“When it’s over, pay what you like,” my tour guide said.

After all my years of travel, I should have known better.

Yet there I was; saying thanks and handing Koko what I thought was a generous amount.

He immediately demanded $5 more.

From left to right: Rayko, Koko, Myo and me.
Cast of Characters: From left to right:
Rayko: a German backpacker I met in the Yangon airport and continued traveling with.
Koko: a friendly Burmese local with broken English and a big smile.
Myo Kyaw: Koko’s 16 year old younger brother; who spoke fluent English.
Me: Greg Goodman :)

A ferry ride from Yangon to Dala
(in Myanmar/Burma)

The story starts as so many of these things do; with a friendly local coming up to say hi.

I was busy snapping photos on the ferry roof; so, my friend chatted with him in my place.

This relief was short-lived; as the local guy’s brother soon joined us and a four-way conversation ensued.

 

Koko and Myo. Trishaw drivers in Dala, Myanmar
Koko and Myo. Trishaw drivers in Dala, Myanmar

We’re actually taxi drivers. Want a tour?

As we got closer to Dala, the brothers revealed (to no one’s surprise) that they were trishaw taxi drivers. Naturally, they were excited to give us the “local’s tour” of their home town.

When asked how much it would cost, Myo replied,

As you like.”

 

Well, there’s nothing I like less than trying to figure out what a person’s time, information and hospitality is worth.

I find it stressful and always spend much of the tour vacillating on how much to give.

Plus, there’s the issue of “overpaying;” and not wanting to set a precedent for future travelers.

 

The Dala shoreline; across from Yangon (Rangoon) Harbor in Burma.
The Dala shoreline; across from Yangon (Rangoon) Harbor in Burma.

What the heck; let’s go with these guys!

Our tour began with a long stop at a local coffee shop.

At first, we were the only foreigners there; then, a swarm of trishaws drivers showed up: each transporting a Korean visitor in their taxi.

While the tourists b-lined into into the coffee shop, their drivers laughed with each other, stared  at us and came over to say hi.

For more than an hour, Myo graciously translated, laughed along, showed off his “white friends” and chugged coffee; all while puffing at an endless supply of cigarettes.

 

A coffee shop in Dala, Yangon.
A coffee shop in Dala, Yangon.

We even met the local marijuana dealer.

One guy came up to our table and began bragging about being a pot dealer.

He explained that weed is very illegal in Burma; a simple joint can get you 20-50 years in jail.

Despite this, he said everyone in Dala smokes; and running from police was a local pastime.

 

I almost spit out my coffee from laughing when he told us,

“people smoke the weed then punch the police bullets out of the air when running away.”

 

Although he spent a solid 10 minutes talking about marijuana, he never offered to sell us any; and we certainly didn’t ask.

 

Locals get water from a well pump alongside the road in Dala, Myanmar.
Locals get water from a well pump alongside the road in Dala, Myanmar.

 

Koko and Myo even posed with a piece of my Symmetry Project.
Koko and Myo even posed with a piece of my Symmetry Project.

The tour continues

After our time at the coffee shop, Myo suggested we visit his home.

Inside his small wooden shack, he proudly showed us his family photos and a large collection of bootleg Korean movies.

Sadly, Myo was hyper-aware of the poverty he lives in; and spent much of the time embarrassed and apologizing for his humble home.

Electricity inside Myo's home.

Rayko and I tried to reassure him that there is no right or wrong way to live; but Myo seemed inconsolable.

Needless to say, it created an uncomfortable atmosphere during our visit.

. . .

Breaking Myo’s House

At 6’3″, I may be the biggest person to ever set foot in Myo’s home.

I had to duck every time I walked and the warped wooden floor creaked beneath my every step.

Then, the inevitable happened; I heard a loud crack and felt my body falling through the floor.

 

With my heart pounding, I looked down and saw my foot wedged halfway through a sharp opening of jagged wood.

