geniet mee van onze avonturen Een jaar lang op wereldreis : ikzelf (Katlijn) ben een Vlaamse Belg. Mijn vriend Andrew (een Canadees) is de schrijver van dit blog ... daardoor zal de hele blog in het Engels zijn
Off the beaten path : Part 1
The Train Ride
A small mound of Burmese shrimp chips, smelly fish snacks, and beer cans wobbled precariously down the centre of the isle in cadence with the dangerous back and forth lurching of our Burmese train carriage. The packaged food mound rolled over a dense crowd of old crones sitting limply on the floor, all their bodies moving together side-to-side against the adjacent seat cushions in a kind of sea-sick narrow-gauge train rave. The mound stopped beside Katlijn's bobbing sleeping head. Astonishingly, a smiling face popped out from behind the plastic baggies of red chilli sauce and through the thick stench of dried prawn flakes.
Just as two scrawny arms emerged from the pile of dubious Burmese treats, the entire mound exploded.
Every crone in the train rave swivelled their heads in a single group motion at the former lump of smoked sea goodies, its shell of dodgy snack bags blown clear away revealing only its skeleton: a spindly Burmese kid with two thin outstretched arms holding the twisted remains of a couple of old plastic bottles- their entire contents had exploded forth on top of Katlijn.
Katlijn blinked and grimaced in her sleep, slowly awakening from her slumber, trying to discern nightmare from reality. A familiar flash of insight settled over her, a relapse, a recurrence: the whole stinking wobbling humiliation of it all. She was drenched in an oily fermented bath of whatever rank-smelling liquid Burmese people drink with their salty fish nuts.
An oddly familiar old monk with giant spectacles and splotches of grey hair sprouts turned around and clarified the situation: "Palm wine," he began- a poor man's spirit even by Myanmar standards. "All this train rocking must have caused it to burst from the plastic containers," he wisely explained.
Surrounding her was a sea of huddled old crones, and one terrified boy covered in soggy fish bits, smiling nervously at her, all waiting expectantly for her reaction. Everybody seemed to grasp what had happened but Katlijn; being on the receiving end of a massive palm wine explosion, it appeared, was perfectly normal- a kind of Burmese public transportation rite-of-passage.
Katlijn, to her credit, resisted the temptation to heap racist expletives at the poor terrified Burmese kid and, in a remarkable feat of equanimity that even raised the eyebrows of our kindly old monk friend, smiled with all the grace and humility she could muster, untied her hefty backpack from the shelf, found a reasonably clean set of North Fakes, slowly rocked and swayed her way through the grinning, toothless, undulating crones, and locked herself into the ridiculously dark and tiny confine of the Burmese public train toilet facilities.
The monk smiled warmly after her in approval and there was an audible murmur of relief among the squatting crones. The skeletal boy, saved from a gargantuan loss-of-face, seemed to relax a bit and even tried half-heartedly to sell me a few dried crab-sticks.
Katlijn later told me that as she crouched naked in the toilet room, swinging wildly against the slimy walls, washing off the stench of palm wine from her hair using the train's only semi-functioning bum-gun, she realized that this very moment was the ultimate low point in her world trip.
Off the Beaten Path
We arrived in the late afternoon at Hsipaw, a gorgeous town surrounded by rice-paddies. A pleasant place where the backpacker-friendly locals introduced themselves as "Mister- something" to help tourists remember them. There was Mister Charles, the hotelier. There was the paranoid Mister Books, who sold books. There was even a grubby street vendor calling himself Mister Bean, "I sell the best beans in Hsipaw !"
There were also more tourists in Hsipaw than anywhere else in the north
ShanState. Hsipaw, it turned out, was a burgeoning Burmese backpacker town. I don't have anything against backpackers, but the same conversations we have together were starting to get old: where we are from, where we are going to, and how truly sick to death we all are of instant Chinese noodles. We wanted new conversation, new experiences, new people, an undiscovered country. We wanted to be in the same illusive place all the other backpackers wanted to be, but paradoxically couldn't find: out in the sticks, the boondocks, Woop Woop, off the beaten path.
Just as a giant cyclone smashed through Yangon, days before Myanmar would briefly enter the ephemeral space of international consciousness, Katlijn and I, in our own private quest to realize the great backpacker dream, hired two biker kids to drive us out of Hsipaw.
To drive us not just off the beaten path, but as far away from it as we could get. We wanted to be as far away from the beaten path (while still outside rifle range of the nearest insurgency and armed opium plantation) that we could possibly be. And this, we learned, was a place in Myanmar called Namsan.
The Motorbike Ride
The road-not-taken turns out to be full of massive ruts and, on the back of a flimsy made-in-china motorbike, a thoroughly harrowing ass-numbing experience. It is a road so old and forgotten it hadn't been maintained since the age of empires, often causing us to cling to our underage drivers for fear of our lives as we skidded along the muddy potholes in the pouring rain. We stopped once to watch a local bus unloaded all its passengers before crossing a water-logged wooden bridge that sagged and groaned in imminent collapse. When it was our turn to cross the rotting colonial-era infrastructure, my driver clenched the accelerator inducing a sad painful wine from our flimsy hog, while yelling over his shoulder "too risky to cross with passengers !"
Ignoring his own advice, we slowly sputtered our way to the other side.
Though the old road from Hsipaw to Namsan is only 80 km long, it took us five hours and a two motorbike breakdowns to make it all the way up. We donated $1 to the nefarious regime for the privilege of spending a night at the only guesthouse in town.
Namsan itself is a charming village of wooden houses set atop a world of stunning forested hills accompanied by the soundtrack of distant cow bells. If not for its population of Palaung tea pickers and Chinese shop-keepers, Namsan might look like a centuries-old New World pioneer settlement, though the locals prefer to call it "The Switzerland of Myanmar". Out in the distance we gazed over a real no-man's land, apparently one of the least visited places on the planet. Somewhere out there, beyond those hills, grew nearly half the world's opium and the Burmese government waged a brutal, unknown, and ancient conflict against renegade Shan hill tribes still struggling for their independence.
Palaung woman in traditional hand-woven tribal clothes.
It wasn't long before we were introduced to the town's only English speaking locals. A jovial old woman calling herself "Macy" spoke impeccable English and was eager to invite us for a little conversation practice with her young students over the obligatory pot of Burmese green tea. "Sandy" guided us around the hills and introduced us to the local factory workers at the tea plantations. Despite the incredible hospitality of the towns-people, a suppressed fear kept gnawing at us from the back of our minds: we would soon have to endure the muddy five hour spank of the road-not-taken back to civilization.
Over the mechanical clatter of nineteenth century imperial tea machines, we brought this fear up with the town mayor and a gang of curious factory workers. They could instantly relate: even they avoided crossing that old bridge if at all possible and wanted nothing more than to help us find a way around it. The mayor proudly handed us a dusty old English-language encyclopaedia volume (letters C-D) written more than seventy years ago- a bit of light reading material while they hammered out a plan. A huge raucous debate soon ensued all around us as everyone collaborated furiously trying to figure out what do with us. Katlijn and I thumbed sheepishly through the fusty encyclopaedia, until finally they reached some sort of consensus. Taking great pride in his achievement, the mayor presented us a crumpled old Chinese Valentine. He opened up the heart-shaped card revealing a sophisticated drawing of boxes and lines labelled with that mysterious sequence of shapes and squiggles we had come to recognize as Burmese text.
Palaung factory workers drying and sorting tea leaves over a thatched bamboo table.
After a lot of hand waving, shouting, and charades, we gathered that they had, in fact, drawn us a map of the region describing a network of tiny backwater villages, monasteries, and shrines that would lead us back to civilization. Every time we walked into a new box on the map, we were to turn the card over and show the nearest crone the squiggles written on the back. Sandy explained that those squiggles roughly translated as "take me to your leader."
Everyone insisted that if a stranger walks into a Palaung tribal village, the locals would not only be delighted, they would feed us, give us a bed to sleep on, and point us to the next box on our map. It was more than just hospitality: it was a cultural and religious obligation. The Buddhist monks and villagers had to help us, there was no need to bring food or water for the journey. Thus, we were faced with the following challenge:
Could a couple of dumb white backpackers with no knowledge of the local language or culture survive the three day journey back to civilization, bypassing entirely the road-not-taken, with nothing more than plain old Burmese hospitality and a map scribbled on the back of a tatty piece of Asian Kitsch ?
Armed with only this, a lot of water purification tablets, and some emergency instant Chinese noodle packs, Katlijn and I set forth to find out.
We began the journey with some trepidation. A close inspection of the map revealed that few factory workers could agree upon which boxes should be connected together. In fact, the entire card was riddled with scratched out lines and alarming little question marks. To make matters worse, nobody seemed to know what kind of distances were involved. One line between two boxes could take anywhere from one hour to a full day depending on which puzzled monk we showed our card to. Clearly, we were going to be relying a lot on Burmese hospitality.
We put this hospitality to test when we arrived wearily at the first box on our map: a village consisting of a handful of thatched bamboo huts and the unlikely demographic of about fifty toddlers and four old crones. The kids went absolutely ballistic when we stumbled into town, crying out Burmese greetings while tugging relentlessly on my leg hairs. They sat us down in one of the houses, poured us a cup of bitterly green Burmese tea, and prepared us a feast.
We would have been content just to receive some hot water for our instant noodles, but they spent a good hour cooking us an assortment of local Palaung fare which they arrayed for us on a tree stump: rice, vegetables, spicy fish sauce, chunks of raw sugar, and a salad made from tea leaves. As we sat with a family shovelling this into our mouths with our fingers, the entire village came out to watch us eat. Some food tasted great and went down easily, other dishes required considerable determination to get through without wincing in front of our gathering hosts. Tea leaf salad was particularly challenging. Having the consistency of spinach but tasting something like a used Lipton tea bag, I imagine it would take a lifetime of cultural up-bringing to fully acquire a taste for it.
In retrospect, despite the fact that we didn't know what we were eating most of the time, we couldn't understand a word anybody was saying to us, and palm wine featured prominently on the menu, the home-cooked meals we shared with the Palaung tribes were some of the finest dining experiences we ever had.
The roads were lined with friendly tea pickers plucking leaves from the myriad of tea plants covering the hills around us. There was no shortage of people to ask for directions. Unfortunately, the accuracy and consistency of the answers we got left much to be desired. Talk to anyone who has been to the orient: never ask directions from a local. It's hard enough getting them to read a proper map, but trying to get your average tea-plucker to make sense of whatever nonsense was scribbled on our fading Valentine card was a thoroughly frustrating endeavour generally culminating in a lot of confused head scratching and a vague wave in a random direction. It wasn't long before we found ourselves way off the dirt roads, tripping over the steep dry scrub growing between tea-plantations: not exactly where one wants to be in a country boasting the world's highest rate of poisonous snake fatalities.
Covered in sweat and dust, we miraculously stumbled out into a clearing and found our way to a wild-west town full of old ramshackle wooden buildings. The town turned out to be "Kunh he" and, encouragingly, had several signs vaguely resembling the text written in the second box of our map. Too tired for basic formalities, I simply shoved the grimy Valentine card into the hands of the nearest resident and pointed to the text which we believe read "take me to your leader". We were soon brought to a beautiful old monastery and introduced to a young monk calling himself "Ken".
"Would you like to wash ?" Ken managed in his best English. There was nothing in the world I wanted more than a good shower. Ken asked me to follow him.
After twenty minutes of walking down a steep hill in my underwear and towel wondering what the residents of Kung He were thinking in selecting this location for their public toilet facilities, we emerged into a clearing full of half naked villagers sitting around a large cement bunker with three wooden pegs sticking out of it. It seemed somehow natural that the whole village had turned up to watch me shower.
"Would you like to wash ?" Ken asked again.
"Yes, please." I replied
There was a long silence while I stared at Ken and the grinning villagers, trying to examine them for some hint as to where I might find the shower facilities. I turned towards the cement bunker.
"Is the shower in there somewhere ?"
Ken motioned me towards the cement bunker, so I walked over to it not quite knowing what to do. I turned around and faced the villagers who weren't even trying to stifle their snickering. "Sorry, I just don't know how this thing works."
"Would you like to wash ?" Ken repeated. Ken had an irritating way of repeating unhelpful things.
"Look, Ken," I began while adjusting the towel around my waist, "do you even know what 'wash' means ? I mean, is this thing even a shower ? Are we even in the right place here ?"
"You wash !" Ken encouraged me.
Hoping for the best, I pulled at one of the wooden pegs. Suddenly, the peg popped out and the entire contents of the cement bunker gushed out at me in a freezing cold torrent of water that threw me off balance. The next thing I remember is lying on the ground in my underwear while Ken and the entire village joined each other in uproariously laughter.
The rest of my bathroom shenanigans, which consisted of the seemingly innocuous acts of brushing my teeth with a toothbrush and washing myself with soap, elicited nothing but more giggles from the villagers every time I peered behind me. Perhaps to save what little dignity I had left, Ken finally came over to show me how it was done. He cautiously pried open the second peg, picked up a smooth round rock, and fiercely scrubbed himself red. He was particular attentive to the top of his head, on which he used the stone to polish each of his tiny gray Buddhist sprouts. After that, he produced a ghastly metal implement which, to my amazement, he shoved deep inside his mouth and thrusted painfully about.
It suddenly became clear to me that out here, I was the one that didn't know what 'wash' meant.
The Evening Cinema
I learned from Ken on our hike back to the monastery that Palaung tribal villages have only one shower for the entire community and about two regular showering times each day, hence my supportive crowd. Back at the temple, we discovered that there is also a single television for the entire village. This television is generally occupied by a gang of couch potato monks who spend the best part of the day glued to the screen watching Thai kick-boxing.
Ken was a slavishly devoted host, but alas, no great chef. He prepared our Chinese instant noodle packs for dinner. It was a bit of a let-down from our lunch experience, but the upshot was we wouldn't have to suffer through another bowl tea salad. As we ate dinner, we watched as most of the villagers quietly filed one by one into the temple's TV room for the evening's entertainment. Ken asked us to follow them inside where an odd assortment of Buddhist relics, incense sticks, and prayer beads were arranged haphazardly around an old television set, a dusty DVD player, and a satellite dish. Ken handed us a binder containing the monastery's DVD collection and urged us to select a movie for the whole village to watch. Everyone smiled at us eagerly as Katlijn opened to the selection on the first page,
"Jaws","Freddy Versus Jason"," Alien"...
We looked up at the quaint tribal villagers and saffron-robed monks smiling expectantly at us. None of these titles seemed appropriate so we turned the page and kept looking.
"Halloween", "Evil Dead II", "Alien versus Predator"...
"Keep looking," began Katlijn nervously eying the countless children climbing around us, "I don't think we can show them this. It's a monastery, after all." We turned the page,
"Rosemary's baby","The Exorcist", "The Omen"...
Everyone kept waiting for a decision. Some of the kids were getting impatient and began tugging on my arm hair.
"Night of the living dead", "Hostel", "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre"...
Our awkward situation grew dire.
"Wicker Man","Hell Raiser","Jack the Ripper"...
