by Marc Esanuelas
One night several years ago, a Canadian teetotaler I’d met only an hour previously invited me to accompany her to Burma. Her name was Kat. Although I knew exactly where to find Burma on a map – all I could visualize was a giant question mark. In between the numerous gin & tonics I was drinking in lieu of anti-malaria medication, we hatched a plan to rendez-vous in Bangkok after our respective trips to Laos and Cambodia.
A quick aside, many will gleefully correct you to Myanmar, in which case you may snicker at their smugness and grin politely. The British named it Burma after conquering it while the military junta that locked up Aung San Suu Kyi (who was elected by the Burmese people) renamed the country Myanmar. Both names have arguments for and against their use but either way it’s a Catch-22 so pick who you want to legitimize.
We reconvened in Bangkok a week or so later. I stopped by the friendly Thai woman that had been doing my laundry the entire trip. She tied little rings of green string to all of my clothes and pointed at the small packet of detergent I’d brought and asked with a grin, “Is that cocaine?”
She asked where I was going next as she handed me a neatly folded stack of t-shirts that I shoved unceremoniously into a plastic bag. I told her I was headed to Burma and she smiled like the Cheshire Cat and said, “Oh? You not come back.”
A short flight dropped us in the outskirts of Yangon. A female military guard with brazenly hairy legs shuffled us through passport control. I tried to look nonchalant but not knowing exactly how that would appear settled for confused but cooperative. As we emerged from passport control, we were quickly corralled by a driver from our hostel along with a perky Australian and a sullen Romanian. I don’t remember their names because I didn’t like the Australian woman and in turn didn’t like the Romanian woman by association. They were the kind of people that ask you if you’re on Facebook and you say something like, “Oh yes but I’m never on it,” or “Hardly use the thing,” etc.
The minibus drove down wide boulevards lined with palm trees. We rounded a lake upon which a giant, golden boat floated. I smiled broadly at Kat. As we got closer to the city center, it got a lot dirtier until by the time we rolled up to our hostel, our smiles were gone and had been replaced by awkward chuckles.
The hostel was more like a prison. Kat and I were shown to a room that was already occupied by a cloud of mosquitos. Kat’s hand flew to her face as she asked for mosquito repellant to be sprayed. The way she said it made it sound as if the presence of mosquitos represented a moral failing on their part.
We took showers immediately. Kat went first and emerged with hair wet and looking very tense.
“There’s no hot water, prepare yourself,” she said while mopping her head with a towel.
I sighed and soldiered in. I let the water run for a few minutes hoping it would miraculously turn hot. It didn’t. I grumbled for a moment until I noticed a red handle a foot over and above the cold one. I turned it and yelped with excitement as the water turned hot. I bathed luxuriously with my eyes half open like in a shampoo commercial but took care not to swallow a drop for fear of catching cholera. I came out of the bathroom smiling.
“Freezing, right?” said Kat over the dull roar of her blowdryer.
“Did you not see that red handle? RED MEANS HOT! HOT WATER!”
The blowdryer clicked off as she rested it in her lap. She looked crestfallen. The same look you see on someone that hurriedly rushed through a pile of french fries without noticing the ketchup packet hiding behind their soda.
Yangon boasted that it had once been known as “the Paris of the Orient” but sadly those days are long behind it. The city was still recovering from Cyclone Nargis, which had ripped trees from the ground and left thousands dead.
After a day spent idly wandering in search of something to eat that wasn’t fried rice, we decided to visit Schwedagon Pagoda.
Schwedagon Pagoda’s golden stupa dominates the city’s skyline. The complex is home to the relics of four former Buddhas and is Burma’s holiest site. We arrived as day faded into twilight and the place was buzzing with activity. Children played tag amidst the pagodas while elders prayed quietly. Those celebrating birthdays poured water on the deities of their birth. Every so often, a phalanx of women in long skirts wielding brooms would glide across the walkways sweeping in unison. There were Buddha statues everywhere and every one of them sat in front of a swirling disc of LEDs that was meant to evoke the moment of Buddha’s enlightenment.
The top of the largest stupa was crowned with a parasol that’s encrusted with jewels. From the edge of the complex, the parasol’s tint changes from red to green to blue depending on where you stand. The juxtaposition between the decadence of stupas covered in gold and jewels and the poverty beyond was disconcerting but it faded as I realized that this temple belonged to the community. It’s the city’s most sacred site and is used by locals for both commiserating and worship rather than locked up to all but a privileged few.
In Part 2, Kat and I board a bus headed north to tour the famous ruins of Bagan. Once there, we discover the true meaning of “roughing it” and make the acquaintance of a horde of phantom rats.