We walk along a grand colonial building in Yangon as the city falls asleep. Me, Jan, and Kim. Yellow lampposts light the quiet streets. Vendors pack up their wares. The Shwedagon Pagoda looms like a bright but distant star.
These are our last moments in Burma; we are leaving before daylight.
We just ate our last dinner at Rangoon Tea House, a hip bar/restaurant that sticks out among the city’s family restaurants and sidewalk eateries.
I ordered nan gyi thoke and milk tea (“cho saint,” the server said matter-of-factly), two parts black tea and one part condensed milk.
Going there reminded me of nights out in Manila, where the shiny hangouts of the middle-class are an oasis from grubby streets, beggars, and sad rickety taxis.
Home is better. More cosmopolitan, a friend once described it.
But I want to stay here.
“I just have one question.”
“Why do you have that on your teeth?” our driver in Bagan asks me.
He opens his mouth, revealing red-stained teeth. He runs a finger over them.
He means my dental braces.
I tell him what they are but I don’t think he understands.
It seems braces are an alien concept for the Burmese. Many of them chew betel nut and spit out the red juice on their yards, on the streets, at bus stops, virtually anywhere.
I explain that braces are for getting straighter teeth.
“Aren’t there people who wear braces in Yangon?” I ask.
He says no and then looks at me like a tourist in awe.
The dog runs ahead of us. I believe this is a horror movie come to life. Abandoned temples and pagodas, the noon sun beating our backs, a faint breeze ruffling the trees.
My head says the dog will lead us to some hidden horror in Bagan. We take a path that cuts across a grassy field. The charred remains of a log fire sit under a tree. Beyond that, a vista of temples and pagodas greets us. The sky is an acrylic blue. The dog wags his tail, proud for leading us to this discovery.
We walk on the grass, among crumbling temples. Nothing happens. Nothing scary to jar our senses.
Just this. A moment to take everything in. I want to remember this until I am 90 years old.
My thoughts drift to my workplace in Manila, my coworkers at lunch, my desk in the windowless office.
The horror, I realize, is missing how beautiful it all is: Burma on a fine day, seemingly isolated from the rest of the world.
“Are you single and ready to mingalaba?” the message says.
This is a pickup line from a Burman. Mingalaba is hello in the local language.
Side fact: The men in Burma wear longyi, skirts tied at the waist. But seeing them in skirts — riding motorbikes, fighting for a spot on the bus, smoking outside dirty buildings — doesn’t strike me as effeminate. It is simply different from what I’m used to seeing.
Skirts or not, they know how to send a Tinder message. Online dating must be rough in Myanmar, where the average internet speed is around 1.5 mbps. Potential online matches in Burma are mostly Caucasian travellers and expats in their 20s or 30s, just like in other backpacker countries.
Surveying the dating pool on Tinder shows Burma is truly opening itself to tourists — something Aung San Suu Kyi wasn’t too keen about in the beginning.
In 2015, 4.68 million tourists visited Burma. The tourism boom has given rise to worries about unsustainable growth, prostitution, and cultural loss.
But for optimists, an open Burma means the country is now ready to mingalaba, after being repressed by a military regime for so long.
It is 8 p.m. in Mandalay. For dinner, we choose to eat at a carinderia by the highway. We saw them selling bags of deep-fried donuts earlier. But more than the promise of hot donuts, we are eating somewhere cheap because we are down to our last kyats. Our next cash run will be in Nyaung Shwe.
Men discuss the day’s events over tea and tobacco. Their eyes follow us as we walk to an empty table. They must think it’s curious we look just like them. Brown skin, black hair.
Buddhist chants from the neighboring monastery mix with loud cheers and sports commentary from the TV, which is tuned in to football, the country’s favorite sport.
We sit down to order. I choose Shan noodles and a thick bean-curd pastry.
I take a photo of all the meals we eat on our trip. This carinderia meal is not an exception, so I raise my phone over the table to get a flatlay.
A girl approaches our table and takes my bowl of noodles.
Did they give me the wrong order?
I look at her, slightly annoyed, only to see her mixing the noodles for me. She must think I don’t know how to eat their food.
Silly me. Maybe she isn’t on Instagram.
“I’m sorry, I don’t Tagalog much,” the Filipino-American says.
It is breakfast in New Bagan. We are in Ostello Bello, the city’s most famous hostel. As expected, three-fourths of the people staying here are white. This is the case in every Southeast Asian hostel I’ve been to. The Asians gravitate towards the Asians.
So far, we have met a group of Vietnamese and a Korean girl. Finally, we see some Filipinos. We exchange hellos and ask them about their trip. They introduce us to a thin guy in glasses. Black hair, brown skin.
“Filipino ka rin ba?”
“Filipino-American,” he says.
Stress on American.
Sometimes I think Westerners think we cannot speak English.
There is something to be said about travelling to a Third World country when you come from another Third World or “developing” country. The scenes are both new and familiar. The people look the same and the problems are similar. The pollution, the bad traffic, the blatant inequality.
Some roads in Yangon took me to Manila.
