Rice Rice Baby
How could I not buy a big sack of rice for displaced victims of the 2008 cyclone that devastated Myanmar, taking the lives of over 130,000? What kind of selfish prick would say no to that? I’d just been shown the local village where these families who’d lost everything were staying, when my impromptu tour guide suggested we (well, me) buy them some rice.
“Absolutely,” I insisted. I mean, that’s the least I could do, right? Let’s go get some rice.
But when Nandamil explained to me that we wouldn’t personally deliver the rice—that it would be conveniently presented to the hungry village at a later time—well that’s when my apparently delayed bullshit detector decided to finally engage. I’d been taken for a sucker. 136 countries in, and I still took the bait. When will I learn? To be fair, we should start at the very beginning. A lot led up to this purchase at the rice shop.
Man About Town
I was absolutely thrilled to be in Myanmar; this was a bucket list country for me. This morning—my second full day here in Yangon—I was doing what I loved to do most: exploring the town on foot. Seeing the big temples is okay, but let me escape the hoards of tourists and get lost in the city among the locals. That’s what I live for; that’s what really gives my endorphins a run for their money.
I should blame it on the kid. It was the smiling baby that first reeled me in, hook, line and sinker. An adorable eleven-month old named Champa, complete with a healthy dose of thanaka on his cheeks. His aunt Nandamil was selling post cards. Since I’d arrived, all I’d wanted to do was take just one close-up photo of one of those Burmese women with the white paste on their cheeks. Nandamil was selling postcards, and well, I thought this might be the ideal moment to get my shot. I quickly did the math: Lady with white cheeks selling postcards, plus tourist with money, plus cute baby; the equation just made sense. In no time I was picking out my ten favorite postcards and handing over 5,000 kyat (about USD 3.30). While she was looking for change for my 10,000 kyat bill, I told her to just show me how to get to the river’s ferry port and she can keep the change. After all, she had a baby, and I thought what better way to now ask for a photo. She obliged happily, and I got a great shot, portrait mode, from my iPhone X. Mission accomplished. Instagram would be happy.
Show Me The Way
We chatted gleefully during the ten-minute walk to the river’s edge, dodging street traffic, walking through a little tunnel of vendor stands and finally crossing a pedestrian bridge, which led us down to the water. There was a giant, multi-story ferry filled with passengers ready to depart, but I was happier to be jumping on the little wooden boat than Nandamil led me too. I’d ridden in one of these in Bangladesh, and it was so much fun. I was hoping for a similar experience and I got it. Now, the four of us (Me, Nandamil, little Champa and the boat captain) were sputtering across the Yangon River in our little wooden craft. The sun was shining down on us while I was snapping away on my iPhone. Another Anthony Bourdain moment in the books. I sure felt cool.
A Three Hour Tour
Nandamil was explaining that she would be escorting me across the water to the rural fishing village of Dala, and that it was nothing like the big, bustling metro that was Yangon. This was exciting. Nandamil told me the boat ride, one-way, was 5,000 kyat (USD 3.35), which I found to be a little expensive, but whatever. I went to pay the man, but she insisted she’d pay and I could give her the money later. Hmmm.
Soon we were in separate bicycle rickshaws (actually called “trishaws”), cruising down the narrow paths of Dala. Nandamil was right: this place was absolutely nothing like its nearby neighbor Yangon. I loved that I was exploring a place so vastly different than Yangon, without having to fly to another part of the country, or even take a multiple-hour road trip. Dala was so extremely different than Yangon, yet it was only seven minutes away. I felt I hit the jackpot to discover this place on my own: It was in none of the popular “to do” lists I’d scoured online. I totally just did another serious Anthony Bourdain move and I was pretty proud of myself.
The Village People
The trishaw ride was so much fun and I couldn’t stop marveling at the scenery. Here I was, cruising through this little fishing village, not another tourist in sight. Dala was alive with activity: men working on boats, kids playing, old ladies preparing food in front of their houses. Oh, and the houses were interesting. Some were very poorly assembled huts; others were multi-story, modest, but probably very fancy houses for this area. I felt bad for my trishaw driver: this older man really had to put in work to get us up some of the hills; I’m not at my peak physical condition now; in other words, I’m a fat ass. And had I minded my taco and donut consumption throughout 2019, maybe this poor guy wouldn’t have to be putting so much work in to pedal me around.
