Fresh off the plane in Mandalay, we were welcomed into a tiny airport by immigration officials and then promptly (but politely) hollered at by taxi, shuttle and minibus drivers. Almost like they were constrained by an invisible fence, they didn’t stray far from their company’s booths on the far wall of the terminal, shouting over one another “Excuse me sir TAXI!” or “Hello TAXI!” at newly arrived tourists across the room.
Slightly dazed by the sudden change in atmosphere, we quickly grabbed our belongings and in just a few minutes we pulled some cash out of an ATM, acquired two local SIM cards and secured our ride to Nyaung U, where we would meet up with my cousin and her husband. It would be a 5 hour ride by mini bus from the Mandalay bus terminal.
Within an hour the mini bus pulled off the expressway and onto the side of the road in front of a thatched roof restaurant. There seemed to be no one there besides a handful of apathetic employees with plates full of questionable snacks. Outside, women in traditional garb and with silver platters full of local eats on their heads hawked their wares at the doorway to the mini bus.
We crept out to get some fresh air and another local approached. On her head she carried a platter of a piled-high spiral of grilled, headless bats. We politely declined as best we could.
Oh no, I thought. We’ve barely been in the country for a few hours and the exoticism has already started.
I’d seen this before, in Beijing, China when I was living there as a student a few years ago, and just a few days prior in Bangkok, Thailand. Areas with high concentrations of Western tourists have capitalized on Western notions of the exotic in Southeast Asia and find ways to sell inauthentic representations of their own culture.
In both cities, you can find snack stalls in touristy areas selling roasted bugs on a stick. No where else in Bangkok or Beijing have I seen roasted bugs on a stick for sale. In Bangkok, the stereotyping was a bit stronger. Charred bugs like crickets, scorpions and tarantulas were common; a street vendor might even approach you with a large styrofoam plaque stapled with large, blackened bugs, with an implied question of, “Wanna try?”
I couldn’t decide if I found it ironically funny that tourists had flown across the world to be sold inauthentic experiences in the place they were most likely to find the authentic; or if I found it ironically sad that locals made an income selling another culture’s misconception of their own.
I’m not saying that people in Southeast Asia don’t eat bugs, because they definitely do, and I would actually very much like to try some. But fire roasted scorpions and spiders are not a part of the local cuisine of Bangkok or Beijing, and at best a silly, at the worst an offensive example of exoticism.
Most tourists in Myanmar hope to avoid situations like those in Thailand, precisely because the tourist industry is so underdeveloped. And back at the bus stop, I was saddened to see we had been misinformed.
The lady with the grilled bats turned away from us and called out her offerings in Burmese.
One of the other passengers, a middle aged woman, returned from the toilets drying her hands and stepped right up to the lady with the grilled bats. She purchased one, and took it to go in a plastic doggy bag.
Humbled and pleasantly surprised, I settled back into my seat as the other passenger calmly climbed into the van with her belongings and one grilled, headless bat.
Bagan, land of 1,000 temples is the poster child for travel in Myanmar and the locale itself is quickly adapting to the growing tourist presence. At entrances to important sites, large temples, or anywhere tourists are likely to be, locals set up shop to sell cheap, mass-produced trinkets.
Sometimes the vendors are tourist-weary and simply leave you be. Sometimes they welcome you enthusiastically into their shop as you walk by. But most of the time, you can barely glance at their wares or make eye contact before you’re hassled with an aggressive, albeit well-intentioned, sales pitch.
This has a frustrating and heart-breaking effect. Most of Myanmar is still in poverty, and though I want to see their country, their temples, and would love to help their people become better off by doing so, I don’t want to buy crap.
It’s even more heart-breaking when you’re getting a sales pitch by a friendly local, who has a good enough grasp of English to hassle you playfully. These are the best and worst types of sales pitches. Nikita, who professes his dislike for children, melted after a few moments of heckling by a 10 year old dressed in hip hop clothing.
At one particularly famous temple in Bagan, two Burmese guys who looked to be in their early twenties sat at the base of the steps selling sand paintings, a dime-a-dozen cheap souvenir and one that we’d been offered more than ten times that morning already. One sat on one side, putting some finishing touches on a painting, while the other oversaw a stack of them and wore a money belt around his waist.
