternative to Thailand.
There are pristine beaches, colonial architecture, temple complexes and ethnic villages, untouched by mass tourism.
|The government says tourism is growing but |
still lags far behind its Asian neighbours
In the centre of Yangon, we met Mr Benjamin, a tourist guide, looking for visitors to show around.
Now in his 70s, he has lived through the tumultuous changes of Myanmar's recent history.
He knows about the boycott campaign, and he admires opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, because she is the daughter of independence leader Aung San.
But he disagrees with her view on tourism.
"I feel, of course, it's affecting me, so I think it's very bad," he said.
"They should let people come and find out for themselves and see what the real situation is."
Human rights and some opposition groups argue that tourist dollars only help an illegitimate regime with one of the worst human rights records in the world.
|Several human rights groups have |
urged tourists to stay away
Others say that tourists can choose what they do or how to go about it, because it is a more complex issue than "tourism being good" or "tourism being bad".
The publishers of the Lonely Planet guidebooks have been criticised by some for releasing a guide to Myanmar.
But it includes a full chapter on the boycott debate to provide information for people to make an informed decision whether or not to travel to Myanmar and if they do, how to do it responsibly.
For example it tells tourists they can decide not to spend their money in ways that directly benefit the government.
It also mentions that some argue it is less likely human rights abuses will take place if tourists are in the area.
Aung San Suu Kyi has given a number of statements on tourism, once calling for an outright boycott, but more recently she has said that tourism to the country can be useful, depending on what visitors do and how.
An official from the main opposition group, the National League for Democracy, says it is up to tourists to inform themselves properly.
He asked us not to name him for fear of government reprisal.
"I personally have no objection," he told us. "When I say tourists, I mean the real tourists you know, who are really interested in the social, economic and cultural conditions.
"I think these people can always come to us, no problem."