I was in Yangon, capital of Myanmar, formerly known under British rule as Rangoon, capital of Burma. But today I left behind the gleaming pagodas and everyday city life, and crossed the river to the warren of slums and dusty lanes that form the vast multi-shanty towns of Dala. Yangon, the noisy, taxi-tootling sprawl that is the modern city, I’ll come to later. Just now, here is a single morning spent shooting around in the dust of Dala.
I’d met Lin, a language student, at the Sule Pagoda a couple of days earlier. A few words about football had introduced us, and he then showed me round the pagoda and nearby sights of the city for a couple of hours, and told me lots of stuff I wouldn’t otherwise have known, then refused to take any money for doing so. (He said ‘it is good for my English’, and that it would help him get a job in a travel agent). Maybe it was this that made me call him up a couple of days later and arrange to meet, to take him up on a suggestion he’d previously made, i.e. to take the ferry across the Yangon River to the much poorer side.
As I’d suggested, we met at the door to the ferry terminal, he made himself cleverly accessible by wearing his Man United shirt. It was a hot morning already, we went into a small dingy room like the booking office of a remote east European train station, and I paid for two tickets. Free plastic bottles of water came with these. The ferry, ready to leave, was already a maelstrom of passengers talking and traders, often children, yelling and selling snacks; fruit, sweets. We made our way to the top and front (yes, Titanic was mentioned, by him actually, when he said he couldn’t swim) and he bought a bag of bread. As we swept out into the river, a huge flock of seagulls kept up with us, and we tossed the small bread balls up into the air, where they were caught by the gulls. The birds were so close if I’d reached out further I’m sure they could have taken the snacks right out of my hand, big gulls they were too, their wings almost touching the side of the boat as they wheeled up and past.
The other side, for about 500 yards, was if anything even more noisy and chaotic, and of course hot. This was about 10.30 am, I didn’t know what to expect next, and seemed to have slipped into very much a meh-ntality while here in Myanmar. So I was happy to be led by Lin when he said that we’d need bikes. He’d mentioned a few places we should visit, and I’d caught the words ‘monastery’, ‘bamboo village’, and ‘snakes’. I guess ‘snakes’ is a word that jumps out of any conversation. But as I say, today I was going with whatever flow, and we hired 2 guys with mopeds, and set off.
Obviously, as seasoned and perhaps damaged travellers abroad, we all develop an untrusting cynical ON button, and despite my casuality, I was always aware that I was very much on their turf, I had about £100 on me, (a taxi to virtually anywhere in Yangon will not cost you £3, a train ride round the entire circle line is 11p) and we were now zooming inland along the roads, beeping and being beeped at by every other vehicle on the road, and if this carried on a whole lot further, they, the 2 bike drivers and Lin, could quite easily just park somewhere quiet and draw a knife. But it felt OK so far, Lin was perched on the bike in front, me on the back of the second one. I certainly felt no apprehension about the driving itself, despite the apparent chaos all around. The beeping isn’t anger or frustration, it’s just a way of telling people exactly where you are, and we buzzed along, in and out of taxis and lorries, carts and cows, and soon pulled up at a monastery.
We removed our shoes, as you must at all the temples and pagodas here, and Lin handed them to one of the drivers. My ON button flashed and I said I’d rather keep mine with me. The drivers just waited while Lin and I walked through into the first quiet room, where women were sitting near the altar, just fanning themselves. And a Burmese cat lay absolutely spark out, though in here it was quite cool.
In this room were ‘donations’, food given by anyone, for the monks to eat at their daily meal at 11. We walked quietly up the staircase to the monks living room, just a very simple dormitory with a few possessions at the foot of each bed. The monks were all young men, 25 or so, dressed in red ochre robes. It was quiet and peaceful up there, and I lingered at the top of the stairs, rested on the rail and went no further.
Next we went through to the children’s quarters. I was constantly asking Lin if it was OK to take photos, and he constantly told me it was OK anywhere in the compound. The question was taken out of my hands here though, when three young monks, not kids, approached and asked if they could have their picture taken with me. I also gave my phone to Lin – I was alright with this level of trust by now – and we all grinned.
