16.12.2012 - 16.01.2013 28 °C
The moment I emerged from my guesthouse that first humid morning I was immediately captivated by the look and feel of the city. I stood dazed in the stifling heat as I took it all in. I stared at the large golden stupa which formed the central traffic circle surrounded by an odd combination of aging colonial buildings, shimmering white mosques, hole-in-the-wall internet cafes and a torrent of bustling traffic. Masses of locals leisurely strolled around this circle with no apparent destination smiling widely at the confused foreigner and occasionally throwing me thumbs up. “Hello! One man show?” someone yelled from a distance undoubtedly wondering what this poor puzzled soul was doing by himself in the middle of unfamiliar territory.
The majority of both the men and women who passed by wore colorful patterned sarongs and decorative tops to match. Their sun beaten faces were worn and weary but exhibited a simple contentment with life unique to this small corner of the world. Minority religious groups flaunted their distinctive styles as well, from Muslim men in their large white gowns and little white hats to Hindu woman in their brightly colored jewel studded outfits. I caught a glimpse of some western attire but it was worn by few and the styles were quite terrible.
Nearly every woman I saw had her face painted with a white paste. The classic design was a streak across each cheek and down the front of the nose. The result was near tribal. Few men wore this paste but all were chewing a bizarre substance which turned their teeth bright red and made it appear as though they had just been punched in the mouth.
The city they strolled through was run down and grimy. From the buildings to the sidewalks to the cars, everything was coated with a layer of rust and crawling with overgrown rats. Pedestrian paths looked like they had just been hit with an earthquake and every few steps there was a fresh opportunity to fall into the deep holes opened up in the cement. There was so much storefront junk piled onto sidewalks that it was futile try and use them. In addition to the noisy traffic jams, people jams formed on the periphery as everyone tried to work their way through the maze of car parts and kids toys. The word 'raw' quickly came to mind.
I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder. “Are you lost?” said a wrinkled elderly lady who had been witness to these first bewildering moments in central Yangon. “Maybe” I said “but I am right where I want to be.” This was my first impression of Burma, a country where people drive on the right side of the road in cars made for the left, where woman wear face paint while the men where skirts and where you can't walk more than half a mile without stumbling upon a stupa.
As it was in isolation for much of the later half of the 21st century, Burma is one of the least understood and least developed countries in Asia. The ethnically diverse population is very poor, has been ruled by a string of oppressive military dictators for decades and is subject to a constant stream of natural disasters (including cyclone Nargis which recently killed over 100,000). Thus, the people of Burma have faced and continue to face many obstacles. But despite these hardships, the Burmese are some of the gentlest and most generous people I have met anywhere in the world. Perhaps it owes in part to the strong Buddhist tradition which resonates throughout the country. Perhaps its because they have been shutoff from outside contact for so long. Whatever the reason and as I hope this post illustrates, the people of Burma are simply awesome.
My first few days in the country were interesting but challenging. I arrived in Yangon late and was quick to learn how difficult is it to find accommodation the country. There are no hostels, the government only gives licenses to a limited number of guesthouses in each town or city and Myanmar is seeing far more tourists this year than any other year in history. Thus, rooms are relatively expensive for what you get and a pain in the ass to find. The only thing I could find my first night was a four bed 'dorm' in a back alley guesthouse. And by dorm I mean four mats placed on the ground of a dirty attic filled with old furniture and bike parts. I had slept in worse places so I didn't really mind, but when I was woken up at 1AM by bed bugs that had obviously developed a taste taste for backpacker blood, I decided a new room was in order. The next morning I found a decent basic room across the street, ate my included breakfast and set out to explore Myanmar for the first time. The first thing that struck me while walking around Yangon that morning was the prevalence of traditional clothing. Both men and women were wearing longyis (Burmese style sarongs) and woman had colorful tops to match. I would later discover that each region has its own distinctive patterns and designs.
