The moment I emerged from my guesthouse that hot and humid morning I was immediately captivated by my surroundings. I stood dazed and dripping with sweat in the stifling heat as I took it all in. I was encircled by an odd combination of aging colonial buildings, shimmering white mosques, hole-in-the-wall internet cafes and a torrent of bustling cars. My attention was fixated on the large glowing golden Stupa which formed the centerpiece of the traffic circle before me. Locals leisurely strolled around the circle smiling widely at the confused foreigner. Their sun beaten faces were worn and weary but exhibited a simple contentment with life unique to this small corner of the world. Both men and women wore colourful patterned sarongs and decorative tops to match. Minority religious groups flaunted their distinct styles, from Muslim men in their large white gowns and little white hats to Hindu woman in their brightly coloured jewel studded outfits. I caught a glimpse of some western attire but it was worn by few and the styles were quite terrible.
Women had their faces painted with a thick white paste. The classic design was a streak across each cheek and down the front of the nose. The result was near tribal. The men had bright red teeth and looked as though they had recently been punched in the mouth, the product of years of betel nut use.
“Hello! One man show?” someone yelled from a distance undoubtedly wondering what this poor puzzled soul was doing alone in the middle of unfamiliar territory. I threw the man a ‘thumbs up’ in return.
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. The scent of sewage crept through broken drains and dispersed into the air, stronger in some areas, weaker in others, but always present. There were so many car parts, toys and other assorted goods piled onto sidewalks that it was nearly futile to use them. Noisy traffic jams full of honking cars and buses formed in the streets while people jams formed on their periphery as everyone tried to find their way through the maze of store front junk. Nobody seemed to be in any hurry. Many took a moment to stop and examine the random white face in the crowd.
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. “Maybe” I replied “but I am right where I want to be.”
This was my first impression of Burma, a country where they drive on the right side of the road in cars made for the left, where the woman all wear face paint while the men all wear 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 twenty first century, when I visited Burma it was one of the least understood and least developed countries in Asia. The ethnically diverse population was desperately poor, had been ruled by a string of oppressive military dictators for decades and had been subject to a constant stream of devastating natural disasters. Life in this country was challenging to say the least. But despite their hardships, the people in Burma were some of the gentlest and most generous people I had met anywhere in the world. Perhaps it owes in part to the strong Buddhist tradition which resonates throughout the country. Perhaps it was because they had been shutoff from outside contact for so long. Whatever the reason and as I hope this chapter illustrates, the people of Burma were simply awesome.
My first few days in the country were interesting but not without challenges. I arrived in Yangon late and was quick to learn how difficult it is to find accommodation in the country. There were no hostels, the government only gave licenses to a limited number of guesthouses in each town or city and Myanmar was accommodating far more tourists than any other year in history. Beds were expensive and a pain in the ass to find. The only thing I could locate on my first night was a four bed dorm in a back alley guesthouse. This ‘dorm’ consisted of four straw mats placed on the ground of a filthy attic filled with old furniture and bike parts. I had slept in worse places so I didn't really mind. After being turned away almost every other licensed guest house, I was just happy not to be sleeping on a park bench. However, when I was woken up at one in the morning by bed bugs which had obviously developed a taste for backpacker blood, I decided a new guesthouse was in order. I awoke early the following morning, found a basic room across the street and set out into the city.
Yangon was unlike any other capital city I had been to. There were a few fancy government owned hotels and a handful of ‘western’ restaurants in the downtown area but beyond that there was not much catered to foreigners. Coming across a franchise business was rare. Almost every store, restaurant or teashop was a hole-in-the-wall. I found virtually nothing in the way of nightlife. In fact, after nine at night, I couldn’t even find a snack. The streets were aligned in a grid system which was constantly grid-locked. There were only a few buildings above six stories high. Although Buddhist temples and stupas formed the majority of holy monuments, many other religions were represented by various mosques, churches and even synagogues.
Everyone was very friendly and curious. As I wandered the streets, I received a constant stream of welcoming smiles and greetings. If I stopped to look at a street sign for even a moment, I was often quickly approached by an elderly local eager to point me in the right direction. Nobody requested anything in return. There were no scams. No funny business. They all just genuinely wanted to help. As Burma was a former British colony, the elderly spoke English much better than the youth, one of many strange oddities which made traveling Burma a pleasantly unique experience.
One of the first sights I visited in the country was the famed Shwedagon Pagoda. This large stupa forms the centerpiece of the city and remains one of the oldest Buddhist monuments in the world. Locals claim that it has been a pilgrimage sight for well over two millennia. At one hundred meters tall and covered in a layer of pure gold it was an impressive sight.
That evening, while eating dinner at a street side restaurant, I began chatting with a couple of travelers sitting at the table opposite mine. Rali and Pauline were two friends on a whirlwind tour of South East Asia. They had only a week to travel Burma but were doing their best to make the most of it. They seemed friendly and we quickly discovered our shared interest in a well known trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake. We agreed to travel north and do the trek together once we had our fill of Yangon.
I got to bed early that night. My old travel buddy Dana was on her way down from Mandalay to meet me the following day and I wanted to have plenty of energy. She was just finishing her second stint in Burma. On her first she met a Burmese man and had returned to visit him. I was really looking forward to seeing her. We had both done quite a bit of traveling since we parted ways in Northern Laos and we had plenty of stories to share. I was preparing myself for the onslaught of beer which would surely soon follow our reunion. Dana and I were known were putting back a few in each others company. However, at around five in the morning that night, I was finally hit with my first bought of serious food poisoning. I had survived six months of travel without any problems. During this time, I had become very adventurous with the street food. I guess it was bound to happen in Burma where it seems as though everyone gets food poisoning at least once. When I met up with Dana the following afternoon, my insides felt akin to a pressure cooker. I could only watch her drink beer. I couldn’t even keep water down. But we nevertheless had a good long conversation over travel and various things. She had developed an intimate knowledge of Burma and had some valuable tips for my month ahead. Our night was cut short when I had to retire to guesthouse to get some much needed rest. We promised to meet again somewhere down the line.
