In the magical Bagan area, where thousands of pagodas are scattered throughout the fields, my love and I risk our lives in local traffic on two classy mopeds. We share the road with other tourists, but as soon as the clock hits 5:30 pm there is no tourist to be seen, traffic wanes a little, the rush comes to a serene stop. It is because all of us rushed towards the nearest tall pagoda, where we take in one of the most magical sunsets you will find on planet earth. We had asked a local for the ideal spot and a young guy takes us to his ‘secret place’. Sure enough we find ourselves atop an ancient pagoda within 5 minutes. We are the only ones there and struck silent by the view. But as soon as we step down reality hits us.
Our ‘friend’ begs us to forgive him, but would we like to take a look at his paintings? He has the traditional ones, but also invented his own pigments. Do we like? Would we buy? If we would he will put his signature under the chosen picture. The old one erased with tipp-ex.
Another time two guys approach us in Yangon, largest city in Myanmar. We are washed out by the heath and they take pity on us. We spend about half an hour talking. Like friends. As our trust grows and cards have been exchanged, we are invited to their monastery compound. Having the greatest inclined Buddha they have something to show for, but we are much more impressed with being invited into an English class full of monks where we tell our story. We share a meal with monastery people that was locally begged together. They want to know our age and favorite color and take picture of us with their children. Such an authentic experience!
And then, as we are seated in a dark barrack where the eldest monks have their rooms, we are asked to pay over 30 dollars for the chief monk’s acceptance. Baffled and glowing with earlier experiences we pay, but as soon as the guy sees our banknotes he doubles the amount. And just as easily he lowers it back to the original when my love turns red of anger. We are being played here, and we know it. 30 dollars is about the average monthly salary of a Myanmar policeman and we have a feeling that our guy just earned very, very well.
Tourism in Myanmar
Myanmar is the fourth poorest country in Asia and opened to mass tourism just two years ago. But it is amazing to discover how fast some Birmese have adapted to the sector. Street vendors, children selling plastic bags at monasteries (for your shoes), taxis asking four times their regular fees; many have learned how easy it is to trick tourists. Although most people still attend their usual business and many have never even seen tourists before, we feel that Myanmar is already influenced by us. Tourists. Rich travelers. Disruptors of an ancient culture.
In other places like India or even Paris we are used to beggars and tourist scams. Where ‘real silver!’ really means messing and ‘velly old!’ very much means it was recently treated with dirt for an ancient appearance. But in Myanmar we did not expect it yet. It is slightly disappointing to find the money mentality here, as I also pointed out in my previous article 8000 Buddhas in Pindaya Cave. Soon after our arrival we already set some rules for ourselves, to make our intrusion on this beautiful country as small as possible.
Tips for conscious traveling
Our first norm for traveling with a clear mind was that we would not give money for nothing. Especially to children. People in Myanmar may be poor to our standards and their whereabouts sometimes look very sad. But they have survived many years without tourism and we do not want them to become dependent on our presence. ‘Easy money’ causes children to leave school for lack of motivation and adults to leave their traditional businesses, because tourists provide much more money. But they loose their skills and education. We really do not want to be guilty of this.
Our second was that we would not give tips. As others told us, Myanmar people are not at all used to getting it. We felt it would change their concept of moneymaking as soon as we would give tips.
Our third: ‘we are not bitches for refusing to spread out money like crazy’. We support the country by spending money as much as possible with the local people. And we just cannot save the people from their corrupt governments and poverty, however much of our savings we give to anyone here.
Our fourth habit was that we talked to the people. We wanted to make connections, more than money. We wanted to share knowledge and inspiration. And whenever we got the occasional remark that we were very rich, we disputed it. Because we are not rich in the countries we live in. It is all relative.
If you would like to know more about conscious traveling in Myanmar and the impact of tourism, you can find excellent articles by EcoBurma. For example their article about the impact of tourism on the Bagan area.