- Myanmar: Frozen in Time (South-East)
- Myanmar: Washed in Sandstone and Sunshine (Bagan)
- Myanmar: Burmese Days (and the tragedies) (Far North-Myiktkyina)
- Myanmar: Discovering a World Apart (North-East)
The reason people came up to this part of the country was to catch an acclaimed -and elderly- boat, ferrying locals and their goods south to Mandalay. There was one small guesthouse for internationals and it was very steep in my eyes so I wandered and found a monastery. I slept the night outside in a gathering area with a marble floor. Children in their robes came to gather around me with ogling eyes, so curious of this man they’d either never seen or spoken to, at least. We played a while, and I did a bunch of ridiculous hand gestures and basic translations; they laughed at me and my goofy faces (and goofy nose). And after the night got deeper they scattered back to their spaces and I fell asleep on my mat.
In the morning I’d decided to try and hitch as far north as I could. It wasn’t very far! By no great surprise -to me- I was picked up shortly after exiting the small town, by two doctors.
We got to this place where we had to switch from a car to jeep. It was a bit strange that we were shifting vehicles but they assured me there was nothing to worry about. They were very nice men, and very gracious. We drove for nearly two hours, up and down, bouncing like ice cubes in a large, empty bucket. The road was SAVAGE! It took us 90 minutes to travel about 30 km. When we arrived to a village, after passing a small area of brand new housing units in a large field. This was strange? Why were they empty?
At the base of this ‘village’ is a junction where the Mai Kha, another smaller river and the Irrawady meet. In there, the government had decided to use some serious chemicals to alleviate the gold inside -good for the underwater life, right?
Many local men were knee deep in the water with pans trying to find the pieces. This was certainly not the only thing going on up here. But for these men, that was their job, and they were sleeping in a tent set up of long boards, tarp and bamboo, all tied together with no more than cling wrap.
The little village I had passed, to house these hundreds of workers (the ghetto it would become once all the goats and chickens move in as well) was built, apparently as a gift from the Chinese.
We spent a while there, and I walked through this area feeling as miserable as I could, with my jaw on the floor (even hiding tears for the sullen faces). I tried not to notice the garbage, and the mud and the lack of toilets or anything else for that matter. Babies with their mothers sat under these tents, and this little community surely couldn’t have chosen to be there.
On our way back we hit the main road AND the military blockade. From behind the blockade I saw a couple of trucks heading east down a road about 60 km to China. The large trucks with tarps over their hauls were driving on the smoothest road you could imagine. Canada’s most pristine highway. Never had you seen a road so smooth around S.E.A. Never mind the craters we’d driven through to arrive at that ‘village’.
Back in Myitkyina
I took a train to Katha, where Burmese Days was apparently written by Orwell. The boat from Myitkyina was quite expensive all the way back, but if I’d taken a train for a few hours at 3 USD, then I could meet the boat halfway and still jump on for a very different price.
I spent a night with one of the good doctors, despite the directions of a military officer to do otherwise, and then in the morning he drove me to the train station to wave me good bye.
On the train my stomach started up. I knew exactly what it was. The train in Myanmar is an essential experience. When the train started up it started to waddle from side to side. And then, as the goats and chickens and bags of rice flopped about the train skipped up, off the track, in the air, with me in the air as well. When I hit the bench again, the smooth wooden bench, I clenched on for dear life, the fear seen in my eyes, was an unmistakable one. The locals around me found that very funny -I’m sure the goats did too.
My first trip to the toilet was a terrible experience. The door didn’t shut, so I had to use a hand as the train moved, swaggering so much I needed my other hand to hold onto the opposing wall to balance myself. The chemical reaction in my body was a terrible one. There was nothing but a small, rusted hole that I had to hit, perfectly?
The second trip to the toilet, I used my belt to tie the door shut to a very thin pipe running vertically up the ‘bathroom stall’.
