WHO ARE WE, WHEN WE TRAVEL IN BURMA?
by Judy T. Oldfield
I reached up, scratched the side of my nose, and out popped my brand-new nose ring, falling down to the tile floor of Yangon’s Bogyoke market. Squatting down, my husband, Jason, and I searched for the tiny starter stud, bent into an L shape. We retrieved it from where it had rolled a few feet away on the dirty ground.
And then I started making plans.
The very first thing I needed was some sort of rubbing alcohol. Yangon is a marvelous city, whose pulse manages to straddle languorous and fast paced, where you can buy a pot of tea for $0.30 and a bowl of noodles for $0.50, where people smile at you in the park, and where hundred year-old trees loom over sputtering cars. But it is not what I would call a clean city, and there was no way I was going to stick that piece of metal back through my nostril without first dousing it with some serious germ killers.
Nearby I’d seen a beauty-supply store. Unfortunately, it carried all Japanese products. The young Burmese ladies spoke no English; I spoke no Burmese or Japanese. The products were all labeled in small Japanese characters, but I muddled through and bought some hand sanitizer.
The check-out counter’s sides were mirror plated and I crouched down to try to put the stud back in. I penetrated the first layer of skin, but I couldn’t get it through to the second. I felt myself panic, and after several minutes of feeling very foolish, retreated to a nearby bench, stud still in hand. I kept trying; the shop ladies talked amongst themselves and watched me, concerned. One brought me a tissue, a tiny gesture of kindness. What must they have thought, this sweaty, tearful, white lady, who didn’t know how to work her own nose ring?
It was time for Plan B. I remembered a nice-looking hotel a few blocks away. I had learned early on in my sixteen months of around-the-world travel that if I needed help to go to the concierge at a nice hotel. I carefully explained my situation to a cluster of petite Burmese women behind the desk, their blouses crisp, their hair pulled back, not a strand out of place. They did their best, they really did, but they couldn’t help holding their hands up to their lips to hide their giggles, and one had to rush out of the room, laughing.
It may be that as a non-paying guest, I put them in an awkward position, but I realize that it may also be that I seemed ridiculous to them.
The calmest, most deliberate of them drew me a map to a hair salon and suggested I inquire in there.
A digression. The names Burma and Yangon. Burma is the old name, and might again be the new name. After the unrest of 1988, in which thousands of protestors were killed or jailed in horrendous conditions, the State Law and Order Restoration Council declared martial law and in 1989, changed the English name of the country from Socialist Republic of Burma to Union of Myanmar. They did so through a council, and without a vote, a trend in their government. Aung San Suu Kyi, the most well-known dissident, who lived under house arrest for decades, is opposed to the name Myanmar, and continues to say Burma, as do many other Burmese refugees. The government believes that Myanmar is more inclusive of the country’s many different ethnicities other than the Burmese. Myanmar in the Burmese language is, however, merely a more elegant way of saying Burma.
I used the word Myanmar before and while in the country, and in all written correspondence. Similarly, I used Yangon, instead of Rangoon, which has gone through a name dispute in its own right. But one of the first things I did when I crossed the border back into Mae Sot, Thailand, was to go to a museum run by Burmese refugees about the atrocities of SLORC. And that’s when I started saying Burma.
So, I say Burma, and I say Burmese, as sort of a catch-all, because I often don’t know the particulars of someone’s ethnicity. But I still say Yangon. As an amateur linguist, this shift is interesting to me. Partially, it may be because in speaking or writing about my travel, I have more cause to say the country’s name rather than a particular city, and so the latter transition never took effect. But it may also be the uneasiness of a traveler needing to affirm a side. To be sure, I am with Aung San Suu Kyi, and all of her party. But everyone I met in Burma said Myanmar, and they said Yangon, even those who had pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi in their homes. So I ask myself, why am I saying one thing when they themselves say another?
And it may also be that I like the word Burma better than Myanmar and I like the word Yangon better than Rangoon, and as someone who only spent three weeks there, I have the luxury of choice.
