We met two ladies while taking an unplanned visit into Yangon's famed Strand Hotel. The hotel was built in 1901 and is claimed to be one of the most luxurious hotels in the entire British Empire. White elite mingled within its walls until Myanmar was taken over by the Japanese in the second World War. After that, the locals were permitted entrance. The building fell into disrepair for many years until 1993 when it re-opened as a wildly expensive boutique hotel.
But the story I'm trying to tell is not about the Strand. It's about the ladies we met. Or, to be more specific, the recent experience of one of them.
They are both teachers at a local international school. One is an uncensored older white lady from middle America, substituting abroad for 3-6 month stints in her retirement years. The other is a mid-30's woman from the Virgin Islands with long weaved braids piled atop her head, constantly at the receiving end of goggly eyes and gapped mouths. She's a rarity in these parts, one the locals will get used to at some point, though. Her contract is for two years.
And it is her introduction to the country that I'm about to share.
A few weeks prior to our meeting at the hotel, her friend, a burly Virgin Islander who brought about as much attention as her hair, came to visit. Eager to show him around the city and gain a taste of local life, they went to dinner at one of the roadside restaurant stalls. Each sat on one of the child-sized red plastic chairs and ate traditional (overly oily) curry.
At the tiny table next to them sat a solitary Aussie male. The three struck up a conversation which changed tides when she stepped away to the bathroom. She came back just in time to overhear the Aussie ask her friend if he'd like to see the underground prostitution circuit.
"Yes!" she chimed in, to the surprise of both of them.
Piled into a taxi, they pulled up to random inauspicious building with a number of men, looking not too unlike valets, standing outside. Passing a few words back and forth, one of the street attendants led them inside the building and joined them up the elevator to the top floor. He ushered them into a dining hall with a stage at the far wall and showed them to a table. He then became their waiter for the evening.
He gave them basic instructions on how the event would proceed, and the Aussie filled them in on the rest.
"You bid, like an auction." they were told by the valet-cum-waiter. "When you win the girl, she comes over and you place this wreath of flowers around her neck. She will then wait off to the side until the end of the round, or the end of the show, depending on when you're ready to leave. All transactions will be done through me."
The proceedings began with one woman after another parading across the stage. Bids were offered and received. Wreaths were placed over necks. At the end of the round there was a small intermission.
Then the next round came. This one bringing younger faces to the stage.
"But it was the third round which compelled me to leave," she said to us. "My comfort level was in question the entire evening, but once I saw the girls in the third round! I mean, I know the Burmese in general can look younger than they are, especially due to their size. But they looked no older than the children I teach."
Her friend was just as uncomfortable. So they requested the multi-purposed pimp, playing the roll of waiter, to escort them back downstairs.
The Aussie stayed.