[Anecdotes from my travels in Kachin State, Myanmar. January 2012]A Night at The Mahabandoola
As the airplane made its final approach towards Yangon, I sat looking out the window and watched the sun set over Burma, a giant ruby the color of blood disappearing at the edge of the Earth. The endless plains and river delta still glowed through the haze a while longer, and the soft light flooding the cabin was warm and welcoming.
By the time I left the airport it was nighttime, and an abnormally large full moon hung low on the horizon, illuminating my way into the city. I told the taxi driver I was flying north to Myitkyina tomorrow, and he said that that area was currently closed to foreigners. This would be my introduction to the quality of information in Myanmar - never completely accurate, never exactly false, and always weighed down with uncertainty, like a message received on a broken telephone.
We arrived in downtown Yangon, and the taxi driver dropped me off at the Golden Smiles Inn. Here I had my first lesson on the supply and demand of guest beds in the middle of peak tourist season. 'Hello, do you have a reservation?' (reservations? ...while backpacking? ...at a guesthouse?). Apparently no reservation meant no room, so I left in search of other lodging. Outside, the streets were dark and quiet. A few men in longyis still walked the sidewalks, but otherwise the night seemed to be past Burmese bedtime.
I began retracing the taxi's route to another guesthouse I saw on the way. Taking a shortcut through a narrow alleyway, I admired the old colonial-era buildings rising up above my head. In the darkness I could still discern their faded colors and imagine the vibrant appearance they must have had a century ago. But today, they were in a state of complete neglect. Visiting Yangon was not exactly visiting a place stuck in time (as some friends had described it). It was more like going back in time to a city of the past, and then bringing it forward to the present, traveling through decades of little upkeep and plenty decay.
I reached the Okinawa Guest House, only to replay my previous attempt. 'Reservation?' No. 'We're full'. Up the alley was the Garden Guest House, and again, no dice. I finally got lucky at the Mahabandoola, whose description in the guidebook was "It's cheap. The End."
Myitkyina & The Festival That Never Was
It was early in the morning, but the air was already unpleasantly warm and weighed down and humid. I could see the propeller plane waiting outside on the tarmac, waiting to fly us north into isolated areas in an isolated land. Checking in had been no problem. There was nothing to suggest that foreigners were currently prohibited in the far north. So the travel warning of yesterday's taxi driver had proved to be false... for now.
The flight up was reminiscent of a golden era of travel I never lived through - stunning air hostesses, impeccable service, tasty sandwiches, and refreshments served on trays. I sat looking out the window, hypnotized by the spinning propeller. Far below stretched endless plains intersected by winding rivers. Occasional mountain ridges wrinkled and creased the terrain, offering texture to an otherwise uniform landscape. And then I'd see a small settlement and wonder what was happening there now. This was still a country I had yet to understand; I had barely been here for less than a day.
Back on ground, I stepped off the airplane and into invigorating, brisk air. The day was sunny but cool - perfect weather to satisfy my Goldilocks streak. I turned to snap a photo of the plane, but an airport official immediately intervened, telling me it was not allowed. He ushered me into the quaint little airport terminal, where an 'immigrations officer' asked me my name, nationality, and occupation, where I was coming from, how long I was staying, and where I'd go next. As a 'foreign independent traveler', there'd be no chance to completely go off the grid. The government of Myanmar would be following my every move, especially this far north.
I rushed into town, hoping to catch the afternoon half of the Kachin Manau Festival, a giant celebration and multicolor gathering of ethnic tribes that happens only once a year (and the main reason why I was in Myitkyina, of all places, on this particular day). But while checking in to the YMCA, I learned from a Frenchman named Jacques that today I'd find the festival grounds empty. Due to recent skirmishes between the Tatmadaw (the Myanmar Armed Forces) and Kachin rebels, the festival had been canceled. Great. But on the bright side, I'd still be able to enjoy the two-day boat ride from Myitkyina south to Mandalay, right? Apparently not... there was more rebel fighting south of us and near the river, so no foreigners were allowed to leave Myitkyina by boat. Well how about boarding at Bhamo, the next town down on the river? Impossible- access to Bhamo by land had been cut off. Well what about....
I gave up, and went for a walk.
I followed train tracks in the shade of lofty trees. I explored the market, squeezing through merchants and their wares. And I walked on the banks of the Irrawaddy, my first glimpse of this spectacular river. But the entire time I was mainly looking at the people... the diversity of looks here was astonishing. Beyond the expected ethnic Burmese, I saw signs of Chinese ancestry, faces with Indian features, and old men with beards imported from the Middle East. Walking around town I also saw that every major religion (save for Judaism) was represented. There were Buddhist pagodas, Muslim mosques, Hindu temples, and thanks to missionaries who apparently leave no stone unturned, Christian churches.