In all of my travels, I have never encountered people quite like the Burmese. They were, without a doubt, the coolest, most stylish people I’ve ever been fortunate enough to walk among. When I stepped into the salon, the young man who greeted me was the epitome of modern Burmese chic. His hair was bleached to that orange-blond hue achieved when one starts with black, and carefully styled in a perfect, messy shag. He wore a fitted, long-sleeved button-down shirt, Western style, that highlighted his thin frame and a blue-green longyi, the traditional bottom garment in Burma. It looks like a skirt to most Westerners, but folds in one way for men and another for women. He looked awesome, this amalgamation of punk and traditional style. He also looked like every other young Burmese guy I’d seen in Yangon.
The man didn’t speak much English, though he did speak some. A female customer of South Asian descent (there are many people of Indian and Nepali ancestry in Burma; in fact, my plan C was to go to Little India in Yangon and wander around until I found help) spoke a bit more than he did, and together we all stumbled through my problem, and then to a solution.
I sat down in a chair and leaned back. The man took out a pair of small silver flower stud earrings from a plastic box on a shelf and with a great deal of patience and tender maneuvering, stuck it through the still-healing hole in my nostril. He added the backing to the post and spoke to the woman, who translated, “Don’t take it out for two weeks.” (I didn’t. I wore an earring in my nose until I crossed back over into Thailand, where I bought a hoop to replace it.)
I thanked him profusely, in a mixture of thank yous and kyeizu tin ba des, which I’m sure came out as nonsense. And I took out my wallet.
“No, no,” the man said.
Besides the concierge trick, more broadly speaking, I had learned through my travels that people are generally good, or at least, that there are more good people than bad people, and the kindness of strangers was pleasing, soul-rewarding even, but not surprising.
But refusing payment was shocking.
Earlier in the day, I’d bought a pair of dangly jade earrings (possibly faux, who can know?) at Bogyoke for 1,500 Kyat ($1.50). So I pulled out a 5,000 Kyat note to give to my nose-ring fixer. For the earrings, for the services rendered, for the time it took when he could’ve been cutting the hair of a paying customer, I figured the amount was at least sufficient.
But he wouldn’t hear of it.
Jason and I went back to the salon the next day and each ordered a foot massage, to at least give them a little business. After an hour of poking and prodding, stimulating muscle tissues I didn’t know I had, and seemingly shrinking my feet at least half a shoe size, the ladies told us the total for the two massages was 10,000 Kyat. We gave them 11,000—an extra $0.50 each as a tip. There was a lot of confusion, “No, no,” they said. “Too much.”
“For you,” I said.
They took the extra money, but they didn’t seem happy about it.
The author, hot and sweaty with a stud earring in her nose, wearing a local hat and thanaka, an extremely popular Burmese cosmetic and sun protector made from wood pulp.
The issue of tipping is a tricky one, made all the more complicated in a country that has only just opened its doors to tourists in the last few years.
As an American abroad, it’s hard to shake the habit, especially when confronted with the reality that in many places that little extra can go a long way.
On the other hand, there’s the very real problem of ramifications.
If a noodle shop in Yangon receives tips from tourists, how might they change their business to attract more tourists and thus more money? Perhaps they will use less fish sauce or chili, and when the crowd of travelers come in, might they also raise their prices? Prices that local Burmese customers can’t afford?
The local noodle shop is now not the same part of Burmese culture. It is effectively gone. Gentrification writ large on a global scale.
A sign at the beginning of the three-day trek from Kalaw to Inlay Lake.
Still, I tip. Before our guides departed after three days and fifty kilometers of leading us through the Hill Country of Burma and cooking for us, we tipped a few dollars—and pressured the European travelers in our crew to do the same.
It seemed only fair. I ran the math in my head. This three-day trek cost $36.00 per person. There were six tourists in our group. How much went to the guides and how much to the families who opened their homes to us? How much for the fruits and vegetables they prepared for us? And how much for the agency that organized it all?