In addition to the traditional garb, almost every woman had her face painted with a white paste called thanaka, something the locals have been using for 2000 years to prevent sun damage. The men were all chewing betel nut, a red tobacco based substance which turns their teeth bright red. The combination of all these traditional styles made for a unique looking bunch. As I walked the streets of Yangon, I also couldn't help but notice how old it all looked. It was like I had gone back in time. There was a few fancy hotels, upclass shopping centers and a handful of restaurants which had a some western dishes in the downtown area but beyond that there was not much catered to foreign tourists. Although I had heard that a couple of the hotels have bars that stay open til midnight, I found virtually nothing in the way of nightlife. After 10PM it was nearly impossible to even find a meal. The whole city felt very real and raw. I was satisfied because raw is what I had come to Burma to see.
After spending a few hours doing loops around Yangon's grid-locked grid system and sampling the city's wide variety of street food I went up to the Shwedagon Pagoda for sunset. Locals age the pagoda at 2500 years (a little exagerated I'm sure) making it one of the oldest and most sacred pagodas in the world. At 100 meters tall and covered in a layer of pure gold its pretty spectacular to look at. After returning from the pagoda, I met a couple of young travelers, Rali from Morocco and his friend Pauline from france, for dinner and a beer. They had also just arrived in Yangon but only had a week to travel in Burma. Since we were both heading north we decided to travel to Kalaw together then trek to Inle lake. I got an early night sleep that night since my old travel buddy and good friend Dana was on her way down from Mandalay to meet me the next day before she flew to Indonesia. This was her second stint in Burma. On her first she met a Burmese special friend and had returned for a couple weeks to visit him. I was really looking forward to chatting with Dana over far too many beers (just like old times) but that night, around 5AM, I finally was hit with my first bought of food poisoning. I had survived six months of travel without any major problems and was getting pretty cocky with the street food so I guess it was bound to happen. Especially in Burma where it seems as though everyone gets sick at least once. My stomach felt like a pressure cooker so I had to avoid the beers when I met up with Dana but we nonetheless had a good long conversation about travel and various things. She had some valuable tips for my month ahead and we planned to meet again in indonesia.
After my stomach had somewhat recovered, Rali, Pauline and I caught a overnight bus north to Kalaw. As is usual in Burma, the bus arrived at 3:30 AM and we had to find our way to a guesthouse in the dark. When the sun rose the next morning, we found ourselves in a quirky little town. As we strolled through the morning market, we were given a mixture of wide-eyed looks and wide-mouthed smiles. In the evening, we had our first real taste of Burmese cuisine from a traditional restaurant. Sandwiched between China, India and Southeast Asia, Burmese food has elements of all three but it is not as good as any of them on their own. There was a lot of meat curries, corn, potato and fish paste. For being in-between two spice-crazy monster countries, however, the chilli pepper was strangely absent from almost every dish. To be honest, the food I had in Burma was good but a little bland and nothing to write home about. What was more interesting was the presentation. If you order one dish, you get between three to ten side dishes which often include a vegetable soup, curry dishes, a peanut mixture, fresh veggies, dried fish and fruit. If you finish any of these dishes, the waiter automatically brings you more free of charge. The food may not have been as good as Thailand, but I never left a table hungry. On this occasion, however, my stomach was not ready to handle such a smorgesbord and I spent a good amount of time on the toilet the next morning before we started our trek.
The trek to Inle lake was through farm blanketed hills and friendly minority villages. The sheer variety of crops grown in the area was amazing. The landscape was covered with a patchwork of various colors and textures which resembled a huge homemade quilt. We ventured a guess that this had to do with Burma's recent isolation. Perhaps the farmers had to be more self-sufficient than elsewhere in the world. We saw only smiling burmese families along the trail, but the village where we spent the night was full of trekkers. I guess the homestays were all full because we ended up in a barn with the tour guides instead of with a local family as was planned. We spent a long cold night playing cards and word games by candlelight before getting a bit of sleep. I awoke the next day with a gastro-mergency and had the pleasure of locking myself in the communal village outhouse for twenty minutes to handle the issue. Once we got back on the trail we were treated to some fantastic morning scenery. The mists settled around the hills and mountains on the horizon created a beautiful backdrop as we made our way to Inle. It took another six hours before we began our descent into the valley.
