When Myanmar’s most famous politician, Aung San Suu Kyi, spends the night in her constituency, Kawhmu, she sleeps in a fake hotel. The layout looks real enough. There is a spacious reception area with seating. Above a check-in desk, there are clocks set to various time zones all over the world. One afternoon in December, I was given a tour of the place, including Suu Kyi’s room, which had a flat-screen television mounted on the wall. “Last night, she slept here,” my guide told me. Suu Kyi had left several hours earlier to lead a highly publicised trash-collection campaign, organised by her party. She only stayed one night. The room was cleaned as if other guests would be checking in. But there would be no other guests. Using the common honorific for the leader, the guide added, “This room is only for Daw Suu.”
The fake hotel is a part of Myanmar’s Hospitality and Catering Training Academy. Opened in 2014 on the site of a cleared bamboo forest, the HCTA teaches students how to cook Western cuisine, wait tables, mix cocktails, pour wine and do the sundry menial jobs that come with working in a hotel. Half of the students are from Kawhmu, a township of 120,000 near Yangon, and the other half from across the country. Tuition is free, and courses take under a year to complete, with certification granted for one of two specialisations: hotel operations or culinary arts. The logo for the school, which graduated its first class in August, is a waiter serving a meal with a glass of wine. The academy is Suu Kyi’s flagship project in her constituency, and is funded by her charity, the Daw Khin Kyi Foundation, named after her mother. But why is a Nobel laureate and a world-famous leader so keen on people in her constituency learning how to make French bread and gin and tonics?
The answer may lie in Myanmar’s tourism story, which is symbolic of the change the country has gone through in the past five years. According to the country’s ministry of tourism, arrivals to Myanmar went from under 1 million in 2010 to more than 3 million in 2014. Phyo Wai Yarzar, the chairman of the Myanmar Tourism Marketing Committee, said in an interview in late November that the number had grown to 3.9 million by the end of October last year. It was in 2010 that Myanmar held its first elections in 20 years. The previous polls, in 1990, were disregarded by the military, which has ruled Myanmar since 1962. Though many political commentators called the 2010 polls fraudulent, and Suu Kyi’s party boycotted them, a semi-civilian government, led by a military-backed political party, assumed power. A slew of political and economic reforms followed, and a by-election in 2012 saw Suu Kyi and several-dozen opposition lawmakers secure seats in the parliament.