Once my insides had settled a bit, Rali, Pauline and I caught an overnight bus north to Kalaw. As is typical in Burma, our bus arrived at four in the morning and we were forced to find our way to a guesthouse in the dark. We awoke the following morning, to find ourselves in the middle of a quirky little hill town. The dusty main street was lined with mom and pop restaurants. Simple wooden shacks built onto the hill side housed the town’s small population. A bustling market full of farming hats, colourful sarongs, dried fish and strange crops sat in the middle of settlement. We spent most of the morning strolling through this market. We were given quite a few second glances. These confusing looks were often followed by a welcoming smile. Most townsfolk seemed quite happy to have us as guests.
In the afternoon, we had our first taste of true Burmese cuisine from a traditional restaurant off the main drag. The restaurant was owned by a small family. The interior looked like their living room. There were family pictures and random trinkets scattered about. A weathered wooden door led to a small kitchen where an old lady prepared our meal. The man of the house was sitting behind the counter flipping through static on an aging television. Their son brought us our order.
I was very curious to try Burmese food. After all, the country is sandwiched between three culinary heavyweights; China, India and Thailand. Our first meal had some elements of all three, however, the chilli pepper was strangely absent from almost every dish. Our plates consisted mainly of mild curries, potato mixtures, fish pastes and strange looking vegetables. In true Asian style, everything was served with noodles or rice. To be honest, the food was nothing to write home about. Most dishes were rather bland. What was more interesting was the presentation. We only ordered one dish each, however, we received ten side dishes free of charge. They included vegetable soup, various vegetable curries, a peanut mixture, fresh veggies, dried fish and fruit. Upon finishing any of the side dishes, we were immediately brought another free of charge. I would soon learn that this was a custom common to all Burmese restaurants. Even when eating alone, I was always presented with up to ten side dishes free of charge. The food may not have been as flavourful as in Thailand or China, but I never left a table hungry.
Soon after finishing our meal we organized a guide to take us to Inle Lake the following morning. An early night was necessary as we were to leave very early the following morning. I was awake before sunrise as a result of further bowel issues. Although my stomach had recovered enough of its strength for me to finish a meal, everything I consumed was traveling through my system far too fast. At least I got it all out before we left the guesthouse.
The trek was through dry farmland and friendly minority villages. It was more of a cultural experience than a nature walk. The landscape was surprisingly dry. It felt nothing like the rest of South East Asia. Some areas even felt akin to a desert. The hills were covered with a patchwork of various colors and textures. It resembled a giant homemade quilt. The sheer variety of crops grown in the area was amazing. We ventured a guess that this had to do with Burma's recent isolation. Perhaps the Burmese farmers had to be more self-sufficient than elsewhere in the world.
The hike was split over two days. We spent the night in a village which had clearly been designated as the trekkers stop off point. On the trail, we had not seen another white face and yet this village was full of foreigners. We slept in what felt like a big barn. It was a cold night.
I once again awoke before sunrise with a gastro-mergency and had the pleasure of locking myself in the communal village outhouse for twenty minutes to handle the issue. I was beginning to realize that I had picked up some type of persistent bug. Once back on the trail we were treated to some striking morning scenery. Mists had settled around the hills on the horizon creating a dreamlike backdrop as the sun climbed over them. We winded our way through landscape, cutting through farms and hopping over small streams. There was no discernable path. We were just doing what the guide did. It took another six hours before we began our descent into the Inle valley.
Inle lake is one of the four destinations which make up Burma's small tourist diamond. The others are Bagan, Mandalay and Yangon. Since I had come to Burma during the holidays to avoid the Christmas rush in Thailand, I was surprised to find so many foreign tourists in Nyuang Shwe, the lakeside town which acts as its visitor base. There were very few backpackers, mostly older French couples and tour groups. This was the remnants of Burma’s recent isolated history. Before opening itself to the world, almost all tourism in Burma consisted of package tourists booked on government sponsored tours. The main strip was lined with travel agencies and there were even a few tourist restaurants offering anything from pizza to burgers. The Nyuang Shwe locals were friendly but did not display the same unconditional kindness found in most other parts of Burma. I was often stopped on the streets by boat operators attempting to sell me a tour around the lake. For the first time in Burma, I got the feeling as though I was looked at as a wallet.
The popularity of the lake was understandable. The area was stunning, full of interesting adventures and so huge that once I left Nyuang Shwe, it was easy to find a quiet spot where I felt as though I had the whole lake to myself.
I rented a bike in town 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. Everything was interesting and beautiful in its own quirky way. Fishermen balanced precariously on the end of thin wooden rafts with both hands minding a net, one leg on the boat, one leg wrapped around an oar dangling in the water. It was an incredible circus like balancing act. Farmers walked over strange bamboo contraptions that allowed them to grow crops floating on the surface of the lake. Village parties full of music, dancing and strange costumes raged throughout the afternoon. I couldn’t get enough.