While we leaving here, bells went off all over the temple, and all the dogs went nuts. Pavlov’s theory, which is obvious to us now, was again proved in all its glory. It was the one meal of the day for the monks, and the dogs knew that too, and that afterwards it’d be their turn. There were lots of skinny dogs loping or sprawling around, and one horribly decrepit one, with mange and a raw patch on its head that it kept scratching, and its balls looked like a tangle of white worms, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any animal in that condition. None of these dogs were aggressive or seemed in distress, but they certainly weren’t in good shape. Why should I expect otherwise really, when the human residents were relying on rice given by locals to survive themselves.
Soon the monks all filed out from their dormitory and slowly queued into the eating hall, accepting bowls from volunteer women on the way in. They sat around cross-legged, the food on round tables on the floor, but didn’t eat. Then they began a chant, which lasted for about 2 minutes, before finally ladling rice into their bowls and eating it with morsels from the table, some chicken, pork, a few vegetables, spicy sauces and soup. After this meal they would study in the afternoon and that was that until tomorrow.
Lin had been carrying my sandals all the time in the monastery, and now as I watched the monks and the whole ritual, he was fanning me constantly. Although obviously a servile routine, to which I would normally find hard to accept, I let him carry on; servile to me may just be simple hospitality to them.
After we left the dining hall (I’d actually been offered food but that was absolutely a no no for me, for obvious reasons, but I thanked them, ‘chesuba’, we’ve been told; ‘minglaba’ is hello) I told Lin how utterly different this was from my world in London; today was already becoming a unique occasion, I was seeing things from another world. I hadn’t given much thought to what I was visiting today, it was little more than a boat trip really, to see what was on the other side; a different view of Myanmar life.
Finally at the monastery we came to the dead body of a monk who had lived there for the last 60 years, and who had died last year at the age of 95. He was laid in a small brass coffin and painted in real gold, hence the padlock on his cage, Lin pointed out.
The boys were waiting with the bikes and off we went again. I said I was seeing things from another world, and that’s a great thing, but of course pretty much all of what I was seeing was not great. Such poverty, everywhere I looked. We were definitely driving through towns, or maybe one great long township, where people lived in stilted wooden shacks set off the road. There’d be a stretch of ground by the road, then a dip, sometimes filled with a pool or stream. Across this was either a stone causeway, or often just a flimsy ladder over to the building behind. These were open, and I could see inside to the bare space, floorboards, a few cushions, perhaps a hammock or two, some tins of provisions; it was pretty sparse. Occasionally I passed landfill tips, huge swathes of garbage fluttering in the hot sun, among which skinny dogs nosed and loped uncertainly.
Lin had mentioned a bamboo village, and after a while we turned up a single stony road. There were no buildings on either side now, just this track between arid fields. Up ahead I could see some sort of settlement, with a tall stone tower. We drove up beside this and stopped. There was no-one else in sight. If the lads had decided to rob me, now would have been very easy. But apparently this wasn’t the plan. The two drivers sat back with their bikes and lost interest, while Lin explained that this tower was an incinerator, and the area behind, with flat, whitewashed stones placed unevenly on the ground was the graveyard.
There was a village of sorts, merely a run of dwellings, and we started casually to walk around. It was mostly unbelievable squalor. By now I was feeling pretty much like Michael Palin in the depths of Africa, and the situation of these people and those of the hovels of Botswana must be similar. There was simply a line of houses, and of course when I say houses, I simply mean places where people live. I was now walking along a path only feet from the edge of the doorways of these huts, a tricky, windy, rough path that meandered past the various uneven and tattered dwellings. There was no activity at all. There were plenty of people there, but nobody was doing a single thing. They simply sat together in the doorways, or on the wooden steps of their flimsy shacks, many lay asleep, sprawled in unlikely comfort across the steps.