"Just what kind of monks are you !?" I cried out in exasperation, flipping frantically through Ken's macabre collection. Finally, there it was on the last page: the DVD cover for "Narnia". By some miracle, C.S. Lewis had come to our rescue. Katlijn jumped up enthusiastically and announced our selection.
Ken ran off to find the DVD and hit the play button. "It's a good one for children," began Katlijn hopefully to a room full of tribal people who nodded eagerly back to her in non-comprehension.
While the villagers and their children watched the movie with all the seriousness and intensity of discerning film critics, I thought I heard a few groans emanating from the general vicinity of the monks' section when the Disney logo came up. A couple of monks left the room after only a few minutes, and I think I caught one rolling his eyes at us. I guess you just can't please everyone.
The generator cut out halfway through the film and the villagers filed back home. Ken showed us to the meditation hall where he had set us up on the floor with some cosy mats, candles, and blankets. Since I was sleeping in the room anyway, I asked if I could join their morning meditation.
"Not so many monks here meditate in the early morning," he explained. Somehow, I wasn't surprised.
Katlijn and I prepared our beds while a group of monks tip-toed mischievously back out to the television room with an old car battery. I blew out the candle. As I closed me eyes and fell into sleep after a long day, I could hear the soundtrack of James Bond drifting in from the room next door.
The Tea Pickers
To Ken's credit, he actually did get up to meditate the next morning, though I had the sneaking suspicion that this was for my benefit only. With characteristic devotion, he prepared us our noodles for breakfast and took it upon himself to guide us to the next box on our map. Ken was very eager to connect with us, but after several hours of repetitive conversation, we were forced to come to the conclusion that he really hadn't the foggiest clue what we were saying. Though we liked Ken a lot, and I am certain he would have dutifully followed us all the way back to civilization, we finally had to ask him to leave so we could continue peacefully on our own.
The next line on our map turned out to be a steep up-hill ascent winding through the hills of scattered tribal villages. Groups of tea pickers lined the roads smiling, waving, and occasionally inviting us up to come join them in their work. After a long hike, we arrived at a village called "Kon Haut" and collapsed in front of an old wooden table at a long forgotten tea house. Within moments, a young teenage boy came running out to us.
The young boy introduced himself as "Anderson" and spoke excellent English. Anderson's soft voice and gentle mannerism instantly qualified him as our favorite Burmese person. He insisted on being our guide to his small village and offered us room and board at his wooden house on stilts. As with all the tribal people we met in this part of Myanmar, he and his family adamantly refused any monetary compensation.
Anderson's tiny self-contained village was a gorgeous collection of ancient wooden houses perched on top of a high hill offering a spectacular vista of the surrounding forests and tea plantations. Like all the other villages in the area, every resident grew and picked tea for a living. The Palaung people have been doing this for many centuries, forever as far as the people here knew. Anderson's family owns five small plantations located in disparate parts of the forest. During picking season, they get up at four each morning, hike several hours to their plantation, pick tea until the late afternoon, and walk back before dinner time. All this plucking resulted in some truly spectacular finger callouses, which Anderson and his friends enthusiastically showed us with immense satisfaction. A day's picking will yield about two large sacks of green tea leaves worth a couple of US dollars. This is enough money for Anderson's family to live comfortably out here.
Palaung woman sitting on her floor weaving a dress beside a pile of freshly picked tea leaves.
Anderson introduced us to his friends at the village monastery- a gorgeous two-century-old wooden structure filled with colorful Palaung tribal decorations. Buddhist monasteries, it turns out, serve as the local teenage hangout where young layabouts partake in some serious loafing with the novice monks. We felt very hip chilling with the cool tribal kids, though the boys insisted Katlijn sit on the floor below the men as part of the local Buddhist tradition. The monastery had only three senior monks, three novice monks, and two nuns living next door. The nuns do all the cleaning, cooking, and maintenance for the monastery. It remains unclear to us what monks actually do.
By the late afternoon, we felt we were starting to get the hang of Palaung village life. After hiking out to the cement bunker, I managed to clean myself with only minimal ridicule. Katlijn might have fared pretty well herself, had she not wore her longyi upside-down. Anderson's family meal of rice, potatoes, and dried chili-prawns was beginning to taste downright homey, and (I dare say) I believe I even started developing a vague appreciation for that insufferable tea salad. Sipping daintily on freshly picked tea, we idly watched the villagers file out to the monastery while chatting casually with our hosts over what lurid film they might be showing at the cinema tonight. Somehow, this forgotten Palaung backwater was starting to feel like home.
At night, we lay together under the stars with Anderson and he explained to us that he didn't want to pick tea leaves his whole life. He had always wanted to be an English-speaking guide and meet with people from the West.
We retired back inside Anderson's house where he prepared our beds on the floor, just beside the rest of his family who also slept on the floor together with us. In the corner of the room were all of Anderson's possessions: a tiny wooden desk which he barely fit into and a small shelf of old worn-out English language texts that he had collected over the years. As Katlijn and I drifted off to sleep, I watched Anderson's gentle silhouette flickering in the dying candle-light, hunched over his little desk quietly studying a crumbling English book.
Back to Civilization
Early the next morning, we awoke to the sublimely soothing chanting of Anderson's mother lighting a candle in the family's Buddhist shrine. One of Anderson's friends picked us up, a tough-looking but exceptionally sweet teenager calling himself "Jackson". Katlijn and I piled on the back of his bike and waved goodbye to our good friend Anderson before roaring off motor-cross style to the next box on our card.
Jackson showed us a short-cut through the hills and told us we'd be back to civilization in only five hours at a good walking pace. Of course, we knew better by now and weren't in the least bit surprised when, ten hours later, we finally limped our way past Mister Charles' Hotel, waved a tired "hello" to the cravenly Mister Books, and felt an exhausted euphoria when we heard a familiar voice yell out to us in the distance, "Tell your friends ! I've got the best beans in Hsipaw!" After a long journey off the beaten path, we were back home with the rest of the backpackers.
Given the utility of whatever was scribbled on the back of our tatty piece of Asian Kitsch, it was clear that only Burmese hospitality saw us through our challenge. As we lay down in the comforts of a real bed and rested our aching muscles, I felt an unconscious smile slowly form while I thought about how, on a future day, long after our world travels have ended, when the stress of modern civilization feels too heavy and the accelerated time of the new globalized planet too dizzying, we'll be able to think back to our memories of the motley people of the Palaung tribes, and be comforted by the fact that there is still a timeless place like this left in the world.
Note: Sadly, the photos we took of the area around Namsan in the Shan state of Myanmar were stored on an unreliable media (CD-Rom) inside an even more unreliable plastic casing (made-in-Vietnam) and we can no longer access them. Furthermore, we were unable to find on the internet any images of the villages or areas in the Shan state we trekked through on this trip. However, we were able to find some photographs taken of palaung tribal people in other parts of Myanmar. We selected a few of these based on how well they represented the things and people we saw on our trip. If you see your photo posted here, we thank you very much and you may leave a comment with us below. We do have a backup of all our photographs stored in the safe-haven of Geert's gay-chique apartment in Bangkok. We will update this entry again with our original pictures of the people and places of this story, as soon as we are able to retrieve our backup in a couple of months. In the mean time, we finally caught up with the rest of the twenty-first century backpackers and bought a portable hard-drive.
This is just a sample of the derogatory adjectives I found while researching Myanmar's dubious government-operated "budget" airline safety record: a history of downed planes and missing tourists so extensive it rivals even the world's great socialist "no-frills" commercial airliners of Africa and Russia. Myanmar Airways claims its record has improved dramatically after they dropped a rule requiring that planes take off on time regardless of the flight mechanics' advice- certainly little consolation.
Our other option was the decidedly safer "Air Bagan", privately owned and operated by Tay Za: Burma's most flamboyant and nefarious business tycoon who not only hordes the profits of Myanmar teak-wood industry, he also has close ties to Burma's massive illegal opium industry (surpassed only by that of Afghanistan). Naturally, he is a close friend to the military junta having paid for the current Senior General Than Shwe's daughter's notoriously extravagant $300,000 wedding.
Alas, we chose to patron Tay Za's Air Bagan and may we burn in hell. It was either that or face the sprawling twenty-four hour odyssey of crossing the entire country in the hot stuffy confinement of a Myanmar pickup truck. Somehow, eternal damnation didn't seem so bad anymore.
Our plane touched down into the cruel dusty furnace of April in Bagan, and by night-fall we found ourselves wandering the desolate streets of a third-world tourist dystopia. New Bagan is the brainchild of a military junta that gave all the residents of the original city one week's notice to pack up and move their lives to this more convenient location. The paved streets and ritzy hotels around us are widely believed to be the product of government enforced slave labour in a failed effort to bolster their tourist industry.
These days, New Bagan is downright spooky. A loud wind howls across dark empty roads in the night. Swanky western-style cocktail bars are populated only by dusty horse and carriage drivers pestering us to rent their services. Vacant luxury resorts sit sadly idle next to the murky green waters of their forgotten algae-ridden pools. Tourists don't seem to come here anymore. Too spooky.
Long boat on the Irrawaddy near Bagan.
Myanmar has a complicated and turbulent history consisting of periods of disunity and warring ethnic groups alternating with more prosperous periods of Burmese domination when rival ethnic groups were controlled with either the carrot of autonomy or the stick of force. It is tempting to consider today's predominantly Burmese junta as a continuation of this pattern. History repeating itself. While the military junta is rightfully despised, people are reluctant to consider the possibility that when junta is gone so will be the uneasy Union of Myanmar it barely managed to cobble together.
Each Burmese Empire had its capital. If the modern ghost metropolis of Naypyidaw is the unlikely capital of today's military junta, Bagan was the capital of the very first Burmese empire more than one thousand years ago. Alone and sadly outnumbered by the hotel staff, we checked out and began our hot and sweaty exploration of this more ancient Myanmar.
Marco Polo was the first Westerner to see Bagan (13th century). He described it as "one of the finest sights in the world." He also claimed that many of the towers were covered in gold a finger thick.
There use to be more than 13,000 temples in Bagan, but only 2,200 remain today. This is more than all the Cathedrals in Europe.
Touring Bagan is as exhausting as it is exhilarating. Temperatures soar well into the mid-forties, and the barren landscape provides no respite from the sun. Literally thousands of temples are strewn across a forty square kilometer requiring long hot bike rides between the sites accessible by road, and dusty pony rides for the rest. Each temple is home to gangs of touts either hawking the same paintings and postcards, or trying to barter them off to us in exchange for various personal items.
Covered in sweat and sun-screen on our second day of plodding along sandy roads on clunky third-world rental bikes, we collapsed inside a dingy Burmese restaurant suffering from a mild case of heat stroke and a major case of temple overdose. The Lonely Planet describes Burmese cuisine as a "curious" mix of Indian and Chinese influences which seems to be true since the food they served us had all the greasiness of Chinese take-away with all the cleanliness of an Indian hole in the wall.
Most Burmese restaurants serve a large variety of foods arrayed unattractively in plastic pales at the entrance. The food in each pale is actually intentionally covered in a thin layer of grease in order to keep the many nearby flies out.
Nevertheless, Bagan at dusk is positively magical. We climbed atop lonely nondescript pagoda number 384 somewhere in the middle of the ancient city. A gang of souvenir hawking pre-teen touts was there to join us as we sat down together for the evening's spectacle. Sunset over Bagan is perhaps South East Asia's most awe-inspiring sight. Even the grubby kid shoving postcards into my hands while tugging at my wrist found himself stopping momentarily to bask in the terracotta colors of twilight. Unlike other preeminent ancient cities of the world, the view before us was neither shrouded in jungle nor banalized by popular media. At sunset, the full extant of a massive ancient martian world lies unhidden, disappearing with the sun into the horizon.
A clear brisk morning. The pleasant scent of coriander chutney and naan bread roasting on an open fire. A piping hot mug of Nescafe "Turbo" 3-in-1 coffee mix. Kalaw, perched high above the cruel heat of April, seemed to us the only sane place to be at a time like this. Slowly, our dreams of Air Asia travel agents whisking us away from Myanmar to a distant discount tropical paradise were fading, and a renewed determination to understand the Burmese paradox settled into our imaginations.
The Indian family we stayed with showered us with as much conversation as they did chapattis. They had been living up here for a century. Like many of today's Burmese Indians and Chinese, they were originally brought here by the British to help develop and modernize the new colony. More experienced than the locals in the ways of the West, they became the advantaged elite fueling a deep resentment among the indigenous Burmese population. During the heady days of World War II and Burma's independence, anti-Muslim riots and institutionalized oppression forced many Indians to flee the country in a deadly mass exodus. Though the regime never fully got over its outdated anti-India propaganda machine, among the common people, this animosity has all but evaporated. Today, our hosts wouldn't dream of returning to India and insist the Burmese people are the world's friendliest, a different species entirely from the regime, living in a parallel world.
Kalaw was an old British army outpost still used by the junta's military today. Some fading colonial era buildings decay into the landscape, while others have been renovated and still serve as homes to wealthy generals.
Our various commutes on Myanmar's dodgy public transport services had left us non-plussed, and we decided to walk the rest of the way through the Shan hills to our ultimate destination at InleLake. Besides, what better way to keep money from the hands of the regime and, perhaps even more nefarious, the various local bus, pickup, and converted garbage truck mafias. The India family lent us the services of their son, Rambo, to guide us on our scenic trek through the Burmese hills.
Our awesome Burmese Indian guide to the hills around Kalaw, the soft-spoken Rambo. Fluent in Hindi, English, and the local tribal languages, not to mention an Indian roti connoisseur, he was indispensable.
The area's rich rust-hewed volcanic soil allows a diversity of crops to grow supporting an array of colorful tribal communities.
Myanmar's hills are home to some 135 different tribal groups, each having their own distinct language, customs, dress and specializations. Some of these ethnic groups number less than one thousand people and have been living in the same semi-nomadic self-sufficient ways for centuries. As we meandered down the hills, these exotically clothed people punctuated the fertile red soil, pastoral hills and tiny thatched hut villages with brilliant colours re-creating all around us a forgotten time.
More scenes of rural village life in the Shan hills.
Kalaw's colorful tribal people.
As usual with Indian-led trekking campaigns, mealtimes were a highlight of the day. In Canada, a backpacker meal typically consists of a bag of freeze-dried food, often marketed by weight and volume rather than taste and style. Packages are known to contain "calories per ounce" information along with a lexicon of similar metrics presumably inspired by the cattle fodder industry. In Belgium, people actually embark on overnight treks with nothing but a giant piece of salami, a hefty wheel of Gouda cheese, and a pair of long Baguettes that stick out of their bags like bazookas. I've seen Europeans last weeks on the trail eating only this.
Trekking with Indians is a whole different story. A pack of rice, some dried lentils, and a few zip lock baggies full of spices is turned into a deliciously dense spicy daal within minutes of the water boiling. And while you are gobbling that down, your guide is making fresh bread on an open fire out of a Tupperware container full of flour. All this and you're only paying twelve dollars a day for the food, accommodation, a professional cook, and a translator. Quite simply, Indian backpackers are making the rest of us look bad. As I thought about my fellow countrymen eating straight out of a soggy carb-loaded bag with a hard plastic spork, and those trail-side Belgians furiously chewing stale bread while attacking flimsy chunks of sweaty cheese with a pocket knife, I couldn't help but feel a tinge of shame for Western trekking culinary traditions.
