The train rolls out of Mandalay at four in the morning, lit only by the orange glow of cigarettes being smoked in the seats around us. It is an old wooden relic that makes its way up into the Shan hills by rumbling back and forth along switchbacks, built over a hundred years ago by the British. As we climb slowly upwards and leave the city behind, the sun rises in the sky, revealing scrubby green fauna and a rocky hillside floating by. A cool breeze comes through the train, and soon I feel myself drifting off into those strange cracks between sleep and waking, where dreams become indistinguishable from reality.
If I manage to actually fall asleep in the hard wooden seat, a cold blast of water inevitably flies through the window and I wake up, soaked and swearing. Sometimes Ash and I manage to put the window up in time, and the water hits against the dirty plastic with a thud. As the train rolls past, the children outside look sad and disappointed, clutching their little buckets and pails, and Ash and I high five and feel tremendous satisfaction. We normally wouldn’t be this rude, but the Thingyan water festival has been going on for days now, and we spent most of our time in Mandalay drenched. We stayed at a hotel outside the old palace, where stages were set up around the stagnant moat and guys with huge hoses blew the water everywhere. At one point after the streets flooded I stepped into an unseen pothole and found myself bathing in the gross water. But the train is unbearably hot with the window shut, and once we open it and the pleasant breeze begins to come in once more, Ash and I both drift off, only to be soaked again at the next stop.
In Hsipaw a light rain mists down, the first I’ve seen in two weeks of traveling during Myanmar’s dry season, and it is pleasantly cool. Later, when the five of us would sit by a pond in Pyin Oo Lwin, playing cards and getting drunk off wine in the afternoon, I began to understand why the British would leave Mandalay to come up into these hills.
At the guesthouse we meet Tobias – “Call me Swiss Guy,” he says – and Hélène from Paris. They tell us of the insurgencies going on in the Shan hills, and it begins to sound as if our plan to go trekking might fall through.
“Will it be possible to trek to S—— Village and stay the night there?” someone asks.
“Possible,” says the woman at the desk. “Tomorrow we can ask Win Win, after breakfast. Win Win often goes to that village.”
The traffic light changes, and crowds jostle past. Fumbling with my new camera, I look through the viewfinder and frame a shot of the Sule Pagoda blurred in the distance, the rush hour traffic jam focused in the foreground. A striking juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern, I think, taking the shot. Shielding the small screen from the sunlight with my free hand, I press the playback button and look: The picture is an unfocused, blurry mess.
“Why don’t you go up to the top of Sakura Tower?” I hear someone say. “Great view, great photo.” I look up. A short man in a longyi and a red baseball cap is motioning towards the tall building on the opposite side of the intersection.
“Oh yeah?” I say, certain that this is some kind of tourist tout, but still kind of intrigued. “How much?”
“What you mean ‘how much’?” he says, seemingly offended. “No ‘how much.’ Just go up, take a photo. Come on, I’ll show you.”
As we walk through the double doors and into the air conditioning, I expect there to be a booth to buy tickets to go to the top, like in any other city. But there is none, and the security guard simply nods at the man as we walk past and step onto the waiting elevator.
“See?” he says, smiling. He presses the button for the penthouse, and I feel the rush of the elevator moving skyward, leaving the dusty streets behind.
The path is steep, and the sun beats down hot on our necks. It’s the hottest time of the year, and the soaking we get from a bunch of young kids in the small village on the way up is the first time I am somewhat grateful. Thingyan is celebrated all over the country, even if this is Shan State and the people don’t identify as Burmese. Win Win tells us that the Shan language is actually much closer to Thai.
“Sabai dee mai?” I say to the kids, but they just laugh. Either this isn’t how you say “How are you?” in Shan, or my Bangkok accent is no good here.
“It’s not far,” says Win Win. He has been saying this all day, and I’ve come to think of “It’s not far” as meaning, “It will be at least another hour of hiking up this steep hill.”
Hélène puts down her bag and gets out her water, and it is like she has read all of our minds. We follow suit, dropping our backpacks, and the otherwise indefatigable Win Win understands it’s time for a water break. We stand there for some time on the rocky slope, drinking from our bottles and listening to the breeze.
“You know,” Win Win says, “Myanmar people very good fortune tellers?”
I’ve begun to notice he likes to do this kind of thing. Wait for the right moment to tell you something interesting or weird.
“Is that so?” says Hélène.