We stopped and visited a pagoda, while Nandamil explained the things we were seeing. One important attraction included a mythical man, deceased, who was encased in bronze and on display in a glass box. Back on our trishaws, we headed out of the main village to a smaller shantytown on the outskirts. Nandamil explained the story of the people here: they were displaced victims of an enormous cyclone that had left the area devastated back in 2008. I’d later read that it was Myanmar’s biggest recorded natural disaster, with over 130,000 lives lost. How awful!
Nandamil had mentioned, in her broken English, that we’d stop at a store and pick up some rice to “donate” to the village. Sounded like a noble gesture to me. Soon we were in a little store and I was handing over 60,000 kyat (USD 40) for a giant sack of rice. I wasn’t sure if that was a fair price or not, but I was just happy to help. I felt even worse for my trishaw driver, who now would have a giant sack of rice weighing his vehicle down, in addition to my fat ass. Poor guy! But then Nandamil explained that the rice would be delivered to the people later. In other words, we wouldn’t be taking the food over ourselves. Hmmm. That seemed weird. But certainly this sweet lady wasn’t planning on keeping the money herself, with those poor cyclone victims never seeing their food that I was supposed to have bought for them. Nah, couldn’t be. I was thinking crazy, right? What kind of elaborate “rice scam” did I think was happening? I shouldn’t be such a cynic…
But let me Google that real quick…
To Catch a Predator
It was at our next stop—a restaurant—when I decided to turn my phone service on and take a look. I’d vowed to keep my cell on airplane mode, so I wouldn’t be tempted to be checking my social media every five minutes, but this couldn’t wait. “Myanmar rice scam” was what I typed in the search box. A second later, I tried to keep my eyes inside their sockets, as pages upon pages of results appeared. As Nandamil enjoyed her giant plate of fried rice and egg, I hurriedly read a handful of scam reports, which read pretty much exactly as my experience had unfolded. Only, like a fortuneteller who could look into the future, I was able see how it all ended, and it wasn’t good.
The More You Know
Most of the stories and warnings I read online had just about every detail that my experience had this morning, including the now infamous “rice scam.” I felt like such a dummy. However, the outline of this story would get worse, with victims detailing being shaken down for much more money at the end of this scam tour. One person wrote that when his tour was over, his guide demanded copious amounts of money; when he refused, four pretty tough looking Burmese men suddenly appeared and more or less threatened consequences if the guide wasn’t paid in full. The poor bastard ended up getting escorted to the ATM to withdraw a stack of cash. Yup, this was actually an ongoing and very elaborate scam, using the Dala village specifically, to con unsuspecting tourists out of money. It had been going on for years, with many people involved, including those trishaw drivers. (I immediately stopped feeling bad for them, knowing that they were about to price-gouge me. Dicks.)
I wondered now, was the whole town in on it? Did the unsuspecting old lady at the rice shop know I was being suckered? Were all the nice children and old people waving at me as I passed by really snickering inside, thinking, “There goes another one!” Oh boy; this was one big giant production and I was the surprise guest star. I had to end this game now, as safely and inexpensively as I could. It couldn’t go on any longer. I decided I was in control of this game now.
“Well hey,” I said. “This has been great, but I have to get back to my hotel to meet a friend. How much do I owe you for everything?”
I, very nicely, but clearly demanded a “final bill.” Nandamil started with the trishaw price, which she claimed would be 60,000.00. Sure, that’s only USD $40, which isn’t a lot for the time and work in American standards, but the normal charge for such a service here would be around two bucks, meaning there was some big time scamming going on. Now that I was armed with info, I looked Nandamil in the eyes and said, “No way, that’s way too much.” She left to talk to the drivers, who soon came to the table to discuss their fees. We finally settled on 50,000—or about $35—which isn’t a lot of money for their actual work, but again, obscenely overpriced for the market. I tempered my frustrations by reminding myself that it was indeed my fault for not asking the price upfront; that’s always rule number one when taking any form of transportation, anywhere, and a complete amateur move on my part. I also reconciled that for all the time we spent together, $35 for an American like me, really, is nothing.