Between bouts of sticky-fingered curry-eating gluttony, Rambo helped us chat with the locals. The cool easy-going hills of Kalaw bare little resemblance to the sweltering politically charged atmosphere of Yangon. While intensely curious of the outside world coming to visit them, the tribal people are entirely unaware and apathetic of their politics. Some are eager to exploit the tourist trade, but most live, trade, and marry within the confines of the hill communities and have limited interaction with the rest of the world. Unlike treks through remote areas of India, the tribal kids living here have not yet learned to pester foreigners for pens and candy.
After a while, one learns to recognize most of the region's tribal groups based on their occupation or clothing. For example, the Pa-O women shown here always dress in black robes and bright head scarves.
The Pulaung tribes specialize in growing tea. This old man from the Pulaung tribe invited us inside for a pot. He didn't know how old he was. Many people in the village didn't seem to keep track of their own age.
A Pulaung mother with a beautiful smile.
A Pulaung child borrowing one of grandpa's cherished green cheroots.
Rest and accommodation normally took place on the hard bamboo floor of a tribal hut together with a large family who all slept in the same room. On our second night, however, we had the luxury of staying at one of the village monasteries populated entirely by pint-sized monks in training and an aging abbot suffering from diabetes. Fortunately, the little ten year-old monks do the best they can to care for their teacher: massaging his feet every night while taking charge of daily business to ensure their spiritual operation is kept clean and running smoothly.
Before we went to bed, tribal people from nearby villages hiked out to the monastery and sat cross-legged together with the young monks to watch "Apocalypse Now" on what is likely the only DVD player in the area. The audience, clad in variegated tribal clothes and saffron monk robes, took everything in with a fascinated silence.
The monastery we stayed at. The architecture and corrugated tin roof are typical of Myanmar's many rural monasteries.
Young monk-trainees proudly doing their morning chores.
On our third day of hiking, we marched into InleLake and hired a boat to take us to a cozy guesthouse at a village called Nyaung Shwe. InleLake is one of Myanmar's main attractions: an idyllic mosaic of lake-side villages, rice paddies, and rolling hills. The region is notably wealthier than other places in Myanmar, the extra income from the tourist industry having transformed it into a kind of rural utopia complete with paved roads, a small airport, and other public facilities. Of course, this situation won't last much longer if foreign countries continue to discourage people from visiting here.
The lake supports a thriving farming community producing a wide range of vegetables and flowers cultivated on floating islands in the shallow edges of the lake. The men add to the islands by driving bamboo stakes into the lake bottom and piling up mud and lake vegetation.
Inle lake's most notable tribal folk are the Intha people, who are easily identified on the water by their novel (and apparently more efficient) paddling technique involving the ankles, legs and arms.
Proponents of Burmese tourism often cite InleLake as an example of how well-behaved the junta can be when there are foreign tourists watching and therefore argue in favor of expanding the areas accessible to visitors. Some human rights activists, however, fear that visitors plying the beaten path to areas like InleLake will develop huge misconception about the reality of life for most of Myanmar's rural poor. Furthermore, the impact of tourism on the Burmese tribal communities has never been studied.
Despite improvements to InleLake's infrastructure, not everything has been brought up to date. While indulging ourselves in some Western-style food at one of InleLake's many restaurants, Katlijn chipped her tooth forcing us to consider the frightening prospect of Burmese dental care. Our friendly guesthouse owner, ever trying to be helpful, recommended his dentist to us. Just before we were about to leave he asked, "You go to get your tooth pulled ?"
"No, we just want somebody to take a look at it."
"Oh," he replied confused, "if” you no want your tooth pulled, no go to Burmese dentist."
Needless to say, Katlijn decided to wait until we got back to Thailand for her dental work. However, it was somehow comforting to know that despite the inevitable encroachment of tourism, politics, and other modernizing forces into the traditional tribal way of life here, at least dental work was still done the old-fashion way.
I sat in the shadow of the ticketing office listening to Katlijn argue with the local bus tout. "Is it a big bus with air-conditioning ?" She asked.
"Yes," said the tout.
"Does the air-condition work ?" She asked.
"I think so," said the tout doubtfully, looking away.
Katlijn narrowed her eyes and looked penetratingly at the ticket man, then began slowly and carefully in a menacing whisper, "But will they turn it on ?"
The tout looked uncomfortable and shuffled his feet a bit, realizing she was on to him. "You'll have to ask the driver."
"Show me a picture of the bus !" Katlijn demanded.
The tout produced a glossy poster of a hotel-sized luxury vehicle filled with happy smiling passengers toasting each other with champagne flutes, marvelling at a highly improbable backdrop including the temples of Bagan reflecting off of InleLake surrounded by tropical birds and what appeared to be several extinct species of orang-utan. Honestly, I don't know why she bothers. This tout was going to rip us off and there was nothing we could do about it.
At long last, a dark noxious fog of belched out low-grade diesel exhaust ushered in our aging transport, clunking and sputtering its way towards us a good two hours behind schedule, an old tenth-hand rust-bucket long since discarded by its last owner in the West. Perhaps that same owner might one day visit this part of the world and feel a tinge of nostalgia and pride to see his or her faithful old rusty steed having a second-life in the orient as an integral part of the local Myanmar bus-scam. But to us, it was just another dirty van without a single functioning door or window, crammed full of betel-nut spitting crones all covered in a thick layer of Burmese road dust.
Katlijn had a small breakdown when it stopped in front of us, which began with "Is that our bus !?" and ended with a flurry of racist expletives heaped on an uncomprehending ticket salesman. All the while, the tout kept insisting it had "excellent air-suspension"as though this outright junk-heap had some deeper soulful charm hidden just beneath the surface, if only we would take the time to discover it.
Burmese kids hiding under a table of fresh durians.
We were heading north now, en-route to Kalaw the hard way. Sane travellers take the plane at this point, but we were determined to stay on our pathetic budget and keep our money from falling into junta hands, even if it meant the occasional mental breakdown and momentary lapse of sanity. I found a small extra chair just behind the driver which had been crazy-glued to the floor, while Katlijn preferred the broken padded cushion that hung loosely at an obtuse angle from its seat back. There is never enough space on a bus like this one, so babies are passed around like carry-on baggage and it wasn't so unusual for one to end up in Katlijn's lap. They don't use diapers in the third world.
I was worried about Katlijn. She was in a miserable mood right now, secretly plotting an escape from the country. I saw her the other day checking out low-cost Air Asia flights leaving Yangon for Phuket, certainly an act of extreme desperation. The heat was really getting to both of us. During our truck's second breakdown, while the driver tinkered with the engine using a plastic pale full of rusting tools, we found ourselves sitting out under the stars along the highway. It occurred to us both that even in the middle of the night, Myanmar was still hot as hell.
With the likely prospect of our aged bus' post-retirement career in the Myanmar bus-scam business sputtering to a final ignoble conclusion, we decided to get off at a town called Taungoo and head to a private guesthouse boasting an excellent reputation among Burma's controversial guidebooks. It was indeed a lovely place, constructed from varnished teak wood, tastefully decorated, and cheerfully managed. Of course, none of this mattered to us because it no longer had air-conditioning. The friendly doctor who owned the guesthouse apologized profusely and tried to explain.
In case we weren't confused enough already, the junta had recently moved their capital to a place called "Naypyitaw", not far from here. Depending on who we talk to, the capital city of either Myanmar or Burma could be Yangon, Rangoon, or even Naypyitaw. By all accounts, Naypyitaw is a brightly lit fantasy city of modern shopping malls, six-lane highways, and twenty-four hour electricity, except that almost nobody lives there. Access to the new capital is strictly controlled, only the military top-brass and necessary government personnel are allowed inside. The city is also home to a number of five-star hotels catering to unscrupulous tourists who describe it like an empty high-tech ghost-metropolis straight out of a bad episode of the Twilight Zone.
Like most of Myanmar's population, the doctor got her news from a daily BBC Burmese radio broadcast squawked at her through an old plastic Zenith radio. The BBC has proposed a variety of disparate explanations for moving the capital to a place truly out in the sticks, including a paranoid regime trying to distance itself from politically charged activists in Yangon, a better command centre for conducting their war against nearby Karen insurgents, or even a more easily defensible location in the event of a future American pre-emptive strike. Of course, BBC really has no idea what the regime is thinking, it could have just been the whim of some flaky numerologist. Regardless, the new capital consumes most of the region's power, allotting our teak wood hotel along with the rest of Taungoo only three hours of electricity per day.
Taungoo local selling us some juicy lychees wrapped in a banana leaf.
Curiously, the only exception to the three hour electricity rule occurs whenever a British Premiere League soccer game is televised. Our hotel owner speculates that the junta provides electricity during televised soccer matches purely as a security measure. The Burmese are fanatical British soccer zealots hungry for outside information regarding the world of professional footy. They may have passively accepted a hundred years of colonial rule and fifty years of brutal oppression at the hands of a ruthless military junta, but take away their evening soccer match and they'd riot.
Though our hotel had its own generator, it didn't produce a high enough voltage to operate the air-conditioner or to provide a sufficient angular momentum for the over-head fan to be effective. As a result, it got so sweltering hot in our room that we eventually decided to sleep outside underneath a mosquito net.
Perhaps the friendly doctor felt sorry for us when she found us the next morning lying naked on her hotel patio. She put together a truly amazing breakfast made up entirely of fruit from her exotic garden. Over heaps of lychees, mangosteens, and passion fruit, Katlijn told me about a bizarre dream she had of a mysterious Burmese metropolis, somewhere not far away, populated entirely by Air Asia travel agents and empty air-conditioned hotel rooms. I'm no shrink, but this was clearly not the sign of a healthy subconscious.
A pineapple growing in the doctor's garden.
The local Taungoo train station looked like a refugee camp. Making our way through the dense crowd of uniformed military personnel, saffron-robed monks, and gangs of children trying to pull at my leg hairs was a real challenge. We were eventually shuffled into a small office where the local train officer handed us a couple of post-it notes he had just scribbled on, and showed us to the appropriate platform. When our train finally lumbered down its narrow track two hours late, I remember voicing my worst fear, "these people aren't all getting on that are they ?", before it was realized by a chaotic surge of humanity converging on every malfunctioning orifice of the antiquated train.
We watched in stunned amazement at the spectacle. Everyone elbowed their way to the front, huge bottlenecks formed around the doors, monk bottoms and sandaled feet disappeared through the windows. Unable to physically get close enough to the train to board, we enlisted the help of an armed guard who, by some miracle, actually understood whatever was scribbled on our post-it notes. He successfully cleared the way and even scared a few old crones out of our seats for us. Every once in a while, a military junta really does come in handy.
Once inside, we were on our own. It took us ten minutes to get from the door to our seats. There were moments when I thought we'd never make it through the thick jungle of bodies inside. There wasn't enough space on my piece of bench for me to sit down and nowhere else for me to go. I ended up standing on my seat for fifteen minutes until Katlijn, uncovering a remarkable latent talent for human Tetris, barked orders at our fellow passengers until there was enough room for me to squeeze down with them.
The conditions on-board wouldn't satisfy an animal rights activist. The temperature outside pushed forty degrees, but it was several degrees warmer than that in the train. The entire cabin stank of Chinese fried noodles and body odor. There were people everywhere: crones squatting under my bench and kids lying horizontal on the baggage shelves. At each train stop, new passengers had to clamber through the windows because the door was plugged air-tight with human bodies. Before jumping in themselves, mothers would pass up their diaper-less baby through the window. The little tike was then tossed about the cabin like a hot potato until a suitable nook or cranny could be found for him. Somehow, Katlijn found herself in charge of this operation, possibly owing to her previously demonstrated Tetris genius.
As the narrow gauge train swung precariously back and forth along the bumpy tracks, we couldn't help but be impressed by the impeccably well behaved kids. While Katlijn and I had to fight back a childhood urge to throw the mother of all temper tantrums, there wasn't a single crying baby on the train. It's like they were too young to understand the whole stinking wobbling humiliation of it all.
We survived under these conditions for six long hot hours. Finally, our train swung into the town of Thazi where we saw a friendly-looking Burmese man running beside us calling out our names. Apparently, the good doctor from Taungoo had given him the heads up that a couple of white tourists were coming his way. Private hotel owners in this part of the country were now working together to make sure we didn't accidentally end up off the private hotel circuit and into a government-run facility.
Thazi turned out to be a dusty outback stuck in a Burmese time-warp. Horse and carriage were still being used to shuttle passengers into a wild west town from a fully functioning antique train station. Our inn keeper explained that not all was right in Thazi. Bad press, human rights activists, and the riot last September had destroyed the tourist trade. Now there were only two licensed hotels left in town, and not enough room for the both of them.
The hotel wasn't much to look at. A giant jumble of cables, industrial sized electronic parts, and large rusting metal boxes outfitted with retro wooden dials and knobs hummed ominously in the corner of the lobby. If every truck driver in Myanmar is a car mechanic, every hotel manager is an electrician. Power outages were frequent, and generators are generally of the DIY variety. While showing off his electromechanical baby, he explained how they had to pay a $760 license to cater to foreign tourists, give up ten percent of their revenue, and pay regular bribes to the corrupt police who ran the neighboring junta hotel like a gang of bandits. For his part, he fudged the tax records in the giant spell-book and showed me how he steals electricity from the train station to get by.
The local bus service finally rolled into town late the next morning: a massive steel lorry filled with passengers where the trash compactor used to be. In essence, the final leg of our journey to Kalaw was undertaken in a gigantic human garbage truck.
We adamantly refused to be stuffed into the back, choosing to pay extra for the privilege of squishing into the front seat with three others passengers over joining the eight men clinging to the roof top. The truck cruised around Thazi picking up more people until its entire volume was filled. We then drove around for another hour picking up cargo. I'm certain that if the garbage compactor was still intact, our incorrigible driver would have used it.
The passengers themselves didn't seem to care, dutifully compliant when the truck driver ordered them to squish themselves into a more efficient arrangement between steel drums of fermenting rice and large sacs of garlic. I asked a nearby passenger why we kept stopping to pick up more cargo, and he simply deadpanned "greedy" in reply.
There's always room for one more on our dump truck.
It was brutally hot where we were sitting, and I didn't even want to think of the poor sods exposed in the back. Our dump truck broke down three times, leaving us to bake helplessly on the side of the road waiting for our greasy driver to emerge from beneath the engine with his pillow case full of dodgy tools. In the meantime, Katlijn's mental health grew dire, her mind being corrupted by a loathsome animosity towards the evil chauffeur. In a twisted form of psychological torture, she kept repeating "How much longer ? How much longer ? How much..." to the superstitious bus driver which absolutely infuriated him.
Around mid-afternoon, the driver brought our rusting junk bucket to the side of the road so he could enjoy a luxuriously long cup of coffee while the rest of us rot like garbage waiting for him. I got outside and opened the back of the truck which would have revealed a scene of people trafficking during a war-time evacuation, except that every single one of them was beaming at me with a dazzling Burmese smile. Was I going crazy ?