“Yes,” he says. “Did you know that, this past November, we held our glorious election?”
We had all heard this, and knew that Myanmar had a new prime minister that was supposedly non-military, and that Aung San Suu Kyi had finally been released from her house arrest. It’s not possible to travel around Myanmar without learning something of the political situation.
“Well,” says Win Win, “Even before our glorious election this past November, we Myanmar people knew who the winner would be!”
His mischievous laugh echoes out into the hills.
“The government has changed clothes,” he says, and suddenly I am back in Yangon, sitting in the penthouse of the Sakura Tower with that strange man who found me on the street. He had used those words exactly.
“The government has changed clothes, but still they are the slaves of the Chinese,” says Win Win.
We drink our water and listen.
“How about the roads in this country?” he asks. “Terrible, yes? But not far from here, up near Lashio, we have the best road in the country. The road that goes over the border to China! I have seen it myself. Very wide, very smooth – you can carry many things on this road, send many trucks. Many of our young men around here have gone to help build it. Do you know?”
We shake our heads.
“Not because of the pay. The pay is shit! But the Chinese are crazy, you know? They only want to have the baby boy.”
“But isn’t that just the Chinese culture?” says Tobias. “And what does it have to do with the road?”
“No. Let me tell you the crazy part. Near the border, many Chinese are paying these young Burmese workers for their left… their left…” He trails off. “I don’t know the word,” he says.
He grins and starts pointing to his crotch. “You know, in the sack.”
“Testicle?” I say, suppressing a laugh.
“Yes, that’s it. The Chinese are paying one thousand US dollars for the left testicle. In this country, that is an incredible amount of money. The young men, they can buy three new motorbikes with that money.”
This is starting to sound crazy.
“According to the Chinese medicine, if a doctor prepares a special tonic from the left testicle of a young healthy male, it will increase a couple’s chance to have the baby boy.”
We look at him in disbelief.
“The government trying to stop it, but they cannot. Not even after our glorious election!” He laughs again. We stand there for some time, absorbing Win Win’s words, while the sun sinks lower in the sky.
“Come on,” he says. “S—— Village not far.”
When the doors open at the penthouse, we step out into a small corridor leading to a high-end restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows. My mysterious host nods at the maître d’, and the two of us take a seat at a small table overlooking Aung San Stadium. A football match is going on, and from this height, the players seem to dance slowly about, moving like colored pixels on a computer screen.
“Go ahead,” he says, smiling at me. “Take your photos first. Then we’ll talk.”
I walk over to the westward-facing windows. The man was right – the views up here are stunning, with the Shwedagon Pagoda glowing faintly under the setting sun. Up here, high above the dust and disrepair of Yangon’s streets, you could get a sense of what the city might become – a place as unique, vibrant, and flourishing as Bangkok or Hanoi – if it could ever get out from under its choke hold. It was also up here that you could talk about such things with less fear of repercussion.
“This is a better place for introductions, isn’t it?” he says as I sit back down, extending his hand. “You can call me Mr. Kyaw.”
Two large, sweaty bottles of Myanmar Beer have appeared on the table since I got up, and Mr. Kyaw takes one and pours the amber liquid into my glass before topping off his own. Outside, the low-hanging sun is bathing the city in neon orange.
“Thank you for joining me,” he says. “It is not everyone that would. I don’t normally approach people like that, but I could tell you are one of these ‘Lonely Planet’ people.”
I start to laugh. My copy of Lonely Planet: Myanmar is in my camera bag.
“I’m serious,” he says. “What I mean by that is, you are here on your own, right? You came to Myanmar by yourself?”
“So nobody controls you. You are not on one of these tours that says, ‘Go here and photograph this temple for five minutes, then get back on the bus. Now go to this restaurant and eat noodles for thirty minutes.’”
“I would hate to travel like that,” I say.
“It would be bullshit. You are right to do it your way. You like it somewhere, you stay for a while. You don’t like it, you move on.”
I nod again, and watch as he takes a long draft of his beer.
“So why am I telling you all this?” he says, staring at me, and I’m not sure if the question is rhetorical or not.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” he says, “Where are you going next?”
“Bagan,” I say, wondering why I am telling this mysterious stranger my travel plans.
“A wonderful place. But how are you getting there?”
“I was going to take the train,” I say, truthfully again. I realize there is something about this man that I trust.