A very quiet backwater, with little worth mentioning, but the old officers den where Orwell wrote of an unjust Empire -and a tennis court!. Grown over by large trees, hollow inside but some old wood, remarkably still there, in front of a large, green and grassy field. Unfortunately, I did not get to move around and investigate the area because I spent three days in my bed terribly sick -pissing out my ass- and alone (highly un-recommendable).
On day four the boat arrived. From the boat came many, and many on to it with their rice and goods. Also, two men came off from other parts of the world and one of them was Raf -from Belgium. I went to meet the boat and get my ticket. We met shortly after that as he was taller than everyone around -including me.
We walked to the officers den and around the little village a bit. I had the nostalgic feeling of another time, of great novelist monitoring his surroundings. How it must have been 80 years earlier. Sure, things had not changed, but then, it must have been quite unstable. The locals as slaves, servants and such, wouldn’t have given one a chance to mingle with the local heart, only own over it. Dirty, I’d have felt. Empty. Naive.
Raf and I shared a couple beers, and we picked up a bottle of whiskey for the boat; the man had travelled extensively and was a cracker. It had been a week now, since Jul had left, and it was nice to have someone I could pass the time with talking smack.
Late in the night I’d tried to sleep with a couple of valiums, and after the bottle of whiskey and everyone around me passed out I went to explore the boat. I’d found another small bottle of whiskey from a small stand at the base of the boat. After that,, eyes half open, strolled into a room with three bunks very tightly squeezed together. These were the boat men, we drank together and in some way communicated and laughed, and then an alarm sounded.
The boat hit a sand bank. Because of the time of year, the Irrawaddy was very low, and the risk of sand banks was quite high. And though it didn’t happen all the time, it could. And this time it did -while I was doin shots with the crew.
Stuck on the boat
When I arrived to Mandalay again, I was to take a bus straight to Yangon, pick up my gear at the guesthouse, then stay one night and catch my flight the following day. This boat, stuck in the sand, was not a very good situation for this. And the people around me would have been pretty pissed at me, if they knew I was getting sloppy with the crew right before our ‘accident’.
We spent one night on the boat. Again it was full of valium and whiskey. I was getting very anxious and couldn’t sleep at all. I was hanging over the side of the boat watching the sky, the glowing moon above dug in behind a very light sheet of translucent clouds. A few moments after, or a few minutes or whatever, a couple of dolphins arrived on the scene, glowing in the night, glowing against the water, they stuck their heads out and chilled beside the boat as I stared at them in amazement. Was it real? Others told me it was the valium. I believe otherwise.
In the morning the boat was still not going anywhere, we had to get a bus somehow. It took some bargaining and a lot of complicated back and forth; because we were foreign and the area was restricted, these sorts of things were very tricky. An old man finally set us up with a small boat across a canal, and then to meet a bus and pile in.
The bus was about 9 hours to Mandalay and in the back half it was empty, but for a ton of coal, in bags, and a few empty gas cans. Sounds sexy right? SO yet again it was valium and whiskey and glaring laughs and rooted sleep.
Raf shakes me to get up,
‘We’re in Mandalay,’ he said calmly but earnestly.
I woke up frantic, ‘Huh?’ The fear in my eyes was likely parallel to that when the train hopped off the tracks up north a few days earlier.
I leaped off the bus with my pack so quickly I must have left dust in the air. Out of the bus I grabbed a motor-bike taxi in the same sequence of motions. The bike drove fast, very fast comparatively. We arrived at the bus station and I was still running to catch that bus to Yangon -which was driving away. I waved, and screamed and waved again like a mad, hysteric nut job broken out of Belleview. The bus stopped and I climbed aboard. And slept an unbelievable sleep instantly.
At the bus station with the ten dollar USD note I needed to leave I had little else left but needed to move very, very quickly. I had to leave behind some things at that guesthouse. Nothing too important, but nonetheless, it didn’t have me happy.
‘You’re flight is leaving! You have to go very fast!’
She took my bill, and pushed me through and then I ran for dear life to catch that plane. I didn’t want to see what would happen if I overstayed my 28 days.