"Why are you smiling !?" I shouted and emphasized my words for effect, "It's more than forty degrees outside ! You are stuffed in the back of a garbage truck ! The driver is enjoying a longcup of coffee ! This really does suck ! I'm not crazy here !" Inexplicably, they kept smiling at me, joyfully oblivious to anything I was saying, somehow unable to perceive the gross unfairness of it all. I could almost hear the start of a Rod Sterling voice-over.
Mysteriously satisfied customers smiling down at us from the rooftop.
I stormed off to find Katlijn glaring menacingly from across the table at our selfish bus driver who was mustachioed in guilt by a Nescafe 3-in-1 instant coffee mix. "Are you done yet ? Are you done yet ? Are you..." I felt just a bit saner knowing that I wasn't the only person going mad around here.
The driver eventually finished his coffee and several hours later, having teetered clear off the edge of reason, Katlijn and I finally arrived in Kalaw. We were as happy to get rid of the bus driver as he was to get rid of us. I waved goodbye to the passengers piled on top of each other in the back of the rusty garbage truck, then watched their smiling faces disappear into the sunset.
Kalaw was a world away from Thazi: a gorgeous town, complete with paved roads and street lights, clearly benefiting from the large number of military generals living here. But none of this mattered to us. At an altitude of 1320, it had one of the most pleasant climates in the country. We felt a cool mountain breeze blow across us, cooling our minds back to a reasonable state of sanity. We wouldn't even need the air-conditioner tonight.
If you aren't out throwing water at people, there are only two things to do in Myanmar during Buddhist New Year: stay home or seek refuge in a monastery. We considered the latter prospect, hoping to continue our meditation training from India. After all, Myanmar is a world center for meditation studies. While Buddhism's popularity waned in India, the original meditation techniques were painstakingly kept alive in Myanmar from teacher to pupil through an oral tradition. The government even issues special sixty-day "meditation visas" to people all over the world allowing them entry into the country for learning these techniques, and every Burmese citizen is required by law to spend time at a monastery for basic training. Unfortunately, the monasteries were completely full: wearing monk robes and sleeping in a monastery generally renders one exempt from the water throwing yahoos, making Buddhist New Year a particularly popular time for peaceful contemplation.
The festival had grown into an out-of-control multi-day extravaganza, and our options were now limited: being pelted with fire hoses or baking in the safety of our sweltering guesthouse. We were desperate to get out of Yangon and see the country. After significant research and a lot of charades with the train officers, we finally came up with a third option: a pilgrimage to Kyaiktio, the Golden Rock.
Pious Burmese head out in droves to visit the Golden Rock for Buddhist New Year. It is perhaps the holiest and most auspicious location in the country to wash away last year's sins. It was also the only location in Myanmar currently being serviced by some semblance of functioning public transportation. We wrapped our bulging backpacks in water-proof plastic sheets and set off on our quest.
A tasty Burmese snack.
Walking to the train station was a frustrating wet experience. The water fight had grown old fast: we were tired of stumbling about in wet feet and soggy underwear. In the InyeLake area, "Happy New Year" was the usual warning sign preceding a good hosing. For some reason, the kids downtown preferred to joyfully ask us "Are you happy !?", before proceeding to throw a bucket of ice water in our faces. The other pilgrims on the train simply laughed at us when we sat down in the passenger wagon, wringing our socks out.
Myanmar's much maligned trains should only be used as a last resort. The entire system is antiquated: from the 1940s meter gauge train tracks to an unreliable ticketing system run by opportunistic coolies keeping track of things with fading pens and old bits of scrap paper hanging out of their back pockets. A valid ticket could easily look like a crumpled piece of toilet paper with somebody's signature scribbled in pencil. The train ride itself is always a harrowing experience, as the entire cabin wobbles precariously back and forth along the narrow tracks. Train derailments are disconcertingly frequent under this technology.
Fortunately, we arrived safely at the city of Bago, two hours east of Yangon. We found a crumbling hotel room shrouded in a thick layer of mildew, its malfunctioning shower facilities forcing hotel guests to make the dubious choice between being blasted across the bathroom floor by a high-pressure beam of cold water or huddling underneath a scorching hot dribble. The beetle nut chewing hotel manager admitted his rooms could use another coating of paint, but he swore on his father's grave he had the best generator in Bago, capable of delivering twenty-four hour air-conditioning. We were sold.
One of Bago's many golden stupas framed against the Burmese-blue sky.
Checking in at a private guesthouse requires writing your name and passport number on a giant wizard's spell book. Apparently, these over-sized records are used to ensure the regime gets its ten percent hotel tax. According to the manager, our hotel was owned by a crooked business man running an illegal gambling ring. "Not to worry," he explained between audibly juicy betel-nut mastications, "this hotel is one of his legal business fronts. We only fudge the guest lists a little bit." In true form, he also knew exactly how to visit Bago without paying the extortionate government fees.
Bago is the Disneyworld of Buddhist relics, an amusement park of stupas and giant Buddha statues. It was once the capital of the Mon province, home of the ancient and defiant Mon people who arrived here around 1500 BC. Though brutally repressed for centuries for thumbing their noses at both the Burmese and the British regimes, their impact on the region can't be understated: the Mon are responsible for introducing Buddhism to South East Asia, and they have littered the landscape with some of its most hallowed monuments, including the famous Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon and our destination, the Golden Rock.
With the connivance of the local monks, our hotel manager confidently led us through various back doors into some of these monuments while telling us extraordinary tales of giant eight-meter Buddhas, a mysterious cult of Burmese numerologists who had learned to fly, and his very own pursuit of the philosopher's stone. I don't think we learned a thing from him, but his was a riveting narrative nonetheless, certainly better than a stodgy old government-approved tour.
The footprint of Buddha, one of the main artistic vehicles for demonstrating the Buddha's presence in Asia. In Myanmar, his footprint has small pictures depicting all the different reincarnations of the Buddha before attaining enlightenment.
True to his word, the twenty-four hour air-conditioning was fabulous: a miracle of biblical proportions in this country. The next morning, the hotel manager got us in contact with a shady character calling himself "Mister Joe". Technically, foreigners are not allowed to spend the night near the Golden Rock, but Mister Joe insisted the police never check. He sold us expensive tickets for an "easy" three hour truck ride to Kyaiktio.
When it comes to travelling around Myanmar, our experiences so far indicated nothing is "easy". Katlijn decided to double-checked with our hotel manager, "How long will it take us to get to the Golden Rock ?"
The manager opened his mouth in alarm revealing all six of his remaining crimson teeth, "In Myanmar, you never ever ask how long it takes ! It's bad luck !" He refused to tell us and stormed off angrily. The truck driver gave us a dirty look, like we had just condemned them all to death.
The Burmese have taken carpooling to a whole new level. The pickup truck stopped every few blocks to pick up more passengers until every cubic inch of volume was filled with body parts. A close inspection would reveal that we were arranged on top of each other in four layers: a few fragile old crones curled themselves up at our feet on the floor of the truck, Katlijn and I squished together with other passengers on the benches, their kids sat on our laps, while their husbands rode on the roof. A few deadbeats hung out the back with their feet on the bumper. As our rusty old pickup lumbered down the bumpy road, the Mon people periodically hosed us down and launched water balloons at us with slingshots.
In the dark, damp wetness of the enclosed pickup, packed shoulder to shoulder with the other miserable passengers, I felt the onset of a claustrophobia-induced panic. Desperate for fresh air, I poked my head outside and saw, for the first time, a ghastly new weapon in the week long water war. We were heading straight for it.
"You'd better take a look at this," I warned Katlijn.
She poked her head the other side. "WHAT IS THAT !?" She yelled back in alarm.
The other passengers saw it too, and pretty soon murmurs of alarm spread like wild-fire through the tiny space in the back of our truck. Everyone inside grabbed each other. The deadbeats hung on for dear life. Katlijn, in a cowardly act of self-preservation, actually grabbed a monk and used him as a human shield, hoping his monk status would protect them both.
I ducked my head, shut my eyes tight, and thrust my index fingers deep into my ear canals. Barely audible now, I thought I heard someone whisper, "Are you happy ?"
Everything happened fast. A gang of Mon kids jumped in front of the truck to slow it down, while about fifteen of their buddies positioned the weapon over top of our pickup: a long, wide-diameter, corrugated plastic tube that looked alarmingly like a broken sewage pipe belching forth a geyser of polluted water and noxious filth. With considerable effort, they ran beside our truck while simultaneously turning over the gurgling tube into an upside-down brownish fountain instantly flooding our cabin in a sickly warm foul-smelling ooze.
The aftermath is still a bit of a blur. I remember bits of algae hanging from the ceiling, a few aging crones coughing and wheezing in a pool of rancid liquid, and a wisely equanimous monk giving Katlijn a long, sad, pitiful look of sympathy, certain her ignominious act had just condemned her to be reincarnated as a fish.
Six hours and one more breakdown later, our clunky pickup finally choked and sputtered into a town called "Kingpun". We were close to our goal now, at the base of the mountain home to the illustrious Golden Rock. We celebrated by devouring some fried noodles at the local Chinese restaurant and transferred to a larger pickup truck capable of making the ascent. The back of the truck contained rows of small wooden benches that seated about sixty. After waiting a long time in the heat for enough passengers to fill the benches well beyond this already inflated capacity, the driver suddenly gunned the accelerator and we set off at a break-neck speed startling everyone on board.
Buddhists on pilgrimage to the Golden Rock being herded like cattle into pickup trucks.
Even by third-world standards, our driver was a maniac. The giant truck roared down the serpentine mountain road, careening dangerously close to cliff edges. Each high-speed hair-pin turn sent me toppling over fellow passengers, and each bump thrusted my bruised knees painfully against the wooden boards in front of us. Kids lined the roadside, laughing uproariously at our predicament while whipping us with buckets of freezing cold pond scum.
Slowly, I felt the last traces of my pathos for this country slipping away from me. I turned to my right side and saw an elderly monk look straight into my heart with his over-size Dalai Lama spectacles. He seemed to have notice my waning empathy as well. His tiny grey sprouts of hair fluttered and whistled in the howling wind. With his wizened old hands, he slowly and deliberately demonstrated how to hold on to the shoulders of the person in front of me for support. He smiled broadly revealing a rare un-betel-nut-stained set of reasonably straight teeth, then laughed loudly and with a hoot, yelled out,
"LIKE BURMESE ROLLER COASTER !"
Everyone started doing the same. Hands on each others backs, individual passengers connected as one, we rocketed our way up the mountain until our perilous truck ride to Kyaiktio finally came to an end. In an outpouring of collective relief, we all spilled out of the back of the truck. The Golden Rock was close now. The anticipation palpable.
A steep path led up the mountain crowded with monks and families making the final push in the late-afternoon sun. For forty-five minutes, we slogged through the wet Burmese heat. We saw our old monk friend cheerfully float by us in a stretcher, still smiling and waving. The clever fellow had hired a couple of coolies to carry him up. At long last, melting into a pool of our own perspiration, we caught sight of the Golden Rock itself.
"It's a rock," stated Katlijn underwhelmed.
"But it's one of the most sacred places in all of Myanmar !" I tried to convince her the trip was worth it.
"It's not even gold," she observed pointing across the rope, "look the paint is peeling." I approached the precariously perched rock to investigate. Indeed, it needed another coating of yellow paint to maintain the illusion. Finally, I had to admit it: whoever said "it's the journey not the destination" surely must have had the Golden Rock in mind.
The Gold Rock is perched precariously on the mountain. Legend has it that a single hair of Buddha holds it in place.
A bit deflated from the long day and its anti-climax, we spent the evening walking around the area, by now crowded with monks and families setting up blankets and pillows for the night. We were very nervous. Tourists weren't really supposed to be out here at night and Mister Joe's promise of no police was clearly an empty sales pitch. They were everywhere.
More interesting than the Golden Rock is the out-pouring of faith going on around it. Thousands of Buddhists from all over Asia gather on New Years to light incense, give offerings, and meditate together.
Some of the wealthier families slept in shelters, but nobody wanted to take us in, fearing trouble with the law. As inconspicuously as possible we crept into a nearby temple full of friendly people who smiled warmly at us. We set up our sleeping bags and exchanged food with our neighbours. Then, in a hopeless attempt to fit in, we joined the others in meditation.
Naturally, the only two white people on the mountain sitting in a lotus posture is anything but inconspicuously. When Katlijn came out of her meditative state, she was met with a room filled with huge Burmese smiles and pairs of warm beady eyes staring at us intensely. They had been watching us the entire time in respectful and curious silence. Even people from outside the temple were huddling over each other by the doorway to gaze at the two of us: hairy-legged, Teva-sandaled, sweaty white yogics in fading Nepalese trekking shirts- certainly a more profoundly bizarre spectacle than the Golden Rock.
It wasn't long before the police found us.
The Burmese police never do anything alone. There are no edgy Hollywood police mavericks here, no Burmese Dirty Harry, no Thanakha-wearing Starsky and Hutch. I remember watching the junta after the cyclone ravaged Yangon. They were a model of inefficiency. It would take twenty of them to cut a tree branch: one to saw away, one to take a picture, and eighteen to stand around and loiter. Thus, it is no surprise that an entire battalion of green-uniformed men with sparkling metal helmets marched into the scene of our dramatic arrest.
"Um..." the poor guard began bashfully, clearly terrified by the prospect of having to speak English in front of so many on-lookers, "are you happy ?"
"We're happy," I began hopefully. The growing crowd of smiling spectators murmured in approval.
"Yup," Katlijn, already condemned to life as a fish, finished my lie, "nobody here but us Buddhist pilgrims."
The police noticeably relaxed. They couldn't decipher any obvious political motivation behind our illegal infiltration of the Golden Rock. "I'm sorry to have to do this," he really was, "but I need to take you outside the premises to a government hotel."
And so ended our pilgrimage to the Golden Rock: we were charged an exhorbitant fee to stay at a dingy government hotel on the mountain, which we turned down in favor of being robbed blind by an even dingier privately-owned hotel.
Over luke-warm glass of imitation Burmese coca-cola, we toasted in the New Year.
One of the pythons died recently. Nu thought it was the soapy water; apparently, the orphans even shower together with the pythons. In any case, the abbot was absolutely distraught over the constrictor's demise and hasn't talked much since. I didn't believe her until they brought us to their meditation hall containing a dozen malingering monks swinging lazily in their hammocks, a few golden shrines, and one giant four-meter snake curled around a statue of Buddha. Beside the meditation hall, Nu showed us a small wooden shrine containing the dead python recently stuffed and mummified by the abbot.
Some of the kids get courses in traditional music. They were kind enough to put on a small show for our benefit.
We donated money to the monastery together with some children's clothing we bought in Yangon. The abbot chanted us a blessing for our generosity, but the monks couldn't come up with a way to distribute the clothing fairly. After much discussion, they contrived the following: we should give the clothes as a gift to a group of teenage orphans who performed traditional music for us. The performance was excellent, but it was both sad and embarrassing having to give baby clothes to each overly-gracious teenager individually- especially since there were bound to be younger kids in the monastery who also needed them.
