Myanmar changes. The people who visit Myanmar change.
In December 2012 I met a four-time-visitor who said that she was not coming again because as the country opened up to the outside world it was losing its sense of isolation and mystery. She begrudged local people their new political freedoms and economic possibilities. It was spoiling her holiday. Damaging her intrepid explorer self-image. She’s probably in North Korea now.
A year later the first signs of a different breed of traveller became frighteningly apparent. To my horror, I saw elephant pants in Yangon. Along with Chang Beer vests and ‘spiritual’ tattoos (and yoga mats) elephant pants are an almost-uniform of same-same conformity and irrefutable evidence of the presence of wackpackers.
Wackpackers are just like backpackers. But wack. And now they’re here in numbers.
Since the Grand Tour (or maybe the Argonauts) snobs like me have complained about other tourists being improperly dressed. Colonial-era Europeans were derided for over-dressing in the tropics. Now the complaint is that the white folk are showing too much flesh.
Misanthropes like me despair that so many (not exclusively) younger tourists have not read the politics or history chapters of a travel guide or googled just enough to stop them advertising their ignorance so readily. Many wackpackers do not have a guide book. They believe they are ‘adventurous’. They think they can find their own way around. If they need help they won’t be afraid to ask a fellow traveller a dumb question
“Who is the woman whose picture I keep seeing everywhere?”
Wackpackers think of Vietnam-Cambodia-Laos-Thailand-Myanmar as a single contiguous ‘almost-country’ (like Africa yeah?) and take insufficient time to notice or react to the differences between them. They stick together, group together, hang out and hook up, at the expense of time spent in the company of locals, because they’ve so much in common already.
They all (mostly, hat-tip to the rest) go to the same six places, sleep in the same bed-bugged beds (who do they think is spreading them?) and take and share, share, share the same ‘no-filter!’ photos of each of the countries they ‘do’ (eurgh!).
And they’re all talking about heading to the Philippines next
They complain more than they show appreciation. Especially about the food, even though they keep eating the same three things as if the few words on the menu that have been translated badly into English are all that there is to eat.
They argue for a discount as if this is India. But they have plenty of cash for beer
And they are not adventurous. Relying on fellow wackpackers’ reviews and recommendations, keeps them firmly on the well-beaten path. If the guidebook recommends eight places to sleep, peer-to-peer crowdsourcing reduces the choice to six, or four, as those not habitually occupied by other wackpackers are not deemed ‘social’ and are filtered out.
You might choose to do nothing about this but I’m a multi-tasker. I can be patronising and condescending at the same time. If I meet a wackpacker in the wild I WhatsApp them my ten top tips on how (not) to behave.
1. Manners. Ideally learn to speak enough of the language to seem polite. If you’re determined only to learn hello and thankyou then take two fucking minutes to learn to say them fucking properly.
2. Dress code. Take a look around you. What are local people wearing? If the women are not wearing hot pants or spaghetti vests, are not knotting a sleeveless t-shirt so as to reveal their mid-riff then it’s probably best if you don’t girls. Guys, it’s really not OK to ride a motorbike through the village shirtless. And no elephant pants. Any of you.
3. Cleanliness. Wash. Wash your clothes too. In the sea does not count. Use soap. Regularly. Wearing a t-shirt that I can see has not been washed for 19 days because it still has your dated Shwedagon sticker on it makes you a scuzzer. Trying to justify it by saying ‘that’s travelling’ makes you an idiot. Local people who will never have a power-shower in their lifetime, probably don’t have running water in their home and who certainly don’t have a washing machine manage to be bodily clean and presentable, in fresh clothes, at almost all times whilst working twelve hours a day. We’re on holiday stinking. What must they think of us?
4. Money. Stop haggling with poor people who are struggling to make a living. The minimum wage is 3600 kyat. A labourer might only be making 5000 kyat. A street food seller maybe even less. A DAY. Work it out. Whatever the discount you manage to get the marginal benefit to you is much, much smaller than the marginal disbenefit to them. And anyway this is not India. There are very few situations where haggling is the norm. Hardly anyone in this country is trying to rip you off. If it is going to happen it’s most likely to be in one of those same six places that everyone else is going to. Try going somewhere else. And if someone does take you for a couple of thousand kyat then maybe they were just lucky you came along. Get ripped off with good grace, bank the karma in place of the cash. And any time you do invest in learning the language will pay off because no-one (except that Yawmingyi fruit seller with the 700 kyat oranges) has the presence of mind or inclination to up the price if they are marvelling at your ability to ask the price.
5. History and politics. Read up. The people of this country have come smiling through a series of societal and personal horrors and trauma, some still ongoing, the impacts of which are still widely felt. It’s grossly insensitive not to pick up at least the basics, to use the knowledge as a filter for what you see and, occasionally, to make some allowances for it. She’s called Aung San Suu Kyi. The little bloke is her dad.
6. You are not an adventurer. This is not an adventure. There are rules. Bend them maybe. Don’t break them. Make trouble only for yourself. Never for locals because the trouble they get into will dwarf the trouble for you. Better that you sleep in the street than that a local risks prison to put you up in their house. It does happen but it’s their call. NEVER push it. NEVER impose yourself on their hospitality. A time will come when Myanmar people can and will open up their homes to travellers – and it will be great – but we are not there yet.
7. Speak up but know when to shut up. I’m no stickler for respecting all of a society’s customs and traditions, particularly if they are founded in religious bullshit. There is no need to toe the lines of local mysogyny and race hatred. Better to gently (I said gently) challenge them or to politely present alternatives. Or to keep quiet. Or to leave.
8. Go with the flow. At the same time I’m no fan of wilfully breaking social rules or consciously upsetting the sensibilities of people who offer me their friendship and hospitality. I think it’s a nonsense that men’s and women’s clothes cannot be washed together or hung to dry on the same line but I try to remember not to break the rule when someone has kindly let me do my laundry at their home.
9. Keep smiling but don’t cross the line. Remember the wise words of Jarvis Cocker, “Everybody hates a tourist. Especially one who thinks it’s all such a laugh”. Even in Myanmar there’s some truth in that.
10. Not really. Ten would make it TLDR.
An edited version of this post appeared in the Myanmar Times on 22.4.2016 with this cartoon.
Thein Tun Oo/The Myanmar Times