Where is the road calling you?
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Some might call us crazy, opting to take a ten hour overnight bus from Inle Lake to the bustling city of Yangon only to hop on another six hour bus ride to the rural town of Hpa’an. Granted, sixteen hours of bus travel, not to mention wait time before each ride, seemed less than appealing to us while making the decision to pass through Yangon momentarily since we would have to return at a later date to catch our flight back to Bangkok. To our surprise, the only madness involved in our ambitious plan came once pulling into the main bus station in the city where a barrage of taxi drivers and their recruiters rushed from all angles in pursuit of the most optimum position to latch onto passengers stepping out of the bus.
At five in the morning following a “mildly” disrupted night’s sleep without our usual coffee coursing through our veins, my eyelids were nearly painful to open after realizing we had arrived. An expression I can only describe as the exact opposite of excitement was impossible to hide from my face as we reclaimed our bags from under the bus while listening to the nonstop chattering cat calls of men all but begging on their hands and knees for our attention. In the absence of spoken English we struggled to explain we were in need only of another bus, not the services of the men hoping for the hefty fair required to reach the heart of the city. Only once we were approached by a man with the ability to explain the bus we were searching for left from an entirely different terminal were we provided with any sense of direction as he and a friend led us on a ten minute walk directly to the counter where we could purchase our tickets.
Although the vendor collecting our money had given the men a small commission for their assistance, we were nearly in shock when we learned no extra charges had been passed on to us. All too often throughout previous travels we had purposely walked in the opposite direction of anyone attempting to lead us to any destination on foot to avoid the inevitability that their commission would be built into the price of whatever ticket or room we eventually booked. Again we were pleasantly surprised with the honest integrity of the people we could no longer include in our usual term, “travel mafia”, especially considering we were still yet to find anyone looking to scam or overcharge us.
A fairly typical six hour ride later we had finally reached our destination, somehow securing the last two rooms at one of the better options for guesthouses in the small town of Hpa’an run by an incredibly sweet old man sporting a pair or thick grey eyebrows that danced with every expression. I chuckled to myself, not because of his appearance but because I knew full well if I ever attempted such a look Jessie would either force me to sit still to shave them down or insist on plucking the longest of them from my face one by one. Inside our simple room the walls were painted dark purple, interrupted only by a thick teal stripe about chest high streaking in a complete circle around us. With our own plastic bin to wash our clothes in and free hot water in the common area to make our own coffee in the morning, we couldn’t have been more satisfied with our decision. After all, other than sleeping and, well…NOT sleeping in our room, what else did we really need?
Hpa’an didn’t waste time revealing its charm, nor did the locals offering expressions of welcoming hospitality. Although I feel the need to admit, being reunited with the heat and humidity may have been as enjoyable as our first impression. For the first time in a long time, beads of sweat slid along my glistening skin and saturated my clothing, a sensation I had truly missed while living in a climate never reaching the same temperature. My only saving grace came from the sight of local men wearing tank tops (something I hadn’t yet witnessed throughout the entire country) giving me the confidence I could finally do the same unless visiting the plethora of holy caves in outlying areas.
A variety of guesthouses offered guided tours to reach each cave throughout the course of a single day, a possibility we didn’t feel warranted any attention. The idea of renting a motorbike and exploring on our own was far more enticing, and fortune once again smiled on us as we secured a brand new motorbike still sporting plastic on the seat and an odometer with less than twenty km. Never before had both of our asses fit so well on the same seat while riding in Southeast Asia, nor our backs thanked us so dearly for finally having proper shocks to prevent us from wincing with pain when bouncing out of a hidden pot hole while dodging oncoming traffic.
The countryside was alive with smiling faces and numerous children spotting us from a distance, sprinting to the edge of the road with hands waiving and shrieking voices. Each cave offered its own unique experience, but perhaps one of our favorite included a long walk through the dark stillness to reach the opposite end. Large statues of Buddha were displayed gloriously near the entrance, capturing our interest and preventing us from continuing until fully satisfied we had allowed enough time to appreciate their commanding presence. No more than a five minute walk into the heart of the cave massive collections of bats could be seen when illuminated with one of our head lamps directly above us, their screeches echoing faintly in the massive chamber.
In true Burmese fashion, each visitor was required to remove all footwear while entering the holy space within, forcing us to step gingerly over a mixture of dry and semi-fresh bat shit regurgitating stifling fumes into the air. As we entered the exit of the cave, a soft tap on Jessie’s right shoulder blade immediately halted her stride. Upon her request I would shine my light on her shirt only to discover a light brown ooze clinging to her back, it’s light brown color and foul stench leaving no doubt she had been the victim of an attack from the most feared bat in nature…the diarrhea dropper. With absolute precision it had chosen its target, releasing a squirt of anal poison offensive enough to induce slight bouts of dry heaving as I wiped away the majority of the evidence.
The mouth of the cave opened to a sight of simple wooden canoes with drivers charged with paddling us along the surface of a small underground river before weaving through a shallow canal and returning us to the beginning of our journey. A cold drink and short rest before moving on with our day assisted Jessie with forgetting the recent event along with granting us the opportunity to brighten the lives of some local children accompanying their working parents and grandparents at their small snack shops forming a small string parallel to the edge of the cave. We removed two packs of sidewalk chalk from our bag, tearing them open and handing them to each of the kids before Jessie demonstrated their use on a small rock resting on the ground next to her. Even the elderly grandmother couldn’t let the opportunity pass by, accepting one of the large sticks with gratitude and inspecting it as if we had brought magic writing utensils from a land far away. Clearly, we had.
Our adventure continued as we cruised through the sparsely populated outskirts of town dotted with vibrantly green rice patties and simple villages rarely visited by tourists. Nothing has made us more grateful for our time in Myanmar than the opportunity to give to those with sincere appreciation. Random stops on the side of the road to interact with giggling local children inspired us to empty the contents of our small pack carrying coloring book sets and nail polish, each offering lighting up faces with a mixture of shock and excitement. Back in town, however, we were presented with yet another compelling opportunity to help.
Walking down the road was a small family with two young, dirty children. Their parents wore construction hats caked with filth while carrying small sacks of food and pick axes on their shoulders. We were approached by each of them, not begging, but merely asking for money. It was impossible to ignore the despair in their eyes, prompting us to offer to buy them food from a local vendor next to us. Yet, our offer was declined, much to our surprise. A local man spoke to them in Burmese before shifting his focus in our direction, leading us to believe he might be able to convey their intention. He began to translate their situation.
The family had traveled all the way from their home in Mandalay in search of work to provide for their family, but the only work they could find was scarcely enough to keep them from starving. With nothing but the clothes on their backs and enough food for the following couple of days, they were left with no choice but to walk through town and depend on the mercy of others to return home. Having already witnessed two other random locals giving a small donation to their cause, we were eager to help. We couldn’t imagine the anxious uncertainty and absolute hopelessness they must have felt knowing they couldn’t even afford to bring their children back home.
Without hesitation I followed the man’s example, though the amount we gifted not only drew praise and admiration from our translator, it nearly brought the hardworking man struggling to support his family to tears. I could tell he was suppressing the lump in his throat as his eyes welled slightly, obviously touched and astonished by our generosity. Although it was an amount we knew in the grand scheme of life we knew we wouldn’t miss, it was evident he never expected such a contribution. Jessie knelt down and handed each of the children the last of the small stuffed animals we had brought with us, handing them to some of the most deserving souls we could have ever imagined.
Our hearts were once again full and our spirits soaring, once again receiving more than we had given. As eager as we’d been to give what we could in a part of the world we’ve come to love and admire, we could have never predicted how addicting it could become.