The following morning I rented a boat and a driver to take me on an organized tour of the lake. I'm not crazy about tours but it was the cheapest way to get out onto the water. My ever-smiling guide spoke not a word of English but happily shuttled me from floating villages to floating farms and finally to a floating monastery. It was named the ‘jumping cat monastery’ since the monks had trained local cats to jump through hoops. I was returned to Nuang Shwe in time to catch a sunset over the lake. Save for a couple emergency bathroom stops, it was a wonderful day.
Christmas was fast approaching so I decided to catch a bus to Mandalay to increase my chances of meeting a few backpackers to celebrate the event with. I spent Christmas Eve on a stuffy overnight bus. The seats were tiny and lacked head rests making it nearly impossible to sleep. Noticing my distress, the young Burmese fellow in the seat next to me insisted on sitting in a fold down aisle seat so I could stretch out over two seats and get some sleep. I felt horrible seeing him slouched over in the aisle with his head in his knees but every time I insisted that he take in his normal seat, he insisted that I lay down. He wouldn't have it any other way. Such random generosity was difficult to comprehend. In Burma, it was everywhere.
I arrived in Mandalay at four in the morning on Christmas day and I made my way to the closest guesthouse. There was no vacancy so the clerk let me sleep on the lobby couch until a room was ready. As is the case with most accommodation in Burma, the guesthouse was not a place conducive to meeting other travelers. There were a few couples around and some Burmese families but no one was interested in spending Christmas with a lonely traveler. I spent the day alone doing laundry and sending emails. In the evening, I caught a taxi to Mandalay's only foreigner oriented bar sure that I would find at least a few expats or travellers enjoying the holiday. It was empty. I just drank a beer alone on the rooftop patio. It a sobering moment but I couldn’t have expected much more from a Christmas in Burma.
Early the following morning, I caught a bus north to Hsipaw, one of Burma’s trekking headquarters. It's a friendly little town situated in the northern highlands and surrounded by a plethora of hiking opportunities. My guesthouse was run by a priceless old Buddhist woman who displayed the utmost concern for my enjoyment of her little town. She was full of tips and advice. When I told her I was only to stay for a couple nights, she drew me a detailed map of area and urged me to rent a motorbike. “There is just too much to see” she said “you don’t have enough time!”
Her map first guided me to a waterfall. When I stopped on the side of the highway, unable to find the proper trail, a local teenager abandoned his wheelbarrow to guide me the rest of the way. We trekked through thick bush for about twenty minutes before stumbling upon the small waterfall. It was nothing special but the surrounding scenery was worth the trip.
From the waterfall, the map directed me up onto a large plateau. My rickety old moped struggled its way up the steep rocky path. The little beast barely made it to the top but the plateau was worth the trouble. Several tiny farming villages full of curious faces dotted the landscape. The view over the misty foothills to the north was spectacular. Most of my afternoon was spent following the plateau trail from one hilltop village to the next. Eventually I was forced to turn back due to an impending sunset. I left my descent a little too late. I barely caught the last moments of the sunset on from the top of Hsipaw’s ‘sunset hill’. I ran out of gas as I reached the summit and had to coast all the way back down in the dark. Luckily, a local at the bottom of the hill was eager to help and guided me to the nearest rest station to fetch a litre of gas. I made it back to the guesthouse in time for a quick meal before retiring to my room.
As I finished the last pages of a novel late that night, I considered my adaptation to Burma’s solitary days of exploration and long lonely nights of reading and sudoku. It was a different kind of travel. 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 fulfilled by my experiences. Everywhere I went, people were smiling and eager to assist me in any way they could. The energy they gave off was always so positive. I couldn’t help but wonder what made this country so unique. It surely had something to do with its recent period of isolation, a time in which the local population was completely cut off from the world. They seemed to crave outside contact. Nonetheless, the country’s strong Buddhist tradition was also a key aspect. The countless temples and stupas found throughout the land were a testament to the importance the people of Myanmar place on Buddhism. It remains one of the most devoutly Buddhist nations in the world. Surely this was a factor in fostering the outstanding good-will and compassion they displayed.
During my early teen years, I had done quite a bit of reading on the subject of Buddhist philosophy but had since forgotten much of what I studied. Being in Burma re-sparked my interest. While perusing a small English book stand, I had picked up a copy of Wolpola Rahula's "What the Buddha Taught". As I began reading through the basic tenets of Buddhist lifestyle, I soon realized that I was already following many of the rules. My stomach problems had forced me to avoid eating any meat and thus prevented me from destroying any life. There were no night clubs in which I could consume intoxicating drinks or chase woman. Everyone I encountered was so honest and forthright that there was no need to lie or cheat. I did not even need to bargain. And constantly being witness to the unconditional compassion of Myanmar’s people had caused me to react more compassionately in return.
I soon came to a decision. Given my relative isolation and freedom from temptation, there was no better time to experiment. For the remainder of my time in Burma I would ‘live la vida Buddha’. I would not drink alcohol, eat meat, have sex, lie or cheat until I left the country. I vowed to begin practicing a few simple meditation techniques, to be more mindful of my sensations and perceptions and to act with more compassion whenever possible. Of course I didn't expect to be a Buddhist by the time I left Burma, nor did I want to be. I considered my time in Burma to be a good opportunity to explore a philosophy in which I have always been so interested but too lazy to follow.
