Meet The Illegal Couchsurfing Hosts Of Myanmar

What kind of people willingly break the law to let foreigners sleep on their couch for free? I tried to get the answer from these three residents of Myanmar.

Photo by Eric Goldschein

One night, many months ago now, I was sitting on a bench outside a hostel in Battambang, Cambodia, talking with a young European couple.

Like me, they were traveling, but they had made a rule for themselves: No paying for transportation or a bed. They would hitchhike and crash with strangers everywhere they went. They cut corners whenever they could. Earlier that day, they’d gone to a nearby temple attraction and claimed to have entered without paying the $1 fee, by just asking.

You wouldn’t believe how much money you save, they said, as they waited for that night’s host to return from a friend’s house with some couch cushions they planned to lay across the floor and use as a bed. It’s great.

I found this way of life inspiring and infuriating. I admired their courage and ingenuity; I hated how they refused to contribute meaningfully — in my mind, anyway — to the places in which they traveled. Cambodia was not richer, financially anyway, from the presence of these dirty hippies. The least they could do is pay a buck to see the weathered Buddha statues like everyone else.

I was ready to move along and drink my watery Angkor beer elsewhere, when they mentioned Couchsurfing in Myanmar. That was the toughest country to do it in, they said, because it’s illegal there.

It had been years since I’d couchsurfed — I’d practically forgotten about the practice, having gotten older, coupled with the rise of Airbnb — but I’ll admit I was intrigued by this idea. Illegal to couchsurf? Why? Of all the things to get mad about, letting travelers sleep in people’s houses seemed like the least of a country’s problems.

Then again, maybe it wasn’t the law itself that intrigued me. Myanmar was a country still grappling with the concept of democracy. It had only recently opened its doors to the outside world and transitioned from military rule, and there were still, if you were being diplomatic, issues — jailed journalists and community-sponsored (if not outright state-sponsored) ethnic cleansing of Muslims along its borders being the most prevalent at the time. Of course it has outdated or perplexing laws.

As Anthony Bourdain said when he visited Myanmar: “Everyone I’ve met in this country so far has been to prison.”

So: Who are the hosts? Who are the Myanmar nationals, the resident aliens, the people of this strange, still developing land, who are willing to so publicly — in a digital sense — break the law in a country that just a few years ago was ruled with an iron fist, and in many ways still is?

(Thousands of Airbnb listings exist in Myanmar as well, but I was less interested in meeting the people who want to break the law for money — that, of course, is a time-honored tradition — than those who want to break the law for no tangible gain.)

I had plans to visit Myanmar in a couple of months, and I decided then that I would do what these European moochers had done, only if for a night. I’d use Couchsurfing.com, find some friendly local hosts, and ask them what the hell they were doing.

***

Fast forward a couple of months later, to my plane landing on a cloudy Yangon night. Wracked with the typical nervous energy that comes with entering a new country for the first time, I was doubly nervous, since my plans upon clearing customs were to immediately commit a crime.

Couchsurfing has an official website, where users set up profile pages akin to other social media sites, and can use their pages to offer either a couch (or bed, or space on the floor) or to look for one, all around the world. I had found a “couch” in Yangon just a few days before my flight from Bangkok, after weeks of sending messages to ostensible hosts.

If Couchsurfing is to be believed, there are over 50,000 people all over Myanmar, in Yangon and Mandalay, in border towns and former resort outposts, willing to illegally let you sleep in their home.

This number is a little misleading. There aren’t 50,000+ hosts in Myanmar. When you do a nationwide search, the site draws in hosts from neighboring Thailand and India, inflating the count.

And of those who actually live in Myanmar, only a fraction have a demonstrated history of hosting. Many accounts feature no reviews, no references, not even a bio. They are ghosts.

Zack, however, answered my request promptly and invited me to his apartment just north of downtown Yangon. My mind played a scene over and over as my taxi rumbled through the dark streets towards the address he sent me: I enter his home, and Zack is actually an agent of the Myanmar secret police. I’m beaten, cuffed, thrown in prison. I’m held on trial for breaking the sacred law of no couchsurfing. I appear on TV and beg Donald Trump to intervene and save my life.

Anyway. He’d told me the gate would be open, but it wasn’t.

It was locked, and there was no bell or buzzer in sight. There wasn’t even a door to knock — the gate stretched between an opening in the concrete, in front of a set of stairs leading into shadow.

