Saturday, May 31, 2014

Setse Beach (Thanbyuzyat), Burma (Myanmar)

At beach with Burmese fans, next morning
On the train today no one wanted to sit beside me.  I’ve had this experience before, in Thailand—I don’t know if it’s from a misguided sense of respect, or because I am rank, or because of my prodigious size—which, even if I were supermodel skinny, would be prodigious here.  As Lonely Planet says, Burmese bums make Kate Moss look hefty.  So I sat alone, no one beside me, the two seats facing me empty, too.  While women opposite the aisle crowded against each other, one of them clearly ill.

We had assigned seats, so it wasn’t that much of a statement, but in the other areas of the train people felt free to change their seating arrangements according to convenience.  The four seats where I sat stayed empty almost the whole ride to Thanbyuzyat, until two gentlemen finally boarded with assigned seats opposite, and took them, reluctantly.

The Burmese friendliness is legendary and real, but on the train I felt much more conspicuous.  Foreigners rarely take this route.  The two girls to my left, white-skinned, wearing chic new longyis and tight shoulder-bearing tops, turned their bodies to face me and stared boldly for about half an hour.  Several train conductors were brave enough to sit down one row up, in the seat most convenient for looking, and gazed at me unabashedly until I’d stare back.  And many fewer smiles than I get when I’m on my walks through town.

I don’t know how to deal with the attention.  It makes me uncomfortable and a bit angry.  I stared back, for the most part, until I shamed them into looking away.  Maybe that’s the wrong thing to do, but I did it anyway.

After all, all travelers are ambassadors of sorts, ambassadors of culture, if nothing else.  So I shouldn’t begrudge them their full-frontal gaze of me, a real American, something they’ve only seen on television.  It’s like they were absorbing every aspect of my appearance, my body, my actions, my backpack, my clothing.

But it’s exhausting being the locus of other people’s anger, attention, curiosity, focus, envy, whatever.  And it’s constant, at least in these last few towns.  I’m ready to be in a world where other foreigners exist, maybe even the Thai tourist world of go-go bars and tee-shirt shops.

So I arrived at the train station after dark, disembarking at an unexpected stop—most farangs head to Mawlamyine—and bartering for my motorcycle taxi.  I decided to go out to Setse Beach because it was the only place I was sure licensed accommodation exists, even though I really wanted to explore Thanbyuzyat, the endpoint of the legendary death railway, constructed during World War II.  There’s a beautiful symmetry to it, at least in my imagination, arriving in Burma from Kanchanaburi, and following this course to the terminus of the same railroad.  But I had no idea how far away Setse was.

My motorcycle taxi drives me out of town as the sun sets and it darkens.  Before I realize it we’re in the middle of nowhere, driving through darkened fields full of rubber trees.  It’s exhilarating, the wind rushing through my hair, heading to an unknown destination.  Also dangerous.  Maybe that’s why it’s exhilarating.  I have the comfort of knowing that I have a size advantage on most men in Burma, but it’s still bizarre, my willingness to get behind someone on a motorcycle after a half-minute negotiation, to head into the unknown dark.

Then the motorcycle begins sputtering.  I’m not sure, since I’m not that familiar with engines, but it seems to be seizing in some ways every time he changes gears, laboring as we climb the hills.  I want to ask him about it, but I don’t know how.  Then I realize that he’s slowing to an excruciating pace whenever a vehicle passes us, even when the vehicle is going the opposite direction, and afterwards weaving all the way across the road.  Then I catch a whiff of something.  Gasoline?  No.  Alcohol.  My motorcycle chauffeur, halfway into the middle darkness, is drunk.

But what can I do?  Wait for the other shoe to drop is all.  The motorcycle does not break down.  We do not crash.  But when we arrive in Setse I see a giant billboard for a fancy-looking hotel called Paradise.  Oh no, I think.  Is this my promised accommodation? It has a pool.  A budget-breaker for sure.

We pass two other guesthouses, and we pull in, but my driver’s drunkenness is increasingly apparent.  He doesn’t know where to stop, doesn’t seem to be able to get off the motorcycle when we stop, doesn’t know where to go.  Both guesthouses reject me, and I can’t figure out why.  My driver speaks to the owners in hasty Myanmar language, and although I don’t understand, I already know what they’re saying.  They’re telling me to go to Paradise.

Finally, I give in, and decide to see how bad it is.  We drive down the road, pulling into a full-fledged resort—thirty uniformed attendants guiding us as we park, steering us past the internet and game room, the beautifully manicured gardens, employees watching HBO in a television room, the well-kept bungalows, into an air-conditioned reception area where I have to go through a metal detector.  It’s $40 for their cheapest room, a double, even though I’m just one person.  I could have just taken it and escaped.  I even have a stashed $100 bill for exactly this eventuality.  But I can’t do it.  Every fiber in me resists.  That’s an American price, I say, disgusted. 

I drive away with my drunk chauffeur.  He takes me to his friends’ house.  They’re thrilled.  They seat me in a chair and everyone gathers around, touching my skin, listening to my badly pronounced pleasantries, poring through my Myanmar phrasebook.  They want me to sleep there, on the bare teak floor of their front room, and part of me wants to, too.  But I know it’s illegal to spend the night with a local family.  And I also know I won’t get a moment’s peace—I’m the locus of everyone’s attention again, and I will be as long as I stay there.  Besides, there’s no bed.

The man of the house gets on his motorcycle and guides us back to the guesthouses we’ve already tried.  I argue.  You’re a guesthouse!  Give me a room!  But it finally clicks:  they don’t have a foreigner license.

We get back on the motorcycles and I’ve resigned myself to Paradise or the friends’ house, wherever they drive me.  But at the last possible minute they pull into another hotel, one I hadn’t noticed.  We wake up the front desk and they give me a room—gorgeous, with a patio facing the ocean—for $20 a night.  Still expensive, but I take it.

It’s a night when I’m absolutely exhausted and filled with relief.  With a traveling companion this wild-goose chase would have been an adventure and not a possibly hopeless and horrifying mission.  Maybe if I’d had someone along we would have taken the nice room and be watching HBO in air-conditioning.  With two people, $40 would have been the same price as what I’m paying here.  Maybe one of us would have convinced the other to get it—but then again, one of us would be blaming the other for the expense.

I persisted, found what I was certain existed, but what was it worth?  $40?


Ed said...

When in Asia, I would like nothing more than to blend in but at 6 feet 2" with blonde hair and white skin, I stick out everywhere there. I get called Joe a lot which stumped me for awhile until I realized they were calling me G.I. Joe.

Melissa Jenks said...

I know. I'm 5'10", so as tall as the average American man, and even though I have dark hair, it's impossible to blend in just because of my size. I've been dealing with since I was a teenager in Thailand (5'10" then, too!) but it doesn't get easier. In the Philippines, all Americans are Joe--maybe better than farang?

Art Inion said...

Better. Joes came with General McArthur and were liberators in the war with the Japanese. :-)