I am the type of traveler who loves to get off the beaten track. I head to a destination keen to see the famous sights and the not to be missed attractions, but the highlights for me are always the ones you can’t plan. The experiences you cannot predict in advance but end up enjoying because you are open to having them. The highlights that occur because you take the road less traveled, you engage in conversation with the locals, you travel via local transportation options and try food you have never eaten before.
These experiences that appear insignificant at the time can end up creating a collection of memorable and magical moments.
Watching Inle Lake fisherman on the hunt is already a unique and captivating sight to witness just by itself. It is only later upon learning this unique style of fishing can be seen nowhere else on Earth except for Inle Lake that the full significance of the experience begins to sink in.
My “memorable moments of insignificance” in Myanmar seemed endless, but here are a few of my favorites.
1. A hike, a monk and a flower
Whilst most of the highlights of the Inle Lake region are accessed via boat, there are a number of hiking trails starting from Nyaungshwe that provide the opportunity to explore the nearby hills and villages without other travelers. Breathing in the fresh air and enjoying the stunning scenery in relative solitude is an incredibly energizing experience and the few interactions we had with locals who were returning with their cows from the morning market in town or who lived in the small and isolated villages we passed through, provided the icing on the cake of a magical day.
I joined a local guide on a hike that provided countless moments that were as unforgettable as they were insignificant. We hiked to a cave monastery to meet a 70 year old monk who had lived there on his own for twenty-five years. He spoke no English but greeted us with tea and a plate of snacks as the three of us sat in comfortable silence. We unintentionally interrupted a formal meeting between the elders of two nearby villages who were discussing the proposed marriage between their children, but immediately called a break to make us tea. And we met a local woman who sat cutting kernels from corn cobs, a task she performed every day, who wanted nothing more than her photo taken.
But the highlight of the day came from the simplest moment of all. As I was walking along a narrow dirt path a small boy who looked to be around four years of age, ran out from the trees and stopped in front of me. He shyly handed me a small hand-picked flower as he watched my face intently. I smiled and replied with the Burmese word for thank-you (jez-u-beh) and felt my heart warm as his face completely lit up and he turned around and ran back into the trees as quickly as he had arrived.
I carried the flower with me for the rest of the day.
2. Turning left instead of right
After a long but tiring day exploring the Bagan temples, I decided to spend the next day with no itinerary and started the day on a bicycle at an intersection where a right turn would take me to the popular Bagan Temple area. I turned left.
After half an hour of directionless cycling I came across a narrow dirt path and decided to follow it to what I later learned was the village of West Pwa Saw. As I cycled past a row of small wooden houses, sometimes sharing the path with dogs, cats, cows and goats, I looked up to see two small children running as fast as they could towards me. They stopped abruptly a metre in front of me, excitement turning to apprehension until I greeted them with the one Burmese word I knew, min-gala-ba. Their faces lit up, they giggled and they pointed to my camera.
Hence began a day of short, insignificant, but incredibly memorable local interactions with the villagers.
Whilst playing with the children, I noticed a woman in the distance holding a small boy who was waving me over with her palm facing down. The more traditional ‘come over’ wave that we use (palm facing up with fingers curling towards you) is a form of aggression in Myanmar so I was relieved to receive a friendly invitation and walked towards her. She didn’t speak any English but invited me into her home, offered me some nuts to chew on as she made some tea and asked if she could paint my face with Thanakha (the local sandalwood paste worn by woman and children in Myanmar). We sat together in comfortable silence exchanging nothing but smiles, as she shared a piece of her culture with me.
As I left her home I found an old lady standing outside with her little grandson, patiently waiting for me to walk past her. Word had spread – there was a foreigner in the village and all the locals wanted to come and play! Again she spoke no English and again she offered me nuts to chew on as she made me some more tea. Through our game of charades I learned that she had five children, nine grandchildren, had a small shop at the front of her house, was 65 years of age, had lived in the same house her entire life and had never left the Bagan area.
It wasn’t long before we were joined by her family and neighbors and suddenly I was surrounded by two of her daughters, four of her grandchildren and two of her 70 year old neighbors. It felt like a secret society meeting for women – and I was the guest of honor! I binged on tea as we explored different communication techniques, finding charades to be the most effective (and enjoyable) and exchanged details about our lives.
I am often reminded whilst traveling that not having a common language does not prevent communication. This memorable afternoon was proof of that. We didn’t need words to understand that we whilst we came from different countries and led different lives, we still had some things in common – we were all women and we were all human beings.
3. Bubbles at a Bus Station
Local bus stations in developing countries are usually hectic, aggressive and stressful but often provide great people-watching and opportunities for interacting with locals. The bus station in Monywa, from which I was boarding a bus to Pakkoku was no exception.
After awkwardly stumbling from the trishaw I had arrived at the station in, that was basically a bicycle with a chair attached, I sought out a local vendor selling bottled water to prepare for the bus ride ahead. After handing over what I thought was the equivalent of the £0.15 due for the large bottle of water, I started walking away only to hear the sound of footsteps and call of ‘lady, lady’. I had given him a 200 Kyat note instead of 100 and he, an honest vendor, had change to give me!
