Will Scam for Food in Burma

Will Scam for Food in BurmaIt 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exchange perfectly crisp, blemish-free American dollars here and it wasn’t until the day I was leaving–having already withdrawn $500 in cash from my bank the day before–that I realized I should take it all back to the bank and get brand new bills.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.

Culinary Cab Confessions: where to talk politics (and eat well) in Yangon

He said to call him Ricky. As our taxi jerked its way through the center of Yangon, the southeast Asian metropolis formerly known as Rangoon and the recently dethroned capital of Myanmar (the erstwhile Burma), Ricky explained to me how he acquired such an unlikely name. “My Sunday school teacher gave it to me. You don’t even want to know what my Burmese name is,” he said, taking a sharp right turn. “Too hard to pronounce.” Ricky said that despite his Sunday school attendance, he’s a lifelong Buddhist and that he just attended the school to learn English. Which he seemed to pick up quite well at the expense of Jesus and Co.

A few minutes earlier, I had walked out of my hotel and there he was. “Taxi?” Maybe, I replied. But I had a special request. I was in Yangon for a few days and wanted to do another installment of Culinary Cab Confessions, a series for Gadling in which I put to test the notion that cab drivers are the best guide to a city’s undiscovered and affordable restaurant gems. I presented the idea to him. “Get in,” he said.

And within seconds we were swerving through traffic. We passed the railway station and the football stadium. Ricky, 32, has been driving a cab for a few years. He said he does it every day from 5:30am to midnight. And then he goes home to the outskirts of the city and spends the only few waking moments with his wife before passing out from exhaustion.

It was just my second day in Burma and I was eager to talk to locals about the current political situation. Changes, it seemed, were happening quickly. Political prisoners were being released. Aung San Suu Kyi, the longtime voice of the opposition, years under house arrest, had also been set free. Elections for April 2012 had been called. The Burmese populace suddenly had something to be hopeful about: that the decades-long military dictatorship in Burma would finally end. But, as I was informed, one doesn’t just bring that stuff up here. The secret police, I’d been told, are everywhere. And if someone gets caught saying anything bad about the ruling government, it’s curtains. Instead, as a visitor, you have to wait for them to talk about it.

Want to know a secret?” he asked. That didn’t take very long, I thought and then waited for him to begin. “The place I’m taking you is a very local place. There are no tourists there,” he said. And within a minute, we were pulling up to the Morning Star Café, a partially open-air eatery that appeared to have more staff than customers. Then again, we were about an hour ahead of the lunch rush. As is my custom in such situations, I prefer the local to do the ordering, telling him only to ask for what he usually eats. I realize the risk involved in this. What if he had an eating proclivity for the bizarre? Or worse, what if he was a vegan?

Tea arrived first. Then something called mohn hihn khar, a fish soup in a semi-translucent broth bobbing with garlic, onions, and ginger. Burmese cuisine doesn’t really dazzle the food-loving world in the way that its neighbor, Thailand, does when it comes to food; or its southeast Asian brethren, Vietnam. But this was good. Packed with flavors that conspired to create something bold, the soup was gone in minutes. “You want something else?” Ricky asked. I nodded. And then he pointed his face toward a gaggle of lingering waiters in the distance, pursed his lips together, and made loud kissing noises at them.

A few minutes later, a plate of coconut rice topped with a stewy bone-in chicken pieces was deposited in front of me. Chicken and starchy coconut had never tasted so delicious together. This was a dish that only the love of air kisses could create. While I was devouring my lunch, Ricky and I talked about family, Buddhist philosophy, and football. Ah, I thought, who needs to talk about politics. Besides, we’re in a public place. Ricky could get in big trouble.

And just then he leaned in. Ricky took a few quick glances around and said: “Do you know about the changes that are going on here….?”

Photo of the Day: Workers on a bench

The best photography captures candid moments – those split seconds between fantasy and reality when our subjects’ guard comes down and we get a glimpse into their true nature. That’s why I liked today’s photo by Flickr user t3mujin – his shot of workers relaxing on a bench in the Burmese city of Yangon feels like one of those candid moments. I love how each man’s body language is slightly unique yet quite similar – the two on the ends with their knees up act almost like “bookends” to the men in the middle with both their legs down.

Have any great photos from your own travels? Why not add them to our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.