But all those who were awake were smiling, and waved and called ‘Minglaba!’ to me as we passed. I was torn, between smiling and waving back, and slinking by ashamed, as if I was spying on them, invisible and peering in at their horrendous world through some privileged portal. These people I wanted to give money to, but that wasn’t right either. They lived in a short squiggly line of huts along one side of a large stagnant pool. The water was brown, with rushes sticking out and rubbish floating in it. After Bamboo Row we walked back round the other side of this swamp, and came to a stone bridge with a zombie on it. He was a small boy with shocking red hair and red hands, and his face was completely covered in a chalky cream against the sun. He wore green shorts and an immaculately white shirt, and carried a long needle. Only at the pond had it occurred to me to take pictures of this squalid village, the like of which I’d probably never see again, such was my guilt at showing myself, the gorged westerner in their threadbare surroundings. I asked Lin to ask him if I could take his picture. His mask shifted a little as he thought about it, he spoke and Lin said yes. Then he thought some more, and paused, and spoke again. Lin told me he wanted to see the picture. So I showed him, in a sort of ‘don’t you look good here on Blackpool beach’ sort of way, but he seemed pleased, and I took a few more. More ‘Minglaba!’s from some huts past the bridge, and a couple of tiny children who hugged each other whenever I pointed my camera at them. I was a bit phased by the whole place, and muttered something about it being dreadful and awful and asked Lin if people gave donations to people here. “Why?” he said immediately, obviously surprised. “Because it’s dreadful, awful…” I trailed away, as it seemed I might be giving offence. But to him the sight of the village was utterly normal, not special in any way, and certainly not pitiable.
Some respite to my guilt came at our next stop, a recycling enterprise called the Chu Chu Pilot Project. This consisted of a single, much-healthier-than-I’d-seen lady called Wendy who sat in her studio in her hut and made all sorts of colourful craftwork from used plastic bags, newspapers and magazines. Chu chu is the Myanmar word for plastic bag, and it’s onomatopoeic, being the sound plastic bags make when they’re scrunched up. Lots of the items, including what I bought, a sunglasses case, a purse and a wine bottle cover, still had much of the print from the newspapers still visible in their patterns. Both the walls and windows of Wendy’s shack were made of bottles. Clear, empty ones to let the light in, and ones filled with mud, and mudded together to form the walls. It was pointed out that the EU was a source of funding for the project, and my guilt returned, Britain having now turned away from the Union. Just before we left, I reached for my bottle of water, then realised what I was doing and exclaimed “So if I finish this, I’ll be contributing!” Wendy smiled and pointed to the recycling bucket. Delighted, I drained the bottle and dropped it in.
I don’t know how far we’d come from the river by now, maybe we’d been going round in circles and it was still nearby, but it didn’t feel like it. It felt like we’d been travelling consistently inland, and I was far away from the river, the city, and further up to my hotel. But Lin said “You want to see the snake temple? It is half an hour.” Of course I wanted the snake temple, but it wasn’t until we were back on the bikes that I took in that we must now be travelling some considerable distance, this was now becoming a real trek into the unknown, in so many ways. We took off on our scooters again, and the township petered out into occasional stalls along the roadside, and we were soon zooming along a highway, in and out of slower motorbikes, cars, taxis, lorry-loads of workers, and pedestrians simply ambling along on the road. Goats and cows grazed or were tethered to trees as we shot past, the breeze now cooling as we approached midday. Half an hour along this road and it felt as though I might as well never return to sanitised hotel rooms with clean square floors, the work we were here to do, or jumbo jet flights home. I was part of another world now.
At one point we turned off, back down the lanes of another busy township, and came to a sort of crossroads, with a small shrine in the middle to mark it. There was a fuel stop just off the junction, and while the boys did that, Lin showed me a kwun-ya stall. A very common far eastern practice is to chew paan, or betel leaves filled with limewater and crushed nuts, the whole being a general mouth refreshment, which many people chew in batches all day every day. After it loses its flavour it’s spat into the street, I saw many taxi drivers do this, opening their doors at traffic lights to leave a red splodge on the dusty white streets. I don’t know what part of the mixture, possibly the chewed betel leaves turns red, but so many of the population’s teeth were stained, a whole army of smiling vampires.
Over many years, I’ve welcomed anything new to taste (the bug in a basket I’d sampled a couple of days ago, horse in Bratislava, kangaroo in Melbourne, raw abalone at the Tokyo fish market) or smoke (shisha in Georgia, weed on a Spanish train) and most experiences have had no ill effect whatsoever, so I’ve gone on welcoming, surviving to my early 50s on it. But this was one I didn’t fancy. I like my teeth brown, not red.
