Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Day 47: Restructuring Of Cynicism

In an earlier entry, I wrote about the erosion of cynicism, something I hoped would be achieved through travelling. I stand by it; at the same time, I am building the walls back up big and high.

Burma, not being a tourist hotspot, is not especially filled with touts. Sure, tourists are charged a little bit extra for things, as much as government as an on-the-street policy, but unlike some of the tourist areas of Indonesia, no-one is trying to take you to their art gallery, or pull you into their restaurant. The only obvious exception are the money-changing touts, concentrated around the city centre, all of whom are offering better rates of local currency to change for your US dollar.

Money-changing is a widespread black market in Burma, but as you'd expect with the black market, caution needs to be exercised. Burness and I believed we could better the 750 kyat to $1 offered at our hotel, but we got greedy. Needing to change $600, we negotiated an extremely good rate of 1000 kyat to $1 from a guy on the street. He took us to a side road, where a bunch of other guys crowded round us as we sat on small plastic chairs around a plastic table. We counted the kyat. They come in notes of 1000, so we counted 600 in all. No problem. Now came the sneaky part.

We had six $100 bills, crisp and clean (torn bills are not accepted here). I took them out and immediately the guy I'd been dealing with started to complain that a couple of them had the wrong kind of serial number. Eh? There was some confusion as he counted them, saying some were ok but others were wrong, but his English wasn't clear, and the precise problems not stated. But obfuscation was the game here. A clever little sleight of hand trick: he had folded one of the $100 bills into his hand. I was being very attentive to proceedings and noticed it, and he very smoothly said it was just one of the good bills. But the same had happened to Burness and the same happened again to me, and my guy started to complain about microscopic creases and dirt on my bills, at the same time being very keen to handle them. Making absolutely sure I had all the notes with me, we told them to forget it and cleared off. The best rate we've since found has been around 830 kyat to $1, and we know now that a too-good-to-be-true deal is just that.

But that hasn't impacted upon my cynicism, because dealing with the black market is obviously going to introduce some shady characters. It is expected. But an incident yesterday gave reason for some fresh new bricks of cynicism to be built into our wall.

We had gone to visit the Chauk Htat Gyee, a 66-metre long reclining Buddha statue.

It was impressive and big, and during our viewing we were approached by three young Burmese guys, students who I'd guess to be in their early twenties. They spoke good English and were friendly, and invited us to their nearby monastery, where they lived and studied. They weren't monks but worked at the monastery for food and board while they studied. I was immediately suspicious, but Burness said we had to start taking up some of these offers, as they had been genuine in Indonesia, and we had to be less cynical. And I agreed. They seemed like good guys, if a little too eager.

Indeed, a little too eager. The warning signs were all there, in hindsight. They spoke about the orphans that lived at the monastery, and one mentioned that he himself was an orphan. Later, once we were on the way to the monastery, photos of the aforementioned orphans were produced. The monastery, we were told in the passing, was not government recognised, therefore received no official money. And just the general keenness before we'd agreed to visit their monastery, like wolves stalking prey; they were less keen once we were on the way and they'd got their teeth sunk in.

Of course, written like that, it makes it seem glaringly obvious, and Burness and I both had our suspicions, and even agreed that they would probably request a donation, which we weren't too bothered about. But we also wanted to make a deliberate effort not to shun friendly offers and not to assume the worst, which is why - against our gut instincts perhaps - we agreed to visit them. It might have been a good excuse for them to practice their English, we thought.

And the visit was very enjoyable. This is where the great shame comes in. The three guys - well, two of them at any rate, one was pretty quiet - were talkative, interesting and friendly. We chatted about stuff like their studies, their hometowns, football, Scotland, and whatever came up really. They took us into a small wooden hut, in which they and many others lived and slept, and then walked with us to the lake, where they then departed to the market. We didn't even see any orphans, or anything that seemed particularly like a monastery (although a monk joined us in the wooden hut).

And my cynicism was shed. They were just three friendly guys who wanted to chat.  As we departed, we exchanged email addresses so that when we return to Yangon - we're on our way to Mandalay today but will have to come back to Yangon to fly out of the country - we could meet up with them, perhaps go for a drink. And I really meant it. They'd been good guys, and we'd got on well. No sting in the tail.

Until the very, very end. Pretty much the last words said as we left was a request for a donation, so they could buy the orphans food from the market. How can you say no to such a request? So we offered 6000 kyat. "No," the quiet one said, "We'd like 10,000." Sometimes, and in some situations, you are too surprised to start arguing, so we just gave the extra 4000 and left. And realised that the last hour or two had been a sham.

I don't care about the money, we're talking about £10. The unseen orphans need it more than we do, if indeed that's where our donation goes. But I hate the method. The pretense at friendship, the elaborate con. That's why the wall of cynicism is built, because the friendly stranger has ulterior motives. It leaves the traveller in an awkward situation - which offers should you accept? Shunning all offer of friendship is a lonely road, but accepting them makes you a mug.

As a result, Burness and I have restructured the wall. All approaches from strangers at tourist sites are to be treated with scepticism. Elsewhere, we will try and be more open, but tourist sites are where the touts - or whatever you call them - will congregate. We're usually pretty savvy anyway, but we need to recognise the over keenness and the sob stories, or unfortunately, the friendly offers.

It's a difficult one. I don't like being unfriendly. And travelling should involve some friendly interaction with the locals - this is not, after all, a large air-conned tour group. But in Britain, if someone approaches me and tries to immediately be my friend, I would be a little perturbed; likewise this needs to apply abroad. A friend does not rugby tackle or guilt trip you into visiting their home, and does not become your shadow at a tourist site. It's easy - always analyse and be suspicious of motives. But what a terrible lesson for the day that is.


  1. I am sooo sorry to know that you met with such kind of people. I can understand your feeling of hurt and cynicism.
    If I were you, I wouldn't give them anything. Or I will just give what I can offer and told them "That's all I can offer"..

    I am from Myanmar (Burma). So I apologize on their behalf for making you feel that way. In future, if you happen to visit to my country again and encounter this kind of case again, please do not give any amount. If they get from one tourist, they will keep on doing to all the tourist in future which would disgrace to my country. I mean you can clearly see and feel whether they are really sincerely needing or they just cheating you.

  2. It's alright, almost everyone we met in Myanmar was lovely, but being a tourist I expect a certain degree of attention from touts (it happens everywhere). Because these three were affiliated with an orphanage/monastery, and because we'd visited it with them, it was an awkward position to be put in when they asked for money. I just hope it went to good use.

    It absolutely didn't affect my opinion of the country, and I had a great time there.


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