Watching the pennies

Visitors to Myanmar must remember that scams can work both ways

Douglas Long
December 28, 2012

Visitors to Myanmar must remember that scams can work both ways

By Douglas Long
There are plenty of stories out there about scams aimed at tourists: invitations to crooked card games, unwanted visits to gem shops during tuk tuk rides, getting short-changed while buying Singha and condoms at 7-Eleven. The National Geographic Channel even has a weekly series (Scam City) dedicated to the subject, where the host travels to cities like Rio, Bangkok and Prague to uncover efforts by shady locals to part naïve visitors from their money.
With tourism starting to take off in Myanmar, visitors to Yangon are finding that the locals have their own charming versions of age-old deceptions: kids who stand along the roadside bawling about their “spilled” tray of watermelon slices, hoping some sucker comes along and, feeling sorry for the hapless vendor, pays for the whole lot; women who pass around heavily drugged, floppy infants to use as props on their begging rounds, and the drivers of unmetered taxis who attempt to squeeze excessive fares from the geographically uninformed.
But there is another type of trickery becoming increasingly evident as more visitors stream into the country. Let’s call it the ‘reverse scam’, where foreigners try to ‘haggle’ locals into accepting unreasonably low payment for services, especially transportation.
This is a major annoyance for boat pilots at Inle Lake, a tourist-magnet located in the green hills of Shan State. I’ve heard complaints from boat owners about foreigners demanding the same price printed in their woefully outdated copies of Lonely Planet, indifferent to the fact that fuel prices, costs of living and exchange rates – and therefore the costs of operating a boat – are in constant flux.
This seems to me an odd approach to travel: assuming that what’s in print is more ‘real’ than reality itself. Is sitting at home reading the guidebook the highlight of a trip for some people? Perhaps going to a foreign country and experiencing the situation on the ground is an inconvenience made necessary by the fact that they’ve already blown 30 bucks on the guidebook.
In attempting to swindle locals, travellers run the risk of cheating themselves out of seeing what Myanmar has to offer. A few months ago, while visiting the town of Monywa in upper Myanmar, I ran into a Belgian girl in the lobby of the hotel where I was staying. She said she was determined to pay no more than 4,000 kyats (about $5) for a half-day tuk tuk tour to the pagoda complexes 20 kilometres south of town. This was about half the lowest going price.
When I told her she couldn’t expect to find anyone to agree to her demands – because it would mean the driver would make no money on the deal – she stood silently for a moment, then heaved a theatrical sigh, like a water buffalo snorting in consternation at the very thought of leaving its mud pit on a hot afternoon. She declared herself ready to skip Monywa altogether and hop on the next bus to Mandalay.
While she considered her options, she parked herself at a small, open-air restaurant directly across the street from our hotel to enjoy an afternoon of guzzling draught beer at 600 kyats (70 cents) a mug. I imagined her chuckling with inebriated glee when presented with the bill later on, pleased with herself for choosing to holiday in a country where she could get blitzed for a fraction of the cost back home in Belgium.
With all the stories circulating about scams aimed at foreigners, many travellers are justifiably afraid of being ripped off at some point in their journey. But when it comes to transportation costs, it’s really not that difficult to determine the current going rate. All that’s required is asking around, which means getting your nose out of the guidebook, learning a bit of the language and engaging with some locals other than service personnel. It’s sheer laziness to do otherwise. Then you can pay with peace of mind, knowing that neither you nor your driver has been cheated.
Douglas Long is an editor at The Myanmar Times and has lived and worked in Myanmar for nine years. 
Related Articles
“On the deck” – British filmmakers shine a light on Yangon’s struggling skateboard culture

Read more articles