Inle lake is one of the four main destinations which make up Burma's tourism diamond the others being Bagan, Mandalay and Yangon. Since I had come to Burma during the holidays to avoid the Christmas rush in Thailand, I was surprised and a bit frustrated to find so many foreign tourists in Nyuang Shwe, the lakes main village base. I saw hardly any backpackers, only older French couples and a few tour groups. The Nyuang Shwe locals were still very friendly but it was not the unconditional friendlyness I experienced in other parts of Burma. It seemed as though everyone was trying to sell me a boat trip or tour around the lake. The main strip was lined with travel agencies and there were a few tourist restaurants offering anything from pizza to burgers. It was still very quiet and not particularly touristy relative to other major Asian destinations, but for the first time in Burma, I got the feeling as though I was looked at as wallet. On the other hand, I can see why the lake is so popular. It is stunning, full of interesting adventures and the the area is so huge that once you get out of Nyuang Shwe, its not hard to find a quiet place where you feel like you have the whole lake to yourself. I rented a bike to explore the countryside. Against the backdrop of barren mountains and mist laden reflective waters, I went a little photo crazy on all the longboat fishermen, lively stilted villages and aging monasteries. I rented a boat the following day to take me on an organized tour. I'm not crazy about organized anything while traveling but it was the cheapest way to get out on the lake and I had a boat to myself. My ever-smiling driver shuttled me around floating villages, floating farms and a floating monastery where the monks have trained cats to jumping through hoops. It was great day but I returned at sunset in desperate need of a toilet and decided to finally take action on my stomach. It had been a week and the dam was still leaking so I took some of the antibiotics my mom had brought me when she met me in Vietnam. Fortunately, the pills went to work fast and within a day I was feeling better.
Christmas was fast approaching so I decided to catch a bus to Mandalay for the day where I could possibly meet a few backpackers. I spent Christmas eve on an overnight bus where a young burmese guy who was sitting next to me insisted on sitting in the fold down aisle seat so I could stretch out and get some sleep. I felt horrible seeing him slouched in the aisle with his head in his knees but he wouldn't have it any other way. I arrived in Mandalay at 4AM Christmas day. My hotel was not a place conducive to meeting other travelers (as is the case with most accommodation in Burma) so I spent the day alone doing laundry and sending emails. I tried checking out Mandalay's only foreigner oriented bar in the evening but it was empty so I just drank a beer alone on the rooftop patio. It was a little sad but what I expected spending Christmas in Burma so I couldn't complain. On boxing day I caught the bus up to Hsipaw, the trekking center in Burma. It's a friendly little town with lots to explore in the surrounding countryside. My guesthouse was owned by a priceless old Buddhist woman who was genuinely concerned that I fully enjoyed my few days in her little town. She was full of tips and advice for making the most out of my stay. When I told her I only had a couple nights, she urged me to rent a motorbike and drew for me a detailed map of area. I first went to a waterfall guided by a local teenager I met on the side of the highway who was very sure I wouldn't find the way alone. He was probably right. Then I went to a hot spring before taking my bike up a steep hill to a farm covered plateau. The climb, up a steep rocky dirt path, was the most difficult motorbiking I have ever done but the plateau was worth the trouble. Several tiny villages full of friendly smiling and curious faces dotted the landscape of farms and trails. I spent a good few hours just going from one hilltop village to the next before I had to turn back due to the setting sun. I left my descent a little too late and had to hurry back to Hsipaw to catch the the last minutes of the sunset on the top of the local 'sunset hill'. I ran out of gas literally as I reached the summit and had to coast all the way down in the dark. Luckily, a local at the bottom of the hill was eager to help and guided me to the nearest gas station to fetch a liter before sending me on my way with a pat on the back. I eventually made it back to the guesthouse and chatted with the guesthouse owner before hitting the hay.
