The Myanmar CEO hadn’t paid me, and I wasn’t happy.
I had done some work for a company in Myanmar about six months ago and the client seemed satisfied with the work. He had asked me to bill him for the remaining payment, which I did. But no money arrived in my account. I sent various reminders, to him and his staff, and asked some associates of mine to politely mention it to him. “Yes, yes” he would say “I tried sending the money but…” (insert your phony excuse here).
I didn’t want to get angry, as he is well connected with the army and I have long made it a rule not to argue with guys with guns, but it was a sizeable chunk of money and I wanted it.
There was nothing else to do but go see him in person.
Fortunately, I had some other people to meet up with and I could get some more business while I was there so I booked the flight and took off.
I truly love going to Yangon. It is a reminder of what Asia must have been like 50 years ago. There is little traffic on the road from the airport, and, having just spent a week in Hi Chi Minh City, I was applauding the lack of motorbikes.
The city is clean. Poor, but clean. There is no refuse on the streets like you might find in virtually every other country in Southeast Asia (excepting Singapore). Life is leisurely. People stroll down the street, arm in arm. They still wear national dress. Even top businessmen will wear longyi in the office. As there is no belt on this typically Burmese sarong, you will see people constantly opening and refastening it when it loosens, and I kept waiting for someone to show me their drawers.
The people are so polite. They don’t smile like the Thais, but are unfailingly gracious. When I go for a meeting, I will be given tea, coffee and water, all three things, simultaneously. There seems to be a fear to ask my preference so I get everything whether I want it or not. They hold their right elbow with their left hand when they offer something, be it a business card or a handshake. I miss the Thai wai, which they do not use, and they are a naturally cautious, not openly friendly, people, but the experience is truly genuine unlike the fakery you sometimes get now in Thailand.
Myanmar food is not the best, and suffers in comparison with Thai food. But it is all edible and there are enough western restaurants now that decent grub is always available. In the last year many coffee shops have sprung up, and while there are still no chains like Starbucks, there is no lack of decent coffee.
There are no tall buildings in Yangon, everything is low rise. The best thing to do is ride around the back streets, where you feel you are in a completely different world. As I was there on business I didn’t bring my camera, but the place is a photographer's dream.
Unfortunately, there is no good massage as in Thailand, but one of my Myanmar friends takes me to a local’s only place. We usually go after dinner, around 10pm, and the place is hopping. We park in a dark street and go up a rickety flight of stairs. Inside, there are about 10 massage tables with head rests and basins. You lie down fully clothed, and for one hour they give you a head massage and shampoo. Being shampooed for an hour does not sound like the best way to spend some time, but believe me it is a wonder and you have never felt so relaxed after a Thai massage. But the place is not quiet. The girls chatter non-stop (there are no private rooms) in their Chinese based dialect (they are not Burmese but from an ethnic group bordering China), there are kids running around, music is blaring as there is a karaoke connected, and customers are snoring. Cost five dollars and I give the girl a dollar tip. I love it.
Now I know you are all waiting with bated breath for me to discuss the evening affairs. There are a few discos where the Myanmarese go, which I am not particularly fond of. Myanmar young men like to dance in groups of 4 or 5, in a circle facing each other, and the women dance with themselves. It feels like a bad high school prom. The men dance quite violently, shaking themselves ferociously, not at all in time with the music.
Last night, after our head massage and shampoo, a Myanmar friend of mine took me to one of these discos, called Pioneer. About 80% Myanmar men. A few foreigners. This is quite typical in Myanmar, which local men and foreigners mix together in the bars, completely different from Thailand where bars are usually either foreign only or Thai only. When was the last time you saw a Thai male customer in Nana or Cowboy?
There was a line-up of working girls, about 10 all together. They mostly stayed in groups, laughing and chatting among themselves. As my friend is well known, several came up to chat with us, and we bought them drinks. The girl who fixed on me was quite aggressive, a smoker, who I didn’t care for and it took some doing to get rid of her. My friend finally had to tell her to leave, as she was desperately trying to consummate the sale with me right there in the disco.
Two hotels, Sedona and Park Royale, have bars primarily for foreigners in their basements, with Philippino bands. While you will get some Myanmar men, you get a lot of Asian businessmen, Chinese and Koreans in particular. Park Royal limits the number of girls who can enter to twenty a night, and if one leaves there is no replacement. If you get there at midnight there might be less than ten girls.
I went with another Myanmar friend to Sedona, where the limit turns out to be twelve girls a night. Luckily we got there around 10pm so there was a full complement. Unlike in Bangkok or Manila where the girls tend to be from the provinces, uneducated, with a baby (or two) at home and no husband, girls in Yangon who are “available” are usually single, no kids, living with their families at home and with decent English skills. I spent some time chatting with a pretty 20 year old who is in her third year at university studying English. She had a great sense of humor, an infectious laugh, and an ability to converse far beyond the average Thai bar girl.
My Myanmar friend chatted with a twenty one year old who was there with her nineteen year old sister. “My father just died and my uncle has diabetes. My sister and I became prostitutes to pay for his medicine and to buy food. What else could we do?” she said in Burmese.
There is no bar fine and the girls are often not drinkers so an evening can be rather inexpensive. However, since relationships between local girls and foreigners are not common, the girls are not looking for a long time partner, and tend to be a bit professional, friendly enough, but all business. As they live at home and would get a bollocking from their dads if they stayed out all night, they will only go short time. They don’t get money from ladies drinks so they tend to want to agree a deal quickly. If nothing is happening they will move on and have little inclination to sit and chat. If the deal is made then it is off in a taxi as quickly as possible as they like to get home before midnight if possible.
I went to see my client on the first day after I arrived. Most top businessmen have a reception room where they meet guests. There are usually a number of oversized leather couches, plastics flowers, hideous paintings on the walls and an air conditioner blasting away. The secretary brought me there while another woman served the customary tea, coffee and water simultaneously. My client arrived a few moments later and without a word handed me a very large envelope containing what appeared to be a huge number of brand new hundred dollar bills. Thinking it rude to count, I left the packet on the table in front of us and we began to chat. When I left an hour later I slipped the packet into my briefcase. Not a word had been mentioned about the money.
I always quietly put money in a lady’s purse when we are finished and we never discuss the transaction. It felt the same way and I wondered whether I should feel dirty or not.