I have never travelled outside Southeast Asia, so I don’t know the dynamics of being a tourist in a Western City like New York or a rich Asian country like Japan. Will I be treated differently there? Will people give me looks? I overthink and yet I wonder, will I travel to those places with the same ease and — I am ashamed to admit it — superiority as I did traveling here?
But now that I recall Burma, seven months after the fact, I doubt whether I had felt at ease throughout the trip.
I am writing this account in fits and starts. Certain moments jump out at me while I struggle to remember some of the things that happened.
What is clear to me now is Burma had been a great experience, save for a few minor episodes: Fritz being irritable and thus irritating (sorry Fritzie, if you are reading this!), running out of money, filling the blanks in our itinerary along the way.
What stands out in my memory is this: We had just returned to Yangon after a long bus ride from Nyaung Shwe, more than 500 km north of the city. We were taking a taxi to our hostel. A driver refused us in favor of a group of white tourists. Why? We were short on kyats, but we had dollars with us too.
The sun barely peeks through the gray clouds. It’s a chilly morning in Bagan because it rained yesterday. We woke up early to catch the sunrise on top of Lowka Ou Shang. Fritz declined our invitation; she is snoring at our dorm room at the hostel.
We climb a steep stone staircase to get to the rooftop. At the bottom of the steps, a man lights our path with a flashlight so we can see our way up. Next to him is a little girl, probably his daughter.
We find four people already there, three of them Filipinos. I watch them set up a GoPro camera to capture a timelapse of the sunrise. The sunrise that isn’t exactly there. Minutes pass and the clouds remain somewhat overcast, slightly tinged with orange. I listen in on the Filipinos’ conversation. Hearing them talk breaks the illusion I’m hundreds of miles away. So I join Kim and Jan on the other side of the roof, along the parapet. They take pictures. The other person on the roof, a Burmese man who I first thought was a tourist, hovers nearby. I feel him watching us. Later he lays the contents of his backpack on the floor: sheets of “authentic” sand paintings. We take photos of the landscape as it continues to get light, the sky steadily brightening.
We descend the temple before the man sells us the paintings. Below, a couple feet away from a stone Buddha, is the little girl.
She approaches us and asks, “Do you have present for me?”
My mom tells me via Facebook our cat Heisenberg, who I call Mama Cat, has died. I receive the news under a tree at the courtyard of Ananda Temple, the most beautiful structure I have seen in Bagan. Oddly, there’s free wifi in this place of worship, which I imagine was trod on by kings and noblemen thousands of years ago.
The stone floor is too hot to walk on, so we rest under the tree. Lying on my back, I think of my cat who, days earlier, was fighting to live. She was skin and bones the last time I saw her. She left behind a kitten who was born with one eye slightly closed.
I’ve always feared receiving bad news when I am away from home. Next time it could be a friend or a family member and I wouldn’t know what to do.
The bus speeds along the dark road. I can’t see anything out the window. I sit beside Fritz, who talks about work, Paris, writing, her girlfriend. I talk about work, Elliot, writing, future plans. We speak in Tagalog and English. At the seat across ours is a white guy reading. I’m worried we’re being too loud.
I notice the stench that Fritz complained about is gone.
The guy’s seatmate has moved to the front. He smells like he’s sweated through his already sweaty clothes, worn five different times.
Here is a lesson on packing light.
Bring one set of sleepwear, but never scrimp on underwear. Go braless when you can. But be modest: Cover your chest with a scarf. Stock up on garterized pants patterned with elephants even if it makes you look like a Tourist. Don’t repeat your clothes if your nose scrunches up in disgust. Throw in an extra pair of socks, just in case.
Back in Manila, I constantly think of Burma. I return to my routine: losing a good part of my day to my commute and my desk job, eating too much, wasting time online, and waiting for the weekend to arrive. I miss spending full days with my friends.
Someone asks me how my vacation went.
Is it a vacation if you slept on the airport floor, repeated your clothes, threw away the chance to see Mandalay Hill because you’re too stingy to rent a foot locker?
It was the most difficult “vacation” I’ve had so far, but it was well worth it. I know I will never do this trip again–eight crazy days across the Golden Kite Trail.
I had desired to see Burma and I did it. My chest soars when I think about it now.
Later, I pick up “Burmese Days” by George Orwell. It brings me back to the country: the pleasant faces, the broken English, the rickshaws, the men in skirts.
I reach the end of the book and a heaviness, a certain sadness, sets in.
The woman smokes a joint on the rooftop of the Shwesandaw Pagoda. Her legs dangle in front of her, like a baby on a highchair. She talks animatedly to her girl friend. A monk and a little boy climb the stairs and pass the smoker. They join the throng of tourists waiting for the sunset.
Drums signal a religious procession below. The plain of temples is washed in gold. We marvel at the scene, clutching our cameras, and wait for the sun to descend.
A cult of sunset watchers, this is the biggest party in Bagan. Everyone is welcome to join.
The sunset, however, dupes us. It slips past quietly, behind a thick veil of clouds.