By the time I reached Hsipaw, the long lonely nights of reading and doing sudoku were starting to wear on me but I was feeling alright. I wasn't meeting any other young travelers but the locals were just so genuinely kind and friendly that I couldn't help but feel good. Everywhere I went, people were smiling and always eager to help. The energy they gave off was always so positive. I think constantly being witness to this compassionate attitude and good energy actually rekindled my interest in Buddhism. Buddhist philosphy is clearly very important to the people of Myanmar and I started to realize that it was a major factor in fostering the outstanding good-will and compassion they display. During my early teen years, I had done quite a bit of reading on the subject but had since forgotten most of what I learned. So I found a famous introductory book on the subject (Wolpola Rahula's "What the Buddha Taught") at a Hsipaw book-stand and decided to start following (as best as I could) some of the basic tenets of the philosophy. These include the rules of no stealing, no lying, no destroying life (I was already eating very little meat due to my stomach so I became full vegetarian for the remainder of my time in Burma), no adultery, and no intoxicating drinks. I will admit there were a couple nights that I had a beer but I always limited it to one. Given my relative isolation and freedom from temptation (is not like there were any nightclubs around) I had a good amount of time to read and ponder the subject. I also started practicing a few simple meditation techniques and focused on being more mindful of my sensations and perceptions. Of course I didn't expect to be a Buddhist by the time I left Burma, nor did I want to, but I thought being in possibly the most Buddhist country in the world was a good opportunity to explore a religion that I have always been so interested in but too lazy to follow.
Unfortunately, my next destination was probably the least Buddhist place in Burma. After Hsipaw, I caught the train to Pwin U Lwin. I had not yet taken the train in Burma since it is incredibly slow and foreigners pay up to 10 times the price of local fares, but this particular ride was heralded as the most beautiful in Burma, so I jumped on board. The train felt as ancient as the moutains it rode over. It was loud, moved at one quarter the speed of highway traffic and heavily rocked back and forth, up and down and in every other possible direction. The ride was indeed beautiful, the highlight being a deep gorge which we crossed by way of a creaky old colonial era bridge. I sat across from couple of crazy Brits who were drinking beer, poppin' valium and playing music the entire ride. They even convinced me to rock out the guitar for a few sing-a-longs until we reached our destination.
Pwin Oo Lwin is the elite retreat of Myanmar. Its where the circle of rich government officials and businessmen go to relax and play golf. The town is full of old colonial British mansions and posh Beverly Hills type estates. The downtown was small but full of western style cafes and western clothing shops. The town clearly represented the high classes of society and I can't say I liked it very much. But a few miles out of town was an impressive waterfall which made for a nice day trip. I also snuck into the national gardens using a drainage ditch which went underneath the barb wired fence instead of paying the $6 foreigner entrance fee. I wasn't too concerned about the money but was trying to reduce the amount of cash I placed into the pockets of the government. To this end, I avoided almost every government fee in the country.
After Pwin Oo Lwin I caught a pickup back to Mandalay. Since my first stay in Mandalay was so short I never really have a chance to see the city but this time I booked three days and took some time to explore. Mandalay is not the beautiful royal capital that many envision it to be. It’s a smelly, loud, dirty city with horrendous traffic. Assaulting to the senses as Mandalay is, however, I quite liked it. In many parts it feels like the biggest, busiest village in the world. Many of the streets are still just dirt roads with shacks on either side and even the paved streets do not have traffic lights. The thousands of motorbikes and cars somehow just make it work. The sidewalks are covered with so much crap from the stores which line the streets that its very difficult to walk from one place to the next. Thus. in addition to the traffic jams in the streets, you also often get stuck in people jams on the side walk. Some find it frustrating but, if you don't have anywhere important to be, its just funny to watch.
