Making Unlikely Friendships in Mawlamyine, Myanmar

In Blog, Myanmar, Storytelling by Kay1 Comment

Stumbling off the train in Mawlamyine, I took a look around. The two women I’d spent practically the whole night with bid me goodbye just a few moments before and, as I stared off into the distance, I watched them walk away with pangs of separation sadness. Taking a deep breath, I noticed the air was quite dry and smelled of early-morning smoke. There was red mud everywhere, and its dust hung in the air in a thick, hazy swirl. At the time I didn’t know that this was a color I’d come to associate with my travels through Burma, and the people I met along the way.

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Through the translucent layers of air and dust, I could still see the striking, gold pagodas on the mountaintops in the distance. They were familiar friends in this very new place. In the gray-blue morning light, the pagodas seemed to shine even brighter, smiling down on their city like kings and queens. The sun hadn’t quite made its way over the horizon yet, and my eyelids still hung, halfway closed, not yet awake. Maybe I was dreaming…

A gruff shout brought me abruptly out of my reverie, and I frantically looked around to see where it came from. Clamoring towards me was a red-toothed taxi driver, grinning and speaking in Burmese. In my confusion I did as most travelers would do – I nodded and said “okay!” It turns out that this man was actually a moto-taxi driver who ended up taking me to my guest house in the city of Mawlamyine. Before I could even agree to anything, he was lifting my bag off my shoulders and onto the motorbike.

With his little English and my non-existent Burmese, we actually made wonderful conversation as we whizzed through the outskirts of the city. It was my first time on a motorbike, and what a scene it must have been – a five-foot-tall Asian girl carrying an enormous backpack and holding onto the driver for dear life while trying to communicate across language barriers… Yeah, it was definitely not one of my prime moments. Nonetheless, I again felt the sincere Burmese hospitality and friendliness that I experienced on my train ride the night before.

An interesting thing about the Burmese is that they love to have their pictures taken, but they don’t often smile when they pose. I snapped a quick portrait of my motorcycle driver before he took off, telling him, “I want to remember you.”

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I climbed up the narrow staircase of my guest house, the faint odors of cigarette smoke and green tea welcoming me into the place I’d call home for the next two nights. An older, surly man was watching television when I entered the lobby, presumably the owner. Anxious to explore the town, I quickly checked in, dropped off my bags, and tiptoed back down the stairs as the sun began to rise. As I left, the man graced me with his first smile of the day.

Setting off on foot, I wandered toward the riverside and found a quiet road with few shops or people. Interesting, I thought to myself, musing that the waterfront areas in the United States often have prime real estate, expensive restaurants and typically too much congestion. What a stark contrast this was to everything I knew!

Eventually I found my way into a small eatery on Strand Road, right by the waterfront. I hadn’t yet tried the famous mohinga, a popular Burmese fish soup, so I quickly ordered and stared out into the distance at the water. Then, when my soup arrived, the waiter asked me timidly, “Where you come from?

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I replied that I am American, but my family is Filipino. He and the other woman working started giggling, admitting that they were both confused when they saw me, thinking I was Burmese.

“But you’re not wearing clothes like Burmese,” he added.

I looked down at what I was wearing – baggy backpacker pants, an oversized t-shirt, and flip flops. Indeed, I was dressed like a tourist. Sigh.

We chatted for a while longer, the best we could do with the heavy language barrier. I could tell that it had been difficult for the workers to meet tourists before, most likely because of the patience required to converse with no common languages. But we made it work, and I found myself enjoying the morning with the few new friends I made.

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After snapping a photo of the two workers and their young child, I asked them what I should do for the day. They recommended I check out “Shampoo Island,” a small, nicely decorated island nearby. With no agenda for the day, I happily set off for the docks and jumped on the next boat to the island. Strangely enough, I was the only one on the boat. Were there no other tourists in this town?

Arriving at the island, it looked like some kind of movie set or Candyland-esque scene. Colored statues and buildings filled the tiny land space, and I seemed to be the only foreigner around. Hmm.

I climbed up the stairs to the island when two smiling young girls greeted me in Burmese. They were very zealous, so immediately I had my guard up.

Mingalaba,” I replied back, smiling politely.

One girl, wearing a long blue dress, took my hand and asked where I was from. I answered to surprised looks from both of them. Then, with giggles and wide, toothy smiles, they grabbed me by the hand and offered to show me around the island. I happily agreed, but still reminded myself that they might be looking for tips at the end.

Statues and religious monuments adorned the island’s paths, and the girl in blue did her best to tell me what each thing was. I listened attentively. At one point, I asked the girls if I could take a photo of them, explaining it was for my website. Instead, it turned into a full portrait session – three grinning girls and kissy faces included. My new friends and I were having more fun taking selfies than looking at the monuments, but that’s what makes travel interesting, isn’t it?

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After we finished looking around the island, the two girls introduced me to some of their other friends, an unusual troupe of two female monks and a young, male novice monk. They greeted me and said things to me in Burmese that I, of course, couldn’t understand. I prepared to say goodbye to the girls and offer them some money when the monks started waving their hands at me, speaking excitedly in Burmese.