Fortunately, I was able to pull it out and walk away without a scratch.

Although we all had a good laugh, I was left to wonder who was more mortified: me or Myo.

 

The inside of Myo's humble home. I fell through the floor in the back room.
The inside of Myo’s humble home. I fell through the floor in the back room.

Visiting the Alaikyaung Pariyatti Monastery

Our final stop was a Buddhist monastery and orphanage; where we were passed off to the resident monks.

For nearly an hour, they chatted with us about life and took us around the monastery to met the schoolchildren.

KidsMeanwhile, Myo and Koko hung out, smoked more cigarettes, tagged along for a bit and relaxed in the shade.

 

Overall, it was an incredible experience.

Though, I do wonder about the negative influence of foreigners visiting the classroom.

For at least ten minutes, an entire lesson was disrupted so we could say hi and snap some photos.

Does that imply that appeasing foreigners is more important than a good education?

 

Temples inside Dala's Alaikyaung Pariyatti Monastery.
Temples inside Dala’s Alaikyaung Pariyatti Monastery.

 

Kids
These schoolchildren were super excited to see a pair of foreigners in their classroom.

Money makes a sad ending to our beautiful tour

Before leaving the monastery, Rayko and I decided to pay each brother 10,000 kyat (about $10).

Dala_Electric_Wires_Post-Yangon_Rangoon-Myanmar_Burma-Greg_Goodman-AdventuresofaGoodMan

We figured for roughly 40 minutes of cycling, a coffee shop hangout session, a visit to Myo’s home and a stop at the monastery, 10,000 was very fair.

We hadn’t gotten much of a tour; but, we had a great time and wanted to be generous.

. . .

Up until this point, Myo never spoke about money

However, on the drive back to the boat, he began mentioning how previous travelers had paid upwards of $50 for his tour.

He also asked numerous questions about how much things cost in America; as if to prove that tourists have lots of money.

Then, just before reaching our destination, he “casually” dropped this bombshell:

“If I do not pay 25,000 kyat in rent tomorrow, I will lose my house.”

 

Some of the poverty that lines the roads of Dala, Myanmar.
Some of the poverty that lines the roads of Dala, Myanmar.

So much for “pay as you like.”

Did that mean he wanted each of us to pay 25,000?

Was that 25,000 total?

I imagined his comment was not meant as casual small talk; however, there was no time to discuss this new information with Rayko before arriving at the pier.

 

So, after a lovely exchange of handshakes, smiles and thank you’s, we handed the brothers 10,000 kyat each: as planned.

Myo’s smile immediately disappeared. Moments later, his bluntly said,

“Can you give 5,000 more?”

 

An assortment of money from Myanmar/Burma over the last 100 years.
An assortment of money from Myanmar/Burma over the last 100 years.

 


I don’t care about $5; it’s how it was handled that truly disappointed me.

First, there was no thank you before asking for more money.

It’s almost was like the extra $5 was expected.

Next, if Myo wanted a certain amount for the tour, he should have said that from the start.

 

Yes, yes; I understand the game.

Let the foreigners guess the price and maybe they will pay more.

I also imagine that whatever we gave him, Myo would have tried asking for 5,000 more.

 

I felt like a goat being pulled at this point.
I felt like a goat being pulled at this point.

A conversation that never works

When I tried to explain my disappointment, Myo just stood there with his head down.

Meanwhile, his brother was yelling at him in Burmese.

I honestly don’t know what response I was looking for.

…. Maybe an apology?
…… A thank you?

 

I’ve had similar conversations in similar situations around the world.

It never ends any differently.

How do you explain “I’m a backpacker on a budget” to someone whose home I just put my foot through?

I imagine the only words Myo heard were, “cheap tourist; stupid rich American; it’s so unfair.”

In all honesty, I was ready to give the extra 5,000.

But Myo just stood there; stubborn and non-responsive.

So instead, I said one more thank you and walked away.