Andrew giving tiny T-shirts and shorts to the orphan teens. They were very kind about it, and some of them really made an outstanding effort to squeeze into them.
By the early afternoon, the water festival had rendered Yangon's normally unreliable public transportation completely in-operable. Nu managed to arrange a horse and carriage for us, still a principle means of transportation in many parts of Myanmar. As we trotted off down the dirt road, the children ran after us, waving, smiling, and laughing.
Along the way, Nu told us that she takes care of a couple of orphans at home. It turns out that adopting orphans is very common in Myanmar, nearly all the hotel and guesthouse owners we stayed with across the country had an adopted son or daughter. Obtaining an orphan in Myanmar is extremely easy: walk up to your nearest monastery, give a donation of about one hundred dollars to the overwhelmed abbot, then walk home with the child of your choice. The system is clearly open to abuse, and it's hard to imagine this happens while elsewhere, so many qualified parents are enduring agonizing years of red tape to adopt a child.
The second orphanage we visited was run by nuns- all women in pink robes. In contrast to the carefree anarchy of the monastery, the nunnery had a fussy orderliness and the staff busied themselves with military discipline. The concrete dormitories positively gleamed.
Upon our arrival, a regiment of tiny bald little girls in meticulously kept pink robes were ordered to march before us and array themselves in perfect ranks. They were clean, healthy, and impeccably well-behaved. At the head-nun's orders, the children erupted into a perfectly synchronized chant of Buddhist mantras. It was an impressive and provocative display for our benefit, but there was something oddly robotic in their empty stares and mechanical high-pitch tones- their grim faces, starched uniforms, and shaved heads resembling more a miniature boot-camp than a kindergarten. It just didn't feel like New Years in April anymore.
We donated money to the head nun, and she gave us a blessing in the form of a Buddhist chant. She looked thin and exhausted. Life isn't easy for a nun. Though apparently not a part of the original Buddhist teachings, women are treated as inferior to men in many Buddhist sects. They receive even less attention in the West. While the image of a monk has become an icon of unfailing wisdom and infinite serenity, their female counterparts are virtually ignored. As a result of this hierarchy, most people want to donate their money to monasteries run by monks, often leaving the nuns with very meager alms. There was no New Years banquet here.
The system is far from perfect, but
Myanmar's monasteries and nunneries do a great deal of good for children who have nowhere else to go. Indeed, the entire country couldn't function without these refugees, scattered ubiquitously across the Burmese landscape. Simultaneously fallible and heroic, these orphanages provided us a true human face to the children as well as Myanmar's well-intentioned monks and nuns.
By the morning of the second day of the water festival, Yangon looked like a war zone. The streets were empty save for pickups carrying gangs of water-gun toting teens careening about in the ghostly wet streets. Over an egg breakfast, several backpackers cowered on a guesthouse patio showing off their hose welts and complaining about their predicament. The entire country was shut down in a water-logged state of nation-wide binge drinking. Nobody could get in or out of Yangon. In fact, nobody could leave within a few block of our guesthouse without being blasted by high-pressure ice water.
Andrew hanging out with the other stranded travellers at our Yangon guesthouse.
A long line of saffron robed monks strolled by for their morning alms. They live off the donations given to them by the rest of the community, devoting the rest of their time to meditation, study, and the sharing of Buddhist values. We were glad somebody was happy: people are particularly generous for Buddhist New Years alms, and nobody wanted the bad karma of hosing down a monk.
We decided to join up with our Yangon guide, Nu, to visit orphanages across the river. Trying our best to avoid any further engagements, we ran, ducked, and crept down back-alleys to a bus stop where Nu flagged down a pickup truck and pushed us on board. The passengers rolled their eyes when they clapped eyes on our white skin, knowing their dry pickup would now be targeted by every drunken Yangon yahoo with a water gun. To make matters worse, we didn't actually fit on the truck and a few previously comfortable commuters were asked to ride on the bumper and hang out the back for our sake. Clinging for dear life to the back of a truck while being fired upon with riot hoses is fine for the locals, but such activities are considered too dangerous for white tourists. The junta wants nothing to tarnish their beloved tourist industry, and the driver would stand to get into serious trouble if anything happened to us.
It wasn't long before we were spotted by the yahoos. "Here they come," muttered Katlijn.
I poked my head outside to see the approaching ambush: a couple of bucket-toting kids and some whisky-drinking Indians on hose duty. "You know the drill," I replied dryly.
We clasped our hands over are ears, shut our eyes, and ducked underneath the bench.
"Happy New Years !"
And with that, our driver hit the accelerator and we roared through the deluge. The velocity of the truck working against that of the incoming water buckets produced a loud smacking sound when the freezing water splashed against our backs. A frail old woman sitting across from us got a particularly violent slap to the face. Everyone on board remained exceptionally friendly with us, but we feared our popularity would start to wane after a few more of these incidences. We chose to step off as soon as we were close enough to the orphanage to walk the rest of the way.
The post-colonial renaming plague sweeping across Asia has also struck the country of Myanmar in a devastating wave of utter confusion. The British invented the name "Burma" after the "Burman" people who are the dominant ethnic group. However, the political situation in the country is far messier than this colonial-era name implies. Over one hundred different ethnic groups are known to live in Myanmar, and there are at least one hundred and nine different languages spoken in the country. Many of these ethnic groups have been fighting each other for centuries and are also sworn enemies of the predominantly Burmese military junta. To help pacify some of these people, the junta changed the name of the country to the more inclusive "Union of Myanmar". Americans and British do not view the military regime as the country's legal governing body with authority to change the country's name and therefore continue to use the old British name "Burma". Thus, we now have the awkward choice of selecting the imperialist name of "Burma", or recognizing a brutal military regime by using the less racy "Union of Myanmar".
Changing the name of the country and providing other political incentives was not enough to placate all the ethnic groups wanting either more autonomy or outright independence. For the last fifty years, the military junta has been battling several disparate insurgencies in various parts of the country, and there are credible reports of retaliatory killings, rapes, and other atrocities committed by the army against civilians. Most of this fighting is contained in remote mountain regions so nobody really knows what is going on. However, there is a constant stream of traumatized orphans fleeing these contested regions who, if they are lucky, may eventually find themselves in the sanctuary of a monastery. Soaking wet and fearing rejection by our fellow commuters, Nu took us to visit two of these.
The first orphanage was run by monks- all men in saffron robes. The monks shared their food with us: a huge banquet provided by today's bloated New Year's alms. It was probably the tastiest and most glutinous feast we ever ate in Myanmar. So much for the middle road !
Children's dormitories. Each child has his or her own space with a bed and a metal chest containing their belongings. They sleep and do their homework here. It is possible to obtain a high school degree at the monastery, but we only met one girl who made it that far in her studies.
The orphanage was basically a ramshackle arrangement of dilapidated monasteries and concrete dormitories with corrugated tin roofs providing shade for several dozing monks. While perhaps more spiritually advanced than your average layabout, Myanmar's monks could certainly loaf about with the best of us. They had all the laid-back attitude and Eastern philosophical bent of a Berkeley hippie, but without the free-love, drugs, and poor hygiene. Otherwise, while the compound definitely lacked a woman's touch, it had a kind of fun chaotic air as the children's variegated smiles of multiple ethnic origins ran amok in celebration of Buddhist New Years. The kids went absolutely wild when we showed up, desperate to bless us with a cup of scented water, gawk at our giant white bodies, and pull my exotic arm and leg hairs- a favorite feature of mine with Burmese children guaranteed to produce squeals of glee. The monks had built them a little wooden platform on the road where they could participate in the water festival like other kids in Yangon. Fortunately for us, there was just enough discipline at the monastery to forbid the use of fire hoses.
Not all was right at the monastery. Some of the little girls were covered in scabs, and another didn't speak at all but stared blankly forward in a permanently heartbreaking forlorn expression. The abbot looked positively exhausted and depressed. Nu insisted he was normally a loquacious host and provided the following bizarre explanation for his current mood:
The monastery owns two giant pet pythons. The pythons slither freely around the compound and the kids are allowed to "play" with them, presumably unsupervised by the looks of the place. While that all sounded pretty scary to me, snakes are held in high esteem by Buddhists. Besides, we are told the children love them to pieces.
T.S. Elliot must have had the weather in mind when he wrote that "April is the cruelest month". Temperatures in Myanmar soar into the mid-forties. Regular power outages all over the country render not only the air-conditioning useless, but also the overhead fans, and refrigerators. I've spent hours wandering the sunny streets desperately searching for a cold drink, sadly longing for ice-cubes only having to settle for yet another warm glass of imitation Burmese Coca-cola. There is no respite from the heat.
Until the water festival.
The Buddha couldn't have been more merciful in setting up his New Years celebration in the middle of April: a time when we are told to wash away the sins of last year with a bucket of cool water, so we can begin our next year of debauchery cleansed and refreshed. In the past, this meant three days of daintily pouring perfumed water from a small silver bowl on friends and neighbours. Unfortunately, things have gone sadly downhill in modern times. Maybe it's global warming. Today's Buddhist New Year Festival is a ruthless ten day water war waged all over the country, with next year's debauchery getting a formidable head start.
Girl dancers in traditional clothing line up with silver bowls of perfumed water for the opening ceremony in Yangon.
Nu took us to Yangon's New Year's opening ceremony. Along the way, small children and gangs of adorable young street kids asked us respectfully if they could please pour a bit of water on us. The chance to pour water on a white backpacker was an opportunity so exciting and novel it never failed to illicit shrills of enjoyment. We were only too happy to oblige. Behind them, however, their older siblings prepared more formidable instruments of water warfare. Their hungry smiles were laced with menace. They wanted nothing more than to wipe out all traces of last year's sins. However, for now, tradition protected us. They would have to hold their fire until after the opening ceremonies.
During the opening ceremony, a line dance of men and women gracefully poured water on each other.
Without the foggiest clue what was going on, a few police kicked several old ladies out of their plastic toy chairs, and we were ushered to sit in their places. Sweating profusely in our stinky Teva sandals and the same Nepal Trekking shirts we had been wearing for the last six months, we found ourselves in the seat of honour next to Yangon's City Mayor and some of Myanmar's most famous young film talents. In a pathetic and hopeless attempt to look important, we tried to chat with our Burmese-speaking neighbours until the opening ceremony began: a kind of dance and theatre show that looked suspiciously like last night's strip-tease.
Burmese film stars looking cool for the water festival.
Among other Burmese celebrities, we ran into Mo Win, a world-famous photographer now living in Yangon. He and his French wife invited us for a ride in the back of their white pickup truck to see the water festival at nearby InyeLake. Along the way, we picked up a few more Americans and squeezed together in the back. The opening formalities were over, and it wasn't long before we were assaulted by gangs of water throwing, whisky-swilling hooligans dressed up like British punk rockers.
The water fight had begun, and foreigners were not exempt. Indeed, we soon discovered that a clunky old pickup truck full of white-faces was considered a unique find and a primary target deserving special attention. While the morning's cute kids with cups of water were all in good fun, now that their older siblings had taken over it became a dangerous sport. Though previously impossible to find, garbage pales of freezing cold ice water now seemed to be everywhere, their contents pumped out at us with painfully high-pressure fire hoses. As our truck skidded down the windy roads, every turn was manned by adolescents with exotic water guns whipping us with buckets of high velocity ice water of questionable purity.
A pickup truck full of Indian immigrants preparing for an ambush. Ear protection is of paramount importance when attacked with a fire hose.
Mercifully, Mo Win ground his aging white pickup to a halt outside his gorgeous mansion. Soaking wet, freezing cold, and covered in red fire-hose-induced welts, we piled out of the back and ran through his gates to safety. Within minutes, we were in the serenity of his grassy yard, underneath the shade of his giant mango tree, eating its fruit freshly picked and prepared by his servants. Moments later, a couple more of his Burmese employees produced copious amounts of food, cool frothy mugs filled with beer, and a bottle of quality French wine.
"It's safe in here, we can talk." Interestingly, he was referring to a draconian law in Myanmar prohibiting groups of more than five people meeting together for discussion, rather than the ruthless gangs of water throwing Burmese punkers outside. `
Mo Win is on his third marriage to a much younger French girl. He has to "upgrade" every few years, in his own words. With a long dark mane of black hair he looks young for his years, and likes nothing more than the sound of his own voice; fortunately for him, he does exude a certain charm. He summarizes life under the regime like this: "We live our lives, and the government officials live theirs. We don't really mix. My art isn't political and I don't involve myself in politics. If I did, I'd be counting beads." The Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi, is one of his biggest fans and the NLD once asked him to photograph her. "I told them to stuff it ! Are they crazy !?", he exclaimed, "I'd be counting beads !"
The Burmese have mastered the art of Asian collective resourcefulness. In their close-knit community, everyone knows a friend of a friend to get things done. As a gifted photographer who lived most of his life in
France, Mo Win is a bit of a foreigner in his own land. His son once chastised him for being too honest on his tax returns, and demanded he get a local to do it properly. The Americans we picked up study Buddhism and do volunteer aid work. Locals help them to stay in the country for prolonged periods by arranging them business visas through a fake company.
Our gang gearing up for another forray: stuffing our valuables into water-tight ziplock bags and applying another coating of water-proof sunscreen.
Mo Win insisted we finish our drinks and set off once more, determined to show us the water festival at InyeLake. We crowded back into the pickup truck, our ranks now swelling to include several of Mo Win's Burmese wine-pouring coolies and a couple of bottles of scotch. As the truck rounded each corner, cries of "Happy New Year" were followed by such a relentless barage of water balloons, ice buckets, and fire hoses we'd periodically lose passengers out the back.
InyeLake turned out to be the main front in Yangon's water battle: a chaotic honking gridlock consisting of bumper-to-bumper pickup trucks carrying a cargo of water guns, hoses, and comatose old men still clutching emptied bottles of Jack Daniels. Through the polluted haze of low-grade Russian diesel exhaust, a motley crew of revelers held hands with green-haired teenagers dressed in studded leather and Union Jacks, dancing in the flooded streets to the rhythm of Burmese covers of Western Hip-hop. A virtual monsoon of water rained down from large wooden structures temporarily constructed to cater to throngs of Burmese kids who had paid good money to dump tanks of ice water and fire riot-pressure water hoses into the chaos below them.
Our rusty old pickup broke-down along the way so I had to jump out of the truck and push. The Yangon sewage system was overwhelmed by the deluge, and I splashed down into a knee deep river of chocolate water carrying past a detritus of mixed filth in its formidable current. With the men out of the truck, the two girls were exposed and abandoned in the back.
If the exotic site of a pickup truck full of white foreigners induced shrieks of enjoyment, cries of laughter, and buckets of ice water, the dream-like scene of two white girls in wet T-shirts dancing on a truck induced instant euphoria in the general vicinity. While two of Mo Win's coolies poured copious quantities of scotch down my throat, I caught a glimpse of an entire block of fire-hoses beaming down on Katlijn as she desperately swam across a pool of rank liquid spilling out of the back of the pickup in muddy cascade of garbage.