Travel meets journalism at Roads and Kingdoms

travel journalismLast month, writers Nathan Thornburgh (a contributing editor to TIME and recent guest of Fox News) and Matt Goulding (food & culture writer and author behind the Eat This, Not That! book series) launched a new website with the intriguing tagline: “Journalism, travel, food, murder, music. First stop: Burma.” Combining on-the-spot reporting on current events and politics with in-depth cultural observations, rich photography, and engrossing narratives, Roads and Kingdoms feels like a travel blog we all want to write: a bit daring, occasionally foolhardy, and often inspiring. Fresh home from their first major trip and recovering from Burma belly, Gadling talked to co-founder Nathan about Roads and Kingdoms.

How would you describe your blog in one sentence?
Travel meets journalism.

How did it come about? How has your background in news helped (or hindered) your travels?
Matt and I felt like our work – he writes about food, I’m a foreign correspondent – actually had a lot in common. As writers on assignment, we found that the best parts of being on the road – the amazing meal on the street corner, the back-alley bar with the great live jams, the sweaty tuk tuk ride through the outskirts of the city – are left out of the final product. It’s those parts that we want to provide a home for. It’s a different kind of travel mindset, whether you’re going to London or Lagos. Journalism is all about being curious, which is a quality great travelers have as well.

It’s not meant to remain a blog: we’ll be launching our full site soon, which won’t just be our travels, but a variety of dispatches in the Roads and Kingdoms style, from writers and photographers and videographers around the world.
Why did you choose Burma as a first destination?
First off, we think Burma is going to be a huge tourist destination in the years to come, if the country continues to open up. It’s an amazingly vivid and warm country, and has a lot of the traditional rhythms of life that Thailand, for example, has lost.

Burma also had the perfect combination of stories for us to launch Roads and Kingdoms with. We were able to report on the killer hiphop scene in the south, up-and-coming graffiti artists in Rangoon, and of course, the amazing (and all but undiscovered) Burmese cuisine. Then Matt went to Bagan, this breathtaking valley of temples that will become a big part of Burma’s tourist boom. While he took in the temples, I visited the heart of the war-torn north, where I was able to hang out with gold miners and Kachin refugees and see a part of Burma that not a lot of people get to see.

What do you hope to inspire in readers?
We’d love to inspire readers to travel the way we do: with a sense of wonder and a big appetite, with curiosity and an awareness of the backstory behind the destinations.

Flashback, Burma Day One: Bad Crab from Roads and Kingdoms on Vimeo.

Roads and Kingdoms did not get detained in Myanmar for being journalists entering on a tourist visa. But Nathan still hit an unexpected roadblock on the first day in Burma: a plate of chili-slathered, rancid crab.

What are the challenges in blogging somewhere like Burma?

We were fortunate that our trip coincided with Hillary Clinton’s historic visit to Burma. The government didn’t want to create any problems that week, so we were incredibly free as journalists there; much more so than I could have ever imagined the first time I went in 2003. I was followed and watched when I visited the north, but they didn’t interfere with my work. However: Internet access still sucks. You can’t blog if you can’t connect, and that’s a huge problem in Burma.

How is social media adding to the blog?
Social media is huge for us. We’re starting out as a Tumblr, for example, not just because it’s great for articles/photos/videos, but because it’s so shareable. We want people to get involved, not just as passive consumers, but as advisers and compañeros along the way.

Where are you going next?
We have a short list, and we actually want readers to help us decide. London? Moscow? Lima? It’s a big world out there!

Follow the adventures at RoadsandKingdoms.com and connect with Nathan and Matt (and assorted interns) on Twitter @RoadsKingdoms and Facebook.

Photo of the Day – U Bein Bridge

Near the city of Amarapura, in the mysterious Asian nation of Myanmar, lies the famous U Bein teak bridge. Every day at dawn, and again at sunset, groups of monks and nearby villagers traverse its aging surface, their bodies silhouetted against the sharply angular rays of the sun. Flickr user t3mujin was lucky enough to be there one recent sunset to witness the spectacle. A lone monk traverses the bridge in an ocher robe while the setting Burmese sun softens the light behind to milky whites and faint blueish hues.

Taken any great travel shots of your own recently? Why not add them our Gadling group on Flickr? We might just pick one of yours as our Photo of the Day.