I turned around, my bulging green backpack hanging from my shoulders. I surveyed the street, which was dark but lively. The sidewalks were lined with street food vendors, men in colorful ankle-length longyis sipping tea, children running between the plastic tables and off into the night. I saw a few pairs of eyes on me, but no one seemed overly concerned with my presence — curious, if anything.

But for once, I wasn’t glad to be surrounded by friendly, if inquisitive, faces. I wanted this street to be abandoned. I didn’t want anyone to know I was here.

I strode quickly to the corner, my glasses fogging with sweat, and found what would turn out to be one of the very few working WiFi hotspots in Yangon, Myanmar. I shot him a message.

“Hold on I’m coming,” he wrote back quickly.

He was there when I returned to the gate. We slipped up the six flights of stairs together and out of sight from the street, and just like that we were breaking the law.

***

Zack was in his early 20s. He moved with the easy manner of a varsity athlete but spoke with the gentle nature of a grandmother. His basketball shorts put him apart from his peers, some of whom wore longyi. His neatly parted hair fell over his forehead, neatly curtaining big, dark eyes.

His place was spartan: A pile of clothes dominated one corner of the main room, while a mattress on the floor took up another. The only other furniture was a tiny desk where Zack kept his computer. The walls alternated between faux-wood panels and faded gray-yellow concrete. The floors were hardwood and off-white tile. There was a bare kitchen and bathroom (split into two separate rooms, one for the toilet, the other the shower) down the hall. Zack demonstrated the shower — getting on his knees and miming pouring the bucket of water over his head.

Through the door to the fire escape off the kitchen, I could see the tiny balconies and cramped windows of the neighbors; I glimpsed their hands as they cooked dinners in orange-lit kitchens, squares embedded in the dark. This door stayed open all night, and instead we locked the door to the main room when we went to bed.

Zack gave me a thin purple yoga mat and some sheets, and after rolling those out across the room from his mattress, I was done setting up my bed.

We sat on the floor and had dinner over newspaper place mats — rice, eggs, beef stew. He seemed embarrassed to serve it.

“You must find my way of life difficult,” he said as we dug in.

Seeing as how I had no idea where he stacked up to the “typical” way of living in Yangon — did his apartment lack furniture because he was a poor college student, or because he was poor, or because he lived in Myanmar? — I felt uncomfortable even addressing this statement. But I said what I knew was the stock answer in any couchsurfing situation.

“I’m really appreciative that you opened your home to me. I want to live how you live. Anything you do is fine with me,” I said.

His face softened. I took the opportunity to why he hosted strangers from the internet.

“Because I love meeting people and to hear different stories,” he told me. Right. Of course. Join the club. But he continued.

“In Kachin, we have this culture that we offer the beds and what you have to the guests. It also comes from Christianity, that serving people is the same as serving to Jesus.”

Photo by Eric Goldschein

Ah, I thought. Religious guy. I hope this doesn’t get awkward.

Most people — mainly I, me, the writer of these words, but maybe you, too? — make the mistake of assuming that in a country formerly called Burma, the people are Burmese. But Burmese is just one of 135 officially recognized ethnic groups in the country, though it’s by far the largest. The Kachin people — of which Zack is one — are one of seven major groups, the country’s largest. The Rohingya, perhaps the best-known minority group in the country due to the fact that they are the victims of what many call ethnic cleansing along the country’s border with Bangladesh, is not one of those recognized groups. In Myanmar, they are not people.

The Kachin, however, are also engaged in conflict with the central, mostly Burmese (and mostly Buddhist) government. Though Zack’s family still lives in Kachin State, Zack told me that his family would sometimes have to run across the border to China to escape persecution and death. He said so matter-of-factly, as if reading this horror from a newspaper.

Meanwhile, he was making a life for himself here in Yangon. He took business classes online, taught yoga, and went to church on Sundays. And he was beginning to host visitors — I was just his third guest.

I believed at this point that I’d found my thesis. Here was a persecuted ethnic and religious minority, thumbing his nose at the system by breaking the government’s archaic laws. His own quiet revolution, by means of letting foreigners sleep on his floor.

But when I asked him if the fact that he was breaking the law bothered him, he shrugged.

“In Myanmar we have the laws that are written on papers, but not enforced or practiced by people. We know what is flexible or not flexible,” he said as we moved to the other side of the room — me on my yoga mat, him on the apartment’s only chair. “If we don’t do crazy shit, the neighbor won’t complain. If you play loud music, or inappropriate things, the neighbor will complain to the mayor and then you might get in trouble, or a warning. But as long as you behave, it doesn’t bother anybody.”

