Wherein we see that the negative aspects of tourism in underdeveloped countries
can extend to more than bolstering repressive regimes
The pick-up truck careened higher into the mountains of Upper Burma. The twenty-odd passengers crammed together in the back protected each other from the swerves and judders like human packing material, swaying in one solid mass with each twist and turn.
"Ten dollars to sail down the Irrawaddy in that old rust bucket! And what really bugs me is that the locals only pay 50 kyats. That's just half a dollar. And what did we get for our extra nine dollars fifty? A roped-off bit of deck and one ramshackle deckchair each. D'you call that value for money?"
"Sure don't, hon."
Cindy and Erroll were at it again.
Shortly afterwards we arrived at the hotel in Yaungshwe - Cindy, Erroll, an Australian, a Canadian, an Italian couple and me. Strangers that morning, we had accreted into a group during the twelve-hour journey from Pagan, loosely bound by our common status as foreigners. A man in a plum-coloured sarong checked us in.
It was late afternoon and we were in a hurry to get to the tourist office. The hotelkeeper advised us to take horsecarts. Cindy and Erroll invited me to share theirs.
Several horsecarts were stationed in front of the hotel.
Cindy stepped up to the nearest one.
"Tourist office. How much?"
"One person, 20 kyats."
"Okay, 20 kyats," said Cindy. She turned to Erroll and me. "Come one, you guys, he's going to take us for 20 kyats."
"Just a minute," I said. "I think he wants us to pay 20 kyats each."
"No, he doesn't."
"Come on. Leave this to Cindy. Let's go." Erroll jumped into the cart.
Forty minutes later we arrived back at the hotel. Cindy sprang down and handed the driver a 20 kyat note.
"One person, 20 kyats," said the driver.
"That's right, 20 kyats," said Cindy.
"One person, 20 kyats."
"We agreed the price before we left." said Cindy. "20 kyats you said, so that's what we're paying."
"One person, 20 kyats." The tone had turned belligerent. Menacing looks, like gathering storm clouds, darkened the faces of the other drivers who stood around.
"What's the problem?" The man in the plum-coloured sarong had stepped up.
The driver launched into a voluble explanation in Burmese. Cindy rebutted simultaneously with her own version of the agreement.
The hotelkeeper put his hand in his pocket. "All right. I'll give him the other forty kyats myself."
Cindy darted a look at Erroll. "Oh, well, then." She fumbled in her purse. "Here you are." She thrust several banknotes into the hand of the driver. He counted them carefully and nodded. Cindy and Erroll put their arms round each other's waists and strode silently into the hotel.
The following morning the seven of us took a boat trip on Lake Inle.
"How many kyats did you get to the dollar in Rangoon?" the Australian asked the Canadian as we drew away from the pier.
"One hundred and ten."
"You were ripped off, mate! I got a hundred and twenty. Where did you change?"
"Guy in the street came up to me and asked if I wanted to change any dollars. Said he'd give me a hundred and ten. Sounded okay to me."
"You've got to shop around, mate. Get the best deal. A buck's a buck, a kyat's a kyat."
"Yeah, guess you're right."
We glided out over the lake, past floating gardens created from masses of accumulated weeds.
"Gee, Erroll, is that guy an acrobat or what? What do you think he's doing?” Cindy pointed to a man poised on one leg on the tip of the stern of a 12-metre long barge. The other leg was wrapped round a pole, the end of which disappeared into the water.
"Hey, that must be one of the leg-rowers this place is famous for."
"Wow, so that's how they do it! Boy, just look at that."
Cindy kept her camcorder trained on the oarsman as he swept rhythmically past.
The lake had now metamorphosed into a network of canals lined with buildings on stilts.
"This is the village of Ywama," said the boatman. He steered towards a landing and pointed to a market area. "Here you can buy souvenirs." He leapt onto the jetty and extended a hand to help us off the boat.
We sauntered round the market in ones and twos. I came across the Canadian rummaging through a heap of delicately patterned handwoven sarongs. He lifted one.
"How much?" he asked the vendor.
"Six dollars only."
The Canadian fingered it. "Feels kinda stiff to me. Anyway, two's my limit."
"The price is five dollars."
"Okay, suit yourself. No sale." He tossed the sarong back on the pile.
We met up with the others in a restaurant where the Italians were complaining that they had paid seven dollars for a rather fine set of opium weights.
"This place is just a tourist trap," said Cindy. "We couldn't get them down to a reasonable price for anything so we didn't buy anything. Whole thing's just a rip-off. Gee, I need to take a leak. Order something for me, would you, Err."
Cindy headed out to the back of the restaurant.
We scanned the lines of circular Burmese script under which was written something approximating to the corresponding English and decided just to ask for a bit of everything. By the time Cindy returned the table was covered with bowls of noodle soup, mounds of rice, platters of curried meats and side dishes
She guffawed as she sat down. "Hey, d'you know, when I got into that goddam toilet I found I didn't have any tissues in my bag. So I just used some 10-kyat notes. They're not worth anything, anyway. Funny money."
The others roared their amusement.
"Gee, you sure gotta do some lateral thinking in these countries," the Canadian said.
Erroll slapped his thigh. The Australian shook his head. The Italians laughingly repeated the story to each other in their own language.
Published in Further Travellers' Tales from Heaven and Hell, Eye Books, 2004