“Here is what I mean,” he says. “If you go by train, you can expect to spend about forty or fifty dollars on a ticket, all of it going to the government. Not that this matters all that much – forty or fifty dollars is nothing to them. Tourism is a tiny source of their revenue, compared to what they get for selling off oil, timber and gems to the Chinese. But forty, fifty dollars – this is a lot of money to the average person here. What I am saying is, if you have a choice between having your money go to the government, or going towards Myanmar people—”
“I understand,” I say. “But is there some kind of private bus company that goes to Bagan?”
“There’s a bus leaving tomorrow night.” His expectant look lets me know that this is more of a question than any mere statement of fact, and that my next words will let him know whether or not approaching me on the street today was worth it.
“So let’s finish these beers and go book it,” I say.
He smiles, and takes my hand in his.
Far away, in a remote village high in the hills of Shan State, Haddaway plays. The bass booms as we approach a battered wooden sign that says, “Welcome to S—— Village,” and I hear the familiar chorus lyrics:
What is love? Oh baby, don’t hurt me
Don’t hurt me, no more.
Ash and I instinctively start bobbing our heads to the beat like Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan in “A Night at the Roxbury.”
“Come on,” says Win Win. “Let’s go to party.”
We are welcomed to the Thingyan festival by having lukewarm buckets of water poured down our backs amid shouts of “Hello! Welcome!” and a crowd of smiling faces. Someone hands me some kind of greasy hand-made sweet and a clear drink in a dirty glass.
“That good drink,” says Win Win. “I call Relax Water. Help you relax.”
I nod. The snack is good at first but leaves a sour aftertaste, and I wash it down with the Relax Water, which turns out to be strong rice whiskey. I swallow hard to keep everything down.
There is the sound of an engine roaring, and we turn and watch as a big truck painted with colorful flowers and palm leaves comes tearing around a small wooden shack. Sitting on the hood, on the roof, and hanging off the sides are maybe twenty to twenty-five young men, completely drenched, yelling in their Shan accents:
Oh baby, don’t hurt me
Don’t hurt me no more (ooh ooh)
The truck disappears around the village’s main hall and reappears on the other side, flying along the dirt paths at high speeds.
“This good party,” says Win Win. “Here’s the chief.”
A soaking wet man appears, wearing a filthy t-shirt. He doesn’t look much older than me.
“Welcome my village,” he says, extending his hand. His breath is like paint thinner from the Relax Water. “Where you from?”
“America,” I say.
He belches loudly, then clinks glasses with mine.
“America!” he says, and we drink to that.
“I see you later tonight. You stay to my house,” he says, patting me on the shoulder before making his way back into the dancing crowd.
“Between you and me,” says Win Win, leaning close in to my ear, “He new chief. The monks no like him too much – say he is drinking too much. But he good kid. His father die so he chief now – no choice. Maybe hard for him.”
I nod. I wonder how his father died, and what being chief entails.
“Come on,” says Win Win. “Time for dinner, relax. I have more Relax Water back at chief’s house.”
I pay for the beers and Mr. Kyaw and I head back out into the Yangon heat, still lingering in the early dusk. We cross Bogyoke Aung San Road and then the bridge that goes over the old wooden railroad tracks. On the other side, there is a bright pink billboard on which a beautiful woman in traditional clothing is smiling and holding up some kind of beverage. In one sense it is like any billboard you would see anywhere, typical advertising for some mass-produced brand name drink, but the elegant and inscrutable Burmese script lends it a dreamlike feel. From this, I formulate a kind of conclusion that would serve me well for the rest of my travels: When traveling within the Burmese dream, basic things like gravity and laws of physics still apply, but everything else is rearranged or reversed.
“Come on,” says Mr. Kyaw. He motions towards a small betel nut stand on the corner. He asks for a small bag of about ten or so, and I watch as the vendor takes the green leaves and lathers them with some kind of sticky white substance, before putting the brown nuts in and wrapping them.
“Here,” says Mr. Kyaw, handing me one. “Just chew it, then spit. Don’t swallow any of it.”
I look at the pouch of green leaf in my hand, and the customary thoughts of germs and cleanliness roll through my mind, before another overriding travel philosophy kicks in: Try everything the locals do. You will learn something.
I bite down, and my mouth begins salivating. I spit out a wad of red goo.
Mr. Kyaw laughs. “How’s it taste?” he says.
I want to tell him it is like someone spilled Elmer’s Glue on their lawn and fed it to me. Instead, I just smile, showing him my red teeth, and he laughs.