And everybody was friendly.
The Burmese really are an incredible people. A smile waits everywhere you look, or giggles if you try your best and greet them with a 'mingalaba!'. Those who spoke English well were quick to seize the opportunity of chatting with a foreigner, and would invite you to a cup of lepeyi (tea with condensed milk) or a beer. I spent the rest of that afternoon chatting with one Muslim man and his family and friends.
Before leaving, I tried to pay for my beer, but the man insisted that even though he was poor, I was the visitor in his country, and not the other way around, and therefore I owed him nothing. And it was like this with everyone I met. I can still remember the phrase he taught me that day. 'Saga pyaw-lo kaun ba-deh'... it was a pleasure speaking with you.
On the way back to the YMCA I stopped at the fire station and climbed a tall watchtower. The wooden stairs were old and creaky and rotting in places, but I made it up safely to enjoy magic hour and spectacular views of Myitkyina, the Irrawaddy river, and the mountains beyond.
Malikha, Maykha, & The Irrawaddy
Back on the road!
Rented some Chinese piece of shit motorbike that was kid-sized and had no suspension, but it took me the forty-odd kilometers north to Myitsone, the confluence point of the Malikha and Maykha rivers. One river brought echoes of yetis roaring in the snowy Himalayas; the other brought whispers from Chinese ghosts. And so they merged with the tiniest bit of turbulence, giving muted birth to the extensive Irrawaddy, and then flowing south to the Andaman Sea.
All was calm and quiet. There was a pagoda on the upper bank of the river, and the only thing to pierce the dense silence was a Buddhist monk striking the gongs. Down by the water I spoke with a man who agreed to take me for a ride on his boat. We navigated up the Maykha, pushing up against the current, until the we reached a gold mining operation. The men working there were making an absolute mess of the river bank, but seemed intent on finding their reward.
Driving back to Myitkyina, I stumbled upon a giant python slithering across the road. It must have been over ten feet long and thicker than my leg, but it was moving quite slowly. So I stopped and got off the motorbike, and just as it was about to disappear into the brush on the other side, I grabbed the end of its tail and gave it a good squeeze and ran away.
Travel, Travails, and the Cake at The End
It was six in the morning, and the streets of Myitkyina were coming to life. I made my way to the train station, as children were shuffling lazily to school, women were setting up shop on the sidewalk, and men were sitting in teahouses reading the newspaper and chatting away. An old woman selling fruit flashed me the nicest smile when I looked her way, so I walked over and bought half a dozen oranges for the train ride ahead. ‘Beh-lauq-leh?’ I asked. How much? ‘Nga-ya’ she replied, still smiling. Five hundred kyat.
The first few minutes at the train station were a futile exercise in doing everything by myself. I tried making sense of a timetable in written Burmese, but the sequences of circles, half-circles, and tiny squiggles resisted all interpretation. I would’ve had a better chance at deciphering glyphs in Giza. So I gave up and began aimlessly repeating the name of my destination instead. Eventually one man understood the gist of my situation, and led me to the office of the ticketmaster. This man did speak a little English, and after showing him my passport and visa, and answering the usual questions – where I was going, how long I’d stay there, and where I’d go next – I got my ticket, and went to wait on the platform.
For four and a half hours I sat looking out the window, riding through idyllic scenes in valleys, surrounded by fields and cattle and huts and farmers and oxen and ox carts. Everywhere looked like a postcard from the past- not a billboard or neon sign (or anything plastic or concrete) in sight. For a while I chatted with a French Canadian who was visiting Burma for his third time. He was into Buddhism and meditation, and spoke about the interface between matter and mind. Clearly on another level.
Around noon I arrived in the first town, found a taxi pickup truck heading to the next town, and almost resumed my journey before a police officer saw me in the back and stopped the truck. He spoke with the driver for about a minute, and then the driver got out, threw my backpack back on the road, and booted me off the truck. Great. The driver didn’t speak English, the police officer didn’t speak English, but I still had an idea of what was going on. After all, I was trying to reach a place that was supposedly closed to foreigners. (Supposedly).
And so the driver drove off with the rest of the passengers, the police officer lost interest in me and left, and I went to sit on the sidewalk to wait. Wait for exactly what, I’m not sure. Maybe for something else to happen, for the situation to resolve itself somehow. I’ve never liked tackling problems at once anyway; sometimes it’s best to let them sit and breathe. And well enough, after a short wait another man on a motorbike appeared. He spoke a little English and asked for my passport and I gave it to him, and then he disappeared.