Other events that evening were so surreal I'm not sure anymore whether they actually happened or were some water-logged product of my inebriated and over-stimulated brain. I seem to recall a midget Asian rapper busting out a Burmese translation of government censored Eminem lyrics flanked by a troupe of background dancers that included a seven-foot albino giant break-dancing with an afro-wig. It was like a David Lynch film on crack.`
Sometime late that night, we finally made it back to our certified non-government operated hotel room for a cold shower and a non-functioning air-conditioner. Maybe it was just an emotional release during a week's time when the junta relaxes its grip and it temporarily becomes socially acceptable to make a complete ass of yourself, or maybe it is just a lot of experience with riot police. Whatever it is, the Burmese really know how to throw a good water fight.
We spent our first night in Myanmar at a Burmese strip bar. Our evening began with a pleasant stroll along the tree-lined sidewalks of Yangon's deteriorating colonial metropolis. The bustling sidewalk was full of the exotic medieval. Everyone was trying to sell us something: a juicy betel-nut fix, skewered crickets, spare auto-parts.
A typically busy sidewalk scene in Yangon. Girl's roast meat on an open fire. A boy with a white tank-top and brown traditional Burmese longyi looks for new customers. Poor, wealthy, old, and young come to sit as equals on the tiny red plastic chairs and gossip over a hot cup of bitter green tea.
Quite suddenly, a respectable looking chap, sporting a neatly ironed pair of longyi and a fancy cell-phone, emerged from the chaos and accosted us in miraculously perfect English. He wanted to tell us what was going on in his country and to describe what happened during the riots last September. He explained how we couldn't do this on the street because somebody might be listening in on our conversation; the regime is known to throw English-speaking students like him in jail. Katlijn and I were both excited by our piece of espionage. I thought this sort of unlikely plotline only happened in James Bond films. Feeling like a couple of secret agents, we followed our new friend into one of the city's many holes in the wall.
Inside was perhaps the world's most pathetic strip bar. In place of the rowdy testosterone-charged seediness of a Las Vegas club, the crowd of beer-swelling Burmese men couldn't look less manly squatting down on the tiny, knee-high, red plastic chairs seen throughout Myanmar's tea shops. The smiling face of a Chinese girl peeled off the wall along with the rest of last year's calendar poster. She looked positively lonely pasted against the massive windowless concrete. As in other Asian holes-in-the-wall, the decor was so sparse and pathetic it only accentuated the gloom. On stage, was a line of pretty Burmese girls dancing to the emotionless din of muzak, barely discernible through the crackle of the 70s-era audio technology. Like all strip bars in Myanmar, the dancers remained fully clothed thus emphasizing the "tease" portion of their profession. As we sat on our miniature table, it occurred to me that James Bond wouldn't be caught dead squatting in one of these ridiculous toy chairs in a dodgy place like this.
Beer is a government sponsored joint-venture in Myanmar. As we were trying to direct our money as much as possible to local people, we refrained from ordering a pint of the only redeeming feature in this establishment. Instead, we spent the whole evening talking about Myanmar. He explained how he was a student participating in the riots that were broadcasted around the world last September; the first since "8-8-88". He described a surreal moment when the protesters and the police met on the broad-boulevard surrounding the Shwedagon Pagoda. Both sides faced each other in total silence listening earnestly to a Buddhist monk give an eloquent sermon through an old megaphone. When the sermon stopped, the police began firing into the crowd.
Kippling wrote the following upon seeing the Shwedagon Pagoda: "Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple-spire. It stood upon a green knoll, and below it were lines of warehouses, sheds, and mills. Under what new god, thought I, are we irrepressible English sitting now?"
Images of the Shwedagon Pagoda are similar to those found in Nepal and Tibet: ordinary Burmese men and women meditate near the giant stupa, while saffron robed monks walk clockwise around the giant structure. Myanmar and Tibet share both political and cultural parallels.
The Shwedagon Pagoda is surrounded by eight planetary posts corresponding to the eight days of the week in a Buddhist calendar. There are eight days in the ancient Buddhist calendars because Wednesday is divided into two separate days (AM and PM). Each planetary post has a different animal sign. Devotees (and the odd tourist) pour water over their birth sign. According to our best estimates, Andrew was born the same day as Buddha, Wednesday morning, marked by an elephant with tusks.
The dazzling golden Shwedagon Pagoda is undoubtedly Yangon's best known-symbol, but its origin is controversial. According to Buddhist records, it was originally built over 2500 years ago before the historical Buddha died in 486 BC. However, archeologist now believe the current stupa was actually built between the 6th-10th century AD.
We agreed to meet our new friend the next day, but after waiting a long time, he never showed up. Instead, we found our way to a gorgeous green neighbourhood full of embassies and mansions that contrasted jarringly with the downtown area. Home to military generals and diplomats, it was clear that not everyone in Myanmar was poor. There were police stationed regularly on the sidewalk to patrol this portion of the city giving it an uneasy totalitarian air. We decided it would be a good idea to register with the French embassy before setting off.
On the way back to our hotel, we passed an aging old crone sitting on the sidewalk shading herself from the intense sun and oppressive April heat with a small umbrella. She carried a dusty old rotary-dial telephone in her lap. It's hard to imagine how she ekes out a living doing this, but in our experience, people like her constitute some of the most reliable pay-phones in the country. We had a telephone number we found on the internet of somebody named "Thiri" who gave revealing tours of the city. As Aung San Suu Kyi once said, "approach the Burmese telephone with a prayer," so it was something of a miracle when a kind voice crackled through on the other end. We agreed to meet in half an hour.
A gang of Burmese street-kids. They can speak surprisingly good English- better than many people with the benefit of parents and an education. Amazingly, they don't ask for money but seem genuinely interested in just hanging out with foreign backpackers. Street-wise and friendly, they'll never let a Yangon cabbie rip you off.
Thiri turned out to be a kind-hearted little Burmese lady with a working knowledge of English and characteristic bright smile. Like our friend from the tease-club, she wanted to take us to a place where it was "safe" to talk. On the second floor of a sleepy old guesthouse, we conversed a long time about Myanmar and she confirmed most of the things our friend told us the night before. These conversations were new and exotic to us at this time. However, they soon became a regular feature of our travels through Myanmar. Not a day would pass without somebody telling us their story.
She was certain our hotel was operated by the government and suggested we move to another facility. Like most Western visitors to the country, we wanted to cater privately-owned facilities only and minimize money going to the regime.
"Didn't you think it was odd when they were the only hotel allowed to have a taxi waiting for you at the airport ? Why on earth did you decide to go there ?"
I felt a bit sheepish telling her my outdated guidebook recommended it as a decent private hotel. I wondered if James Bond ever used the Lonely Planet.
She went on to tell us that the government has spies everywhere. They could be dressed as monks, taxi drivers, and shop-owners. She warned us to be careful of what we say about her to other people. Some people will tell us the same things she tells us, even slander the regime, and talk about their participation in the riots. Then, they'll report any potentially useful information we provide to the authorities.
"How are we supposed to know who we should and shouldn't talk to ?" We asked.
She explained that as an outsider, we'll never really know for sure, but there is one tell-tale sign: cell-phones. Special permission is required to own a cell-phone in Myanmar. It costs a normal citizen about $2000 to buy one- a fortune by Myanmar standards. Unless they are employed by the government, there is absolutely no way to afford it.
"In Yangon," she finished, "never trust a monk with a cell-phone."
Myanmar was a world away from Thailand. I thought back to our absent friend this morning. We had a lot to learn about this country.
A small plastic chair, a table, an umbrella, and an aging mechanical typewriter make up this old man's office. He has setup his buisness just outside a government office, earning a living by typing out the formidable documentation required for requesting governement cell phones.
Comparing the two neighbours today, and it is hard to fathom what happened. Thailand's new capital at Bangkok is a booming hive of modernity sprouting towering skyscrapers and high-tech Starbucks-studded mega-malls. Meanwhile, Myanmar's aged ex-capital at Yangon is a dusty grid of crumbling British colonial buildings struggling to maintain their dignity in slow decay. Somehow, in the last century, something went wrong in Myanmar.
Yangon's crumbling city hall.
A woman walks past an outdoor Burmese book market shielding herself from the relentless Myanmar sun.
Sadly uncared for and somehow anachronistic in downtown Yangon, the bright greens, yellows, and turquoise of Britain's influence still radiate a melancholy beauty.
Fortunately for us, it is much easier for a tourist to enter Myanmar than an aid worker. Within days of applying for permission to visit Myanmar, we found a hotel taxi waiting for us at Yangon airport to take us to "The Motherland 2" hotel. We were soon stumbling apprehensively through Yangon's dark and potholed checkerboard of Technicolor colonial buildings- vestiges of British rule when Burma was considered part of its Indian colony. Yangon's rooftops became a jungle of antennas after the military junta recently allowed BBC and National Geographic to reach households. Long isolated from the rest of the world, Yangon's skyline is a powerful testament to a beleaguered colonized people grasping for knowledge and a sense of inclusion into the outside world. There was something of South East Asia in the smiling faces around us. Something of India in the crowded concrete holes in the wall full of tea-drinking beetle-nut spewing coolies. But then there are regional touches all its own: green cheroot cigars hanging from wizened grandmothers, yellow thanakha drying on a baby's face, green uniforms and metal helmets worn by the government's ubiquitous police.
Burmese women are among the world's most beautiful- shown here selling roasted crickets with characteristic smile. The next time Myanmar shows up on the news, watch for the pale yellow paint on the faces of nearly all Burmese women and children. It is a paste derived from tree bark, called thanakha, and is a form of sunscreen. As far as I know, the Burmese are the only people in the region to wear sun block.
Myanmar never really made it on the tourist radar map- odd considering it has vast stretches of white-sand beaches that rival Thailand's, a temple complex more vast and exotic than Angkor Wat, and huge tracks of unspoiled nature which are among the least-visited places on the planet. Nevertheless, these obvious draws are probably not why a small cadre of crusty backpackers visit Myanmar each year- indeed, they probably never even knew about it since traveling to this land is discouraged by self-respecting foreign travel agents. Rather, they come because they shouldn't be here. And this is how visitors feel their first night in Yangon: the exhilaration of witnessing the forbidden as pairs of warm and curious eyes follow them with mixed feelings from the bustling sidewalk market places.
Sidewalk banana store.
What passes for public transportation in Yangon (an old pickup crammed so full of people they are forced to hang out the back) drives past the colonial-era Strand Hotel. This gorgeous hotel was perhaps the most luxurious in the British Empire, catering exclusively to white clientele.
Burmese people weren't allowed inside the Strand Hotel until its independence in 1948. Myanmar has always had an abundance of natural resources, and this wealth can be found in some parts of Yangon and other major cities. The problem is that throughout its recent history, the money has been horded by those in power and never made its way to the general populace.
The people of Myanmar are among the world's most friendly and hospitable, but somehow their government is among the world's most ruthless and oppressive. Britain's rapid withdrawal from its former colonies resulted in many tumultous years in Burma, until a military strong man by the name of General Ne Win seized control in 1962. Since then, he and his military junta have accumulated a long list of human rights abuses and a history of tragic mis-management along their bizarre march towards a Burmese Socialist Utopia.
Just how crazy is General Win ?
He believes that the number "9" is an auspicious figure with magical properties. As his incompetent rule continued to erode the country's former wealth until Burma became one of the ten poorest countries on earth, he devised the following economic policy:
On September 9th (the 9th day of the 9th month), he invalidated all 50 and 100 Kyat notes, replacing them with 90 and 45 kyat notes (9 + 0 = 9, 4 + 5 = 9, and like all numbers with this property, evenly divisible by 9) . It is tempting to attribute this decision to a naive, though well-intentioned, autocratic nut-head infatuated with numerology. However, this interpretation is far too generous. It was later revealed that he changed the currency to add up to 9 only because his astrologer told him he would live to be 90 (there's that number 9 again !) if he did this. Regardless, many people lost their fortunes overnight.
Understandably upset, students all over the country protested on August 8, 1988. This event is called "8-8-88" or "four eights uprising" by the people of Myanmar referring to its date. Ever superstitious, many people in Myanmar believe the number "8" is also thought to have magical powers. The regime reacted with a spree of killings and arrests so terrifying that there wouldn't be another large scale protest for nearly twenty years. In a seemingly miraculous change of face, the junta agreed to open elections in 1992. Not surprisingly, their rival party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), won eighty percent of the parliamentary seats. Having exposed themselves, these representatives were promptly arrested and their supporters harassed. The spiritual and political leader of the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi, remains under house arrest to this day.
The beautiful and eloquent Aung San Suu Kyi has won both the Nobel Peace prize and the hearts of her people. She is one of the most prolific and well-respected modern writers on democracy and human rights. Aung San Suu Kyi doesn't want us to visit her country.
"The Lady", as Aung San Suu Kyi is referred to in Myanmar, believes tourism brings both respectability and economic aid to a nefarious regime. She thinks tourists are shuttled in air-conditioned tour buses between the government-approved attraction, don't have an opportunity to interact with local people, and will therefore bring home a distorted and incomplete view of the country. She has also suggested irresponsible mass-tourism will devalue and comodify Myanmar's traditions. In her own words, "to suggest that there's anything new that tourists can teach the people of Burma about their situation is not simply patronising - it's also racist."
Ironically, it is the reclusive military junta that wants us to visit. In their words, "tourism will replace criticism from abroad".
Others argue they are both wrong: tourism will heighten public awareness abroad, bring much-needed money to the people, and provide a meaningful cultural and language exchange.
The People's Desire, as dictated by the military junta, is posted in all of Myanmar's public parks and published daily in the country's propaganda-ridden newspapers.
General Ne Win's military junta remains in power today. His legacy is a country who's formidable wealth of natural resources benefits only a small number of government officials and their Chinese patrons, while much of the rest of the population lives in poverty. Of course, Myanmar's political situation is more complicated than one man and nobody really knows the ultimate reason for the divergent fates of Thailand and Myanmar. Nevertheless, the Burmese people offer their own theory: ever superstitious and mystical, they believe Ne Win was the reincarnation of a Thai prince defeated and executed by the Burmese who swore an oath of vengeance and put a curse on the Burmese nation. General Ne Win died six years ago, having lived to see his 90th birthday.
Ayathuya is home to one of Thailand's most famous images: the head of Buddha wrapped in the roots of a Bodhi tree. The combination of Buddhist imagery and nature is considered particularly auspicious.
It's rich portfolio of resources- oil, natural gas, teak wood, fisheries, minerals, and arable lands- is the envy of the region. Two centuries ago, they were an empire to be awed and feared. Long before Siam changed its name to Thailand, King Ayathuya of Burma marched his considerable army into the MekongValley and razed Siam's thriving seaport capital of Ayathuya to the ground. He wrote a triumphant letter to their king exclaiming:
"There is no rival for our glory and our karma; to place you beside us is to compare the great Galon of Vishnu with a swallow; the sun with a firefly; the divine hamadryad of the heavens with an earthworm; Dhataratha, the Mamsa king, with a dung beetle."
Thai monks studying the remains of a Buddhist image in the ruins of Ayathuya. The ancient city, still a source of national pride in Thailand, was destroyed by their powerful neighbors in Burma.