“Hello, would you like to buy a sand painting,” they half asked, half said.
“No, thank you,” we said hurriedly, careful not to look at the merchandise.
“Okay you can buy one take home with you.” The guy wearing the money belt began flipping through his stack, finding an acceptable sand painting to show us.
Not wanting to be rude and ignore them, we replied, “We’re just traveling. We’re not going home,” and began to climb the steps.
Without missing a beat they fired back, “You can send some to your parents.”
“Yes,” the other guy added while holding up a sand painting, “for Christmas.”
“I don’t buy my parents Christmas presents,” Nikita went on. “I just send them money. They’re poor.”
Realizing the potentially offending implication that Nikita considered his parents in America to be poor he backtracked, turning around to call back, “I’m just kidding! They’re not poor!”
“Oh, rich man,” the painter responded calmly from his post.
Mr. Moneybelt laughed and called from down the stairs, “Rich man! Rich man!”
Nikita turned pink with embarrassment and we laughed at how he’d been had, so had, trying to outtalk the guys who made a living talking up tourists.
Fire at the Chapati Stand
Inle Lake, though beautiful and still idyllic in places, has largely become a tourist venture. The lake itself is enormous and supports a network of little villages along its shores, into the foothills of the mountains that contain it, and also on top of its waters. We spent about 3 days exploring some of the villages, doing the quintessential “boat tour” and seeing the town we were staying in with other tourists.
Most of these tourists, even the revered lifelong traveler, preferred to eat at establishments that were everything we sought to avoid: full of other tourists, atmospheric, and 3-4 times more expensive than what we would usually eat. Still, we didn’t want to push our companions to eat where they weren’t comfortable, and went along with it when we had to.
On our last day, the two of us set out alone. We were hungry, and started looking for some place to eat, using the method that had never once failed us: find a place filled with locals and eat what they’re eating.
Soon we found a boxy little joint on the corner with a good number of people eating and drinking outside. The place had zero curb appeal, but in front there was a man performing some acrobatic folding of thin dough and dropping it into a wok full of crackling oil.
“Chapatis” he said, and we were able to communicate enough to find the price and that they had the kind of tea we liked. The Burmese crowd at the small tables and stools set up outside watched us curiously, and we took a seat while the man’s mother served us Myanmar tea, followed by hot, soft and flakey, crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside chapatis.
Looking around at the barren walls and tiny tables, we were so pleased with ourselves. This was a good place, the food was great, the staff was friendly and helpful and we were going to get double servings of both tea and chapatis for less than $2. We couldn’t care less about ambiance.
I watched the street outside and saw a few tourists walk past. One couple looked inside and walked on, but as they got closer and saw us inside, took an interest and stopped to watch the guy make chapatis. We call this the White Man Effect, and we saw it frequently in Myanmar. The Effect occurs when tourists inside an establishment become a beacon or a badge of trust for other tourists, and only then will they investigate or even notice it.
This happened a few more times, but with no takers. Which is too bad because the chapatis and tea were really good. Probably some of the best we had during our entire 3 weeks in Myanmar.
We ate and sipped in silence when suddenly the son came running over from down the street, shouting something in Burmese to his mother who quickly turned off the stove and doused the oil. The locals sitting outside shot up from their seats and we watched from inside as the entire street’s attention lasered in on something in the distance we could not see.
On the street, traffic stopped and the order of everything devolved into disorder as we heard shouts in the distance and saw locals running in both directions. The mother and son duo at the shop hurriedly turned off appliances as a family member materialized and they all shouted at each other in Burmese about what was going on.
Beginning to get quite nervous, we watched and waited, and just after we grabbed our bags and were about to leave things calmed down and they waved us back into their shop. Without speaking, the son pulled us outside and gestured down the street where we saw a plume of thick black smoke emanating from inside a cluster of buildings.
He explained in Burmese but the gesture was universal: fire.
Things unwound by the second, but we were surprised at how quickly the entire neighborhood had sprung into action at the threat. Not long after, fire trucks rushed to the scene and everyone else went about their business.
Have any of your own Myanmar travel stories or memorable experiences from time abroad? Please share with us in the comments below!