 

Myo driving his trishaw in Dala - outside of Yangon, Burma
Myo driving his trishaw in Dala – outside of Yangon, Burma

 

Maybe none of that mattered


Maybe it’s my obligation as a world citizen to give the extra 5,000.

Maybe I was just soap-boxing up on my high horse.

Or, maybe it’s his obligation to be upfront with how much he wants for a tour.

 

What do you think?

  • 1dad1kid

    Perhaps I’m just a cynical traveler, but I can’t help but think that the visit to his house was a total setup to get even more money out of you. For all we know, it wasn’t even his house. It isn’t like that would be an uncommon ploy. I mean this is a country where orphanages rent children to be able to get money out of tourists.

    I do think $10 USD wasn’t a fair amount for a long tour, especially when they’re pedaling that much, but when someone prices something as “pay what you want” that’s the risk they open themselves up to.

    I also do not like this notion that just because I make more money I should pay more for services. It’s a fact of tourism, and I accept that I will be overcharged for some things, but when I work in the US as a photographer or something I don’t adjust my charges according to the perceived income of my client. I charge everyone the same fee.

    I understand his marketing concept, but I think it’s a poor one.

    • Thanks for your comment, Talon. I actually felt that a lot of the experiences in that visit were “setups. ”

      In fact, when you take out the visit to the guy’s “home” and the long stop at a coffee shop, the only thing we actually visited was the monastery… and Myo and Koko just used that as an excuse to hang out.

      When we decided to pay $10, we felt that it was right along the lines of “pay what you like.” Partly because of the local economy’s going rates for life in general, and partly because that’s what we felt it was worth at the time.

  • Photography by Nicole Louis

    Ooh been there, I was so frightened in Ho Chi Min after I handed an amount I thought fare, the driver came running after me inside my guesthouse, yelling profusely, fists clenched and a venomous glare as he told me how much we earned in our countries, ‘By The Hour!’ I thought he was going to hit me. I’ll never forget the look in his eyes of hatred, envy and bitterness, it was frightening for a woman on her own. These situations are incredibly uncomfortable, even now when I hop into a songtoew without declaring the price, I kind of sink with the memory in mind, of the consequences…. What’s fair on the budget we are on is a big and complex question, and the guilt or conscience one can feel. We are always considered rich in these amazing countries, wish I was! However it’s the deceit from genuine smiles to grab we feel, that sometimes make us dig our feet in a little further. Sounds like a set up to me.

    • niclouis

      Oops can’t edit …fare/fair

    • Wow… that’s a much more intense story than mine. I’ve totally been there too… when you feel the hatred of the other person in the story. This is exactly why I have certain policies… like never agree to “pay as you like,” yet sometimes fate puts you back into that situation to see how you fare this time. Such is the constant challenge of the universe :)

      • niclouis

        It’s a wise policy for travellers….and yes from time to time I lapse and enjoy the ride or face the consequences….

  • Barbette

    First, I LOVED your pictures and story. We just left Dala and had a similar experience with the sob stories. Our driver (Sankee) told us it was 6000 kyat for a 30 minute tour to visit 3 places. After the talking and riding and stopping the tour ended 3 hours later. No problem, we loved everything we saw and did. It was the sad stories about cancer, deaths and bills that we kept hearing. At first I was compassionate but then I started getting suspicious. All in all it was a great day trip and I can only hope the pallet of rice we purchased from the rice farmer, gets to the families in Bamboo Village. Our driver told us to purchase rice if we wanted to help them, but we had to go to a separate location and they would deliver the rice accordingly. I hope you had a wonderful time in Burma. It is one of my favorite places on earth. –

    • Thanks for sharing your story. It seems to be a very common thing when taking local tours … probably because the sob stories work. The incredible thing to always think about is whether the stories are true or not — or whether they “should” be a part of the tour — the people giving the tours can always benefit from the extra money. Hope you get a chance to get back to Burma! I agree, it’s also one of my favorite places on earth.