Once upon a time I boarded a cold and dark bus in the border town of Myawaddy on an early February morning. This bus would take me further into the interior of an ancient land. A land with a recorded history that dates back to 700 B.C.
A few years ago, I read that ancient ways of living are giving way to modern ways of life throughout this country as it is undergoing a rapid economic transition. I wanted to get a sense of this ‘unspoiled’ land, culture, and people before the country fully transitioned to a developed country.
So, here I was. In a bus that the common people use to take journeys around their country. Another words, it wasn’t some sort of luxury charter type bus you see in places like Europe for instance. Just the way I like it…
As I walked down the aisle to seat number 18, curious eyes of seated passengers gazed up toward me. They studied my choice of clothing and my foreign physical features.
The morning prayer chants blared through the overhead speakers that hurt my ears as I passed each individual one. Passengers placed bags below their seats and also above in the overhead compartments then sat down to get comfortable and adjusted their seats accordingly.
‘Damn assigned seats’ I mumbled to myself when I approached my spot. I had hoped for a window seat…
Once comfortable and buckled in, I studied my surroundings. In addition to the closed cornflower blue curtains, small sized pleated half-circle curtains hung over the top portion. White tassels dangled around the outer edges of these half circles. Just above these decorative curtains, blue rope lights extended the length of the bus and illuminated the tight space between the roof and curtain covered windows – a nice touch from the interior designers.
I returned the gazes of people who passed down the aisle and seated passengers who turned to catch a glance at the strange foreigner aboard. I noticed that the word was spreading towards the front of the bus as heads turned in succession row after row to catch a glimpse of me.
The morning prayers were loud yet some how put me at ease due to the hypnotic rhythm of the chant the monk recited.
Once we took off, the curiosity settled and I now desired to crack the curtain open (which required that I reach across the teenager who occupied the window seat). I wanted to see the land and all the geologic features of the area – the main reason why I enjoy bus travel. Would reaching my arm over his personal space be disrespectful? Would he find this offensive? What is the proper way to say “Excuse me, would you mind if I opened the curtain just a tad?” in Burmese?
Shit. Speaking of that, I had to learn a whole slew of new words since I was yet again in a new country. How to say hello, thanks, bye, numbers 1 through 10 at least – you know, basic things…
Before I pondered what mental effort I would have to muster up just to learn these basics, a person a few rows in front of me made the move – and engulfed the area around him in a bright haze of glorious sunshine. A few people squinted their eyes… That was my cue – I also wanted some of that vitamin D and a view of the outside world!
Literally two minutes after I flooded the vicinity with sun light, the teenager offered to exchange seats. Maybe he became uneasy while I stared past him to gaze out the window.
Note to self: Next time I want someone’s window seat, lean over ever so slightly (just enough to make them aware of my intruding gaze) and look past them out the window for two minutes straight…
mmmm…the scenery…curvy mountain roads, random shacks between the road we drove on and the mountain ledge, lush mountain sides filled with a deep greenery, random palms trees in the mix… Passing through small townships and settlements I get a general sense of the local ways of dress, general ways of behavior in regards to working, relaxing and carrying on through the day.
These small townships made me feel like I was in India (from what I’ve seen in movies, magazines and online). There was a lot of dirt, some areas with trash, chickens, cows and donkeys. For the most part the animals were kept off the road, since the bus driver mashed the horn like a crazy person as we strolled through.
For entertainment, us passengers watched a Burmese comedy on the small TV’s that dropped down from the roof above the center aisle. Nearly every passenger laughed at the mishaps of the main characters of the show as we chugged along toward Yangon.
Yangon…you get the sense that hundreds of years ago this city was once a thriving jungle. The oppressive heat made the air dank due to the sub tropical humidity and polluted quality.
A variety of different ethnicity’s of Indians, Burmese, Chinese/Burmese and other South East Asians live, work and do business in this bustling city. If you are shopping for ingredients to cook, accessories for your phone, tools, clothes, jewelry, car parts, shoes, keys, books, movies, etc. chances are you will find it. There are side walk vendors, markets, businesses and a few people with a blanket spread out on a walking path with random items up for sale.
Exploring the markets, streets, modern shopping malls and land marks of Kyauktada Township (the main area of downtown) – I get the feeling of… like I was in a very ancient place, with modernity creeping in…vibrant…a new emerging energy…with lots of different people from Indian and Asian speaking countries. People of different faiths – Christian, Muslim, and Hindu (and many other sects of Hinduism) being the dominant religions. All this created a whirl wind of exoticness for a western traveler like myself.
Lucky me. I had a few days to roam and wander around the city…to get a feel for things and to chat with a few locals who knew English.
More to come in part 2…