Myanmar had been on my radar for over a year. I knew when I made my plans to come to Southeast Asia I HAD to visit, and although things were a bit up in the air with the election, and my original plan of 12 days was cut to 7, I made sure to make it work.
I had a vision in my head of the country. How different it would be from everywhere else I have been. Since the borders have only been open for about 4 years, it’s still relatively unknown. Although with the announcement that the first ever Dunkin’ Donuts opened, I knew I had to get there fast; before tourism exploded and the previously undiscovered country became a hot spot for chain restaurants and massive tour groups.
My friends who have been over the past couple of years agreed. “Go before tourism ruins it” they would tell me.
And so I did. But I might have been too late.
My friend Karina of Wisdom Trails was probably one of the first backpackers to explore the country right after they opened their borders. She described an entirely different world; one with no western food, no wifi, no tourist busses and limited public transport, but incredibly kind and humble people. I loved hearing her stories and, although we both knew that a lot could change in 4 years, I still hoped that most of the magic would be there.
It was. And it wasn’t.
The ride into the city from the airport was eye opening; I saw locals piled into dump trucks, and some of the most hectic and seemingly unorganized traffic I have ever seen. I saw cows in the streets, and both men and women wearing the traditional longyis. It was so different than anywhere I had every been, and I couldn’t keep the ridiculous smile off my face in anticipation of exploring this new country.
When we arrived I walked for over an hour trying to find a currency exchange. I felt a bit like a unicorn; not only for being white and a solo female, but also just for walking around instead of taking a taxi or motor bike. I was stared at a lot, but not in a bad way. I would smile and receive a huge grin, often partnered with a wave, back. Within an hour I knew what my friends meant when they told me that the Burmese are the friendliest people around.
The unicorn feeling continued throughout the week. Local boys at a restaurant/bar caught me playing the air guitar with a couple friends, and soon started mimicking me causing us all to burst out laughing. A toddler ran after me blowing kisses in the street. Monks came up to me to ask where I was from and tell me a bit about the pagoda I was visiting as an attempt to practice their English. My all-time favourite moment was when I put the traditional thanaka on my face that all the locals wear, and an old Burmese man bee-lined over to take a photo of me. He didn’t speak, but gave me a big smile and thumbs up before wandering off again. Of course some people didn’t talk or engage and just stared, or took photos, but that was ok too because as soon as I smiled and waved they did the same.
But things changed as I hit the touristic spots. No longer was I the unicorn to practice English on, but I was the tourist full of money. The first hint was the photography fees; if you want to take pictures in some of the major attractions in Myanmar, expect to pay some money. I’ve come across this before and wasn’t completely shocked, but I wasn’t expecting it here. Then came the toilets; locals got in free but tourists had to pay. Most menus in restaurants didn’t have set prices either, we all wondered why but after one situation we realized; tourists pay more.
And so it continued.
But what was worse than being seen as a dollar sign was realizing that by being a dollar sign, we had changed things.
My first clue was on a day trip from Mandalay when four of us had a taxi take us to some of the nearby sites. We visited a teaching monastery for 10:15am, so we could see the monks line up for lunch. As we arrived we saw a number of other taxis doing the same. There were probably about 30-40 of us waiting for the same thing which struck our group as very touristic.
And then the busses of Chinese tourists pulled up and that number more than quadrupled in size. I watched sadly as middle aged Chinese came out all carrying plastic bags, the leader yelling on her headset, and them following blindly behind. They swarmed up, pushing their way up front and pulling boxes of cookies and candies, pencils and paper, out of their bags.
As the clock ticked closer to 10:15 the monks started to line up. The youngest ones came first, only to be completely bombarded by cameras in their faces. And as the procession started they were literally being thrown candy and sweet snacks like it was Halloween. There was so much it was to the point where the sweets were falling off the monk’s dishes in excess. I watched the monks; old and young, keeping their heads forward, eyes down, just walking along. So different than those with the friendly smiles I had met earlier. But I didn’t blame them; they must have felt like animals in a zoo. I turned from those on the street and watched the ones who had already gone past and were back in the safety of their buildings. Away from prying eyes and strangers they were smiling and laughing- like they should have been all along, and probably would have been if we hadn’t invaded their daily routine.
Back in our taxi I asked our driver for his honest opinion: Did tourists ruin the country? He told me no, it was good for business and for people to learn more about the western world. But as the day continued I wondered, to what extent?
