Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Burmese Days

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I hadn’t done much reading or planning before I went to Burma. I had a very rough idea of where I’d travel to, but nothing was laid out — these days I don’t even book accommodation. For some reason I thought I’d take a month for Burma, which is far too long. I spent 18 days there in the end.

It was February when I went, a cold and damp month in Beijing. I left the city at night, on my way to the airport, sleet falling on my face, two days after Chinese new year. I remember that I was feeling a little down, for wintry reasons.

Trepidation was accompanying me. The country was an unknown, a chasm only to be filled in by retrospect.

I remember scrubland, cows, and a shimmering heat as my taxi made its way from the airport to Mandalay, Burma’s second city, located in the centre of the country. As I asked the taxi driver to take me to a decent guesthouse somewhere central, I felt the distinct charm of not knowing where I was headed or the orientation of the city.

After checking in and dumping my stuff, I went for an evening stroll. It was an agreeable area, not too far from a palace complex I didn’t visit. An amber light lit the colonial-era buildings, with tree roots decorating white walls. Every man wore a longyi, a Burmese skirt that is elegant uniform. Women had white blotches on their cheeks, made with ground bark, to protect from the sun. I found a lively beer cafe where men, and it was all men, watched football, drank and snacked.

I observed life on that street from a table on the terrace, with my beer, as a warm dusk tranquility arrayed around us and a group of guys nearby played keepy uppy with a small hollow ball made from rope.

I was soon joined by Mr. Lee, a Chinese Burmese. He sat down at my table. He was good conversation and we talked in Mandarin. He told me about his son who had studied in Britain, Heriot-Watt University, and done an MA in economics and was working in Yangon. We had snacks of ham with green pepper and nuts.

After returning to the guesthouse where I was staying on the roof, I got talking to three Chinese girls. All three were solo travelers. They were in their early 20s and two had been journeying across Asia, while one had decided to take a solo trip to Burma during the Spring Festival break. This actually amazed me. I interviewed them then and there and made a note: young, female Chinese are really leading the way in terms of hitting the road.

Breakfast the next day at the guesthouse, and I joined the table with the three Chinese girls. They’d decided to band together in the way that travelers do. They said they were heading to a monastery where the monks have breakfast (actually lunch) and for some reason they wanted to go see it. I decided to join them — I had no itinerary and it’s nice to follow the flow.

We rode in a truck, a taxi truck. A German geezer was picked up along the way. He told us he had only paid 800 kyat for the taxi truck — we had paid more — and that he had first visited Burma nine years ago. His summary when I asked him what had changed? “Well, there’s more traffic”. He was with his wife but she was back at the hotel with bronchitis.

The monastery is in Amarapura and it was a quiet revelation. I had no expectations walking in and I was delighted by the architecture of the buildings, the colours, and the elegant wooden facades. Tourists had gathered to witness a spectacle: monks lining up to collect their lunch. We were a lewd bunch, so eager to touch this moment with a snap of our cameras. It was a weird experience, to be among such rabid tourists, myself no innocent onlooker. It was what I did the proceeding day that redeemed the experience.

While I was at the monastery, I talked to a Burmese tour guide who was ethnically Chinese and we conversed briefly in English and Mandarin. She looked stunning in a rich navy dress. She was leading a small group of German clients. I also overheard a German tourist complaining to his guide about the impropriety of us tourists impinging. His guide responded that the monks are used to it now, like the dogs are used to it — not meaning the comparison, just the habit of getting used to something.

Afterward, two of the girls and I went to climb a hill, while another of the girls stayed behind. The climb up was better than the destination. After that, we headed back to Amarapura district where a famous teak bridge is located spanning a river where you can rent a boat and watch the sunset. I bought a round of beers for everyone, including the boat driver, while we took our place on the river among other boats facing the setting sun.

The next day, I wasn’t sure what to do. I went to this little roadside cafe that I had gone to previously, which was staffed by young Muslim women who swept shyly around my feet as I drank the sweet milky tea redolent of the country. I wrote in my notebook, enjoying the tea. I then had a brainwave. I would go back to the monastery as I had enjoyed the atmosphere so much. It was afternoon by now (I had taken a post-breakfast nap as I had woken very early that day to see off one of the girls), and I took a motorbike taxi.

That decision, to head back to the monastery, led fortuitously to my only published report from Burma — a $300 travel piece for CNN.com. Here’s that story.

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  1. […] Burmese Days […]

  2. […] Burmese Days — this is the written companion to the video above […]


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