During Oktoberfest, at the Hofbräuhaus in Munich, the Bavarian waiter handed my friends and me the bill and said in perfect English, “This is without tip.”
Ask ten Germans about tipping in Germany and you’ll get ten different responses. But all will agree that a waiter asking for a tip is rude.
Can you blame the waiter, though? What did he have to put up with that night? Customers unused to German beer and overdrinking. Customers stealing mugs as souvenirs despite the fact that the Hofbräuhaus sells them. Customers who demand perfection while on vacation. Customers who are loud. Customers who vomit.
Twice in Hpa An, a small town popular with backpackers due to its proximity to an overland border crossing with Thailand, Jason and I found ourselves lost, looking for caves full of natural formations and Buddhas carved into their walls.
We’d rented a motorbike for the day, and were armed with a small, hand-drawn map. Twice we stopped at a gas stand, where gas was sold out of reused glass liter bottles on the side of the dusty, read-earthed road. Twice someone hopped on his motorbike, drove ten minutes out of his way to get us to our destination. Twice, before we could retrieve our wallets to at least give them a dollar for gas money, they smiled, waved, and sped off.
The same argument about tipping can be applied to paying the local price or not. Overcharging of tourists is common worldwide. In some places one can pay two, three, even four times the price. There’s a very real consideration about what that does to a location.
The argument against it is that if you can afford to pay more than locals, and no matter your budget, you probably can, then who cares? Don’t take advantage of someone else’s comparative poverty just to save a bit of cash.
But what does that create? Stores, restaurants, and excursions that are solely for tourists and not locals. A class division between those who visit the country and those who live there. A dissolution of certain neighborhoods.
We were in Bagan, land of a thousand temples, in May, the hottest time of the year. It was so hot that we had to retreat back into the air conditioning of the guest house we were staying at between 11 AM and 4 PM.
On our second day, just as we headed back, our “ebike,” or electric motorbike, that we’d rented, broke down. Along came two young men on a motorbike, who let us use their cell phone and waited with us in the thin shade of a reedy tree for half an hour before help arrived. In small clips and phrases of English they told us that they were University students, one studying chemistry, the other business. Mostly though, we just sat together, waiting. As the minutes ticked by with no immediate rescue, they moved their bike into a scrap of shade, to keep the black leather seat from scalding them when they sat on it again.
A year before I went to Burma, I watched Anthony Bourdain’s show on the country. He warned that Burma will change. The bad things (everything from children leaving school in order to sell postcards to sex tourism and with it increased rates of HIV) that come with travel will surely come there. Most hadn’t yet, when I was there in May of 2014. But who can say what the atmosphere is like there now, when you read this, at your desk, dreaming of exotic locales in far off places?
Bourdain’s episode was a timely one. In theory, tourists have been allowed in Burma since the early ‘90s, but in practice it has only been the last few years. But since the military began relenting its control over the country little by little in 2011, tourism has increased. Some areas are still off limits to tourists, particularly where there is unrest by ethnic minorities.
It is perhaps because of the newness of tourists that the Burmese are so pleased to see us. We are a curiosity, whereas in Thailand, in Germany, in New York City, we are a dime a dozen. In Burma, we have yet to become a nuisance.
This is the part of the essay where I admit that I got my nose pierced on Khao San road in Bangkok, Thailand. Khao San Road is commonly called the “Backpacker Ghetto” of Bangkok, which tells you as much about the place itself as the people who crash there after a night of partying on its street until 4 A.M. It’s a nonstop bar, a year-round Mardi Gras, a made-to-order garment factory, a block-long travel agency, a döner kabob/falafel/English breakfast restaurant. Back in 2001, Susan Orlean called it the place to “get lost.” But it seems to me more like the place to act like a jackass. A mattress on the floor of one of the guest houses costs $4/night, less than half the cost of a dorm bed at a hostel elsewhere in the city.