This sounded less like a revolutionary statement and more like how everyone in New York felt about weed.

The next day Zack with me toured around Yangon, taking me to eat mohinga, a common fish stew breakfast, and pickled tea leaf salad, an introduction to Myanmar cuisine that illuminated the country’s mishmash of cultures and flavors. We visited the Shwedagon Pagoda in the middle of the city — an enormous golden shrine to seven of Buddha’s hairs. We passed endless street food stalls, sidewalks packed with people streaming in all directions. Yangon is a city where everything is rushed but no one seems to be in a hurry.

Photo by Eric Goldschein

Doing things with your couchsurfing host can feel awkward — you feel like you’re taking them away from their “real life,” and you can’t ditch them if you don’t jive because all of your stuff is at their house. But Zack seemed glad for the company. Talk of meeting up with his friends to drink beer surfaced, but they never materialized. I realized that maybe Zack really was just hosting me to meet a new person and hear their stories. So I did my best to regale him with mine.

That night, when I asked Zack whether he thought the government would eventually lift the ban on couchsurfing, I felt a little bit of his resentment for the central powers bubble to the surface.

“The thing is, our government, they don’t know how the world is spinning,” he said. “They just want to get money. They want tourists to stay in hotels because most of the hotels are empty and expensive.”

I had a hard time imagining what a Myanmar hotel would look like. I’d taken a cold bucket shower on my knees two nights in a row. I settled onto my yoga mat and fell asleep to the sound of dogs barking.

In the morning, Zack dressed formally in a button-down shirt and checkered longyi. It was Sunday, and he was headed to church. Though a small part of me was interested in seeing what services might look like in Yangon, a bigger part of me was pulled in the opposite direction, towards downtown’s street food offerings. When Zack told me he didn’t eat street food, I felt more awkward than when he got to praising Jesus.

Before we parted ways, we shared a quick breakfast of pecans, crushing their shells in the door jamb. I thought back to something Zack said my first night, when he first felt shy about his apartment.

“I’m offering you the best that I can, but I can feel your feeling, you come from a different background. I come from the bottom. I can survive anywhere, because I grew up in the jungle. I don’t mind the situation. But I’ve been in nice hostels, where they have nice facilities. I know what it’s like.”

Photo by Eric Goldschein

***

For awhile, it seemed as though Zack was perhaps the only person in Myanmar brave or crazy enough to have me. I traveled north, and a week later I was sleeping in a dimly lit hotel room in Mandalay, with tile floors and a paper-thin mattress, for $18 a night.

Mandalay is a bit of a dusty, overgrown small town, with a romantic reputation underwritten by the Rudyard Kipling poem. But nowadays you’re more than likely to get stampeded by motorbikes and trishaws while “lookin’ lazy by the sea.” It’s like A Bus Station: The City. Aside from a few good meals, I was unimpressed.

So when I got another hit from a Couchsurfing host in the nearby old resort town of Pyin Oo Lwin, I dove just about headfirst into a shared taxi headed that way. Once again I found myself feeling like a sore thumb as I sat in the parking lot of the town golf course with my backpack at my feet.

There was little reason for me to be in this town, and even less of a reason for me to be this parking lot. Pyin Oo Lwin isn’t off the tourist track completely — there are a few noteworthy sites, including the Botanical Gardens and some excellent Shan restaurants known for their peanut-buttery noodles and strawberry smoothies. But it’s more of a place to live than a place to visit.

But within a few minutes, a four-door sedan rolled up, and out stepped Saigon and Wutyi, wearing Western-style clothing and chic, thick-rimmed glasses.

“Eric?” asked Saigon, as if there could possibly be another white foreigner waiting in the golf course parking lot. “Yeah, man, nice to meet you,” he said in halting but comfortable English. I had found the town’s resident hipsters, foodies, and of course, Couchsurfing hosts.

Saigon was the host, Wutyi his girlfriend who lived nearby. Saigon lives partly in Yangon and partly here, his hometown, where his parents run a restaurant, and he runs a tile workshop. His black hair was swept in a wave over his head, and a sly smile often lay in wait below.

We drove a few minutes down the road and arrived at what turned out to be a sort of compound with a combination workshop and low-slung apartment, as well as additional housing for various people who were employed by Saigon’s family. The men of the tile workshop lived on the property, and adjoining Saigon’s apartment was another family that had worked for Saigon’s parents. The mother would come around to refill Saigon’s tea pot, or heat up the water for a shower. There was a closeness between everyone, but it was still clear that Saigon — at least by extension — was the boss.