Unfortunately, my next destination was probably the least Buddhist place in the whole country. From Hsipaw, I caught a train to Pwin U Lwin. I had not yet taken a train since foreigners pay up to ten times the price of local fares, but this particular ride was heralded as the most beautiful in Burma. The train felt as ancient as the mountains it rode over. It was loud, moved at a snail’s pace and heavily rocked back and forth, up and down and in every other possible direction. Every few minutes a large bump on the track would send me into the air only to crash back down onto the hard wooden seats. It was a painful ride but too comical to be frustrating. We chugged through the dry landscape past farming villages and friendly towns. The scenery was beautiful. The highlight was a deep gorge which we crossed by way of an old colonial era bridge. The bridge creaked loudly as if it was yelping in pain under the weight of the train. I felt as though at any moment it could collapse plunging us into the ravine below. In the seats across from me a couple of crazy Brits were drinking beer, poppin' valium and playing music the entire ride. They convinced me to rock out the guitar for a few sing-a-longs. They had passed out by the time we reached our destination.
Pwin Oo Lwin was clearly the elite retreat of Myanmar, where the country’s small circle of rich government officials and businessmen went to relax and play golf. The plateau town was full of old colonial British mansions and posh Beverly Hills type estates. The downtown boasted plenty of western style cafes and clothing shops. This was high class Burma. I can't say I liked it very much.
The town’s main attraction was its national gardens. Using a drainage ditch which led underneath the barb wired fence, I avoided paying the six dollar 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 oppressive government. To this end, I avoided almost every government fee in the country. It was part of being a responsible tourist in Burma. I was glad I didn’t pay to enter the gardens as they were nothing special.
Pwin Oo Lwin may have been boring, but its surrounding countryside was quite nice. A few miles out of town there was an impressive waterfall which made for a nice escape from the city. From the edge of the plateau I could see far into the plains of Mandalay below.
I only spent a couple nights in Pwin Oo Lwin before catching a pickup back to Mandalay. I had spent Christmas day in Mandalay doing laundry and writing emails but had seen very little of the city. This time around, I gave myself a few days to explore.
After checking into a dingy room, I set out to experience the old British Capital. It was certainly not the beautiful royal city that its name conjures images of. It was a smelly, loud, dirty place with horrendous traffic. The streets were falling apart, there was garbage piled everywhere and even walking from one place to the next was difficult. Assaulting to the senses as Mandalay was, however, I quite enjoyed it. It felt like the biggest, busiest village in the world. Many neighbourhoods still had dirt roads with shacks on either side rather than streets. Even the paved avenues did not have traffic lights. At busy intersections, hundreds of motorbikes cars and pedestrians did their best not to hit or be hit. I saw more than a few accidents during my short stay.
The peaceful ‘ying’ to Mandalay’s chaotic ‘yang’ is its long history as an important center for the study and practice of Buddhism. I could not turn a corner without seeing red robes and shaved heads. Unlike in Thailand, these monks did not brandish iPhones or Nike sneakers. Most carried only their alms bowl and their robes. They roamed the streets seeking donations. In keeping with Buddhist tradition, it appeared as though they could only consume what was given to them. There were hundreds of monasteries and meditations centres in the city where most of robed sages congregated. I assumed many of them lived in such centers as well.
I learned from my guesthouse owner that it was typical for Burmese males to spend at least two years before the age of twenty as a monk and another two years before they die. Thus, there was always fresh supply of young and old men to be ordained.
In keeping with its Buddhist tradition, Mandalay’s surrounding area is home to several ancient Buddhist cities. On New Year’s Eve day I drafted a moto driver to take me to two of them. It was hot and sunny, the perfect day to be on the back of a motorbike. Our first stop was Saigaing. This small assortment of steep hills was capped with hundreds of golden stupas. The hike up to the tallest peak took less than an hour from which the stupa studded view was striking and unique. The sea of golden stupas surrounding me ranged from a few metres to almost a hundred meters in height. Beyond the hills there was a wide river with the plains of Mandalay further in the distance.
My second stop was Amurapura, a small settlement on the bank of a meandering river. It is home to the longest teak wood bridge in the world. I arrived just in time for a stunning sunset. Monks trekked back and forth across the bridge between the town’s monastery and a nearby village against the backdrop of a vibrant red sky.
As I crossed the bridge, a group of elderly monks insisted on taking several group photos with me. I found this role reversal to be quite ironic since monks are usually the ones having cameras shoved in their faces by tourists. It took nearly a half hour for me to reach the village on opposite side. It was clear that not many white faces bother visiting as I received quite a few funny looks as a strolled through. Unfortunately, while crossing a narrow street, I caused a motorbike which was speeding towards me to skid into a ditch. I was left untouched but feeling guilty as hell. Even though there was no major damage to the bike and the two young riders appeared to be unharmed I gave them some money and apologized profusely before slinking away. I took this mishap as my queue to head back to Mandalay.
I arrived back at the guesthouse with little time to make a plan for New Years. Luckily, I met a couple of friendly French girls named Sophie and Geraldine and an Irish traveler named Louis in the lobby. They were also solo travelers looking for a way to celebrate the New Year. We found a local restaurant which served beer and snacks. We chatted about the quiet life of a traveler in Burma, the ups and the downs of backpacking in relative isolation. I broke my vow to not drink alcohol that night but it was New Year’s and I limited myself to two drinks. As midnight approached it appeared as though it was going to be a pretty quiet night. That is until the restaurant owner asked if we were going to see the countdown. He told us that a hotel near the palace grounds was hosting the event. We decided to check out it.
Our moto drivers sped towards the hotel. The further we drove the busier the streets became. By the time we reached the west Palace gate, we were surrounded by mayhem. Thousands of Burmese had descended on the streets with bottles of cheap whiskey in hand. The bottles were passed around from person to person as large groups of youth became belligerently drunk. These clearly were not the devout Buddhists I had encountered so far in Burma. Most were quite young and adorned in cheap western knockoff clothing. I did not even know such a demographic existed in the country. Many were racing motorbikes through the crowds and setting off fireworks. As our driver weaved his way through the drunken chaos, one firework exploded right in front of us catching him in the chest. He started swerving as if he had just been shot and sputtered to a stop. I jumped off the bike to see if he was okay. He quickly assured us he was fine but had an ugly burn down the side of his neck. We decided to walk from then on out.