I flashbacked to earlier, when Nandamil asked where I was staying, and I foolishly told her the name of the luxury downtown hotel I where I was lodging. She was indeed sizing up my wealth. Had I told her I was staying at a hostel or the YMCA, she may not have seen those big dollar signs. I asked Nandamil how much I owed her for her services, and surprisingly she answered with, “It’s up to you.”
Once we were back in our respective trishaws, I opened up my phone’s GPS to make sure we were heading back to the river, and that I wasn’t being carted off somewhere in the jungle to be skewered. It may have been a little too late, but I was now as alert and cautious as anyone could be. I knew as long as I was around other people, things would probably be okay. I was on-guard for any sudden turns down deserted paths. Luckily, minutes later we were back at the river’s edge, and I was begrudgingly handing over the cash for my inflated transportation bill to our drivers.
I’m The Captain Now
Nandamil, Champa and I were soon crossing back over the river, and the sudden thought popped into my head that if this boat captain was also “in on it,” he could simply stop the boat in the middle of the river and demand whatever he wanted from me: “All your money, or you have to swim to shore!” This actually happened to my dear grandparents during a trip to China many years ago. Luckily, this was not the case today, and when we docked and Nandamil asked for another 5,000 for this boat trip, I scoffed at her, telling her I knew that’s not how much it cost.
While walking up the concrete banks of the river, an older, Belgian couple stopped me to ask about the trip across the river and if the other side was worth seeing. I told them it was indeed awesome, but to be careful of all the scams, going into detail about the rice, the trishaws, etc. I didn’t care if Nandamil heard me. We were back in the big city now, and away from the trishaw drivers, and hopefully any others that were in on the scam. I felt so much safer.
When we got back to Independence Square, I asked Nandamil to sit down with me. When I asked her about the rice, suddenly her English disappeared and she was unable to answer ay of my questions or even speak much at all. When I insisted on more information and told her I was on to the scam, she looked down. She knew she was busted, but kept acting like she didn’t understand. I didn’t press too hard. Who am I to push my ethics on a poor Burmese woman who probably lives in a shack without indoor plumbing, all because she hustled me out of less money than a real, licensed tour would’ve cost me if I’d booked it through a legitimate organization. It was a tough line. I was more upset that folks weren’t really going to get their rice, than I was about having to part with a few dollars. Against my better judgment, I ended up handing Nandamil 50,000 kyat (about USD 35) for her time, knowing she’s probably also getting a cut of the money for the fake rice purchase, the trishaws and that first boat ride.
All in all, the whole experience (postcards, rice, lunch, trishaws, boat) cost me $80, which isn’t much at all. In fact, were her services and the whole tour worth the $80? Absolutely! I would’ve gladly paid $100+ for all the fun I had, although, fair market prices for everything I did was probably closer to $15. It’s not that I’m sore over 80 bucks, I’m just bummed with the deception. After researching these scams more, it’s apparent that the Burmese are some of the best at this, luring folks in with their seemingly sincere and unbridled kindness. It could’ve been worse. It could’ve cost me a lot more money, and I might’ve even had to tussle with some Burmese bros. I just hope my money went to things like helping clothe and feed little Champa, and not to some organized crime ring. I’ll never know.
Live and Learn
136 countries down and you would’ve thought I’d be wiser. After allowing my tuk-tuk driver in Thailand to take me to the “one day only suit factory opening” (and buying two suits there), to handing over all my cash to the Brasilian fortune teller on the streets of Porto Alegre who then made all my evil money “disappear,” I swear I’d never get duped again, yet I did. The recurring lesson is, sadly, you just usually shouldn’t put your trust in strangers who try to help you, no matter how sincere they may seem. Stay in your bubble, and only do business with licensed, organized and official tour guides and companies.
When all is said and done, do I recommend you visit the other side of the river? Absolutely. Just know what’s waiting for you on the other side.
If you ever encounter this scam, contact the Yangon Tourist Police at 110 Pansodan Street (lower block), or call 01378479.
Update: How crazy that I ended up returning to Dala the very next day, but this time on my own. I really did love the village and its people, and something about the place was calling me back. This time I did everything solo: Except for the big ferry over, I declined everything I was offered, and spent hours, on foot, exploring for miles and miles. I really had a great time, and the residents there were just wonderful. I say this with complete sincerity, that I believe Myanmar to be an absolutely wonderful place and I would never let the actions of a handful of scammers define the entire country or its people. Happy travels…and do go to Dala!