We walk to the strip of vendors selling bus tickets opposite the old colonial train station, its golden spires glittering in the early twilight. Mr. Kyaw begins talking in Burmese to the woman at the table, who picks up a battered old phone with cords running down onto the concrete and into the shop. Holding it between her head and her shoulder, she speaks quickly and begins writing down on a small slip of paper with no English. Then she hangs up, tears the slip out of the booklet, and hands it to Mr. Kyaw.
“Twenty thousand kyat,” he says to me. “The bus leaves tomorrow at six, and you’ll be in Nyaung U before daybreak.” About twenty-five bucks – cheaper than the train, and faster.
We walk back across the bridge, now under the light of streetlamps. When we reach the Sakura Tower, Mr. Kyaw motions to a trishaw driver – just a bicycle with a sidecar for a passenger – and arranges a ride for me back to my guesthouse.
“One picture together!” I yell, giggling. I am buzzing and stoned from the betel nut.
The trishaw driver takes the shot, and I grip Mr. Kyaw’s hand and thank him again and again for all his help.
“You have no tolerance for the betel nut!” he says, laughing at me.“But listen – when you come back from your trip in the north, you come and see me, okay? My office is in this building – Exotic Travel. I’m here in the afternoons.”
I smile at him. Exotic Travel. Afternoon.
“Don’t forget!” he says, patting me on the shoulder as I get in the trishaw. It pulls away from the curb, and soon we are passing in and out of the yellow flood of run-down streetlights, floating alongside the rusted-out cars and tired buses, the driver pedaling to a steady rhythm that feels, of all things, somewhat familiar.
We sit on benches around the chief’s rough wooden table, illumined by candlelight. The dishes from our dinner of rice, vegetables, mango curry, and fried banana leaves lie empty among half-full glasses of rice whiskey. Win Win and a friend of his, who joined us for dinner and hasn’t said a word, sit with their Red Ruby cigarettes, the smoke floating up to linger among the bamboo rafters.
“This man’s name No Problem,” says Win Win. “He fortune teller around here.”
No Problem says something in Burmese to Win Win, and Win Win hands him the bottle of rice whiskey and laughs.
“He says if he drink more Relax Water, make him even more accurate.”
We laugh, but no one says anything.
“Okay,” says May. “Me first.”
She puts out her palm, and No Problem takes it gently in his left hand. He leans in and scrutinizes it closely to the light of the candle, exhaling smoke. He crushes his cigarette into the ashtray and begins to trace the contours of her palm gently with his right index finger. He speaks under his breath in lilting Burmese.
“He say you will be married only once,” says Win Win. “To a man very far from your home.”
May and I exchange glances in the faint light. She has just recently gotten together with a Thai man, and has told me that it’s something serious.
“You won’t ever be rich, but you won’t be poor either. And you can a live a long time,” says Win Win, and May smiles. It’s a good fortune.
“Okay,” says Ash. “I’m next.”
No Problem looks at his palm for a brief moment, before making a loud, startled sound.
“What is it?” says Ash.
“He say…” Win Win trails off.
“What?” asks May, even more frantic than Ash.
“He say the color red no good for you! Beware the color red!”
Tobias is wearing a red shirt, and we all look over at him. Are we glaring? Ash slides away from him on the wooden bench.
“He also say,” continues Win Win, and we immediately forget all about Tobias, who is now a devil in our eyes, “He also say you like chicken!” I watch his face in the flickering candlelight, expecting his customary smile or laugh, but his expression remains completely serious. No Problem lets go of his palm, and the reading is over.
“Okay,” I say. “Now me.”
No Problem takes my right hand in his, gently tilting it back and forth in the flutter of candlelight. He seems to take a long time, longer than he had with the others.
“He says your lifeline very long,” says Win Win. “But you will suffer an accident when you are older.”
I take a big gulp from my glass of Relax Water.
“It will be difficult, but you will get through it and will return to your full strength,” he says.
I swallow Relax Water and feel relief. I think that the fortune telling session is over, but No Problem doesn’t let go of my hand, and is still mumbling quietly.
“That’s interesting,” says Win Win.
“He say that you will be a chief of some kind.”
May catches my eye.
“Maybe chief of your village?” suggests Win Win.
May begins to laugh in earnest, and suddenly I am laughing hard, and then we are all laughing. It is as if all of the bizarre stories, all of the strange encounters, all of the otherness that we had come up against had built to a kind of critical mass, and with Win Win’s innocent words, we were suddenly made aware of the madness of it all.