At nearly every major temple we went to I saw young children selling post cards or knicknacks. Children that should have been in school. I ignored them; difficult for someone who loves kids, but knowing that supporting them would encourage their families to keep them out there. I made an exception for a girl about 16-17 years old who I met at a watch tower on Innwa. After ‘arguing’ about who was the most beautiful (I thought she was but she said I was) she told me the bit of history she knew about the place. She was a pleasure to talk to so when she tried to sell me a beaded bracelet she made herself, I happily spent a bit of my money to support her.
But as my travel through the country continued I saw much of the same. One asshole even shoved a tiny, little boy in my face when he saw me smiling at him. The man was trying to get me to buy the flowers clutched in the little boy’s pudgy hand. The child was terrified at being pushed at a stranger and burst into tears. I glared angrily at the man and told him to get away, but seeing those tears streaming down the little boy’s face crushed me. I caused him that fear because as a tourist, I represented money and this man thought parading around a cute baby was a sure way to some easy cash, no matter the cost to the child. I hated him for it.
I know its common in many places, but using children for money really bothers me and seemed to be an extreme here. As soon as I arrived in Bagan I had a little boy, no more than 7 years old, run up and grab my hand. He walked with me, holding on tight as I haggled with a taxi. As soon as there was a pause in the conversation he tugged my hand. “Money?” he asked, rubbing his little fingers together. Knowing he was just another child being used by his family I shook my head and took away my hand, watching him scamper off to the next visitor in line to try again.
Things only escalated in Bagan. My newfound friends and I rode around town on our rented e-bikes only to be jumped on at every major temple we visited. Men, women, and children alike had postcards, elephant pants, books, sand paintings and more. Some kids even drew their own photos on lined paper with pens or coloured pencils; of crooked temples and red balloons in the sky, trying to sell them. And for some strange reason I seemed to attract them all. My friends laughed as I ended up in full-blown conversations with the local vendors, and although many just wanted to know about Canada and snow, (along with selling me whatever they had on hand) I heard a lot of interesting stories as well which made me re-think my original assumptions.
One girl was selling elephant pants to make money for her dream job; to become a tour guide in Bagan. Another man worked as an artist, and although he did sand paintings like many others, his were all based off stories in a certain temple and he refused to sell to locals, meaning his work couldn’t be mass reproduced like all the others. He was teaching his children, both under the age of 12, to be artists as well and proudly showed me their work along with his. Another woman told me about her family and children; a single mom trying to raise them on her own. She happily introduced me to one of her daughters and, at the end of the conversation, we decided she would be my adoptive Burmese mama too.
The more I spoke to these people the more I realized that, unlike so many cheap vendors in the western world, these people weren’t taking an easy way out to prey on tourists. Sure, they tried just about everything to get people to buy, but I came to learn that even a couple sales a day earned them far more than they could ever hope to make as a farmer. And with dreams of a better future, artistic skills, and families to take care of- I couldn’t blame them for trying.
And so I caved. I gave up trying to put on a ‘bitch face’ and walk blindly past everyone with my sunglasses covering my eyes. I stopped to talk, answer questions, and sometimes shop. I bought elephant pants from my ‘Burmese mama’, asked the girl selling Thanaka to do my face, bought a sand carving from an original artist, and postcards from a couple children who led me through the temple and up the staircases (only because it was the weekend and they wouldn’t be in school anyway). Of course I couldn’t buy from everyone, but I frequently stopped to talk or listen. A lot of them were happy to have someone to practice their English on, and I was more than happy to spend some time with them. I even ended up with a Burmese ‘boyfriend’ for 5 minutes, who was probably all of 16. I told him I thought I was too old for him but he told me not to worry- he would grow taller. I couldn’t help but laugh at that.
The more I spoke with the locals the more I understood what my taxi driver in Mandalay meant when he said tourism was good for the country. Tourism would allow that young girl to become a tour guide. Tourism would support the local artists. And tourism would allow single moms a more realistic way for them to earn money to support their families.
Did I still feel like a walking dollar sign most of the time? Absolutely. Did I hate that by going to the teaching monastery and looking at the little boy made locals uncomfortable and upset? Of course. But although I started out with a completely negative view, I came to realize that not all change here is a bad thing. And as long as the McDonalds, KFCs and Starbucks stay away, I think I can deal with, and in some cases even support, the changes that tourism in Myanmar has brought.