This time I had my own room with a decently comfy bed at the end of a long hall. The bathroom was another bare bones set up, but otherwise the place felt homey, with guitars and bicycles cluttering the living room.

Photo by Eric Goldschein

I set my things down, walked out onto the little porch area — a little square of concrete with airport-style seats and a table with a thermos of tea, in true Myanmar fashion, always ready to be poured — and stared out at the next few days, where I would have little to do other than get to know my host.

For a young man with a lot to do — along with his family restaurant and tile workshop, he was also working on a e-commerce site for buying goods outside of Myanmar — Saigon seemed to spend little time worrying about it. He was on the front porch with a guitar in his lap when I first emerged from the bedroom, and he wouldn’t be far away from that spot for the remainder of my time in Pyin Oo Lwin. His favorite phrase, I quickly learned, was “It’s chill, man.”

Saigon has a mixed background — some Shan, some Tai, but no Burmese. I thought I’d found my common thread again and hoped to exploit it — how hosting was a quiet protest against Burmese domination — but Saigon shut me down quickly.

“By hosting, am I not being a proud citizen of this country?” he asked me rhetorically when I suggested my theory. “I am proud. There are some serious, ugly crises here. But the people from other countries can be very ignorant.”

“I do believe the goodness of the Burmese people,” he said. “They can be very humble. I have had a lot of great interactions with them that makes me feel proud to be a citizen. But about the government, about the law, I feel very different.”

I imagined my country and people being judged based on the decisions of our government, and shuddered at the thought. I thought this was a fair distinction to make.

“The point is, I feel, it’s worth it. It’s worth it man. When I feel like it’s the right thing to do, I do it. Even if you are in trouble… that’s it, man. It’s chill,” he said.

I awoke in the morning to the workers harmonizing as they hammered away on their tiles. They paid me no mind as I came and went from the grounds. I rode Saigon’s bicycle around town and strolled through the nearby botanical gardens. Pyin Oo Lwin used to be a British resort town — a leafy, hilly respite from the heat of Mandalay — and vestiges of the colonial era gave the town an out-of-time feel. Horse-drawn carriages clopped down the streets, which were hemmed in by quiet forest. When I returned in the evening, Saigon took me to his parents’ restaurant, where we ate pineapple fried rice and drank Mandalay Beers until the lights swam. I soon understood what Saigon meant when he said, “This town is cold, but makes me feel warm inside.”

I had originally planned to spend two days in Pyin Oo Lwin, but I let two days extend to three, and then four. I spent the afternoons cruising around town with Saigon, shuttling across town so we could slurp Shan-style noodles, listening to the radio as we bumped along the rutted roads. We played chess on his porch, drinking tea incessantly and discussing whether or not Donald Trump was handling North Korea effectively.

I had settled quickly into an easy friendship with Saigon, as if we had known each other for years. What I still didn’t know was just how dangerous it was, if it all, for me to be staying with him. Saigon and his family seemed like well-known figures in Pyin Oo Lwin. Could he act with impunity where others could not?

Photo by Eric Goldschein

On my last night, things got tense at the compound. The workers, who lived in another building nearby, were drinking and fighting. One guy in particular seemed to have an issue with how he was being spoken to, and Saigon went to talk to him.

It didn’t work — as the group spilled out into the driveway, the aggrieved young man said something else that Saigon didn’t like, and Saigon responded by grabbing a glass and throwing it against a wall, smashing it. He approached the man with closed fists.

I moved closer, thinking about my next moves. Would I intervene if a fight broke out? Would I bring Saigon more trouble by getting involved — seeing as how I was his illegal guest — or did it really not matter? Could I stand up for my host and new friend? I weighed the pros and cons as Saigon screamed in a language I couldn’t comprehend, and yet understood perfectly in that moment. These guys were about to fight.

The dilemma disappeared before my eyes, as the drunk guy cowered and apologized. Saigon returned to the porch, and we drank more tea. The anger dissipated as quickly as it had appeared. A sick, small, but undeniable part of me was disappointed that I hadn’t been able to test the waters of being an illegal couchsurfer. No one cared about me, which was good, but it wasn’t making for much of a story.

I’ll admit, however, that I saw Saigon in a different light after that moment. He didn’t suddenly become evil to me, but I remembered that whatever I thought I knew about Saigon, this town, and this country was only part of the picture. My perspective was limited. Much more lurked beneath the surface of my interactions with people. I would really never understand what I sought to know, especially not over the course of a few days or weeks.

