Getting off the plane, the men are wearing sarong skirts with collared shirts and the women are covered in Thanaka face paint and everyone speaks impeccable English. It felt like a National Geographic twilight zone to be hit with so much culture and to be able to communicate flawlessly. English being everyone’s second language is impeding on my ability to be funny and it is starting to get me – I miss that quick witted mother of mine and over a glass of wine. Myanmar is a British colony so they speak a lot of English here and everyone is incredibly educated if that is not too condescending forme to say.
Yangon was our first stop – I won’t bother describing the Shwedagon Pagoda, it was too unbelievable. A girl there painted Thanaka on my face while we spoke with a monk who had an astonishing amount of ear hair. I would have thought that ear hair would fall under the category of shaving your head every day. Anyways, Thanaka is a light muddy-chalk think
that girls put on their face and arms as makeup and to protect themselves from the sun. Daily face and body paint makeup, day one and I was already enthralled with Myanmar.
Next we headed to Bagan where we were greeted by a horse-drawn carriage and continued to visit some of the 2,500 temples in the area. It was better than Angkor Wat in Cambodia because there are few tourists and each temple is managed by a family who are essentially giving you a tour of their 11th century home. Just as we were thinking that temple #1,276 was looking similar to temple #973 we
revelled in the attention of a busload of Myanmar villagers who had come to Bagan and had never seen a foreigner. Two dozen photos with strangers and my attention span held strong – “you want me to hold your child? No problem. Smile!” I was entirely charmed by the tea shops and slow pace of life in Bagan. At night there were people in the streets singing and playing instruments, making me wonder if their government had the right idea in blocking YouTube.
Alas, we were off to Mandalay where I got moody because I didn’t want to be in a city of 6 million people, but it was my transfer point to go trekking. Chella left back to Bangkok from here and I went to see a performance by the Moustache Trio who are a famous example of human rights abuse in Myanmar. One of the comedians went to prison for making jokes the government didn’t like – then he was mentioned on the film About a Boy and he was released.
After a performance by the Moustache Trio, my highlight of Mandalay was my bicycle taxi driver with whom I had tea and chapatti with. In most countries conversations with the locals result in awkward (and fake, very fake) laughter as we struggle to understand each other. It was a treat to be able to communicate with a local. Only in Myanmar, the people are so kind that a taxi driver with 6 children would absolutely refuse to let me pay for the tea. Our horse carriage driver in Bagan also took us to the bus station free of charge because we were “friends now.” It really makes Thailand look like a commercial crockpot.
Then I headed to Hsipaw, a small city in some very steep hills. Hills that doubled back and forth enough to make many people on the bus vomit. I went on a 2 day trek to a village of 1,000. I was not too pleased with our first day of trekking. It involved a 4 hour hill climb in the desert sun with a guide who I am certain was racing us to the top. Everyone was too sweaty and beat down to talk to each other during the hike but at least my sarcastic thoughts are usually at my best when I am tediously frustrated.
We ate some incredible food and slept in a village of 1000 people. At first I was disappointed that the village wasn’t more primitive but it was great to see a self-sustaining and content village in contrast to nearby ones we walked through the following day. Day 2 of trekking involved a village wedding and a lot of rice whisky. It was an incredible experience not just to see the wedding, but we were invited to participate in eating, drinking and watching the vows.
The final town I went to was Pyin U Lwin where I saw giant caves and military bases. Their Defense Academy sign boasts “The Triumphant Elite of the Future.” The caves were more humble with Buddha statues and monks inside. One of the monk’s bought me lunch and I am fairly certain he was flirting with me because he touched my arm when he laughed at my jokes that I know he didn’t understand.