The next day, I decide that my sweet cheeks have recovered sufficiently to brave another bicycle, so I hire a chariot and head off temple-hunting. They’re not in short supply, and the first few along the highway are pretty quiet, allowing me to wander at my own pace and imagine the Pagan kingdom at its glorious height. As we get closer to the action, though, it becomes apparent that there is more likely than not going to be someone hanging around who, oh, by the way also has something to sell! After a few more this starts to wear very thin, and I’ve already bought one overpriced sand painting of Old Bagan by night that looks suspiciously like every other one I’ve seen. I’m happiest just wandering, in awe at the sheer scale of it all.
One exchange does stick in my mind, though, and cheered me up no end after being pursued half a mile down the road by a guy on a motorbike yelling “You just look is OK no buuuy!”, a uniquely unsuccessful sales pitch. This guy rolls up with his friend in tow, big aviator shades, ponytail, goatee, the universal wide boy constant. The exchange goes something like this
Wideboy: Hello! Good morning! How long you are in Bagan?
Me: A few days, maybe. I’m not sure yet.
Wideboy: Ah, vous êtes Française!
Me: Eh non.
WB: Ah! You are American!
His friend: Holland!
WB: Germany! Italy! Spain! Switzerland!
His friend: Japan!
Me: Hai, nihonjin desu!
Me: I’m British.
WB: Ah! But you are very tall!
Me: Are British people not tall?
WB: Maybe not! I suppose you already have a sand painting!
Me: Well actually, yes…
WB: Oh. Ah. Because you see I am a painter, but I don’t have… (here he looks around theatrically)
Me: A licence?
WB: Ssh! Yes! But! I will show you, because my paintings are a little different… (he’s right – they are. They are versions of the classics – monks with begging bowls, Bagan sunsets – only with a slightly twisted humour at work. The monks have acquired giant grins, for example)
Me: They’re very nice… but I’m afraid I’m not going to buy one.
WB: Really? Hmm. Are you tired of seeing temples yet?
Me: A little.
WB: Are you tired of businessmen trying to sell you paintings?
Me: (laughs) You are very clever.
WB: You see, now is big problem for me. I can’t afford a government licence, it costs maybe $300 per year. Maybe not so much for you, but for me…
Me: But I can’t paint.
WB: But I can! Actually my first plan was to make a movie, you see I am a famous movie actor, my name is Tin Tin (quite possibly Htin Htin, an actual name – Ed) and this here is Bruce Lee. But you know we didn’t have enough money and so now I paint.
Me: That’s a very sad story.
WB: Yes! Well, maybe if you don’t want my paintings, you can buy my friend here, very cheap!
Me: Hmm. I only have a very small bag…
WB: Or maybe I will exchange one of my paintings for you!
Me: If you give me a painting and you own me, won’t you own the painting?
WB: Ah! Then… do you want to buy my motorbike?
Me: Yes! How much?
WB: Ah. Er… 1 kyat.
Me: OK, great. I only have 100 so do you have 99 change?
WB: Actually, er, 99 kyat is a lot of money for me, so I can’t give you.
Me: (sensing that this could go on forever) Ok, I’m sorry that we couldn’t do business. I’m going this way now.
And with that, I waved goodbye to my new friends Tin Tin and Bruce Lee, and continued on my way.
This conversation did make me wonder. Whenever I changed money, I received a stack of 1,000 kyat notes. Isn’t there anything bigger? Well, there is also the 5,000 kyat note, a recent addition, but it’s difficult enough to get change for the 1,000 kyat notes. I’m aware that the tourist economy is bound to float some way above the local one, especially given the weak economic situation of Myanmar, but I never saw a note smaller than 100 kyat, while in theory denominations range down to 1 pya (a hundredth of 1 kyat). Change is thus often given in kind – sweets or instant coffee – a situation that does exist in Vietnam but really only for one denomination.
I suppose my question is, is this limited to the tourist bubble, or is it another manifestation of gross economic mismanagement? Given that the small notes in circulation are in such poor shape that one friend was given his change in a small plastic bag, is it that the government considers it too expensive to produce small denomination coins and notes? Imagine the inconvenience of living and doing business in an economy that is trying to run based on only two readily available denominations. Again, for those who think I’m being cynical here, there were a number of occasions during the socialist era when the government withdrew denominations entirely without warning, on one occasion giving citizens no chance to exchange them for legal tender. Savings wiped out overnight, check.
From here on June 9th 2011.