The following day, I decided it was time to move on. As we ate a final meal together, I was struck by the truth of Saigon’s words about how couchsurfers usually felt after staying with him.

“You never know if you never try,” he had said when I asked him about whether people should feel safe Couchsurfing here. “I’m quite confident that the hospitality and friendliness here, I see a lot of goodness in people in Myanmar. I’m pretty aware that some conflict is going in the north, in the south, in the east. But commonly speaking, once you arrive in Myanmar you’ll find it’s totally different than in the news you’ve been hearing. Of course you’re visiting the more peaceful regions, but that’s not what people have been talking about when they visit.”

He was right. The conflict in Kachin State, now just a few dozen miles to the north, didn’t register at all as I sat looking at gleaming golden pagoda perched above a raging waterfall, just before Saigon drove me to the bus station. I’d almost forgotten that my plans to hike in that region had been scrapped due to recent intensified fighting. For all I knew, Zack’s family was currently on the run just north of me. It’s amazing what you can put out of your mind after just a few days of trying not to think about it.


On my final day in Myanmar, I stood outside the front door to the apartment of my temporary home, as a locksmith picked at the doorknob. Other residents walked up at down the stairs, glancing at me, then the locksmith, then the door, then moving on.

I had been told, very specifically, that I was not to draw attention to myself in any way — no making loud noise, no bothering people, not even standing outside of the building with my backpack and white skin which said “I’m not from here, not even close.” And yet, here I was.

These neighbors walking past me silently — were they on their way to call the police? Was I about to get my host deported? Had I finally gotten what I’d thought I wanted: To be arrested for the crime of couchsurfing? And hours from my departure, no less? Didn’t seem like such a cool idea anymore.

How did this happen? After I left Saigon, I’d continued along the tourist track that has been paved into Myanmar — a circular route that includes Inle Lake, where fishermen balance precariously on the lips of their small boats and thwack the water with long poles. There were no hosts in the Inle Lake region, where a fee is required just to enter the area. Hotels and guesthouses have a stranglehold, for now.

Eventually I found myself back in Yangon for a final day and night in Myanmar. I was glad to return to this city, where the street food options were overwhelming and the pagodas were immense and central to the city’s identity. Now I just needed a place to stay.

Photo by Eric Goldschein

On my return, I found a few more options for hosts. One in particular intrigued me: Alex*, whose name was rendered on Couchsurfing.com in Chinese characters and heart emojis. He had more reviews than any host I’d seen thus far in Myanmar, glowing write-ups that included phrases like “couchsurfing oasis.” It appeared that he often hosted multiple people at a time. Maybe this would be something of a CS watering hole — a place to exchange stories and compare experiences with hosts and surfers alike.

(Originally, Alex agreed to let me use his real name in this article. But once I shared his quotes back to him, he asked that I change it. You’ll see why in a moment.)

Best of all, for my purposes, he appeared to be the most paranoid of the hosts I would meet. His profile was rife with warnings and commands.

“The neighbors start seeing strange activity going on, they will call the police lol, no jokes.”

“No waiting for any reason in front of my building, it will attract attention so go on a different road !!”

“People on my street don’t like that I am hosting so don’t give them a reason to call the police… No noise going up the stairs to my floor.”

Now here was the Couchsurfing host who seemed to be doing it despite fear of the consequences. That was who I wanted to meet.

But hours before I was due to arrive back in Yangon and meet Alex for breakfast, his plans changed. He would be going away for the weekend. Instead, he left his keys with a neighbor, and I’d have the place to myself.

This wasn’t at all what I wanted. The whole point was to see how the host lived. But at this point my options were limited, and the idea of going to a hotel and paying money like some regular old tourist didn’t sound appealing. I met his neighbor at a cafe up the street — STK, where Bourdain had stopped for tea and mohinga when he was in town — and in a few minutes found myself alone in Alex’s apartment.

The place was stuffy and had the air of a flophouse. Scribbled on the walls were messages from past guests, and each bedroom was a different level of college-dorm messy. I tried not to spend too much time in the apartment, and when I did come back to sleep, I unearthed my sleepsack from the bottom of my pack and laid it over the red couch like a toilet cover.

Photo by Eric Goldschein

I decided that I’d better get out into Yangon and eat myself stupid on my last day in Myanmar. Thinking, no doubt, of Indian-style samosa street salads — samosas cut up with scissors and served with chickpeas, shallots, potatoes, and cabbage in a citrusy broth — I twisted some locks on the door and let myself out onto the landing, closing the door behind me. It only took me a moment to realize I had flipped the wrong switch and had locked myself out entirely.

