Will Scam for Food in Burma

It was my first night in Yangon, the southeast Asian metropolis formerly known as Rangoon, and I was standing in a dank, dark back street arguing with a 16-year-old boy over his fee for oral sex. Well, sort of. He had propositioned me. And while I wasn’t interested, I was appalled when he told me how little he’d do it for. So I began lecturing him that he should charge more. Not that I know the going international rate for such things. I swear. It just seemed low for doing such an intimate thing to a complete stranger. Why I didn’t talk him out of the nightly practice completely is beyond me. Then again, my mind at that moment was in full-on negotiating mode.

It all began when I had arrived in Myanmar two hours earlier. As I was checking in to my hotel, I was told the price of the room and pulled out my wad of $20 bills (there are no ATMs in Myanmar, so one must arrive with a bulk of cash). I put three bills down on the counter and the team at reception began scrutinizing the notes like avid baseball card collectors inspecting a Honus Wagner card. They discussed among each other, spitting out a slew of Burmese and then shaking their heads from side to side. The oldest member of the money-scrutinizing triumvirate stepped forward and informed me my money was no good. “See this,” he said, pointing to the tiniest of creases in the crisp $20 bill. “No good.” I protested, saying that anywhere else in the world these were perfectly valid twenty dollar bills. “You don’t understand,” he said. “This is Myanmar.”

I have to confess: I had heard the warnings that they only exchange perfectly crisp, blemish-free American dollars here and it wasn’t until the day I was leaving–having already withdrawn $500 in cash from my bank the day before–that I realized I should take it all back to the bank and get brand new bills. The problem, though, was that by the time I got around to it, the banks were closed. I had no choice but to get on my flight that night, hoping that the guidebooks and friends who had been here were grossly exaggerating.

They weren’t.
At the reception desk, the three hotel employees went through my entire bundle of bills. They found three that worked. Enough to pay for my room that night. But that was it. The rest, while mostly crisp and new-ish, were disqualified for having a tiny crease here or a black marker spot there.

I took a deep breath and wondered what I was going to do. One of my biggest fears when I’m traveling is being stuck in a place with no access to money. To be totally stranded, reduced to a homeless beggar. The previous month I was in Ethiopia and when a few ATM machines wouldn’t let me withdraw money that old uncomfortable feeling came back and I sulked around the streets of Addis Ababa for an hour or so going on a cash machine crawl and fearing the worst. I did eventually get money.

So, with no ATMs in Yongon to seek out, I deposited my things in my room and picked out five of the most corrupted bills I had. I was going to exchange these by the end of the night. I was determined. And I was going to do in the street. Not in a brightly lit hotel with overly discriminating employees. The key, though, was this: I knew that exchanging money on the street anywhere in the world is an invitation to get ripped off. So I was going to have to be as sketchy and scheming as the guys with whom I was going to be doing business. I was going to have to out sleaze them. I might as well have hung a sign around my neck that read: WILL SCAM FOR FOOD. Was I up for it? Well, I did want to eat that night. So, yes.

About two blocks outside of my hotel, a couple teenagers accosted me. Did I want to exchange money? Why, yes I did. I followed them. We twisted and turned down dark narrow streets. Water dripped from god knows where. In the distance, female Buddhists were chanting. We finally stopped at the entrance of an apartment. I was invited up. But this is where the shady part begins. We needed to do this in as dimly lit environment as possible. I knew I was risking getting ripped off as well, but it was the only way I was going to possibly exchange money.

After some arguing about whether I was going to come up and the price of the exchange, one of the boys finally ascended the steep steps to get the money. Meanwhile the second boy began quizzing me on my sexual preference. He could do it just as well, if not better, than a woman, he assured me in near perfect English. I said I believed him but I wasn’t interested. His explicit details were interrupted when his colleague materialized with the cash.

He counted it out. Seventy-five 1000 kyat bills. And then he handed it to me and asked for my five $20 bills in exchange. First, though, I wanted to count the wad of Burmese kyat myself. I did, creating individual piles of 10 bills each. It was all there. One of the boys picked up the money again and demanded my cash. I pulled it out and as they were looking at each $20 bill, I recounted the kyat. Suddenly only half of it was there. Here was the scam. Here was when they matched my sleaziness. When I called them on it, one of boys threw down the missing bundle. But it didn’t matter. They’d already noticed that my dollars were tainted with creases and value-decreasing ink stains.

“Okay then, forget it. The deal is off,” I said, grabbing the five American bills from his hand. But their desperation got the better of them. They’d already invested enough time and energy into this situation that they didn’t want to let me walk away now.

“No, okay,” one of the boys said. “We’ll take your dollars.” I handed him my money and scooped up the 75 Burmese bills. I counted off a few and handed it to the boy who made the indecent proposal to me. “Here, go eat something instead of propositioning foreigners,” I said and then briskly walked down the street, fearing they’d change their mind about the exchange and run after me. I celebrated in a restaurant eating curry chicken and various vegetable dishes over rice and washing it all down with an enormous bottle of Myanmar beer, trying not to think that in a few nights I was going to have to do this all over again.