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When tourists swindle locals (and themselves)

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Thanboddhay Pagoda, Monywa

Thanboddhay Pagoda, Monywa

She walked into the reception area of Monywa Hotel, sporting disconcertingly casual attire: knee-length shorts and a short-sleeved blouse, both made from flimsy white cotton fabric decorated with a floral print.

She was a 20-something European tourist, but she was dressed like a 12-year-old at a slumber party.

My wife Pauksi and I had just checked out of the hotel, and we were gathering our bags for the trip to the bus station.

This dreadfully dressed girl had just checked in, and said she was looking for fellow travelers to share transport costs to the main sites of interest around Monywa, including Bodhitataung, Thanboddhay Pagoda and Hpo Win Daung.

Finding no other foreigners booked into the hotel, however, she was trying to figure out how she could manage these excursions on her own.

Did I mention that the girl’s right arm was cradled in a makeshift cloth sling? (I didn’t ask.) As she spoke, she flapped her injured arm like a chicken wing, explaining that her impairment prevented her from taking a motorcycle, so a safer but more expensive tuk-tuk was the only option.

The woman behind the reception counter dutifully explained the pricing for a half-day trip to Bodhitataung and Thanboddhay Pagoda: The hotel’s deluxe tuk-tuk could be hired for 12,000 kyats (US$14), or smaller tuk-tuks could easily be found outside for about 8000 to 10,000 kyats.

“I won’t pay more than 4000 kyats for a tuk-tuk,” the girl responded.

After a brief but awkward silence, the receptionist looked at Pauksi and said in Burmese, “She won’t find a tuk-tuk for 4000 kyats. The driver won’t make any profit at that price.”

I relayed the message in English to the hapless solo traveler. She stared blankly into space for a moment, sighed and said, “Maybe I’ll just spend one night in Monywa then, and take the bus to Mandalay tomorrow morning.”

“Suit yourself,” I thought. I wasn’t inclined to argue, or try to convince this girl that she really should make some effort see what Monywa had to offer. It was her loss if she didn’t.

But I did wonder: Why travel halfway around the world (she had told us she was from Belgium), and then allow a mere 4000 kyat to prevent you from actually experiencing or seeing anything? And more important, why come to a developing country and then demand services from locals at insultingly low prices?

If this girl wanted to fleece someone, it might have been better for her to stay home in Europe and shoplift a new wardrobe from her friendly neighborhood H&M department store.

A boatman at Inle Lake once told me that one of the toughest aspects of his job was dealing with tourists who wave outdated copies of Lonely Planet in his face and insist that they enjoy a day out on the lake for the same price printed in its obsolete pages.

Boatman at Inle Lake

Boatman at Inle Lake

Never mind that during the five years since the guidebook was researched, diesel prices and living costs would have increased significantly.

That’s not to say that there aren’t unscrupulous characters who prey on foreign visitors to Myanmar, as illustrated by the grotesquely inflated room rates charged by ravenous hoteliers last tourist season, a move that might result in short-term profits but has helped give the country a bad reputation as a travel destination. And of course there are the occasional taxi drivers who suggest payment of 3000 or 4000 kyats for a 1500 kyat ride.

During a recent visit to Inwa near Mandalay, I watched as two self-consciously scruffy Australian backpackers feigned cool indifference as they declared to the pony cart drivers that they would pay no more than 1000 kyats for a ride through the ancient capital.

A nearby sign indicated that pony cart tours, which usually last at least two hours, cost US$5.

In Myanmar it is, of course, par for the course to bargain for a fair price. But these backpackers weren’t haggling in good faith; they were simply trying to swindle locals who weren’t exactly raking in the big money on a day-to-day basis.

Horse carts at Inwa

Horse carts at Inwa

It was clear from the exchange that if the Australians continued to insist on their unreasonable rate, they would end up standing there all day. But I didn’t intervene.

Certain types of backpackers love to boast about the travails of their travels, about how they eschewed package tours and easy destinations for rugged, off-the-beaten track exploration.

So I figured I was doing them a favor by helping make their trip a little tougher. And they could go home and proudly tell their friends about how they baked in the tropical sun while the horse drivers wandered back into the shade, ignoring demands for an obnoxiously low-cost tour through Myanmar’s remarkable countryside.

This story originally appeared in slightly different form in The Myanmar Times weekly newspaper (Oct 29-Nov 4 2012). A significantly altered version also appeared in Southeast Asia Globe monthly magazine (December 2012).