“What are they asking?” I asked my friends.

The girl in blue replied, “They want to know if you will come back and eat with us at the monastery.”

Again, I didn’t have any agenda for the day, so my initial inclination was to join them. But, in the back of my mind, I thought about the potential dangers of the situation. What if they kidnapped me and made me shave my head and become a monk? What if I couldn’t find my way back to the guest house? What if I got robbed?

But, the adventurer in me decided that this experience was too unique to pass up, so I nodded and followed them to the boat. As we rode back to shore, I thought to myself – Here I am in the middle of Myanmar with monks, teenage girls, and an oversized backpack. How lucky am I to be here right now?

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I’d never been to a monastery before and I’d certainly never hung out with monks, so this situation was totally unfamiliar to me. When we arrived at the monastery, I was intrigued by what I saw. The girls shared a small cottage with the two female monks, sleeping on wooden bed frames with no mattresses. Structurally, the home was made of dark wood, with cracks that let sunlight and air in. There were just two rooms, a bedroom and a kitchen. The house was quite clean, but I noticed that it had quite a few spider webs and mosquitoes inside.

Buddhists, as it turns out, don’t kill the critters in their homes – or anything, for that matter. They also take a vow to live in poverty during their time of service. However, all of the four women in the house had a smartphone. It is the 21st century, after all!

After some food preparations, we sat down to eat lunch. First, however, the monk-nuns blessed the food, bowing their heads and chanting in Burmese for a few minutes. We all sat down on the floor around a short, wooden table. Something was missing as I perused the table…silverware. No forks, no spoons, no chopsticks, no nothing. What was I supposed to do?

We did as any person without silverware would logically do – we ate with our hands. I watched as the girls took the rice and molded it into little balls, which they then used to pick up the different vegetables and eggs from the various bowls on the table. In the meantime, a stray cat had wandered into the house and joined us at the table for lunch. What a strange afternoon it was panning out to be!

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I was really starting to feel oddly connected with these lovely women, even though they hardly spoke my language and I didn’t speak theirs. The rest of the day we spent riding bumper cars, exploring the market, and riding a horse and carriage. The girls treated me to sugarcane juice and small handmade gifts as we chatted about like in Myanmar, life in the United States, and what the girls wanted to do with their lives. I found out that they were both seventeen and had been sent by their families to live with the monks at the female monastery. I found that they weren’t at all different from the average seventeen-year-old; they love to gossip, text their friends, and meet people. These bubbly girls treated me as if I were their sister – watching my backpack in the market, hugging and linking arms with me, and practicing their English with wide smiles. Throughout the day, I had my guard up but slowly let it down as I warmed up to my new friends.

In the evening, the female monks guided us in a tuk-tuk through the city’s most dazzling pagodas. I learned how to pay my respects to the Buddhas, and what not to do in a temple (read: pointing feet at people and letting my sweater slip over my shoulder to reveal visible skin). Our night ended with a visit to the local male monastery, where an English-speaking monk-teacher fed us watermelon and taught us about Buddhism. I was awed at how wise and intelligent the head monk was, and how well he spoke English! It became obvious throughout my travels that the monks in Myanmar are some of the most educated people in the nation. As we departed the monastery and boarded our tuk-tuk, the monks thanked me profusely for visiting. I was confused – I should have been the one thanking them!

I’m still in disbelief that these complete strangers would take me in for a day and teach me about their various traditions and customs, bumper cars included. But it’s a testament to the amazing levels of kindness, curiosity, and selflessness that I saw many times throughout my trip. People are the reason why travel is so downright awesome.

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At the end of the night, when the tuk-tuk dropped my off by my guesthouse, I wanted to offer the monks some money to pay for all of the taxis, the horse carriage, and all of the food that they gave me. I pulled a few thousand kyat out of my bag to hand to them, but as soon as they saw what I was doing, they stopped me in my tracks, shaking their heads and motioning me to put it back. I insisted, but they wouldn’t budge.

“It’s a gift,” one of the young girls said, smiling. As the tuk-tuk began to drive off into the darkness, all of my new friends waved and yelled goodbye.

A gift, it was, for I’ll never forget the day I spent with my eclectic set of new Burmese friends. After they drove away, I took one last look toward where my smiling, waving friends once stood and smiled. I then turned and walked quietly back on the empty streets of Mawlamyine toward the narrow stairs of my guesthouse. A new place awaited me in the morning.

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Have you made unexpected friends in a foreign place? Tell me your story in the comments!

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Comments

  1. Myanmar is the perfect place for agreeing to do things with random strangers. My friend and I agreed to a tour of Myawaddy’s temples with a couple of guys we met at a streetside restaurant. It crossed our minds that our cellphones were across the border in Thailand, and no one knew exactly where we were either, but it was a fun adventure.

    And after that tour was done, we met a guy in a cafe who took us to the local monastery and worked out the numerology of our names.

    It’s always the people that make travel great.

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