Win Win laughs too, perhaps not understanding what is going on with us.
“The thing about No Problem,” he says, his deep brown eyes shimmering over the small stub of burning candle, “sometimes he right, sometimes he wrong.”
The bus from Mandalay gets in before dawn, and I share a bumpy cab ride with a young Burmese couple back into downtown Yangon. The sun begins to come up as we drive, and from the passenger seat I watch the thick green palm leaves drooping in the early morning light. Rangoon, I think, is an even better name for this place.
After sleeping for a few hours at the guesthouse, I head back out into the dusty heat, making my way towards the Sule Pagoda intersection and then north, to the Sakura Tower.
On the far wall by the elevators is a directory listing all the offices in the building. I hadn’t written down the name of Mr. Kyaw’s travel agency that day, three weeks ago now, but I feel quite sure he had said Exotic Travel. But after glancing a few times at the directory, none of the travel agencies in the building are listed by this name. The closest thing is Exotissimo Travel, located on the fifth floor. Something inside me flags, because I felt so sure Mr. Kyaw had said Exotic Travel that day, and not Exotissimo, but I eventually figure that this has got to be the right office, since none of the other names are even remotely close.
The elevator doors open on the fifth floor. I get off and walk through the double glass doors of the travel office.
“May I help you?” says the girl at the desk. Her English is good, but I can tell by her startled look that she isn’t used to having foreigners just walk in here.
“I’m looking for a Mr. Kyaw,” I say.
“Mr. Kyaw?” she says. “It doesn’t sound familiar.”
“I met him about three weeks ago,” I say, insisting. “On the street outside. He told me he works here.” But as I saw the words, I wonder if they are really true. This place isn’t Exotic Travel—there is no Exotic Travel.
“Hold on,” she says. “I’ll check for you.”
She picks up the phone and is soon on the line with someone higher up, speaking in rapid-fire Burmese. The conversation lasts only about ten seconds.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “But no one by that name works here.”
I walk out, feeling dejected. I could have sworn Mr. Kyaw had said Exotic Travel that day. And even if I had it wrong, he had definitely said he worked in the Sakura Tower. Hadn’t he? Could I be remembering correctly, and he had just lied? But why would he have lied about that, after helping me the way he did? Maybe he really did work there, but had given me a false name in order to protect himself in case I ever mentioned him or wrote anything about him, and the name he gave me was a false one that the rest of the staff doesn’t know about? As the elevator doors open at the lobby, I begin to doubt everything I thought I knew about that day.
Outside, the intersection is busy with commuters, betel nut vendors, and moneychangers whispering discrete offers of the day’s dollar-to-kyat black market rates. I stand on the terrace outside the Sakura Tower for perhaps a minute or more, watching the swirling crowd, bewildered by it all. It is only as I am about to descend the stairs to the street that, out of the corner of my eye, I see a red baseball cap. I turn, and there is a familiar look, and then, a familiar smile. There is a familiar hand that reaches out, but there is no greeting and no hello as it grips mine amidst the jostling crowd.
“Now you know something about this place,” he says, leaning in close to my ear. “Don’t forget the things you saw here.” He pats me on the shoulder, because we are old friends now, but before I can say anything, he steps into the flow of people and is lost in the busy intersection. Part of me wants to chase after him, to demand an explanation, but I only stand there as the crowds push past me. I let him go. After all, I fly out of Myanmar tomorrow, and can you ever really make sense of your dreams upon waking?
Note: The Burmese names in this piece have all been changed to protect those who spoke openly with the author about the current regime.
kyat – Myanmar currency. Local exchange rates can vary drastically, with much better rates being found on the black market.
Longyi – Traditional Myanmar clothing. A sheet of cloth worn around the waist by both men and women.
Thingyan festival: Burmese New Year Buddhist festival held in April, similar to Songkran in Thailand and other countries in Southeast Asia. People throw water at each other and at strangers and often rub white talcum powder paste onto faces and clothes.
trishaw – A bicycle with a wheeled sidecar to carry one or two passengers.
Rangoon – the former name of Yangon.
Illustration by Alan Van Every
Paul King is an American who has lived in Thailand for the past two years. He studied Thai language at a university in Bangkok for nine months before moving south and beginning work as a teacher. His short story Ghosts in the Classroom was published in the 2010 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology. You can read his blog or follow him on Twitter.