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 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 travellers 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 K12,000, or smaller tuk-tuks could easily be found outside for about K8000 to K10,000.
“I won’t pay more than K4000 for a tuk-tuk,” the girl responded.
After a brief but awkward silence, the receptionist looked at my wife and said in Burmese, “She won’t find a tuk-tuk for K4000. The driver won’t make any profit at that price.”
I relayed the message in English to the hapless solo traveller. 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 K4000 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 would have been better for her to stay home in Europe and shoplift a new wardrobe from her friendly neighbourhood 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.
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 K3000 or K4000 for a K1500 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 K1000 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.
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 favour 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.