The epicentre of the congregation was an absolute mess. Drunken Burmese were challenging each other to motorbike races and pulling wheelies with friends balancing 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 party pioneers set up speakers and hundreds of followers came to dance. This was clearly the first partying experience for many. Countless youth were lying in puddles of their own puke. Others were running around screaming as if they had just snorted five lines of coke. For a country that has virtually no nightlife, I found this all to be quite odd.
The French girls felt understandably unsafe so an hour after the countdown, we returned to the guesthouse. Part of me wanted witness what antics the crowd would get up to in the wee hours of the morning but I had an early bus.
The following morning I caught a ride to Bagan. This stupa covered desert plain is probably Burma's most famous destination. Since arriving in Yangon, I had heard a lot about the ancient city. Many compared it to Angkor Wat, its only other competitor as far as South East Asian ancient attractions go. Most of those who had visited told me it was overall more impressive than its Cambodian counterpart. Considering how enchanting Angkor Wat was, I was a bit sceptical.
Soon after dropping my bags at a guesthouse in Nyuang U, a town on the edge of Bagan, I rented a bike and rode into the plain to catch my first of three sunsets. As I approached the ancient city limits, small stupas constructed from worn red bricks rose our of the dry desert landscape around me. As I rode further, the stupas became larger and more numerous. Eventually, I found myself amidst a forest of religious monuments.
With less than a half hour before sunset, I found a large stupa which had steep stone steps leading to a terrace near its pinnacle. This would be my sunset viewing spot. I slowly climbed up to the terrace, being careful not to slip on its dusty red bricks. Upon reaching the top, I was quickly taken aback by the view before me. The plain was vast and covered with stupas of various shapes and sizes. There were thousands of them reaching towards the bright red clouds above. A few larger structures made strong impressions on the horizon. To my right laid the wide Irrawaddy River and in the distance to my left were barren mountains. Dust from horse drawn carriages and bicycles settled like mist in between the monuments. The sun grew in size and turned bright red as it forced its way through all the particles. Several minutes after the sun had disappeared behind the mountains, the sky remained smeared with deep purples and reds. I left wanting more and decided to wake up early the following morning for sunrise.
After returning to Nyuang U, I ran into Sophie and Geraldine who had arrived on a later bus. We had dinner and agree to meet before sunrise the following morning to explore the plains.
It was chilly when we mounted our bikes and began our search for a stupa by flashlight. We weren’t the only ones with the idea as we followed a small parade of cyclist all searching for the perfect sunrise spot. We settled on a monastery next to the river which offered a nice view of mountains and waited in the chilly desert air. The sunrise was just as spectacular as the previous day’s sunset with the added bonus of dozens of hot air balloons looming over the temples. Many tourists pay an exorbitant fee in order to take part in a sunrise balloon ride over the plains. This was far beyond my backpacker’s budget, however, I was more than happy with the view from the stupa.
Once the sun had risen, we spent the majority of the day exploring the landscape. It was so vast that we often found ourselves alone without another soul in sight. It seemed as though each monument we passed was more impressive than the last. Some had ancient scriptures or statues nestled inside. Since the area has not been fully developed for tourism, most of the temples lacked any measures to prevent visitors from entering or climbing to the top. We took advantage of this only on the structures which looked as though they were not on the verge of collapse. Since the plain was flat and only sparsely covered with trees, almost every stupa was accessibly by foot. Nonetheless, the stories we had heard of large poisonous snakes which lurk in the tall grass generally kept us on the paths. I thought that perhaps these stories were more folklore than truth but later learnt that Burma had the highest incidence of death by snake bite in the world.
In the evening, we returned to town for a nice local meal full of vegetable curries and stir fries. I wanted to bed with a smile on my face and a full stomach. I awoke only a couple hours later to quickly empty my stomach of everything I had consumed. It was my second bought of food poisoning in Burma. I didn’t understand how it had happened. I had been quite careful with my utensils and had only been eating vegetable curries and rice. Nonetheless, some Burmese bug had managed to bore its way into my bowels and it would be several days before I was able to move freely without constantly keeping my eye out for a bathroom.
Once my stomach had settled enough, I boarded a bus bound for Pyay, a small riverside town in between Bagan and Yangon. I rode in a rattling old bus which arrived just after sunset. My first order of business upon disembarking was finding a toilet. Then I had to find a room. Unfortunately, Pyay only had a couple guesthouses that were licensed to house foreigners. One was full. The only room available in the other was a four by six foot prison cell. It had plywood for walls, a broken fan and swarms of mosquitoes. Needless to day, I did not get the sleep I desperately needed that night. The following morning, the owner allowed me to switch to an odd isolated room on the top floor of the building complete with a working fan and a Buddhist shrine. Happy with my new accommodation, I set out into Pyay to explore. The city was slow moving and friendly. It felt much more tropical than the desert like landscape to the north. Palm trees and thick forest covered most of the town with a few golden stupas poking through the canopy. Perched atop a set of low-rising hills in the center of town was a large pagoda complex. It afforded wonderful views of the river in the morning. The surrounding forests made for a peaceful afternoon stroll. I stumbled across an odd makeshift driving range amidst the trees. One wealthy Burmese man was the only patron. He let me take a few shots with his five-iron before I continued on my way.
