Recently back from seeing Thailand and Myanmar my perception on life has had no real alterations. If you have read The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton then this would not really surprise you. Travel has been built up as a grand scheme; a dream to open the senses and eradicate any and all ailments in “normal” life. What people fail to grasp, however, is that travel is just an extenuation of you daily routine but in a new environment. And many people are terrible at adapting.
Social Darwinism typically works in favor of those who are canny enough to seize opportunities and mold themselves to fit into new situations. In Myanmar I found the opposite. Europeans (and any travelers really) are approaching Myanmar by the droves to appreciate a way of living not seen in many places on Earth anymore. Unfortunately, they are not embracing its eccentricities.
The Burmese people are wonderfully curious and hospitable, except of course around popular temples (a.k.a. the sought after yet “hawked” tourist traps). There locals have taken to a very aggressive and gregarious sales style and act very out of character of their common culture. The greatest travesty is that travelers are not making the new tourism economy any easier on the local people or other travelers.
Typically in a society based upon irregular monetary units (the exact same bills will literally be cut to the size of Monopoly dollars or sometimes twice as large) bargaining and negotiating are the mainstays of goods exchange. People not used to this type of living are typically terrible at it when they start. But DO start!
I have two problems with this: simply not adapting to a new system of “buy and sell” will become the downfall of what makes traveling to this country that much more enticing. Instead of wading deep into what makes this part of the world truly great–besides the collective nuances of a time before modern transportation–some travelers are opting to simply hand over what is necessary. Also, there is a misconception that it does not matter to argue over the 500 kyat, or the equivalent of $0.50, but travelers should instead by “helping the local economy” with our money. First, not all travelers even have $0.50 to spare as they are on extremely tight budgets. Second, taking this view is truly demeaning to the Burmese people. To think that by opening up the country and allowing foreigners to come in and spread their views and cultures we are somehow helping Myanmar is a very colonialist way of to perceive oneself.
I went through Thailand able to bargain for a fair amount of items (they are heavily modern now though and run mainly on shopping malls and brick and mortar businesses). On one instance, going up to Doi Suteph in Chiang Mai, my friend and I were told that the taxi up the mountain would be 80 baht. We paid 40 baht for the trip up, visited the pagoda, and came back down to the line of red trucks. “200 baht” was the first price given to me. Seriously? No. “100 baht…60 baht…” and that is were it plateued. They were just trying to scam knowing that they were the only rides back down. I was adamant about the 40 (and mind you the difference in 60 and 40 baht is less than a $1). Then, a couple from Houston came up sweating and caved in a second. “60? Sure.”
People will always try to scam tourists and in Asia we are at a disadvantage since “fahlongs” can be pegged within a second. However, if we continuously give in to the pressures of the situation than what good is going to new places anyway? Being pushed and pulled by people in Thailand, where tourism has been huge for decades, is a sorrowful foreshadowing of what can happen in Myanmar. However, there is time to correct our behavior.
In Myanmar, a place known as a bargainer’s heaven, there seemed no local willing to except the trade. Richer, older (eh hem…French) couples would drop up to a $1 on bottled water when it should have been costing them 20 cents. Again, these are not big numbers but in the grand scheme of budgeting for all travelers and foreigner-to-local relationships it does not help at all. The only thing I was willing to bargain down was a book and that was because the guy seemed to be annoyed at everyone else touching his inventory and then moving on.
Reevaluate your stance on traveling. It can teach you new things about yourself. Remember, you travel to experience, not force your experiences on others.
A few more words on travel:
- Don’t travel to get away. “Unplugging” is an exceptional idea, but if you are tweeting, posting to Facebook, and checking emails or even making calls back home then you are not “away”.
- Learn the ways of the local culture. (I.e tip if they are a tipping culture; don’t tip if it is a new phenomenon brought in by tourism. There is no need to go changing a culture you are visiting into your own.)
- Try to make new friends. You will never know when you will be in their part of the world.
- Negotiate. Whether it is for your hostel room, a street food, souvenir, or even site admissions. Relating your opinions on more financial terms will help future travelers to pass through in a maybe improved environment. Tourism is run off of foreign currency. Use this to your advantage.
- Don’t see the landmarks. It is a great idea to read up on the history of a culture, but you will find out more if you go to local spots and actually talk with someone local. Much better than an audio tour. Besides you are going to experience that country, what use is it to walk around with other people swinging cameras around their necks.
- Don’t pack a camera. Unless you are a true photographer or have a family of small children. –I get it, you want the memories. However, how often do you look back at pictures and think, ‘Man that was a good time’? Choose to make it a great time by being in that moment. Not taking pictures. I carry around my phone 24/7. It’s my multitool. I take snapshots of events, people, and moments quickly and then put it right back into my pocket and carry on living. That’s all they are; snapshots.
- Eat the food. No matter how scary the place seems or out of the ordinary (unless it has some serious health violations going on) it will most likely have the best food. Just do it.
- Eat vegetables on your trip. I have never understood people who work so hard all year for their “perfect body” and understand even less when they go on vacation and just drink pina coladas and lay on the beach all day. I’m all for relaxation, but completely changing your diet and habits for a week or so at a time will make you feel like shit.
- Exercise. Yep, even while traveling. Running is a great way to sightsee. Even joining a local sporting gym for a day can help introduce you to local contact and put you more in tune with that region’s favorite past time.