So I waited some more. I shared an orange with the old man sitting next to me, and tried not to think about lost passports. I stretched, bought more oranges, and continued waiting. Eventually the man on a motorbike reappeared, having made photocopies of my passport and visa. Was he an ‘immigrations officer’, but not wearing his uniform? Was he the only man in town who could speak English? Or was he secret police? Who knows. Either way, the man returned my passport, asked The Usual Questions, and put me on the next taxi pickup truck, which unfortunately didn’t leave for another two hours.
When we finally did get moving, I was already praying for the driver to stop. It was the roughest, most painful three hour pickup truck ride of my life. The back of the truck had been outfitted with metal benches, but sitting on these amplified the impact of driving over bumps and into potholes. So I went standing the entire way instead, legs flexed to cushion the blows. Exhausted, back aching, and starting to feel sick, I couldn’t wait to end this day’s journey and collapse on a bed.
That night, I realized the full day of traveling had been worth it. The place I was in could barely be called a town. There was a group of thatched huts on the shores of a lake, and a couple more on the other side of the road. I was staying in a charming little guesthouse on the water, with incredible views of the lake and mountains beyond. It was a simple place, with an outhouse for a bathroom, and electricity only two hours a day. Outside, I could only hear the insects chirping, and up above, the night sky was full of shining stars.
I fell asleep with a deep sense of well-being and peace.
Somehow, I had stumbled into a dream.
Stunned by Beauty; At a Loss for Words
I’m sitting at a table on the veranda of the guesthouse, facing towards the lake. It’s a beautiful sunny day. The water is calm, reflecting the perfect blue dome above. There are some women bathing by the lake. Everything is quiet. It’s hard to put all of this into words. But I know it’s been a good place to arrive sick and rest and recover. And slide into a slower, and simpler, way of life.
After two relaxing days by the lake and feeling healthy again, I continued traveling south, bypassing the conflict zones near Bhamo, and finally arriving in Katha (George Orwell’s old stomping grounds), where I’d finally be allowed to board the slow-boat going further south to Mandalay.
The Irrawaddy Cruise
Part I - Waiting, & The Cold Night
I was sitting by the river waiting for the boat to come. Three o’clock became four o’clock, and four o’clock became five. And then I watched the sky turn various hues of deep reds and purples, and it became night. Beside me, a deaf-mute was busy rolling cigarillos and preparing betel nuts in their leaf wrappings. He tried communicating with me once, but it was of little use. I smiled back and politely refused the betel nuts he kept thrusting at me on an open palm.
The slow boat finally arrived at half past seven, and another foreigner on board explained the delay. A thick white fog in the early morning had brought visibility down to nil, and the captain had had no choice but to bring the ferry to a halt and drop anchor and wait. Unbeknownst to us at the time, this very fog would continue to delay our river-borne journey south.
I boarded the slow-boat and found my way to the lower deck, where I’d be sleeping that night. This was essentially an open-air communal area, where lines painted on the cold metal floor crisscrossed and divided the surface into a hundred human-sized rectangles, and in each of these rectangles a person would sleep. Two squiggly lines on my ticket (numbers, in Burmese) corresponded to a particular rectangle, which was wedged in between two other rectangles, and the two Burmese persons occupying them. I opted for a larger empty space near the railing, which no one else seemed to want. (Later I realized it was better to have a spot in the middle of the deck, which was directly over the engine room, and thus a warmer surface to sleep on). But for now I unrolled the bamboo mat I had bought that day, put my backpack in a corner, and pulled out my book with only a chapter left to read.
That night I stayed up as late as I could, hoping that with the added exhaustion, I’d get a better night's sleep. I hung out on the upper deck and under the starry night sky, exchanging short phrases with three other Burmese men, and sharing a bottle of whiskey to stay warm.
Part II - The Man in Pain
The following morning I woke to the sounds of a man moaning in pain. He was lying at the back of the boat, covered in ten blankets, and with all life drained from his face. I didn't know what ailed him, but whatever it was, I had a feeling I could help. I just needed to understand what the problem was, take out my comprehensive medicine kit, and find The Pill That He Needed.
But it wouldn’t be that simple; this whole situation was well beyond the use of hand gestures, and there was no chance this man or anyone around spoke a word of English. So I pulled out a Burmese-English phrasebook and spent ten minutes preparing what I’d try to say. I underlined important words and phrases, and dog-eared a couple pages for quick reference. And finally feeling ready, I said ‘here we go’ and approached The Helper who was taking care of the Man in Pain.
“Ka-mya,” (Excuse me,)
The Helper turned to me, slightly confused.
“Cănaw… s’ăya-wun, caùn-dhà.” (Me… doctor, student.)