I emerged from the hills near on the bank of the Irrawaddy River just in time for sunset. Several local families and couples sat in the grass next to the slow moving water waiting for dusk. I decided to walk down the bank of the river to get a better vantage point. I was enjoying a leisurely stroll along the water when I suddenly felt my left foot sink deep into the ground. My eyes had been fixed on horizon and I had unwittingly walked right into a dense patch of mud. As I struggled to pull my leg out of the ground my other foot sank as well. The more I moved the deeper I went. Eventually I was up to my knees and completely stuck.
I heard the cackling laughter of small children approaching. I did not dare try turn around for fear I would sink further. Then I felt a large hand on my shoulder. I tried to swivel only my head to get a better look. Three toddlers sat giggling on the riverbank in the arms of their mother. The father of the family had already taken off his shoes, rolled up his pants and was now knee deep in the mud trying to save me. It took several minutes of pushing and pulling to until both of us were safely on solid ground. I quickly washed the mud from my arms in order to shake the man’s hand. But when I turned around, he had already gone right back into the mud to save my sandals. It took him several more minutes to pry them free. I couldn’t believe his generosity. I thanked him profusely for his help. He just nodded his head and smiled. I could read his mind: silly foreigner. As the family continued down the riverbank, the youngest daughter, a girl who was no more than six years old, ran back to me as if she had forgotten something. She motioned for me to open my palm. In it she placed a handful of sea shells she had collected on her riverside journey. Then she smiled, waved and rejoined her family. Those are the moments a backpacker treasures.
Still covered in mud, I was ready to head back the guesthouse for a shower. As I passed a small road side tea shop, however, a group of local friends invited me to join them for tea and snacks. One of the men was a young university student who spoke English quite well. He introduced himself as William and acted as my translator. For a couple hours, we drank tea, ate snacks and laughed about various nonsensical things. When the group dispersed, William insisted on taking me on a tour of his home town. From the back of his motorbike, I was given a look at William’s Pyay.
First he introduced me to his parents. They were selling oranges by the side of the road with his younger sister. The family was ecstatic to see that William had made a foreign friend. William’s father gave me a peeled orange and encouraged me to take a bite. They all waited in suspense for my verdict. When I approved, William’s mother quickly filled a large plastic bag full of oranges and insisted that I take it. They would not accept any payment.
From the orange stand, William drove us across town to watch a bizarre miniature soccer game. Around a small dirt field with two miniature nets at each end, a large crowd of locals cheered on two teams of sweaty bare-backed men as they chased a miniature ball up and down the pitch. It was a fierce little competition.
From the miniature match, we traveled to a local chinlon festival. On the way William explained to me that chinlon was his country’s most popular past time. I knew what he was talking about. From bus windows, I had seen it played on the side of the road by men all over the country. William called it a sport but it looked more like a social activity. Several men would make a circle and work together to keep a small straw ball in the air. Each player was given a turn to complete a trick shot which often sent the other players diving to prevent the ball from hitting the ground. It was similar a game of hacky sack between friends.
At the festival, uniformed teams took turns entertaining the crowd from a raised platform surrounded by plastic chairs. The participants were far more professional than the locals I had seen from bus windows. Some of their trick shots were unreal. One would pull off a spinning back kick passing the ball to another who would twirl the ball around each foot before launching backwards into the air. It was more like a performance than a competition. I was kept in awe for more than an hour. I would have stayed for longer but William had to return home to get some sleep before an early morning class. He dropped me back at my guesthouse and wished me goodnight. I thanked him for showing me such a good time. As I fell asleep that night, I remember feeling truly fortunate to have met such a friendly group of people. This feeling was becoming all too familiar in Myanmar.
Early the following morning I started a long and difficult journey to Mawlamyine in South Eastern Burma. Due to unrest, this minority controlled province was mostly off limits to foreigners save for a few areas. I had to plan my route carefully. As my stomach had not yet recovered from its most recent poisoning, I was not looking forward to the two long bus rides which stood between me and my destination. I packed my pockets full of toilet paper and hoped for the best.
The first bus dropped me at one of Yangon’s bus stations after eight long hours over bumpy terrain. The four hour stop over at the bus station gave me enough time to find a washroom and calm my innards. I didn’t dare eat anything before boarding the ten hour overnight heading south. The distance between Yangon and Mawlamyine was not great, but I was told that the bus was to arrive at a long bridge in the middle of the night which, for some reason, could not be crossed until sunrise. Essentially, the ride was going to take much longer than was necessary.
The road was surprisingly smooth heading south. I had actually managed to fall asleep, a rarity for me during bus travel, when the bus lurched to a stop at around three in the morning. We had arrived at the bridge. I had a few hours to kill before sunrise so I disembarked to sit at a local tea house. They had some European football match playing on an old fuzzy television. I had no idea who the teams were but decided to root for the men in blue. I got pretty into it after a while even cheering when they scored. An hour passed and my team was up two to one with only a couple minutes left. Confident in the victory I began walking back towards the bus. Much to my surprise, it had disappeared. I didn’t understand. It was no where near sunrise and the other buses were still parked in a long line. Only my bus had vanished. I ran the door of another coach which had just started its engine and asked the driver where my bus had gone. He shrugged and pointed down the road.
This was a big problem. My luggage was still onboard and the bus was only going to make a short stop in Mawlamyine before continuing into the far South where foreigner travel was restricted. If I did not chase down my luggage before it ventured into the south, it may be lost forever. The driver understood my predicament and invited me on board as he gunned it towards the bridge. We passed several buses but none that I recognized. It was ten minutes later that we came to a traffic jam at the mouth of the bridge. I jumped off and began sprinting up the long row of coaches. They all looked the same. I could not even remember what my bus looked like. I had not eaten, I was tired and my stomach was still upset. I ran out of steam pretty quickly and was left keeled over and panting on the side of the road. When I looked up, I recognized 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 had clearly been waiting for a while. I boarded the coach still breathing heavily from the two hundred yard dash. The driver tossed away his cigarette, jumped behind the wheel and we were off again.