For hundreds of years, Ayathuya was the most prosperous merchant city in the region, accepting traffic and trade from as far away as Portugal. The Burmese entered Thailand and ransacked the city so thoroughly, nearly all official archives were lost and many details of Thailand's history remain vague.
Stupa reflecting in the water. Today, all that remains of Ayathuya are the brooding ruins of its once formidable religious sites.
The next morning, the cook and waiter were extra friendly as they showered us with smiles, brought us books and maps, then set us off with a sac-lunch into the Monsoon Forest. At least for now, Herr Flick was nowhere to be seen.
The rugged green universe of the Thai jungle provided a fascinating, albeit very hot, hiking experience. We were immensely happy as we clambered along the forest trail, watching birds, swatting at bugs, and chattering endlessly.
The first leech we saw was of academic interest: a slimy conical shaped slug that somersaulted its way around the jungle using its tiny suckers. Fascinating stuff.
We never saw the second leech. Rather, we erroneously dismissed the large red blood stain forming around Chris' right thigh as a blood-thinning side-effect of her medication. A bit more nervous, we kept moving.
It was only when a similar blood stain started forming around Katlijn's right leg that we put two and two together and finally started to panic. In a sudden moment of understanding, Katlijn gave a shriek and squirmed out of her pants. Before long, Katlijn was standing in the middle of the jungle wearing nothing but her underwear and hiking boots, the mad woman inside her stomping on a single fleshy worm, grotesquely fat and discolored from her blood.
"I'm sorry !" Katlijn seemed to apologize to the jungle, "I can handle the sweat and mosquitoes, but that's disgusting !" Chris couldn't agree more and the two of them raced out of the forest the same way we came.
Katlijn and her mom showing off their leech bites. Upon latching onto their victims, leeches inject an anti-coagulant before they begin sucking. The resulting wounds, therefore, bleed profusely. Fortunately, leeches are not known to carry diseases making them safer than other blood sucking parasites. Their exact role in a rainforest ecology is still not fully understood. However, their presence indicates a healthy ecosystem since they require an abundant source of large mammals to survive.
I put on a brave face, chastised them for being so silly, and continued on my way. Secretly, however, I was checking my arm pits and groin area every five seconds. Once you see one leech, you start to feel them everywhere. I began to exhibit tell-tale signs that my sanity was unravelling: stretching my socks high over my pants, spraying myself excessively with toxic repellent, and nervously whacking at every tiny sensation on my body. However, I didn't completely lose it until I happened to glance down at my boots and see a single slimy black slug somersaulting its way inside. Cautiously, I undid the laces and peered in:
Dozens of the slimy bastards ! All squirming over one another, jockeying for the wettest warmest position. The little buggers were actually fighting over me ! I tried desperately to pick them off, but the slippery worm-like beasts held on tight. As madness gradually consumed me, I found myself howling threats and war-cries at the leeches while frantically hammering at them with my fists. In seconds, my other boot was off and I was violently squishing, tugging, and swearing at my right foot. When it was all over, I briskly brushed myself off, laced up my boots, and speed-walked out of the forest as fast as I could.
Next time, we rode elephants through the park to avoid the leeches.
Andrew strips down and enjoys a jungle swimming hole.
Katlijn with her mom and Andrew, riding back from their elephant trek.
Fortunately for Emmy, she had stayed at our bungalow during our unsuccessful foray into the forest. Upon hearing about the leeches, however, she agreed with Katlijn and I when we suggested to forget hiking and explore the surrounding area with motorcycles. We rented a couple of bikes from a shop next door and were busy trying them out near the hotel parking lot when Herr Flick appeared, with eerie suddenness, from his jungle lair: his psychotic eyes flashed with rage and his crooked noggin like a white lightning bolt zig-zagging down the middle of his crimson face.
"SHUT UP !" He hollered, "YOU MAKE TOO MUCH NOISE !" He proceeded to let loose a tirade of abuse so loud and horrible, it sent his Thai wife and the rest of the cooks running for cover. We could do nothing more than stare back in stunned silence as he disappeared again back into his jungle lair.
What manner of beast could possibly yell at the mammatjes !?
With that thought, we watched in disbelief as Emmy gathered her courage and strutted off after Herr Flick. As the restaurant staff cowered behind the bar, Emmy walked right up to the towering German, cocked her head back, and looked straight up into his cold blue eyes hovering impassively high above. She announced matter-of-factly:
"I am sorry for making noise. However, I think your reaction was impolite and unnecessary."
For an instant, the massive German and the defiant little lady glowered at one another. We all thought she was done for. But then, something remarkable happened:
As he looked at brave little Emmy, his expression began to soften. Perhaps it was the sight of a concerned little mammatje teaching him his manners, or maybe just the distant memory of a long lost anger-management coach, but slowly -barely even perceptible- tiny wrinkles formed on his crooked beak, his scar tittered ever so slightly, and (I think) a thin film of moisture formed around the corners of his stony eyes. Like Thailand's hidden grin, Emily had found the closest thing Herr Flick had to a smile.
"I'm sorry," said Herr Flick.
Satisfied, Emmy calmly walked back, the mammatjes hopped on the back of our motorbikes, and we roared off into the karsty jungle paradise.
Millions of years ago, South East Asia was covered in an enormous coral reef much larger than today's Great Barrier Reef. The coral eventually deposited on the bottom of the ocean and became compressed into limestone. Over time, plate tectonics pushed this limestone above the ocean floor exposing them to the elements. Limestone formations eroded by wind and rain are referred to as "karst". South East Asia is famous for karst scenery, and the formations in Khao Sok are particularly impressive for their soaring heights (up to 900 meters), and the remarkable way in which the dense jungle clings to their sheer cliffs.
The next day, our time together rapidly running out, we sadly packed our things, waved goodbye to Herr Flick and his jungle cronies, then boarded a train back to Bangkok. By nightfall, Katlijn and I were surprised to find ourselves, stinky-footed and white-robed, back in the strangely familiar surroundings of Geert's queer-vogue apartment.
Bangkok's futuristic sky-train.
In most wealthy Western countries, motorbikes are a less popular form of transportation often associated with hobbyists and dare-devils. However, in most of the world, their lower costs and better fuel efficiency make them a principle means of transportation. In the practical hands of an Asian, they are made to serve multiple purposes including family wagons, long-haul cargo, and the preferred solution to a mid life crisis.
Before the mammatjes could leave, however, we had one last essential item to check off on our tour of Thailand: a Thai massage. Only hours before they departed for the blissfully cool rain of Belgium, the four of us were lying face down on the floor at the mercy of four powerful little girls.
I don't remember the last time I was so scared. Thailand's doll-like masseuses combine an intimate knowledge of human anatomy with a super-human strength, and as they confidently twisted my body into carefully positioned knots, it occurred to me that these petite smiling girls could probably kill me if they wanted. Their thin muscular limbs pulled my arms nearly out of their sockets, while they pushed their bony little feet into my ribs for leverage. After softening me up in this manner, they stood on my back and proceeded to walk up and down my spine. However, the most amazing thing about it all is that if you just close your eyes, avoid watching what is actually being done to your body, and try not to think too hard about the potential for long-term correctional physiotherapy, it actually feels great.
Rejuvinated for their long flight back to Europe, it was finally time for Chris and Emmy to go home. There were hugs and tears all around as we helped them into the taxi. Hardly able to believe it, we watched as the two little mammatjes rode off into the Bangkok night without us.
Katlijn and I walked back to the apartment in silence, feeling sudenly alone without their company. However, to this day, whenever we think back over the two giggling mammatjes and their exploits, it suddenly becomes impossible to stifle our smiles.
Chris learns her lesson and finally invests in quality sun protection.
Far away from the tourist hordes of Raileigh and Pukhet, Thailand was good to us. Under world class medical facilities and Emmy's careful nursing, Chris' feet were making a full recovery. With the help of the friendly locals, the giggling mammatjes, and a rigorous diet of Panaeng curries, my regional cynicism was on the wane. Even Emmy's flesh eating disease seemed to have lost its appetite for devouring her legs. With some of the world's most gorgeous tropical scenery, luxury hotel rooms, and excellent local food all at ridiculously low cost, suddenly, Thailand was starting to make sense to me. We felt confident enough to explore further, fully energized and finding Thai smiles everywhere.
Emmy's images of the Phang Nga city market discovered by the mammatjes.
Thai rottis make an excellent crepe-like snack any time of day.
Khao Sok National park is the largest area of virgin forest in South Thailand and is a remnant of a rainforest older and more diverse than the amazon. It is home to the world's largest (and possibly stinkiest) flower, countless gibbons, and our German host, whom Emmy referred to as "Herr Flick". Herr Flick was a burly old man with an astonishingly crooked nose, a massive scar marring the entire right side of his face, and two pale blue eyes which, when they looked at you, seem to whisper in a cold expressionless Shwarzenegger tone, "I am a maniaaac." We couldn't put a finger on what it was about him that emanated unease, but he gave us the creeps immediately and despite the presence of crawling spiders, poisonous snakes, and creeping insects everywhere around us, it was Herr Flick we feared most at night.
Our cozy four person jungle bungalow where we lived under the tyranny of Herr Flick.
Though his significant presence was never far away, his hotel in the middle of the jungle, somehow a fitting lair for Herr Flick, was the cleanest and most efficiently run outfit we ever patronized in Thailand. The food was excellent and the service prompt. It was clear that the waiters, his Thai wife and the rest of the hotel staff lived in constant terror of Flick's steel gaze and unpredictable temperament. Unfortunately, like an old boxer-has-been, crooked-nosed Herr Flick liked to spend his time in the restaurant chatting with his customers over dinner.
"Oh shit !" I heard one of his guests mutter under his breath, "here he comes !" Herr Flick marched over, sat down uninvited and started telling unfunny German jokes, punctuated by a high-pitched witch-like cackle that only added to his aura of insanity. While the customers smiled nervously at each other, it was clear to everyone that this man had been living in the jungle a bit too long.
Finally, it was our turn. We felt an icy cold come over us as the sweltering wet heat of the jungle instantly dropped forty degrees. Without looking, we knew that Herr Flick's pale eyes were bearing down on us.
"Would you like to book a tour with me ?" he asked slowly, in an uncannily accurate Terminator impersonation.
A nervous hush fell over the restaurant. Everyone knew Herr Flick's tours were over-priced, it said so in the Lonely Planet. The four of us looked at each other, not daring to speak. Finally, Emmy replied matter-of-factly:
"No thanks, we'll just head off on our own, tomorrow."
There was a long unbearable silence. The restaurant workers looked on in apprehension. I gulped audibly. Those two vacant eyes kept staring at us a few moments longer then, without a word, the burly German simply turned his back and walked away. Emmy, clearly the bravest among us, had just pissed off Herr Flick and, in doing so, I believe she earned the respect of the entire hotel staff.
One of the staff introducing us to a jungle reside
Our comfortable bus ride to Phang Nga went smoothly. Say what you may about Thailand's tourist industry, they certainly have facilities. As promised , the city itself was indeed ugly. However, we managed to find an excellent hotel, the nearby national parks were jaw dropping gorgeous, and we didn't see a single Aussie.
"James Bond Island" in nearby Phang Nga National Park. Perhaps better known as Saramanga's secret layer destroyed by Bond in "The Man with the Golden Gun".
A forest of mangroves, remarkable for their ability to thrive in saline waters.
Hidden green lagoon.
Limestone water cave.
Scenes from a Muslim fishing village we stayed at in the middle of the Phang Nga's dramatic ocean karst scenery.
Normally, sunburns slowly fade away, but Chris' was adamant. It just grew purpler everyday and, recently, had sprouted small blisters and boils. After much effort, Emmy, Katlijn and I convinced her to get it looked at by the doctor and the two little mammatjes set off alone into the big city.
"Stop worrying about us !" Emmy chastised Katlijn, "we're both adults, you know. We can take care of ourselves !"
Katlijn looked at me with parental concern and I tried to assure her that the two mammatjes were right. "What could possibly go wrong ?"
I believe Asians are genetically deficient in their capabilities at giving clear directions, and the two mammatjes were lost within two blocks of our hotel. A few locals tried to help by offering them a ride on their scooter, but while Thai people are accustomed to cramming a family of five onto a single motorcycle, Chris and Emmy thought it was a bad idea. The mammatjes definitely didn't want to make a fuss, but the family insisted on walking them to a nearby monastery. At the sight of two white ladies in need, a small group of gallant orange robed monks came to help.
Slowly turning redder with embarrassment, the two little mammatjes stood in the middle of a growing crowd of concerned monks, families, and children all wondering what to do. Clearly, there was a problem and they wanted to help, but what exactly was the problem ?
Emmy pointed down to Chris' feet and frantically tried to explain in words and body language, "We want to go to the hospital so the doctor can check her feet." Then she continued in the slow high-volume pseudo-English of a Western tourist in Asia, "VERY...BAD...SUNBURN !"
At last, a monk seemed to have picked up a few words and consulted with the other onlookers. After some discussion, the crowd suddenly erupted into chuckles and a balding old monk assured her, "No problem. No problem". He miraculously produced a stylish and sophisticated cell phone from somewhere deep inside his draping orange robes. This was clearly a 21st century Buddhist.
The spectators visibly relaxed. A few kept chuckling and staring. Everyone seemed to be stifling smiles and laughter. Thrust uncomfortably into the center of attention wondering what would happen next, the mammatjes just stood and smiled back. Within minutes, the whine of a siren could be heard in the distance. The mammatjes exchanged glances, was this intended for us ? It kept growing louder and louder, until it became a deafening wale sending any nearby monks or children not currently staring at the mammatjes running out to see what the two little women were up to.
"Godverdomme," muttered Emmy under her breath and with that, an Ambulance burst into the scene knocking over a tree as the local Ao Nang emergency team heroically leapt into the monastery. With blaring sirens and red lights flickering against the orange robes and golden stupas, two paramedics jumped to the rescue, threw together a stretcher, and rushed to the two stunned mammatjes. Unable to contain themselves any longer, the monks burst into a knee slapping, belly aching, gut-laughter.
Despite Chris' protests, the paramedics forced her into the stretcher and asked her if everything was all right.
"I've got a sun burn on my feet," Chris tried to explain.
"BAD...SUN...BURN...ON...FEET," Emmy translated.
The monks roared with delight.
With gallant swiftness, not sure exactly who or what the emergency was about, the two blushing mammatjes were swept inside and the driver gunned the accelerator. The ambulance lurched and bellowed to disentagle itself from the fallen tree as children, villagers, and holy men hooted and hollered with approval. Finally, the ambulance set off down the street in a frenzy of sirens, lights, and laughing monks. The whole monastery was there to see them off with a wave.
Minutes later, they were in a hospital patiently trying to explain to the nurses and doctors that Chis' feet were sun burned. From what I understand, the staff there was extremely helpful and professional in caring for Katlijn's mom, but I'm guessing they snickered privately to each other when they weren't around. The monks, it turned out, were fully aware that ambulance rides in Thailand are free of charge.
They say that in Thai culture, nothing is worth doing if it doesn't contain an element of fun, be it extorting tourists, kickboxing, or helping two little sun-burned ladies. Though well hidden beneath the tourist industry's thick veneer, I give the mammatjes full credit for finally finding Thailand's smile.
