MF Benigno gets as close to a ground level view of prostitution in Myanmar as you can get without buying sex or selling your body.

I KNEED HIM in the nuts, reached for my bag, and rushed out to the dawn lit street where a sleepy cabdriver brought me to the nearest metro station. The trains in Ankara don’t open until 6 AM. So with my pack-turned-pillow, I curled up on nearby concrete, safe from the horny, drunken Kurd.

Three years later and four thousand miles eastward, I am dashing down 31st Street towards the Sule Pagoda in Central Yangon clutching my cloth bag and dodging sewer rats in escape from a pimp named Mai Mai.

This time I was asking for it.

I came across Mai Mai on an evening stroll through Tayote Tan or Yangon’s version of a Chinatown.

He beckoned me over in Burmese. I don’t speak Burmese but Mai Mai spoke English well.

He offered a drink. With a sense of adventure, I followed him to a bar. Over watered-down, iced beer, a bottle of Mandalay whiskey and a bowl of fermented tealeaves, we exchanged the usual descriptors: purpose, goal, origin.

Mai Mai, 26, comes from a rural village in the northeast of Myanmar. On his own he moved to Yangon at sixteen where he bused tables for a street stall café. Today, he cooks for the same café.

A man passed by and gestured hello.

“A friend of yours?” I asked.

“Yes. He just got out of prison,” he began to recount.

His crime: public indecency. Roaming around nude on New Year’s Eve gets an offender two years of forced labor and confinement.

“When the police stop you. You just say yes.”

Any word of defiance exacerbates the punishment.

Mai Mai himself had been imprisoned three times on counts of public inebriation and involvement in street brawls. Intrigued, I questioned him about Burmese prisons but like many Burmese do when faced with questions about the government, he skirted around the issue and proceeded with a lesson in Burmese language: numbers and phrases for shopping.

“How much?” … “Beh-lauq-leh?”

Throughout the lesson he reached his arm over my back and pinched my shoulder.

A somewhat reliable stereotype is that men outside of North America are much more intimate and affectionate with their male friends.

I didn’t think of it. A somewhat reliable stereotype is that men outside of North America are much more intimate and affectionate with their male friends.

So, I thought nothing of it.

But after a few drinks and phrases, he led me to a bridge where I discovered his part-time job: a procurer of male prostitutes.

At dusk young men ranging from sixteen years of age to twenty-five take onto the footbridges that arch over the city’s congested roads. I learned from Mai Mai that their families condone the nocturnal profession, which fills a large portion of the family income.

Around the four-cornered walkway, boys in skinny jeans sporting Asian pop coifs loiter by the railings and gaze onto traffic while discreetly making eye contact with passersby.

In one corner, an American tourist/expat approached one of the boys. They exchanged names for courtesy’s sake and negotiated a rate. Mai Mai finalized the transaction and seconds later, the American and his boy disappeared into a taxi to an hourly hotel nearby.

Almost simultaneously, a skirmish occurred between two money boys. I asked Mai Mai why, but he didn’t respond.

Mai Mai left me aside and took control of the situation. He jabbed the aggressor in the ribs and made it clear, “No fighting allowed.” And with that, everything was settled.

Peering into the sex trade as an observer, I felt no harm. I sympathized with the boys, however. But the trade was beyond me.

“Sadly, we’re becoming more and more like Thailand,” a Burmese activist would later tell me. “Money boys and girls is not the right direction for our country.”

But unlike Thailand, there are no red-light marquees or gaudy signs selling sex. Prostitution is illegal in Myanmar. After 9 PM, Yangon police make their rounds discouraging sex work.

So consumption accommodates the law and business is conducted earlier.

Around 9 PM, an older man dressed in the traditional skirt or longyi approached me and spoke in Burmese.

Thinking I was a prostitute, he warned me that the authorities were on their way and suggested that I leave. Being Asian American has its perks when traveling through Asia. This wasn’t one of them.

When he realized I wasn’t Burmese, he invited me to tea and asked if I was interested in any of the boys. I declined. When asked why, I bluntly stated: “I don’t pay for sex.”

He scoffed at my response.

I felt uncomfortable. But little did I know.

Unbeknown to me I went from a curious traveler to the night’s hustler of choice.

All the while, Mai Mai was dealing with a monk who had been ambling around the bridge with prayer beads. Who knew that his prayers were carnally induced?

The saffron-robed, bald-headed man took an assessing glance at me and asked, “Beh-lauq-leh?”

Mai Mai murmured a figure.

The monk signaled three.

Mai Mai refused and raised the price to 50,000 kyats (roughly 50USD, black market rate).

The monk settled.

I’m not sure what disturbed me more—the fact that my body was being auctioned off or that the customer was a Buddhist monk garbed in full gear.

I’m not sure what disturbed me more—the fact that my body was being auctioned off or that the customer was a Buddhist monk garbed in full gear.

Apparently, he was a regular. But as soon as I registered what was occurring, I couldn’t help but laugh—partly out of flattery, mostly out of a defense mechanism fueled by fear.

I stood up and crept towards the sidewalk.

Nearing the steps that led down to the boulevard, I felt a pair of clammy palms gripping my shoulders.

“Where are you going?”

A breath of whiskey trailed Mai Mai’s whispers.

Lifted from the ground, I was locked between his burly arms.

Squirming didn’t help. So I froze, hoping he would unclench his grasp.

He released me and I fled away on adrenaline.

In cheap pleather flip flops I bolted through the city, hurdling over manholes, cinder blocks, and parties of cat-sized rats.

The route to my guesthouse spanned ten blocks over two streets.

So in an attempt to outsmart the pimp, I took a longer path and maneuvered through the mess of the black market: candlelit baskets of headless fish, panhandlers slumped on all fours chanting for change, and sidewalk tea shops furnished in plastic kiddy stools and tables.

After four blocks I looked back at Mai Mai. He was relentless in stride.

Fortunately, his gut held him back and the pursuit petered out by the sixth or seventh block.

I halted in front of the Sule Pagoda, panted, and waited.

Paranoid that he was watching from afar, I walked on a roundabout course to my guesthouse and arrived shaken but unharmed.

Community Connection

For more insight, please check out this essay about the sex trade in Asia.

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