Sometimes everything goes wrong during a trip. Plans change in a matter of seconds, night finds us in a wrong city, at a wrong time and with no food. When I arrived at the Bagan station – where I actually wanted to arrive, only several days later – I had no water, not even a banana on hand. I was standing there angry because my destination – Mindat, or strictly speaking my bus to this mountain village had just taken off right in front of me. Bagan was tempting, of course, with its ancient temples and picturesque sunsets, but it was daunting at the same time – the touristic hustle and bustle and the pervasive fair. I decided to flee.
I got on a bus and after a while landed in a small town on the other side of the river – Pakkoku. The station was bustly, the tuktuk drivers were pushing their way to the passengers getting off the bus, the women were selling fruits, the air was filled with dust and the noise was unbearable. I quickly got away from this jam and asked one of the drivers to take me to the nearest motel. A little hotel sitting by the main road didn’t look appealing. My room resembled a prison cell crossbred with a hospital room. Mould glared at me from the ceiling, the lack of windows wasn’t putting me in an optimistic mood, and the only accessories in the bathroom were a hole in the floor and a bucket which did not encourage ablution. So I crawled out on the street pretty soon and decided to spend as much time as possible away from my resting place. Otherwise I felt threatened with depression.
Pakkoku in my memory remained as a one big tangle of streets, alleys and stalls. Women wearing Burmese make-up made of a special thanaka tree paste were offering cosmetic service at the entrance to the main market. Piles of shoes, slippers and flip-flops were scattering on a street, right beside them some old lady was selling eggs. Someone was grinding keys around the corner, some guy tried to tout me into buying a longyi – a traditional skirt weared by women as well as men in Birma (yes, men too!). Tired after a long walk I found shelter in one of the temples and immersed myself in reading. Then – defeated by hunger – I went to a near-by bar…
I came in – all heads turned. Not only was I the only white person present, I was the only woman there too. Undeterred I approached the nearest table and sat down. After a while a man joined me and started a conversation in broken English:
‘Hi.’ he said.
‘Hi.’ I answered.
A long silence followed, interrupted by the flies’ buzz over my plate and his grunting, which showed me that it wouldn’t be the end to our discourse. Indeed, it was just the beggining. After a customary questioning about my origins, country, profession, marital status, religion and how many children I have (yes, yes, I’m not exaggerating!) my interlocutor got to the point.
‘Tomorrow at 9 o’clock I’ll come to get you, we’ll spend all day together.’
It sounded a bit like a threat so I tried to get out of this unresistible offer in a delicate way, but my companion was adamant:
‘I’m from Birma. Pakkoku is my home. You are a guest. It is a matter of honor and my responsibility to welcome you in my country. I’ll be here at 9 o’clock!’
Then he left. I couldn’t even say no.
I wonder if this is how all these stories about abducted tourists in far away Asia begin. However, what would become of the world if we didn’t trust each other at all? And KoKyaw (for that was the name of my host) had good eyes. My intuition was telling me I should trust him so I got into his car without any big doubts. We had a wonderful day togehter. KoKyaw turned out to be a chemistry teacher at a local school, he knew a lot of the town’s history, native’s traditions and probably every temple (and every bar) within 10 kilometres. Talking and fun was endless. His wife was an extraordinarily hospitable, cheerful person. She almost cried with joy at the sight of me and she sewed me a beautiful longyi which I was wearing proudly for the next few days.
This day was simply perfect, but more attractions awaited me in the evening. It also turned out that KoKyaw was a big karaoke fan and apparently Pakkoku was the Burmese music delights’ empire. So we spent the evening with his friends tapping our feet to the local tunes, he bawled to the microphone, we clapped and swayed on a dancefloor. My new pals were ecstatic about my enthusiastic approach to the local pop culture, they quickly decided I’m a Birma fan and I need to be introduced to even more local folklore. That’s how we got to the paw.
What exactly paw is needs to be said here. First time I’ve ever met with this word was while reading „Burmese Days” by George Orwell. A spectacle combined of dancing, singing, street theatre and not very refined jokes was portrayed by the author as the orgy of senses, but also an orgy in the literal sense of the word. In reality, two comics hosted the show with a help from the music band. My guides told me what was going on – more or less – on stage. Curious I drew nearer and then the speakers shouted at me:
‘Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen!’
And just like the other day at the bar all heads turned. An elegant man runned up to me, led me to a chair decorated with flowers and gestured me to take a sit.
‘This might be bad, my anonimity just kicked the bucket’ I thought and it soon became a predictive thought. There was some commotion on the other end of the room and a reporter with a microphone in her hand was sliding my way with a sweaty cameraman behind…
I must admit it was an intense day. The temples, the bars, the karaoke and my debut on Burmese television in addition. Going back to my little hotel and the mouldy ceiling I felt very grateful – I have never experienced as much heart and care as in in this small Burmese town. My benefactors didn’t stop there though. The next day they took me to their family in Bagan. Bagan – which together with thousands of Buddist temples is the symbol of Birma – vibrant with tourism and night life. Places like that are interesting for about five minutes, but soon become weary and drive me away with commercialism, plastic. It was different for me thanks to my aquaintances from Pakkoku and Bagan – explored inside out, from near-by villages, from the seat of a rattling motor scooter. With Bagan I associate the taste of sour cabbage with roasted soy, small fish which KoKyaw’s family cought in the river and the smell of dried japan – the family owned a workshop in the suburbs…
Yes – Bagan was every tourist’s ‘must do’ while in Birma, hence the sunrises and sunsets and hot-air baloons, the stalls and supping in places sitting in the shade of antique ruins. But most of all I’ll remember waiting for the warm tea at dawn and watching beggars around the monks’ stalls, watching KoKyaw’s wife praying in the temple, her devotion and serenity. Walking in the dark to the temples and little shrines that nobody visited anymore and from which you had the most fairy-tale-like view on the valley.
As I was leaving I was fairly sure I haven’t seen even a half of the local attractions, but at the same time I felt that I have seen much, much more. Sometimes it’s good when everything goes wrong during a trip. Just stay calm and keep your eyes wide open!
Author: Joanna Zubkow
Translation: Barbara Piątkowska