Full moon parties rank right up there with Phuket's hookers, government coups, and excessive anti-drug crackdowns as a Thailand trademark. In fact, the current Thai parliamentary installment is actually trying to provide certified legal protection over full moon parties in what they believe is a patentable concept: tens of thousands of wasted backpackers smoking in, drinking down, and shooting up copious quantities and varieties of illegal substances sold to them by crooked cops and jaded boatmen. The "full moon party" (TM) has become so wildly popular that there are now new moon, quarter moon, and half moon variations on the theme. Furthermore, these parties are no longer limited to their original home on Ko Pha Ngan, but are now being copied on all of Thai's karsty paradises: from the Gulf of Thailand to the Andaman sea. We have talked to a number of [mostly Aussie] backpackers who attend this sort of event and while their foggy recollections between intermittent blackouts probably won't hold up in the court of law, the verdict is in that this is definitely an event not to be missed.
On the night of the Rayleigh beach full moon party, Katlijn and I left the mammatjes giggling in their luxury room, and joined a couple of curious party-goers on our side of paradise to go visit the others living in a creepy jungle bungalow sprawl. As our boatman rounded the rocky outcrop serving as a natural boundary segregating the decent folk from the crusty layabouts, we fully expected to see the dubious beach property crowded with the bronzed bodies of intoxicated Aussie mountain climbing beach bums indulging in a raucous night of illegal debauchery. Instead, what we saw can only be described as South East Asia's biggest dud: in place of the pounding psychedelic trance of a massive moonlit rave, a single bamboo hut was selling discount Foster's beer to a few drunken backpackers sitting cross-legged on the beach lighting homemade firecrackers. These guys could clearly take a few lessons from the mammatjes who were wisely drinking cocktails in the comforts of our side of paradise.
After hanging out at the bar drinking VB from a stubby holder and having a sadly civilized conversation with a Calgarian oil rig worker and a British yacht manager, we officially declared Raileigh's full-moon party a bust and tried to find our way back to go party with the mammatjes. We asked the nearest cooly the cost for a ride home, then watched as his lips slowly morphed into an all-too-familiar smug grin. In that instant, everything was suddenly made clear to us: Rayleigh's so-called full moon party was organized by the boatmen mafia.
The extortionate rate he quoted briefly brought out the little mad people living deep inside both of us. We adamantly refused. We stormed up and down the beach looking for a better deal. We even sat down beside them and started ranting:
"Thailand stinks ! I had no idea they had you in mind when they called your country the 'land of smiles' ! We got better treatment in India ! And by the way, your king's a phony and we are so on to your 'chicken island' scam !"
Unfortunately, not even slandering their beloved king phased these boatmen. They were professionals. Defeated at last, we payed up and let them take us on a five minute boat ride back to the other side. We found out later that our Calgarian and British friends, in a mediocre discount beer-inspired act of martyrdom, actually swam back around the rocky outcrop in the dark rather then succumb to the mafia's demands. Their brave act of shear stupidity in the face of blatant corruption earned them both a drink from us the next evening.
Bird's eye view of Rayleigh from a nearby hiking area.
While Raileigh and its surroundings definitely constitute one of the world's great scenic beach paradises, complete with gorgeous snorkeling opportunities, jungle hikes, and dirt cheap Thai food three times daily, its full-moon dud and our various experiences with the boatmen weren't doing much to slow the growth of my Thai cynicism. It was time to move on.
We visited nearby Ko Phi Phi island by speedboat as part of an incredible tropical snorkeling tour.
Phuket (pronounced "pooh-kett") may seem to you like an odd destination for a jaded traveler weary of Thailand's shady tourist industry. But Emmy and I firmly believed that, like a bad sun burn and forcing down a spicy hot bowl of green chili curry, a trip to South Thailand is not complete without enduring the obligatory visit to Phuket.
Las Vegas, jet skis, and loud obnoxious Aussies: three things that, by themselves, would give the average holiday traveler second thoughts about leaving the comforts of home. But put them together, and you've got Phuket. It is like hell in Asia, but full of Western tourists. While Katlijn endured one of the most feared of awkward situations (walking through an Asian red light district with your mother), I decided this was as good a time as any to attend a Thai boxing event.
Thai boxing, or Muay Thai, is the national sport of Thailand. I am using the word "sport" liberally here, as most sports I know have actual rules. In Western boxing, you are allowed only two points of contact (your two fists). Most sport-oriented martial art techniques emphasize four points of contact (your two fists and your two feet). However, Muay Thai is referred to as the "science of the eight limbs" as all possibilities including the hands, shins, elbows, and knees are allowed. In fact, punches and kicks are mostly used just to soften the opponent: the match is decided by landing knee thrusts and well-placed elbows. It is, perhaps, the most violent spectacle I had ever seen.
Needless to say, there were a lot of loud Aussies present at the Phuket arena that night. Presumably the organizers had predicted this and invited an Aussie boxer to participate. He was naturally pitted against a British boxer to help rile up the crowd (I guess they couldn't find a Kiwi).
"Aussie ! Aussie ! Aussie !" screamed the Thai commentator into the megaphone.
In lumbered the crowd favourite: A massive towering Aussie beast with his fists high in the air and a psychotic expressionless mug. He looked like a killer on the loose; a convict that should be doing jail time but was instead reducing his sentence with some sort of sadistic community service in a twisted Phuket social initiative.
"Oi ! Oi ! Oi !" screamed back a crowd of beer swelling Aussies, their enthusiastic blood lust proudly on display.
In crept his opponent: possibly the world's nerdiest-looking kick boxer. I think the mammatjes could have taken him. He looked like Harry Potter in a pair of tatty boxers. To the raucous chants of "Aussie ! Aussie ! Aussie ! Oi ! Oi ! Oi! ", the scrawny pugilist was positively green with fear.
The pre-match Muay Thai traditional dance lasted longer than the fight itself. For one minute, parents covered their children's eyes as Harry Potter endured a senseless beating at the hands of a ruthless Aussie brute. By the end of the first round, the previously unruly crowd was watching in a stunned silence, not quite knowing how to react. Perhaps sensing the odd stillness in the arena, the referees mercifully ended the fight and poor old Harry was carried off to fight another day.
Needless to say, this experience did not do much to counter my ever growing cynicism of all things Thai. I announced to the others that I had endured enough. We had "done" Phuket, and thankfully, will never again feel any need to return. Katlijn couldn't agree more and we set off to the city of "Phang Nga", a place that was described in our tour books as "unattractive" and even a careful reading of their review revealed no redeeming qualities. Surely, we could escape the Aussies here.
After our Bridge on the River Kwai experience, it was clear to me that perhaps the only way to halt my rapidly growing cynicism of Thailand was to change scenes entirely. The next day, we booked a flight to a place called "Rayleigh", and left for Thailand's much vaunted beaches.
Rayleigh beach was our home for the next five days. It consists of gorgeous stretches of white sand beaches and turquoise waters nestled between looming limestone cliffs.
Within hours of our plane touching down, we were swindled by a taxi driver, hoodwinked by a travel agent, and ripped off by a smug boatman who brought us to within swimming distance of Rayleigh beach. By late afternoon, Katlijn and I were still wading through slippery rock-strewn waters while heaving the mammatjes' monstrous suit-cases to our piece of paradise. A long search for budget accommodation resulted in the sad realization that Thailand's backpackers were being priced out of the market. While the sublime limestone cliffs and thick jungles relented to the growing consumerism of expensive holiday resorts, budget travellers are segregated into a "backpacker ghetto" of dilapidated huts on a dubious strip of beach property. Access to this ghetto is controlled by a mafia of smug boatmen.
In addition to hosting the wasted backpacker crowd, the ghetto is also the meeting place for hundreds of the world's mountain climbers on pilgrimage to Rayleigh's limestone climbing mecca.
Limestone not only makes for great karst scenery and excellent climbing, it is ideal material for caving.
To the astonished gaze of apathetic Thais and lethargic beach bums, Katlijn's tourist-induced alter-ego (dubbed "The Mad Woman" by Emmy) was still furiously sprinting up and down the beach, evading bronzed bikini-clad crowds, and dragging those massive suitcases through the sand as the sun set over Rayleigh. Miraculously, she discovered one last neighborhood of creepy budget bungalows outside the ghetto, hidden just behind one of Rayleigh's swankiest resorts. After a brief discussion, we contrived the following arrangement: we took the creepy bungalows, the mammatjes took the swanky resort, and we just hung out with them all the time.
Emmy, Katlijn and her mom going native.
By nightfall, we heard what would soon become the familiar sound of the mammatjes giggling in the distance like Indian hotelmen. When we came to investigate, we found what would soon become the familiar sight of two little mammatjes made ridiculously tiny by their own over-sized beds, scantily-dressed and lying in a grotesque display of gluttony, indulging shamelessly in the comfort of the best value hotel room I have ever seen in my life. Their bulging suitcases, it turns out, were largely full of booze.
View from Chris and Emmy's hotel.
The next morning, we sat together with two slightly-hungover mammatjes peering out at our surroundings from their gorgeous patio lookout. While Thailand's tourist hordes, the inevitable scams, and the jaded boatmen was enough to bring out the inner mad-woman in anyone, Raileigh's blanched turquoise cliffs reflecting off the clear turquoise waters, and the white sands contrasting with the deep jungle greens were simply stunning. Thailand, to my surprise, was rather slow to grow on us. Nevertheless, by about the same time we had recovered from our first really bad sunburn, our cynicism had also, somehow, faded away.
But first, the sunburn
I thought it would be fun to rent a couple of kayaks and paddle out to a good snorkel spot at a place called Chicken Island. "You rent kayaks from me. Good price. You get to Chicken Island in thirty minutes", a slippery boatman assured me. With that, we set out into the open sea in search of another piece of paradise.
The mammatjes about to leave Rayleigh for the open seas.
About two hours later, Katlijn and I nearly collapsed in exhaustion on some remote island off the Andaman coast, our arms throbbing in protest. Wondering about their fate, we looked back into the distant waters: the poor mammatjes were but a dot on the horizon. Slowly, the dot grew larger until a kayak, then two paddles, and finally two determined little women could barely be discerned paddling furiously in the distance across the open sea. Muttering incoherently about how they lost sight of land and wanted to go back to Belgium, the mammatjes finally arrived.
Fortunately for us, there were a couple of food stalls on the island (there are food stalls everywhere in Thailand), and a few members of the boat mafia smiling knowingly at our misfortune.
"Is this chicken island ?" I asked the boatman.
"This no chicken island ! Chicken Island thirty minutes further," he replied smugly, not even making an effort to control the onset of his own gut-laughter.
The boats were conveniently full of other tourists, and while it may still have been possible to pay the mafia an extortionate rate for a ride back to the backpacker ghetto, we decided not to bother inquiring. The mammatjes bravely gathered their strength and, full of the wisdom that can only be garnered after a life-time of experience, aimed their small craft at the open sea towards their air-conditioned accommodation waiting for them back in Rayleigh, full of booze. In contrast, Katlijn and I briefly rested our sore limbs and, full of the naive reckless abandon of youth, set out to find the mythical Chicken Island.
After another hour paddling about until our arms had turned into two heavy jelly-like weights, a small lump of land emerged in the distance. After squinting my eyes in the sun and tilting my head to one side, I decided it looked suitably enough like a chicken and declared our quest a complete success. We dawned our snorkel gear and jumped into the water to enjoy ten glorious minutes with the tropical fish before we had to turn around for the long haul back to Rayleigh.
While it took us only a few more hours to kayak back to our bungalows, our arms wouldn't forgive us for days. That evening, we made our ritual visit to the mammatjes only to find two scantily dressed, glutinous, diminutive lobsters nursing their sore limbs and sun-burned bodies with a bottle of pastis, muttering something about going back to Belgium.
"Ik wil naar thuis !"
As Katlijn and I walked back to our bungalows in the dark, we began to worry about both the mental and physical health of the battered mammatjes. Chris had committed the classic blunder of forgetting to put sun-screen on her feet which, exposed in the kayak beneath Thailand's powerful sun, had turned a remarkably unnatural shade of purple. Emmy's legs were afflicted with some, as yet unidentified, form of severe sun rash which looked alarmingly like pictures I once saw of a tropical flesh eating disease. The two of them could be heard through the night giggling maniacally as they drank away the entire contents of their super-sized suitcases: Chris had clearly lost her marbles and Emmy's normally sharp wit had been reduced to juvenile toilet humour.
After a long day, Katlijn and I lay down in the wet heat of our creepy bungalow under the heavy weight of guilt and concern, finally understanding what it must have been like for our mammatjes when we were kids.
Katlijn's mom, Chris, and Chris' childhood friend, Emmy, flew all the way from Belgium to join us on our three week exploration of South Thailand. As they are both Dutch-speaking, mothers, and diminutive in stature, we affectionately referred to them as "the mammatjes" (meaning "little mommies"). For our part, we enjoyed their company immensely. For their part, they let us take the lead and temporarily turned the tables on their former roles as parents.
Chris and Emmy: little people on a big adventure.
Our first days together generally consisted of gorging ourselves on Geert's complimentary buffet breakfasts followed by languishing about in Bangkok's smoggy heat. During this time, we introduced the mammatjes to some of the city's redeeming qualities: Thai food, 200 Baht foot massages, and Starbucks coffee. However, it soon became apparent that getting out of Bangkok as soon as possible was in everyone's best interest.
Statue and the grand palace gold glistening in the heat of the day.
Scenes of the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market.
Our first attempt was to rent an air-conditioned car and visit several nearby attractions including the Bridge on the River Kwai: a site made famous by David Lean's memorable war epic. We caught a ride on the historic "death railroad" while Emmy entertained the local passengers who much appreciated her zany style of humour.
The "death railway", built by laborers and POWs during World War II, provided a vital supply line linking Thailand to Burma where the Japanese waged war against the British Empire. It is estimated that 16,000 allied prisoners and as many as 100,000 labourers died of malnutrition and disease during its construction.
While the bridge does exist, and Alec Guiness unforgettable in his portrayal of the quintessential British officer, the film is otherwise fictional. The real bridge was bombed by the allies along with hundreds of prisoners placed on the bridge as a deterrent by the Japanese. The current structure is a re-construction.
Nowadays, the infamous bridge is a tourist circus and the nearby museum comically inappropriate. Housed in a dingy concrete building is a bizarre assortment of random junk accompanied by uninformative explanations gushing over Japan's engineering genius and their alliance with Thailand during World War II. The best part is the hilarious butchered English which reads like a dramatic war novel written in baby-speak. A ridiculously grizzly exhibit featuring dead body parts floating down the water has the caption "after allied bombing of the bridge, bodies lay about in the river all higgeldy-piggeldy". And after the allies dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, "the city was obliterated in a jiffy". You just can't come up with comedy like that on purpose.In stark contrast to the museum's many grotesque wax exhibits, Katlijn and I found ourselves trying desperately to stifle an uncontrollable gut-laughter and though we left the Bridge on the River Kwai in tears, I am guessing they weren't quite the kind intended by the museum curators.
Andrew and a monk who cares for injured and orphaned tigers at a temple outside Bangkok.