Mandalay is also the Buddhist capital of Burma and tons of monks roam its streets. You cant turn a corner without seeing red robes and shaved heads. But the monks in Burma do not brandish iphones or nikes like monks I have seen in other Buddhist countries. In Myanmar its typical for them only to have their alms bowl and their robes. This is much more in keeping with Buddhist tradition which holds that monks should not have personal possessions and must only consume or use what is given to them. They roam the streets with their alms bowl collecting money from passersby which they use to buy food or essential items. Most live in the thousands of monasteries or meditations centers found all over the cities and countryside. Its typical for Burmese males spent at least two years before the age of twenty as a monk and another two years before they die. This practice is still common throughout the country so there is always a fresh supply of young and old men to be ordeinged. While Mandalay itself may not be the most enchanting city, most come to see the surrounding ancient capitals of Inwa, Mingun, Amurapura and Saigaing. One sunny day I drafted a moto driver to take me to two of them, Amurapura and Saigaing. Saigaing is a series of steep hills capped with hundreds of golden stupas and Amurapura has the longest teak bridge in the world, a beautiful sight at sunset when monks trek back and forth between monastery and village. I had a funny moment on the bridge when a group of elderly monks who were visiting from the countryside insisted on taking several pictures with me. This was a bizarre role reversal since monks are usually the ones having cameras shoved in their faces by tourists. I then had a not so funny moment in the village on the east side of the bridge when, while crossing a narrow street, I caused a motorbike carrying too young guys who were going far to fast to skid into a ditch to miss me. I was left untouched but feeling guilty as hell. Even though there was no clear damage to the bike and they appeared to be unharmed I gave them $20 and apologized profusely before slinking away.
That night was new years eve and I did not want to spend another holiday alone so I befriended a couple french girls named Geraldine and Sophie as well as an Irish guy named Louis and we hit a local beer station for some food and a couple drinks (I only had one). It looked as though it was going to be a pretty quiet night until we heard there was a countdown at a downtown hotel. We caught a couple motos towards the palace and were quickly surrounded by unexpected mayhem. Since Christmas had been so quiet I thought New Years would be tame as well but it was far from tame. Thousands of Burmese, mostly between the ages of 15 and 30, descended on the streets with bottles of whiskey and beer in hand. It definitely was not the buddhist majority but more younger folks adorned in cheap western styles. Everyone was riding a motorbike and setting off make shift fireworks. As our driver weaved through the mayhem, one firework went off right in front of us and a piece caught him in the chest. He started swerving as if he had just been shot and when we finally came to a stop, he had a ugly burn down the side of his neck. We decided to walk after this. As we got into the center of the action the mayhem only increased. Drunk Burmese were holding motorbike races, weaving through the crowds and doing wheelies with friends standing on the back seat. Cars and tuk-tuks became makeshift dance floors as large speakers blared Burmese style covers of western songs. Abandoned buildings became makeshift night clubs as a few guys set up large speakers and strobe-lights and hundreds of others came the dance. I had never seen anything like it and it was really bizarre for a country that has no nightlife whatsoever. I assumed that since this is probably the first year since the 2007 protests that the Burmese have been allowed to gather in large numbers, they were taking full advantage. But these guys were clearly new to partying as many were laying in puddles of their own puke on the side of the street. The whole event was one hell of a thing to see, but not the safest environment. So an hour after the countdown, we returned to the guesthouse. Next up on the travel route was Bagan. A huge desertish plain covered with with thousands of 800 year old stupas of various shapes and sizes. This is probably Burma's most famous destination and has buses of tourists being shuttled in and out to show for it. When our bus stopped at the entrance, I avoided the government ticket by simply walking into the booth then out past the guard while shoving money in my wallet as if I had just paid for a ticket. As soon as I arrived I found a dorm and rode a bike out into the plain to catch the sunset. It really was a stupa endous site. The views were stupa-erb, maybe even stupa-erior to Angkor Wat and I was truly left stupa-fied... Alright, I'm done. But In all seriousness, it was beautiful. I spent two days biking around the temples and hanging out with Sophie and Geraldine, who had arrived on a bus the day before.
