Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Dawei, Burma (Myanmar)

Dawei temple at sunset
 When I got to the border, all my Thai was immediately useless.  I had thought that the Thai I’ve learned might at least help me at the border, or until I made it to Dawei—I had thought that maybe even people here, this close to Thailand, might know some.  But no.  The minute I crossed out of Thailand and into the Burmese immigration office, I knew only two words:  hello and thank you.

Also, people do not know English, something else that surprises me.  I had thought that Burma was country where English was more widely spoken than in Thailand, thanks to the British colonizers or something, but no.  It may be my first experience like this, communicating solely by hand signals and pointing at my Burmese phrasebook and with the odd English word that someone happens to know.  Although everyone is ecstatic when I manage to say thank you correctly.  I’m working on “I don’t understand.”

So the end of the story is that I made it.  There was a minivan waiting at the “bus station” at the other side of the border—bus station meaning parked cars and dust—and I trekked across with my backpack and flip-flops, while all the other farangs in the minivan, doing their visa run, gawked at me.  I had to commission a minivan to take me onward, and my bargaining did not work.  It’s tough to bargain when one doesn’t know a word of another person’s language.

But the minivan driver on the other side was kind and drove me six hours across rutted dirt and mud roads, over single-lane bridges, past the mammoth effort an Italian-Thai construction alliance is putting into building a superhighway.  Give it two years and this route will be firmly on the tourist track.  I’ll probably be responsible.  They’ll probably read these words.

It feels great being here, though, walking the streets alone in my patong and umbrella, like an old lady from Myanmar, people staring at me and then breaking into betel-nut-stained grins.  But then I think how I am just the first wave, and after me comes piano bars and discos and boutique hotels, and I shudder.  No matter how adventurous one’s travel is, one manages to be merely the first wave of a horde here.  Am I even doing the right thing by traveling here, or is it just a selfish decision?  By writing about these untouched areas am I spoiling them?

First impressions:  heat.  I soak through my shirt walking to and from the bank, two times in two days, and only on the third day does the ATM work.  The loneliness of not knowing a language.  People are curious about me, and want to ask me questions, but how can they?  I’m not only alone, but I’m isolated by a complete lack of communication, which makes me feel a peculiar emotionally needy feeling.  The shock of having Skype-speed internet at my guesthouse.  (And the relief.)

At first I didn’t feel like people were particularly welcoming or friendly, and then last night I ate at a restaurant where I’ve eaten twice, and one of the girls who ran the place sat down with me.  She knew a handful of English words, and we pointed at phrases in the guidebook and communicated.  I learned how to say “eat.”  She gestured at her motorcycle:  do you want to go for a ride?

Of course I did.  We rode to the pagoda, where everyone wanted to talk to her about me and take pictures with me and practice as much English as they knew.  They were thrilled at my  presence.  We walked around the giant pagoda in bare feet on slick wet tile.  Here temples are called pagodas, even though they are also temples, because they’re built around giant gilded stupas.  It was like a carnival, like everyone came to pray and then hang out with their friends and eat ice cream and sticky rice and party.  A much more human atmosphere than in Thailand—then again, there’s not much else to do here.  The temple was beautiful, covered in fragmented mirrors, and also adorned with bizarre kitsch.  Every Buddha had neon enlightenment rays emanating endlessly from his head.

My friend, Mechcike (or that’s the best I can render her name), wants me to stay here and not go on to the beach.  There’s an even bigger party tomorrow night, she manages to convey.  This is what I’ve heard about the Burmese people—how their hospitality is legendary.  And yet I feel that traveler’s itch, to keep moving on, seeing new things, new chunks of country, new frontiers.


kari said...

Awesome. I"ve been wanting to travel to Myannmar. How long are you there for? Email me kari@peregrinebynature.com

Lamanda said...

I have a friend from Myanmar, she works for the World Food Programme. She's in DC at the moment, but I can find out when she gets back home. How long are you staying there? Maybe you could go meet her! Email me! : )

Melissa Jenks said...

Good to hear from you both! I'm planning to use up my visa, 28 days! Internet is unreliable here, allegedly (the guesthouse in Dawei is better than internet in Yangon, according to another traveler), so I'll be in touch as much as I can.

Peter said...

This sounds magical. Seriously. Kind of regretting the decision not to go to Yangoon for the conference. Let's do it again sometime.

Melissa Jenks said...

I didn't realize you had a conference here! Was that why you were planning to be in Thailand in May? Was it a conference on Burmese, or SE Asian language?