Technically I studied Economics and now taught English, but what the hell. The Helper seemed to be slightly interested in what I had to say. I gestured towards the Man in Pain,
“Ba p’yiq-ta-leh”? (What’s the matter?)
At this point I handed over the Burmese-English phrasebook, open to a page that listed a number of possible illnesses and ailments: headaches, the flu, diarrhea, etc. I gestured to The Helper to read this page and point out which was afflicting the Man in Pain. He spent a minute going through the list, but none seemed to register. He then started leafing through the other pages, but I gestured to him that he’d find nothing in the rest of the book. We had reached a dead end. But then The Helper seemed to have an idea. I could see he was trying to say something, trying to find a way to get it out. And eventually he raised his arms, pretended to hold an imaginary rifle, and fired off a couple imaginary shots.
Damn. The Man in Pain had been shot.
No wonder The Helper couldn’t find the right words in the Burmese-English phrasebook; the term ‘bullet wound’ was inconveniently missing. And then it dawned on me that these men were probably soldiers. I picked up the phrasebook and flipped to the section on occupations. I asked The Helper,
So these men were part of Tatmadaw, the Myanmar Armed Forces, and technically the bad guys (if you see the world in black and white). But at that moment I was just trying to keep up with this unexpected turn of events. OK, so the Man in Pain had a bullet wound. I gestured to The Helper to show me where the bullet wound was, and he pointed at his thigh, and then his ankle. OK, the Man in Pain had TWO bullet wounds. At this point I still had no idea what I could do to help him, so I went back to the phrasebook to look up new words and get more information. I asked The Helper,
He shook his head. Good. I looked for the next word.
He shook his head again. Great. One last word to check.
And this time his eyes lit up and he nodded, and the meaning was clear – “Yes, yes, yes!”
So I had confirmed the obvious: the Man in Pain was in pain. But I now knew enough to choose a course of action. I went back to my backpack and fished around in the medicine kit until I found The Pill That He Needed – ibuprofen. In a small zip-lock bag I poured in about two-dozen caplets, and then I tore out a blank page from my notebook, and using the Burmese-English phrasebook again, carefully wrote out the man’s prescription in written Burmese. Four pills every four hours- that should do the trick. And so I handed The Helper this written prescription and the zip-lock bag full of pills, but I could tell he was still unsure about what was happening. He looked at the pills, and then at me. “Na-meh?” he asked.
Na-meh? Oh, the medicine’s name. “Ibuprofen,” I said to him, and also wrote it down on the prescription. And with this, he finally seemed reassured. “Cèzù-tin-badeh,” he said, looking at me. “Thank you.” I had nothing left to say, so I just smiled, and went to the upper deck to breathe some fresh air and try to let the reality of this strange experience finally sink in.
As I left, I saw The Helper already searching for water so that the Man in Pain could swallow his first four pills.
The Man in Pain was in much better spirits later that morning. He was sitting up against the railing, no longer covered in blankets. The ibuprofen definitely helped, further proof being that he asked me for more pills the next day. Later on I concluded that the two bullets must have still been in his leg, and that the cold of the metal was causing him discomfort. He seemed to be in most pain late at night or early in the morning, when temperatures dropped.
Just to give some more background information, this soldier was probably coming from one of the conflict zones in the north, where the Myanmar Armed Forces often have shootouts with the Kachin Independence Army. The Kachins are one of many ethnic groups in Burma that have been fighting for sovereignty ever since Burma became independent from the United Kingdom in 1948. So the Man in Pain must have been wounded in a skirmish with rebels up north, and he was en route to the nearest medical attention - two days away by boat.
In the end, it was an incredible experience to go through, and a highlight of my visit in Burma. The Man in Pain and The Helper and some other soldiers took me in as part of their group for the rest of the boat ride, sharing their food and instant coffee with me, and lending me a blanket on the second night when it got very cold. I tried not to think too much about how they were Myanmar Armed Forces, and instead I was just happy to have lessened another man's pain.
Part III - The White Plague
The second night we were beset by a plague of ghostly white insects. They appeared with a great suddenness and out of nowhere… an act of creation by some nameless, sinister god. The infernal creatures filled the air so that no man nor woman nor child could breathe. We all cowered under dusty blankets, trying to protect ourselves from the saturated madness circling above our heads. Then the insects began dying and falling dead upon the deck in the hundreds and thousands, creating a fluffy and disgusting white carpet all around us, as if their last wish had been to torment us, and having accomplished this, crossed over to the void.
The air remained rank and unpleasant long after they all died, and in the morning their fallen bodies and motionless wings told us it had not been a collective hallucination.
Burma, a set on Flickr.
Burmese Portraits, a set on Flickr.