Being the only foreigner in a local bus station has inevitable consequences and I was immediately targeted by beggars, vendors and even nuns asking for donations. One disheveled looking woman was holding a small, thin and dirty child and kept tugging at my sleeve.
The heart breaking conflict I feel in these situations never gets any easier, knowing that giving money to beggars is not the long term answer, but also feeling helpless and selfish at the same time.
Feeling rather useless, I suddenly remembered I had a bottle of bubbles in my bag and I took it out and started blowing bubbles in the direction of the child. His sad little eyes opened wide in terror as a bubble floated towards him and I feared my attempt at a little fun may have been a tactical error! But as it popped on his nose and he screamed in delight, I breathed a sigh of relief. I handed the bottle to his mother and watched her blow bubbles at her giggling son whilst for a few minutes she simply enjoyed the moment and forgot her troubles. I left them to it and boarded my bus.
A few minutes later I heard a knock on my window and looked out to see the mother (still blowing bubbles) waving at me and say jez-u-beh over and over. She eventually walked away and my heart warmed a little with the knowledge that a small bottle of bubbles had made them smile for a few minutes. I thought I’d seen the last of them until I heard knocking at the window again and saw her reach up to hand me half of the orange she had been eating, with tears in her eyes – her way of saying thank you.
4. A negotiation by the river
One of the most entertaining conversations I had in Myanmar was by the side of the river in Monywa. I had just returned from exploring Hpo Win Daung Caves, paying ten times more than the locals for the ‘special’ tourist boat across the river which I was forced to take, which turned out to be the same type of boat the locals were piling into but with me as the solo passenger.
I was looking for a motor-trishaw to take me to a few sights in the afternoon and it didn’t take long for one to find me instead. The driver only spoke a few words of English but seemed to understand where I wanted to go. Our challenge began when we tried to agree a time to meet. He kept holding up three fingers, I kept holding up two whilst pointing to ‘2 o’clock’ on my watch. Before long we were surrounded by another ten men who were offering to help translate our conversation, despite none of them speaking any more English than my driver.
Every time I tried to say ‘can we meet at 2pm’ he would nod in agreement and then hold up three fingers. I tried a game of charades, I pointed to my watch, I imitated taking a nap and eating lunch first, but still he held up three fingers as he nodded in what he thought was agreement. Finally, a man joined us who spoke a little more English than the others and translated something to him in Burmese before explaining to me that he was nodding in agreement to the 2pm meeting time and was then telling me the trip would take 3 hours. When the penny dropped and we finally realized we understood each other, the crowd that had grown in size starting cheering, slapping each other on the back and high-fiving me!
Before I left for my lunch and nap, our newly appointed translator asked ‘how will you remember him, we all look the same to you don’t we?’ I started to feign offense at his question before I realized he was right and I pointed to the word ‘Dunlop’ that was written on the shirt of my driver. “Mr Dunlop” I said, “I will remember this is Mr Dunlop”. The crowd burst out laughing and kept repeating “Mr Dunlop” as I realized I had inadvertently given my driver a new nickname. Oops 😉
Sure enough, my faithful driver was waiting for me at my hotel on time, shook my hand and re-introduced himself as Mr Dunlop whilst proudly pointing at his watch as he said “2pm”. It was the start of an incredibly enjoying afternoon with my driver and new friend.
5. A hair salon in Monywa
Using charades to have conversations with non-English speaking locals can be useful and entertaining. However when you are using charades to ask for a hair wash at a salon that also has scissors, it can also be downright risky.
After arriving in Monywa and making my way into town from the station, I found a pleasant and relatively cheap room at one of the few hotels that are registered to accept foreign guests. I enjoyed a plate of chicken noodles for lunch and the first can of coke I had seen in the country and with the burst of energy supplied from my sugar fix I started to wander along the streets to explore this quaint little town.
When I came across a local hair salon, my girlie DNA came to the forefront and I realized how long it had been since my naturally curly hair had felt clean, straight and soft. How do you ask two young employees who don’t speak English for a wash and blow dry without ending up with short hair instead? Charades of course! Once we established scissors would not be necessary, they had a five minute conversation before deciding to charge me the equivalent of £4. I suspect the conversation went something like this:
“I have no idea, we’ve never had a foreigner ask for a wash and blow dry before!”
“Well, what would we charge a local? 500 kyat? Yes? So let’s charge her ten times that amount!”
Ten times that amount was still only £4 so I happily accepted the price and sat back to enjoy what felt like an extravagant treat, sitting in silence for an hour, being pampered and having clean hair for the first time in weeks. It was only when I paid and opened the door to leave that I realized a foreigner having their hair washed at the salon was not a common sight and I had attracted a crowd who smiled at me as I left, touched my hair and said “beautiful, beautiful” over and over! I returned the smiles and stayed outside the hair salon for another half hour enjoying some banter and conversations with some of the friendliest people in the world.
It doesn’t take much to have a memorable moment of insignificance. Turning left instead of right led me to an unplanned afternoon of charades with the local women of West Pwa Saw. A small bottle of bubbles raised a smile on the face of someone who had previously been tugging at my sleeve in desperation. Negotiating a trishaw ride led to a round of applause and a new friend. But the highlight, a hand-picked flower from a little child I never saw again, was better than any souvenir on sale in the country.