Well, fuck.

Later, when I spoke to Alex over the phone, he echoed the sentiments of the first two hosts — hosting was fine, no one cared — with one key difference.

“My apartment is not in a traditional conservative Buddhist local area. I live in a Muslim part of town,” he told me. “The Muslim community in Myanmar is not looking for any more trouble because of all the things happening in the countryside**. I actually feel very comfortable in my neighborhood, because they’re never going to call the cops.”

(**Here’s the part that gave him pause. He clarified to me that he did not want to be perceived as taking advantage of genocide and that the community on his street cared for one another. I told him I understood.)

Which isn’t to say that Alex seemed to be betting his couchsurfing career solely on his neighbors being too afraid of authority to rat him out. “I know my neighbors, they know me. They know that a lot of people are coming, they don’t understand why but they don’t really care. We keep it on the down-low and we don’t bother anyone.”

But meanwhile, back on the landing, with his admonishments and orders not to draw attention to myself, I was terrified. All my worldly possessions were on the other side of the door, with no way to get at them before tomorrow morning without making myself known.

Still connected to the WiFi, I shot Alex a message. He apologized for not leaving me the key to every lock, and gave me what he hoped were general directions to a nearby locksmith.

I went out in the street, turning right, then right, then left, tumbling through the hectic cobbled streets choked with trishaw drivers; women with white paste smeared on their cheeks selling fruit spread out over blankets; cafes with seating areas made up of blue plastic chairs, red plastic tables, green plastic napkin dispensers, and silver pots of tea; signs in Burmese that might as well have said “You fucked up” written on them in squiggly, unknowable letters; young men on street corners, their teeth stained red with chewed betel nut, laughing, I was sure, at me; and above us the towering apartment buildings in all shades of faded teals, pinks, beiges, and blues, with chipped balconies on which laundry and antennae and vines hung. Later I would again marvel at this hectic beauty, but first I needed help.

Eventually, I found my man, sitting under a sign that had a picture of a key. He didn’t speak English, and had no idea what I was trying to tell him, but eventually a young man who sort of seemed to know what I was saying joined us and explained the situation. We contracted a taxi driver who drove us through 15 minutes of traffic rather than us walking five minutes back to the apartment, and soon I was letting this guy break me back into my — well, Alex’s — place.

The locksmith worked diligently, and as the residents of the building mostly ignored us, he ignored them. Not a word was exchanged. Soon I was back inside the apartment again.

“So many things are illegal in Myanmar, you’re always doing something illegal. What’s one more thing?” Alex later told me, as I discussed feeling like I had broken his cardinal rules of not drawing attention to myself. It was a question that he did not care to know the answer to.

According to Alex, he’s hosted over 200 people at his apartment, with as many as “5 to 10” in one day. Some people enjoyed staying with him so much that they ended up living with him, subletting one of the rooms once Alex opened it up to long-term stays. In many ways, Alex’s life in Yangon had been shaped by the decision to host couchsurfers.

Things were changing for him, however. He doesn’t host as much as he once did, since he has full-time residents in some of the rooms now, and he’s starting a business that takes up a lot of his time.

“There has already been a shift. I’m hosting a bit less. The roommates are chill though, so I don’t know why I would stop hosting,” he says when I ask if he plans to keep it up.

That made one of us not looking for answers. By the time I locked Alex’s door for the final time early Sunday morning, I hadn’t gotten any closer to the answer of why people break the law in order to host surfers. Their reasons for hosting were yawningly similar to what other people around the world say. It’s to make connections. It’s to hear stories. It’s just cool.

It appeared, after two weeks of seeking a deeper truth, that there was little to discover about what made at least three of Myanmar’s residents want to host.

Meanwhile, what had I learned about them as people? About the history of conflict in the country? About how easy it is to get a locksmith to let you into some dude’s apartment, just because you say you know him? Couchsurfing may not have revealed a vast underground revolution, but it had done what it typically sets out to do: Connect me to people, places, and ideas that I never would have encountered otherwise. Demonstrate to me the shocking similarity of life around the globe, as we all seek to eat, drink, and be happy. Help me feel, even for brief moments, like I was a part of the place I was visiting, rather than a tourist.

I left Myanmar richer for the experience, though not literally. No one is going to buy this story. There’s no conspiracy or mystery. No arrests or drama. All that happened is that I grew as a person. How boring.

I asked Couchsurfing to comment on this story and never heard back. Maybe, like the Myanmar government, they prefer to look the other way on this one.