Published in The Myanmar Times on 15 April 2013

The first sign of trouble.

The first sign of trouble.

A TWO tier price system for locals and foreigners is in place at the majority of Myanmar’s tourist sites, which tends to be the rule rather than the exception in developing countries. In India, which has a burgeoning middle and upper class, tourists are becoming more vocal against the government’s policy of charging foreign visitors an exorbitant 4850 percent higher entry fee to somewhere such as the Taj Mahal.

In Myanmar, it’s often difficult for foreigners to ascertain the price difference, because those fees are stated in English, while the price for locals is usually in Myanmar.  A dual pricing system also exists unofficially, whether it is higher taxi fares, inflated rent and utility bills or pricier hotel room rates.

Many foreigners, such as Barnaby Haszard Morris, don’t mind paying more, because it’s seen as a way of redistributing wealth. He writes on his blog: “It actually makes good economic sense to charge these greatly inflated rates… foreigners are accustomed to prices being much higher in their home countries.”

However for Myanmar’s foreign residents, regularly being confronted by the policy can be grating.

Back in February, a notice caught my eye at Kokine Swimming Pool in Bahan township: “The Guest Members (Foreigners) are not allowed to swim from the 1st March 2013.” It was signed by the executive committee, with no further details provided.

A security guard told me it was because swimming training was being conducted (this is stated in Myanmar in a sign next to it), which seemed fairly reasonable. When I next went for a swim, I saw that a new sign had been stuck over the top of the original one, saying that the pool, which is open from 6am to 8pm six days a week, would be closed to non-members from 1 March to 31 April. Although this was a blow to my new after-work fitness schedule, I was reluctant to fork out a 200,000 kyat donation to become a member, so I began visiting various pools in Yangon (where I continued to pay more as a foreigner, and found none as lovely as Kokine).

It was therefore disappointing to learn from the friendly secretary of Kokine Swimming Pool, U Cho Maung, that the weekday training sessions finish by 11am and continue until May 25, almost a full month after non-members are allowed to return.

U Cho Maung told The Myanmar Times, “We have 10,000 members – I don’t want too much traffic at the pool.”

About 1000 people take part in the two training periods at Kokine.

He estimates that Kokine has 30 members who are foreigners, while the numbers of regular swimmers in the morning is 50 to 60 and 70 in the evening.

U Cho Maung added somewhat contradictorily, “This is the most crowded time of the year because it’s hot… That’s why we close it, because it would be crowded otherwise. But it’s not crowded, because our members come at different times. We have three pools, so members can swim in the other pools during training sessions.”

During the interview on April 9, both large pools were all but deserted by 10am: I counted four swimmers in total.

However rather than feeling slighted when I left, I’d learned that the pool’s rules are more favourable to foreigners than locals.

The pool beckons on a hot April day.

The pool beckons on a hot April day.

A year’s membership will cost a foreigner 323,000 ($367) – which includes the K200,000 donation (which goes to pool maintenance), K120,000 in monthly fees and an annual fee of K3000, which is K126,000 ($143) costlier than a local membership. However foreigners have two further options that are closed to locals: swimming on a casual basis for K2000 or paying K50,000 for a temporary, three month membership. The latter requires a guarantor letter from an employer or embassy and can only be taken out once.

Locals are only allowed to swim on a one-off basis (after 2 May) if they come with a guarantor who is a member.

U Cho Maung said the reason why locals can’t obtain a temporary membership is because they live here, so it wouldn’t make sense.

“The temporary membership is aimed at NGO and embassy staff, who might be in Yangon for three months,” he said.

However as Myanmar continues to open up and allows foreign investment to flow in, this “one size fits all” definition of a foreigner may be unrealistic, if unpalatable.

An intern at a media company told The Myanmar Times that her European government provides a small stipend for the six months she’ll spend in Yangon, so she had to choose between a gym membership or Myanmar language lessons (incidentally, she chose the latter).

When asked why foreigners pay almost double the amount of local membership fees, the secretary said that the rule has been in place for about a decade.

“This committee has always done it this way because foreigners’ salaries are higher. There are many reasons, but this is the main reason.”

U Cho Maung is also the vice-president of the Myanmar Swimming Federation and said he takes an interest in pool management when travelling overseas.

“The cost of swimming in Melbourne was high – it was at least $20 for a swim,” he said.

However the Nunawading pool’s website (where I learnt to swim in Melbourne), lists the cost of a casual visit as AUD$5.80.

When asked about the phrasing of the first notice which singled out foreigners, he said, “There must have been a mistake at the office.”

Another oddity at Kokine Swimming Pool are the signs demarcating separate sides for male and female swimmers, which I initially assumed were to indicate the location of the changing rooms.

It was during my second swim at Kokine that I realised the signs are taken seriously: my husband was waved over to the other side by a lifeguard. Sherpa attempted to explain that he’s not a confident swimmer and wanted to stay in the same area as me, but it wasn’t until he did a quick fake-drown that his point was understood and he was allowed to stay on the right-hand side.

During about five subsequent visits, I noticed men swimming on both sides of the 30-metre long pool.

When asked about the signs, U Cho Maung, “Now it’s mixed – that was before. We just mention it as a rule.”

He said the rule was created more than 10 years ago following a request from a few local women, “who were scared to swim with guys.”

He said the rule doesn’t apply if accompanying children.

“The rule is flexible. We only mention couples, because they don’t swim around properly…” he trailed off while making hug motions.

“But it’s more about prevention – this has happened very few times… It is a family pool.”

The pool was taken over by local owners from the British in 1904, and for as long as U Cho Maung can remember, foreigners haven’t caused any problems at the pool.

In terms of both the price policies and the gender-segregation, the secretary said the rules are old and might “change very soon.”

Because despite the economic justifications for charging foreigners and locals disparate prices, being categorised on the basis of nationality is often an uncomfortable experience, regardless of whether you’re paying more or less.

A swimmer called Moh Moh Thaw was unimpressed by the way she was treated at the Savoy Hotel’s pool, where she used to swim every weekend with her Australian husband – in 2010, when the power cuts were severe during summer.

“We’d buy food and drinks, but were never asked to pay to use the pool. But as soon as I went to the pool with local friends, and even though we spent more on food and drinks, we were asked to pay to use the pool. I was so angry – it’s discrimination.”