Myanmar, without a doubt, was one of the most interesting places I have visited. Apart from the beauty of the countryside and omnipresent temples, the wonderful people make this place unforgettable. In this series of articles, I share five short stories of small acts of kindness to give an insight into the heart of the Burmese people.
I’m Not A Piece Of Meat
Being a traveler can be difficult at times. In so many places I have been, I’ve often felt like a piece of meat – and everyone wants their pound of flesh. That is, people don’t see me as a person but rather as a vessel to extract money from. Sadly for them, I have no income and I’m pretty good at sniffing out those trying to rip me off. But still, I know I have been ripped off many times, though in small amounts.
Myanmar was the opposite. Only once was I overcharged for something, and it was at a store owned and operated by Indians. I bought a souvenir coin for my dad, a coin from the pre-military dictatorship times since he collects foreign money. They started at $30 and I left paying $9.40 for it. They said they were taking a loss, but wanted to start the day on a positive note with a sale. I’ve heard that story before and I’m sure I got ripped off.
But otherwise, no taxi, no bicycle rickshaw driver, no horse cart, no bus, no hotel, no restaurant, never was I overcharged. In Mandalay, one bicycle rickshaw driver charged me 1000 Kyat ($1.18) to cycle me about 15 blocks. It was the end of the day, I had walked so much in the heat, and just wanted to get back to where I was staying.
When we arrived to where I was staying, I gave him a 1000 Kyat bill, and then included 500 Kyat as a tip. Yes, 50% is a big tip, but it was a long ride (in my opinion), he did a good job, and I just wanted to make his day a bit better.
Immediately he refused it. He thought maybe I misunderstood the price he quoted me. I understood fully, but I wanted to tip him. It literally took two minutes of arguing (without a common language, of course) with him to make him accept his tip. I’m used to the opposite – arguing with the service provider to cut the quoted price in half because I know he or she is cheating me.
The people here don’t seem to think in dollars and cents (or kyat and pya). Money has its place, but it’s not the dominant force, not the official religion the way it is in the West. I don’t know how long this will last as Myanmar opens up more and more to foreign products, companies, investors, and “progress.” I hope it never changes, but we’ll see.
One exception I found was staying at the Buddhist Monastery at Inlay Lake. I arrived on my night bus at 3am and all the hotels were full. The only place I could stay was the local monastery. To my surprise, they were charging 6000 Kyat/$7 up front to sleep there.
The accommodations were rustic, sleeping on a slab of wood, though girls were provided a foam pad to sleep on. For me it was worth paying just to get out of the cold. It was below 10C/50F outside and being inside was nice and warm. Being under covers and getting some sleep was a bonus.
I presume they started charging because people were abusing the monastery. Also, the guy running it is not a monk, so maybe he keeps half the revenue in exchange for opening the door at all hours of the night and keeping the place clean. I don’t know. But I’m 100% sure if you couldn’t afford to pay you could stay there for free.
While all of this sounds like your normal daily life – not being ripped off, etc., all I can say is that life on the road is a constant battle against people trying to take advantage of you. Myanmar was a ridiculously beautiful and amazing country on its own. The fact that people were honest was icing on the cake.
Something I often tell Indians is that karma may have been invented in India, but it’s practiced in the Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia – especially Myanmar.