Being blonde is like wearing a sign that says “I’m an ATM.”
One thing I love about Bagan over Siem Reap is that the vendors here are not nearly as aggressive and they also do not appear to be trying to rip you off quite like the Cambodians. It’s so refreshing, and in some ways I’ve been letting my guard down around some people.
As I’ve traveled and been targeted as a money-making opportunity, I realize that I’m becoming quite jaded and guarded around local people. Whenever a local comes up to me and asks where I’m from, I immediately assume that they’re trying to sell me something I don’t need or con me into something, so I walk away quickly or immediately reply to a question like “Where are you from?” with something like “No, I don’t need a tour guide.” I don’t try to connect, and I’m so suspicious of anyone coming up to me – not that they’ll do me harm, but that they’ll use any of polite answers against me in asking for money.
As I realized that, I’m working on being less suspicious of everyone I meet and enjoying some of the conversations – especially here in Myanmar. Here, generally speaking, a polite but firm “no” tends to make them go away quickly if they are trying to sell something.
But every day, everywhere I go, I am targeted because of the way I look. There’s no hiding that I’m not from around here, and they equate blondes with rich movie stars (or so they tell you as they’re selling you things).
As I was wandering the temples of Bagan on my motorbike, I was looking at one temple when a guy nearby asked if I wanted to go up on top of another one. I decided that he wasn’t carrying anything it looked like he could sell and decided to follow him – I decided to take a chance that he was just a nice person even though I was wondering how he wanted to part my money from me. (While also chastising myself for originally assuming poorly of him.)
(Spoiler: I was totally fine, this is a story about money, not assault. 🙂 )
I followed him up the stairs of the temple, and he was telling me that he was at university, studying to learn English and be a tour guide. It was at that moment that I thought to myself “Crap, this is definitely going to be a money required situation.” I absolutely hate the deceptiveness that is offering to show someone something small and then expecting money. I wish they were more up front with offering, but of course, the con is part of the game.
It’s funny culturally how when visitors come to the US (or even visit within the US), I’m generally happy to help them and show them around as long as I’m not crazy busy with something else. Even for something as simple as a lost tourist, I expect no remuneration from giving directions or suggesting a good place to go. I feel like the US is a lot like that – I can’t think of anyone I know who would expect or accept money for general help or anything short of having to take a day off work to drive strangers around or something of a similar magnitude.
So this guy, “Lin Lin” tells me he’s from Bagan, and is enjoying college. Then he asks whether or not I paid for university where I live and I told him, “Yes, we do pay for university.” He told me all about paying for school, sharing an apartment with seven roommates, having to pay for meals. I just empathized and said I remembered all of that stuff from college – it’s a definite learning and growing time. All the while I was quite annoyed with myself for not brushing him off early and let myself get into this. I was also mentally calculating the least amount of money to get out of the situation.
And we were on the top of a temple at this point, so it was extremely difficult to get away quickly, for those of you wondering why I didn’t just leave.
So he (of course) continues to tell me that in his free time he loves art. And asks if I’d look at his art. I knew he wanted me to buy something, but thought that maybe if I just looked at his art and then said no, I wouldn’t have to pay him anything else. Or, I was secretly hoping maybe he was half decent at landscapes because I do collect paintings from my travels, and thought that maybe he’d have a good one to add to my collection.
So he shows me his “art” which is done with sand and “is only done here in Bagan! Not in Yangon or Inle or anywhere else! It’s durable and packable and hand-done.” It was all horrifically ugly in my opinion – I’m just not into Buddhist symbols to put on my wall. Also, I don’t understand how they decide on the dimensions – they were all about the same aspect ratio as a panoramic photo, so framing it and then finding a place to put it would be quite difficult. If it were even nice.
I let him finish and tell him that “No, thank you, none of this art matches my house decorations, but thank you for showing it to me.” Stupid me, I still try to be polite.
It’s interesting how they anticipate the objections and then try to head them off – like describing the packability of these, and then he also told me that because they’re so durable I could make them into pillows for my couch! Then he knew that guilt works on foreigners because he told me about how he hadn’t had a sale in two days and needed one and that it’s lucky money.
The internet is an interesting thing. As it gives tips to tourists like “go to the market early because in many Asian cultures, the first sale of the day is considered ‘lucky money’ and so you are likely to get a better deal,” the people in these countries are reading the same tip and exploiting it. By telling customers it’s “lucky money” the tourist will have heard that that means a better deal – and thus be more inclined to buy whatever is on offer.
The sob story continued of how expensive college is, etc, and I held firm that no, I was not going to be buying any art. Another interesting cultural thing is that I considered it nice of me to allow him the opportunity to sell me something because it does take up my time. I think in general, people here are a bit different – it’s not just about giving time, but they definitely are upset if you do not part with money.
Which, again, just breeds my suspicions!
Finally, I kept saying no enough that he realized I would not buy, and then asked for a tip because he wants to be a guide and showed me this place. At that point, I wanted to get away from him as quickly as I could, so I gave him 1,000 Kyat and then walked away. He was probably less than impressed with my tip. It works out to about $.73USD.
I was less than impressed with him not being up front with what he wanted from me.