Unfortunately, on my last night I was hit with another bout of food poisoning. I didn't understand how as I had only been eating vegetable curries and rice for more than a couple weeks, but I spent another night throwing up then three more days on the toilet before the episode was over.
During that time, I took a bus to Pyay, a small riverside town. I arrived badly in need of a bathroom and a comfortable room.
Unfortunately, the only room that was available was a 4 ft by 6 ft prison cell with what seemed like cardboard for walls, a ton of mosquitoes and a fan that didn't work. It was not a good night but the next morning I switched to a better, although slightly odd attic style room on the top floor complete with a Buddhist shrine before setting out to explore the town. Pyay had a nice pagoda complex perched atop a set of tree covered hills which afforded a great view of the river in the morning. The forested area made for a peaceful afternoon stroll during which I randomly stumbled across an odd makeshift driving range in the middle of nowhere. One rich looking Burmese man was practicing his swing and he let me take a few shots with his five iron before I continued on down to the river for sunset. I was enjoying the beautiful sunset walk along the river shore until my feet suddenly sank knee deep into thick mud and I got stuck. I heard the laughs of three small children behind me and then felt the hand of an older gentlemen on my shoulder. It was a family who also going for a riverside stroll and the father had taken off his shoes, rolled up his pants and was now knee deep in the mud himself trying to save me. After much pushing and pulling, we eventually made it out but the man went right back in to fetch my sandals. When I thanked the man and said goodbye his youngest daughter, maybe five years old, ran up to me and gave me the handful of sea shells she had collected on her riverside journey. Those are the moments a backpacker treasures. After the ordeal, I was ready to head back the guesthouse when I a couple guys invited me to join them for a cup of tea and snacks (most men in Burma go to tea houses to socialize). After I sat down we were quickly joined by others from surrounding tables. One of the younger university students introduced himself as William and could speak English pretty well so he helped with the translation as we drank tea, joked and laughed about various nonsensical things for a few hours. Then we all jumped on motorbikes and William took me on tour of the the town. First we had to meet his parents who were selling oranges by the side of the road with their with William's younger daughter. They were very curious to see if I liked their oranges and, when I approved, made sure I left with a bag full free of charge. Then we checked out a local miniature soccer game where crowds of locals were cheering on men on a miniature dirt field kicking a miniature ball into two miniature nets. Finally, we made our way to the local chinlon festival which only happens once a year. Chinlon is Burma's most popular past time. Several men make a circle and work together to keep a small straw ball in the air. Each player gets a turn trying various trick shots which often sends the other players diving to save the ball. Its more of a social activity than a sport. I had seen it played many times before but the teams at this festival were on another level. Their trick shots were unreal. Some were doing spinning back kicks others twirling the ball around each foot before launching it backwards to another player. I was kept in awe for a good two hours before I had to get back to my guesthouse. I said many thanks to the Burmese guys who showed me such a great night and returned to my guesthouse feeling lucky to have met such awesome group of locals, a feeling that was becoming all to familiar in Burma.
The next morning I started a long and difficult journey to Mawlamyine in South Eastern Burma, a minority area that is mostly off limits to foreigners save for a few areas. My stomach still had not recovered and I was a little nervous about the two buses I had to take to get there. First up was an eight hour to Yangon, then fours hours at the bus station, and finally a ten hour overnight to Mawlayine. I had read in the lonely planet that the bus arrives at a long bridge at 3AM which cannot be crossed in the dark and stays put until sunrise. Sure enough, at 2AM we stopped at the bridge and I took the opportunity to run to the toilet of the nearest restaurant. I figured I had a few hours to kill until sunrise so I sat at a local tea house and watched the football game they had on. I sat there for an hour until I turned around to check on the bus and noticed, even though it wasn't even close to sunrise, that it had vanished. There was another bus parked on the side of the road so I ran up to the driver and asked where my coach had gone. He motioned with his arms that it had already departed. This was a big problem because my luggage was still on board and it was only making a stop in Mawlamyine before continuing on into the far South where foreign travel was restricted. The driver quickly understood my predicament and invited me on board his bus. We took off a few minutes later and, after about 10 anxious minutes of driving, came to a traffic jam at the mouth of the bridge. I thanked the driver and sprinted up the line of buses praying that mine had not yet crossed. Five buses up, I saw the driver of my bus standing on the road smoking a cigarette. He threw his arms in the air and laughed when he saw me. He motioned for me to get on bored, tossed away his cigarette and we were off again. I arrived at Mawlamyine tired, bowels in knots and a bit shaken from the bus incident.