As is usual in Burma, I arrived in Mawlamyine at four in the morning. Unfortunately, none of the small town’s guesthouses opened til five. I was dead tired and my stomach was in knots. I needed a bed. Of the three licensed guesthouses in town, only one had its lobby light on. I knocked heavily on the door. A skinny old man opened it slightly and poked his head out. His face was wrinkled into a permanent smile and his pants were nearly up to his neck. When I asked for a room, he kindly invited me inside as he told me that the guesthouse was currently full. I would have to wait at least another four hours before someone checked out. I asked him if I could just sleep on floor in the lobby until then. There was desperation in my eyes. He smiled thoughtfully. “I have to open the guesthouse now anyway. Just take my bed” he said. I was a little taken aback. It was not even five yet and I thought surely he would want some more sleep. But he assured me that he had slept enough and insisted that I get some myself. It was yet another unconditional act of generosity from a Burmese local. I slept like a baby in this old man’s tiny wooden bed until, four hours later, a room became available.
With rest my stomach settled and I had regained the energy to explore the town. Mawlamyine sat on a wide river bound in by low lying hills and dense forests. A long raised promenade lined with colourful shops and restaurants stretched the entire waterfront. A busy two story market dominated the town center. The locals redefined the word ‘friendly’. I could not walk more than three steps without someone saying hello, asking where I was from, or shooting me a big red-toothed smile. While looking into the window of a shop, a man on a motorbike hit his brakes, got off his bike, took of his helmet and ran over to shake my hand. "Hello, how are you? Where are you from? Do you like Myanmar?” He said. “It’s wonderful” I replied. “Good!" he yelled as he jumped back on his bike and drove off. These types of encounters were quite common in the South.
Over the next couple days I visited some of Mawlamyine's surrounding attractions. I climbed up to the town’s highest pagoda for a view over the city. Then I rode pickup out into the hills to see the world’s biggest reclining Buddha. From a distance, the mammoth statue looked incredible. Its giant body stretched the entire distance of the village underneath it. A closer inspection, however, revealed poor workmanship. It was recently built with concrete and steel. Much to my surprise, it was completely hollow. Inside its belly there were a congregation of bizarre statues depicting devils driving pitchforks through peoples' heads. Not the most Buddhist imagery.
The following morning, I traveled across the river and up into the mountains to visit a local pilgrimage sight. I rode on the roof of the pickup surrounded by styrofoam containers full of fish. Sitting across from me was a straight faced elderly man. Throughout the journey, he continually peeled oranges, passed me the peels and insisted on me sniffing them. I could not figure out why.
The pilgrimage sight was of the supernatural sort. Perched on a steep mountain peak there were three large golden boulders precariously stacked one on top of the other. Of course the gold was placed by human hands but locals contended that the boulders were discovered in their original position several hundred years earlier. How these three massive rocks found themselves balanced perfectly on top one another was beyond my understanding. How they had somehow managed to survive the countless earthquakes which had surely rumbled through the area was even more puzzling. Some other man made or mystical forces must have been at work. I returned to the guesthouse scratching my head.
The following morning, I sailed down the river to Hpa-an in a longboat. The journal was quite interesting. Our rickety old vessel passed through thick forest and riverside villages where the kids waited along the shore for a chance to wave at the faces floating by. Soon we were in the midst of a gorgeous karst limestone landscape. Large jagged mountains rose out of an otherwise flat setting making bizarre impressions on the horizon. The topography was different from anywhere else I had been in Burma.
The boat dropped me off near the center of town. I walked to the closest licensed guesthouse and inquired about a bed. Only a double room was available. A British fellow who was standing in line of travelers behind me immediately offered to split the cost. He was a young backpacker of Indian descent who introduced himself as Sat. I certainly did not want to pay for the whole room by myself so I agreed to share. Sat was an interesting character. He had participated in several extended meditation retreats in India and was traveling through East Asia both to sightsee and develop his knowledge of Eastern philosophy and religion. As we strolled around town, Sat and I chatted about Buddhism, meditation, India and China. He had a lot of interesting stories to tell from his retreats and encouraged me to continue practicing meditation. He traveled with a back loading film camera that must have been at least thirty years old. He swore by it, claiming that its limited capacity forced him to carefully plan every shot he took. Since I am the like Rambo with a camera, shooting everywhere and often, I quietly disagreed.
After a good nights sleep, Sat and I awoke early the following morning to catch a ride out to a local cave. The large cavern bored straight through a limestone mountain. Waiting on the opposite end from the entrance was a peaceful lake surrounded by dangling trees and limestone peaks.
I parted ways with Sat in the around noon when he went back to town. My mission was to climb to the top of the tallest mountain in the area. I had heard that there was a tranquil monastery perched atop its highest peak which allowed overnight stays. I began climbing shortly after lunch. It was an exhausting ascent. The trail was not long but felt near vertical at times. I was sweating bullets when I finally stumbled into the monastery a couple hours later. The view out over the surrounding mountains and plains, however, was spectacular. Colossal chunks of limestone poked out of the otherwise flat landscape as if they had been dropped from the sky.
