Of nude holy men, holes and Nazis
The thing about stories is that they lead you to places which is why Dbau and I found ourselves on a bumpy road, our bus kicking up clouds of dust and cutting through thick foliage of jungle and monasteries of Northern Burma last spring. Stories lured us here, whispered promises of a “country unlike any other”, “frozen in time,” “remote and isolated”, “What Thailand and Cambodia were like twenty years ago”. The blogs and experiences I heard often spoke well of Myanmar and I wonder why. We were about to find out.
This is my story about Burma.
I thumbed through the pages of the backpacker’s bible- The Lonely Planet. It was January 2012. I had bought the latest edition of Dec 2011 and already some of its info was wrong.
According to LP, airports and banks give the worst exchange rate, 7 kyat to 1 US Dollar while in the black market,, it’s supposed to be 700 kyat to 1 USD. But as of 19th January 2012, theYangon airport and the banks give the best rate – 823 kyat to the dollar! Also, we had initially read Facebook and Youtube were blocked, buses were shit and bicycles were illegal inYangon. But when we came here, we could access those sites – no problem- bicycles were everywhere and the buses were one of the most comfortable ones we had in Asia complete with reclining seats, toothbrush, bottled water, pillows and flat screen T.V.s that played Burmese soaps and karaoke.
Burma’s gonna be fun.
Yangon is no Tokyo,Bangkok or Shanghai. But it’s a city wrapped in romantic nostalgia– narrow alleys lined with street foods, ancient bookshops and stands (Burmese are huge readers), a mix of Burmese, Chinese and Indians are all jostling in their traditional longjis going about their own business that hasn’t changed much in centuries. Coming here gives you an experience of going back through time—very few cities are like this anymore. Now and then the street clatter would be pierced by sounds of prayer from the monasteries, mosques, synagogues and churches.
Due to poor infrastructure, Yangon is littered with man size holes. On one of the many frequent blackouts, I almost fell into one the city. During my whole trip, these holes would haunt me and would soon catch up with me. But more about that later…
Bagan is an ancient capital of 2,600 temple.s. It rivals Cambodia’s Angkor Wat because one can see all the temples in a sweeping panoramic landscape lending a feel of being Lara Croft or Indiana Jones. Spin around, point your finger anywhere, chances are it will always land on a temple.
Here in Bagan, we met another attraction. Audrey is this spunky woman who was going back to backpack her way to Istanbul,Turkey (where she is right now looking for work). She told us this story of meeting this Burmese guy up in Mandalay who upon meeting her just fell in love in three days and decided to tattoo her name on his arm.
I can understand a year but geez, three days? What if it doesn’t work out?
Our boat cut through the swathes of wet marsh, the mist parted and we saw floating villages and gardens, farmers, rural houses on stilts, animals and school children. Here we swam in a pool ofhot springswith smiling Burmese women. Pretty soon we were all laughing –God knows why. It’s one of those magical moments where you don’t need a reason to laugh, when you share something unspoken that breaks through the language barrier, where two different cultures share a bond of womanhood.
When you see naked Monks -Monk Shower time
All I had wanted was to donate money, seriously. But walking into the monastery in Nwaung Shwe at Inle Lake, Dbau and I had no inkling on what I awaited us. A glorified vision of a dozen monks in their full bronzed nudity scrubbing themselves and pouring buckets of water over their heads. We immediately ran outside, giggling and hoping we had just not committed some cardinal sin.
Holes in Burma
So back to the holes. As I had mentioned, Burma was just littered with them like someone decided to drop mini bombs on the road for fun. One night there was a blackout. I literally jumped and grabbed Dbau’s hand, fearing that I’d dropped into a hole and it would just be reassuring if I could a) have someone to hold on to or b) at least drag someone along with me. Most of all, I just wanted the comforting thought that my friend wouldn’t walk back into our hostel whistling a merry tune not knowing that she had left me behind to sleep in a man size hole for the night.
That and I wouldn’t have rats as my bed buddies.
The next few times I was wary of these booby traps. I made sure I kept my headlights with me and we were often careful to be back in our hostel before the sun went down. The irony was that one fateful day I would unknowingly step into a hole in broad daylight.
We were about to leave Inle Lake. Waiting for our bus, we were about to enter a teahouse when my foot slipped into one unsteady plank that covered a pit. Before I knew it, I was in hip deep in a hole. An American we met, Dan helped me up and felt sorry for me covered in dirt. Then was deeply puzzled at the sight of me and Dbau laughing our asses off because it finally happened- I fell into a hole.
Later when we got back toYangon, I committed the most horrifying faux pas ever. We had our last dinner- Dbau, me, Dan and his friend, Anna. I was recounting a sight I had seen during our overnight bus ride from Inle to Yangon- that of a huge Buddha with his hand stretched upwards like the Hitler salute when I remembered two things that –
1) Dan’s a Jew
2) Anna is a German
I tell you my arm whipped back into its socket so fast like it was a bullet ricocheting backwards. What remained of my attempt to show Buddha’s gesture was a pitiful endeavor at waving my elbow back and forth. It ended up looking like Buddha lost an arm and had a brand new stump instead.
Good thing I didn’t mention the ‘reversed’ Nazi insignia on his forehead.
Ah, Dan why did you pick a German?
All in all, it was one of the most memorable trips I’ve ever had. It wouldn’t be as unforgettable if I wasn’t traveling with my best friend Dbau who shares my spatially challenged skills. We just had so many laughs and misadventures. Also, she puts up with my poor stab in Burmese rap song writing.
The people in Burma are so kind, friendly and they can converse with you in English (sometimes sounding it came from a 19th century George Orwell novel. As one Burmese tea keeper told us, “Once you’ve had a taste of my tea, your appetite shall therefore be insatiable!”). It is the people that makes Burma worthwhile going. And since Aung San Suu Kyi got elected into parliament, all the more reason it is to go before tourism inevitably changes it into another Thailand. Go before it becomes too commercial.
GREAT FRIEND + AMAZING PLACE + KIND PEOPLE = A TRIP FULL OF AWESOMENESS
And dare I mention the sunsets?
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