This is the place you come to if you are young, traveling, and care more about drinking than just about anything else. Every cheap drink you could want. All of the young drunk Westerners you could want to hook up with. It is hot, and sweaty, and the male backpackers wear tank tops with “Chang Beer” on them, the cheapest of the local beers, over baggy elephant-print temple pants, and the girls wear their hair up on their heads in messy buns and tank tops and elephant pants. This is the Southeast Asia backpacker uniform and there’s a competition to see who can spend the least amount of money and get the most wasted. It is one of the party islands of Thailand, transported to the city.
I did not stay on Khao San Road, just as I chose more tranquil islands over those with Full Moon parties. The first time I came through Bangkok, I stayed at a hostel nearby the Myanmar Embassy. The second time, I stayed at another hostel, in the Southern part of central Bangkok. But I did go to Khao San to get my nose pierced.
Walking through the busy street, Jason remarked that sometimes it feels like Southeast Asia is just babysitting the affluent nineteen-year-olds of the Western World.
The Burmese seemed to take a genuine interest and joy in the new tourists that popped up amidst them. Clutching Jason around the waist and smiling, I waved to everyone on the road around Hpa An as we sped by.
At a tea shop, we stopped in for a breakfast of fried doughy strips and Burmese tea over-sugared with too much sweetened condensed milk, the same color as the earthen floor of the shop. A middle-aged Burmese man on the stool next to us asked my husband, “Where you from?”
“America,” Jason said.
The man said to me, “Very good. You marry an American.”
“I am American too,” I said, laughing.
“No, Americans are very high. You are small like Burmese lady,” he said, indicating my 5’2” stature.
I laughed, “No, but Burmese ladies are like this,” and spaced my hands eight inches apart to approximate their waistlines.
I wondered again if I was a disappointment to the Burmese: my short height, my stringy hair I hadn’t cut in a year, plastered to my sweaty neck, my shirt with the hole in it, my silly nose ring problem, my lack of make-up, my bad pronunciation, my dusty backpack, my tendency to wilt in the 110-degree sun.
And I hoped that my smile, my enthusiasm for being there, my willingness to try any food, talk to any person, and at least attempt a few phrases made up for it.
So, who are we, as tourists? And even if you call yourself a traveler, not a tourist, which I do, in the end, it comes down to the same question. We are not saviors, though sometimes some of us may think of ourselves as such. But sometimes we are villains.
We live in a global society. Burma will change. Their decades-old oppressive government is incrementally easing up. As of the election in November of 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, The National League for Democracy, holds a majority of seats in Parliament. That can only be a good thing.
I met a punkish Burmese guy wearing a Rancid shirt. “That’s my favorite band,” I told him. “I’ve seen them play.”
In an Internet café in the small town of Hsipaw, a group of elementary-aged boys with shaved heads and monks’ robes were playing Counterstrike, digital bullets flying, flying, flying at one another. The government-run Internet was down, but the LAN worked fine.
There are forces beyond our control at work. And this is not to say that we should preserve Burma as some sort of Shangri-La. Quite the opposite. Jason’s biggest regret is that he didn’t sit down and play Counterstrike with those kids.
As tourists, we can leave the worst of ourselves at home. We can see people as people and not commodities. We can be polite. We can try to pay the local price and when we are overcharged we can not get upset when we can’t get it. We can understand that our financial differences don’t make us any better or worse, any more or less pure or human than others. And we can act accordingly.
We can not see Asia or any other part of the world as a playground in which to lose ourselves to a good time. We can act as we would in our own neighborhoods.
I still tip, though.
Judy T. Oldfield’s work has appeared in The Portland Review, JMWW, So to Speak, Gravel, Vine Leaves, and many others. She grew up in the Metro Detroit area and attended Western Michigan University, where she earned her B.A. in English and Comparative Religion. An adventurous eater, Judy has dined on rotten shark in Iceland and tarantula in Cambodia. She lives in Seattle but you can find her on Twitter at @J_T_Oldfield.
Images of Burma credit: Jason Wilson
Cover image: A cave filled with Buddhas outside of Hpa An.