I quickly introduced myself to one of the three monks who lived in the mountain top haven. He spoke no English but understood my desire to stay overnight. He approved of my request by directing me to my sleeping quarters. The large room had a concrete floor and was completely barren save for one straw mat and a blanket. I left my bag on the floor and joined the other monks on the terrace. As the sun began to set, the monasteries visitors began their descent. By the time the sun was near the horizon, I was all alone on the terrace. That is until some curious monkeys joined me. Just a few at first, but the group quickly grew. Eventually they had taken over the terrace. The turned the monastery’s stupa into a jungle gym. I was surrounded.
The monks returned to the terrace with scraps to feed them. It became apparent why they all of sudden appeared in such great numbers. They were used to being fed at sunset. Generally 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 me in the eyes. Once the sun had set, they disappeared.
I retired to my sleeping quarters shortly after sunset. As I stuffed a sweater into my daypack make a pillow, the monastery’s eldest monk entered and bowed. In very broken English, he asked me if I was comfortable. I was indeed comfortable but very hungry. I had not eaten since lunch. I asked if it was possible to buy some food. He smiled and invited me into the prayer hall. I sat silently on the floor as heated a package of instant noodles on a small electric hot plate. Once sufficiently cooked, he removed the noodles from the heat, placed them on the ground and sat on the ground opposite me. I thanked him by nodding my head and began eating.
He sat quietly while I ate. After a few minutes he began asking, as best he could, some questions about my life in Canada. I slowly answered each one doing my best to use only a limited vocabulary. I also began asking some questions of my own. I wanted to know more about local meditation techniques and practices. Little of what was spoken between us was understood by either party, but enough to have an interesting conversation. We must have sat there for at least two hours. During this time, the temperature dropped considerably. When I retired to my straw mat I was quite cold. The wool blanket which was provided for me was not enough to stay warm on the cold cement floor. Nonetheless, I slept quite well that night.
The following morning I woke up at five and walked out onto the terrace to watch the sunrise. I practiced a few of the techniques the monk had taught me night before as I waited in the dark. Once the sun poked over the limestone peaks, the monkeys returned for breakfast. At around ten, sweaty pilgrims and tourists began arriving at the monastery. Then a large group of university students entered. The peaceful atmosphere of an hour earlier was quickly lost when the giggling students began lining up, one by one, to take a picture with me. I must have posed for about thirty pictures before I was finally able to make my escape. I thanked the three monks for their kindness and left a small donation as I made my way out.
I had a feeling of euphoria as I descended the mountain. Staying at that monastery had been a special experience that I would not soon forget. I met various locals on the trail down. None spoke English but most had the same two questions for me. I couldn't help but laugh when the men asked "One man show?" meaning 'are you alone' and the woman asked "Are you happy?" meaning 'how are you?'. Since I descended the opposite side of the mountain from which I climbed, it took twice as long as the climb to reach to solid ground. When I did, I was not even sure where I was.
I wanted to visit another cave which I had heard was near the mountain but I had no idea how to get there. I stopped at a roadside spice shop to ask for directions. The two shopkeepers spoke no English but pointed down the road towards two distant limestone mountains. I assumed the cave must have been somewhere amongst them and began walking. I only made it fifty metres when one of the shop keepers pulled up beside me on a motorbike and motioned for me to jump on. She drove me directly to the entrance of the cave about ten minutes away. When we arrived, she refused any payment and returned from the direction we came. Delivering me to the attraction was simply another unconditional act of generosity.
The cave was a smaller version of the one I had seen previously so I did not spent much time inside. Instead, I decided to return to town to take a nap. I walked from the cave entrance to the main road. Unsure of which direction I had to travel, I pulled out a map so check my bearings. As I stood, studying the map, a white pickup truck stopped in front of me. A scruffy looking man poked his out of the window and asked where I was going. “Hpa-An!” I replied. He said he was on his way there and waved me aboard. I thought perhaps he was expecting some of payment. But after a while, it was clear he was only looking for a little conversation. He told me all about the Kayin people who live in the Hpa-An area. He made clear the distinctiveness of the Kayin culture and pointed out the many Kayin flags posted in front of every house. Undoubtedly there was a lot of local pride in this area. I assumed that the Kayin people were yet another minority who were at odds with the central government. A short ride later, he dropped me at the doorstep of my Hpa-an guesthouse. Before he drove off, he left me his phone number in case I needed anything help before I left. Yet another unconditional, unprovoked act of generosity.
Early the following morning, I took a bus to Yangon and went straight to the airport to catch a flight back to Bangkok. My thirty one days in Burma had finally come to an end. I wanted to stay for longer but I had already over stayed my visa. Paying a small penalty at the airport for doing so was necessary before I boarded my plane back to Bangkok.
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 fellow travelers few and far between. Backpacking in Burma was a solitary experience to say the least. But even if I found myself feeling down, the locals were always quick to return a smile to my face. The kindness and generosity of the people of Myanmar was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. Whether it was a little girl filling my palm with seashells, a teenager ecstatic to introduce me to his parents, or a old man just throwing me a big toothless grin, travel in Burma was an endless string of priceless exchanges with kind a welcoming people. Given all the hardships they face, their small selfless acts of generosity really made me reconsider my own daily conduct and even re-sparked my interest in Buddhism. I quickly recognized that these were people I could learn a lot from.
On the flight of the country, I was already planning my return. There was still more to see, more to experience and more to learn. However, I felt the need to return soon. Something told me that in five years time the country just wouldn’t be the same. The tourists were just beginning to plant their seeds and the roots had already begun to take hold in places like Nyuang Shwe and Bagan. As in many other South East Asian countries, as tourist dollars flow in, the attitude towards foreigners would likely change. Unfortunately, I felt as though it was only a matter of time. I was lucky to see Burma when I did.