Unfortunately, as is usual in Burma, I arrived at 4AM and none of the guesthouses open til 5AM. I waited outside my first choice until an skinny old man opened the door and invited me inside. He said that they were full and no one had checked out so I would wait until about 8AM. When I asked I could sleep in lobby he smiled and told me he had to open the Guesthouse now anyway and I should just take his bed. Yet another example of the unconditional generosity of the Burmese people. I slept like a baby in this old mans tiny bed until a room was ready. After a long rest my stomach had finally settled and I had regained the energy to check out the town. It was another beautiful riverside setting, similar to Pyay, bound in by low lying hills and the locals were even more friendly than elsewhere in Burma (if that's even possible). I could not walk three steps without someone saying hello, asking where I was from, or just giving me a big smile and a thumbs up. At one point a man who was driving by on a motorbike hit the brakes, got off his bike, took of his helmet and ran over to shake my hand. He said "Hello, how are you?" Where are you from?" "Do you like Myanmar?" "Good!" before getting back on his bike and driving off. That evening I watched a fantastic sunset from the town's main hillside pagoda before having dinner with my french friend Sophie who had come to Mawlamyine a few days before and was leaving the next day. Over the next two days I went to see two of Mawlamyine's surrounding attractions. First I took a pickup (local trucks which shuttle people between villages) to the biggest reclining Buddha in the world. Built quite recently, its definitely a big Buddha, but hollow and not terribly impressive. You can actually walk inside the Buddha where there is a bunch of bizarre statues depicting anything from nativity-looking scenes to devils driving pitchforks through peoples' heads. Not the most Buddhist imagery.
The second sight was more supernatural, a mountain peak with three large gold covered boulders precariously stacked one on top of the other and capped with a stupa. Of course the gold and the stupa was placed by human hands but the locals contend that the boulders were discovered in their original position several hundred years earlier. I took another pick up to get the mountain and this time was put on the roof with Styrofoam containers full of fish and an older gentlemen who continually gave me orange peels and insisted on me sniffing them. I could not figure out why. From Mawlamyine I caught a boat down the river to Hpa-an. The ride was beautiful, past riverside villages where the kids wait along the shores every morning to wave at the faces floating by and into a gorgeous karst limestone landscape. Limestone landscapes are my favorite type of topography and I had no idea it existed in Burma, so I was pleasantly surprised.
Upon arriving in Hpa-an I shared a room with a British fellow of indian descent named Sat since all the single rooms were full. He had done some meditation courses in India and we walked the town chatting about Buddhism, meditation, India and China while checking out the beautiful landscape. The next day I checked out of the room since I planned to stay at a mountain top monastery. Sat and I made our way to a large limestone cave filled with Buddhas and stupas just outside town. The cave was impressive and probably the biggest I have seen but the real treat was on the other side of the entrance where there was a calm lake surrounded by vegetation and limestone peaks. After the cave, Sat went back to town and I started a grueling two hour climb up the tallest mountain in the area. I was sweating bullets by the time I made it to the top but the result was a real treat. The views were amazing and the monastery was quiet and peaceful. The monks approved of my staying the night so I left my things in my very simple sleeping quarters (just a mat on a cement floor) and sat on the mountain side stupa practicing some meditation techniques before watching a surreal sunset. As the sun fell, monkeys (or should I say MONK-eys) took over the monastery. About 30 started wandering the grounds, searching for food and monkeying around on the stupas. As the monks feed them daily they were very well behaved and used to human contact. They had no qualms over taking a seat right next to me and just staring. As I retired to my mat, one of the monks asked if I was comfortable. Since I had not eaten since lunch, I asked if it was possible for me to buy some food. He smiled, said the store was now closed and invited me into his room for some instant noodles and conversation. He spoke broken English at best but we were able to communicate for an couple hours over various topics. He was curious about Canada and I was curious about meditation techniques and Buddhist practices in Burma. It was a enriching experience and even though I only had a cement floor to sleep on, I went to bed that night feeling very comfortable and peaceful. The next morning I woke up at 5AM for sunrise and practiced a few of the techniques the monk had taught me night before. I cant say I made a ton of progress with the meditating (I only had a couple weeks of practice after all) but there were definitely a few moments on the top of that mountain where I felt as though I had grasped something. I guess that's all I can expect in such a short time. During the day the monastery is quite busy with climbing pilgrims and tourists. The morning was very peaceful, just me, a few monks and a bunch of monkeys, but at around 9AM a group of local university students arrived at the temple. I was just sitting at the pagoda when they started lining up to take a picture with me. First one by one then in various different groups. It was pretty funny and reminded me of my time in Yantai. As the monastery became more busy I said goodbye to my new monk friend, gave a donation and started my way down the mountain.
As I descended I met various locals who were on there way up. Most didn't speak English but they all had the same two questions. I couldn't help but laugh when the the men would ask "One man show?" (meaning 'are you alone') and the woman "Are you happy?" (meaning 'how are you?'). Since I descended the opposite side of the mountain from which I climbed, I was not exactly sure where I was when I reached the bottom. I asked a local how to get to my next destination. She directed me down the road but as I started walking she yelled to a friend who jumped on a motorbike and pointed at the backseat. This woman drove me about three km to my destination, another cave, dropped me off then went back to the same direction that she came. She refused a donation. On my way back from the cave, I was on the side of the road looking at a map when a local driving a pickup stopped and asked me where I was going. I told him Hpa-an and he told me to jump in. He didn't want any money, just a little conversation with a foreigner. He talked about the Kayin people (the minority who controls the area) and how they are a distinct group with their own language. Kayin state is one of many which is at odds with the central government and the local pride was made clear by the Kayin flags posted in front of every house. He dropped me at the doorstep of my guesthouse in Hpa-an and gave me his phone number in case I needed anything before I go. Another unconditional, unprovoked act of generosity and a great way to finish my stay in what quickly had become my favorite destination in Myanmar and one of my favorites in the world.
The next morning I caught a bus to Yangon where I had a day to relax before my flight to Bangkok. My 31 days in Burma had finally come to an end. After paying a small fee at the airport for overstaying my visa, I boarded my plane back to Bangkok already nostalgic over my experience in Burma but ready for a hot shower, a shave and maybe a big mac. On the flight I was thinking to myself that I would love to return at some point in the future although something tells me that in five years the country just won't be the same. The tourists have arrived and the industry has already begun to take hold in places like Nyuang Shwe and Bagan. As is the case in most other South East Asian countries, as tourist dollars flow in, the attitude towards foreigners is likely to change. You can already see it in the travel hot spots. A pity, but I feel lucky to have seen the country as it is today.
Burma wasn't the easiest place for me to travel. My stomach was destroyed by the food, rebuilt and destroyed again. The bus rides were long, cheap accommodation difficult to find and there are very few places to meet other travelers which makes backpacking a more lonely experience than usual. But even if I found myself feeling down, the locals were quick to put a smile back on my face. Burma has some world class sights and unique landscapes, but that's not what makes the country special. What makes it special is the people. Whether its a little girl giving you seashells, a teenager ecstatic to introduce you to his parents, or a old man just giving you a big toothless grin, travel in Burma is an endless series of priceless exchanges with local people. Given all the hardships they face, their small selfless acts of generosity really made me reconsider my own daily conduct and re sparked my interest in Buddhism. I can only hope I learned something from these people that will last or least have a chance to return someday and learn something more. But for now, its off to the next destination.