The boys had filled up, Lin had also refused the paan, I was handed a fresh bottle of water, and off we went again, away from the busy crossroads, out through shack-lined lanes and out again onto the flashing highway, and the glory of zipping in and out of traffic in the hot breeze.
Lin and his driver were up ahead, we could hardly keep up with them, and they were often a dusty speck in the distance. But suddenly we appeared to be catching them up, and we overtook a lorry as we passed them, Lin’s face looking amazed at us. Then we realised they’d stopped. I wondered what particular sight could be along this stretch of highway, but this wasn’t for me, they’d broken down. By now I wasn’t suspecting any rough stuff anymore; the lads were disappointed in the bike and wondered what to do. After some chat, Lin and I drove off on the one I was on while both the lads had to stay with the broken bike to wait for help in the hot sun.
Then we slowed, turned left under a single arch, and soon pulled up at a small cluster of dwellings. There was a big green lake, a bridge stretching across the middle of it from the trees on either side, another bridge from our end, and in the middle a single white building with a gold pagoda on its roof. Lin and I had to remove our shoes before even stepping out onto the bridge, this was another temple, after all. The narrow bridge had green wooden rails, and there were blips in the water on either side as mysterious creatures rose to look at us and dipped, never quite seen. The temple in the centre was a small room, a sort of open parlour, with a shrine of Buddhas in the middle, and I wondered where the snakes were. Then I looked closer at the Buddhas. Between the two squatting nearest me, about a foot away, was a grey-brown heap. Once it caught my eye, I could see that it was a heap of coils, in fact a foot-tall heap of the coils of an enormous python, just slumbering between the two gold gods. Then Lin pointed to the windows, which were high up, their sills open. On each sill, about a metre above our heads, slept another enormous snake, just snoozing in the cool of the slim window pane, some coils drooping over. A young monk sat by one wall, dressed pinker than his comrades at the monastery, there was a trader of some sort, sitting cross-legged on the floor, and under his low table was a smaller snake, awake. The trader was chatting to someone sitting across from him, and I watched as the snake slunk almost imperceptibly towards his knee. Then it stopped, perhaps, perhaps also cooled, by the tiles underneath. For some inexplicable reason, today I was extremely casual. Other words may be stupid, or naïve, or just too damn relaxed even for a musician, but as with my cynical button, which was now almost entirely OFF, I was absolutely fine with this proximity to snakes in the wild. Previously in life I’d only ever seen them in cages, as most of us have, but today I filmed a live one moving within a foot of my sandaled foot. As eyes become accustomed to the light, it quickly became apparent that this small parlour was absolutely full of snakes, and not little ones. They dozed on, and looped down from every window sill, they were under every low surface, and they filled the gaps between the serene squatting Buddhas. In the very centre of the shrine was a tree, whose branches swept under the low ceiling. But when I looked closer, I could see no less than four giant pythons asleep in its branches.
In one large corner of the temple was a blanket, pinned down by bricks in the corners, but under which I could see another huge cylinder of snake. I wondered how quickly a scaly head could dart out and clasp my ankle. “Why is that one under there?” I whispered to Lin. “Because she’s pregnant” he answered. But anyone could quite easily have stumbled onto her, or just stepped onto the blanket to get round other visitors. “They’re not poisonous, are they?” I asked Lin; “Oh yes” he replied, surprised. “How fast can they move?” I asked. “Why, do you want to touch one?” said Lin. His answers were always so much more dangerous than the question I’d asked. But in the name of adventure and all the shish in Georgia, of course I said yes. My mouth did anyway. So we went back round to the giant beauty snoozing between the Buddhas at the front. Now we were here I could see that there was a clearly visible head astride a higher set of coils, eyes closed, for now. Lin reached out and stroked a lower section of the python. Anything he could do; so I reached out and stroked two different sections, as if to show I was braver, perhaps enjoying it, as though it was a regular pastime of mine. But I wasn’t too self-conscious not to pay attention, and the feel was a lot smoother than the rough scales I’d been expecting. This was hard and oily, though both those words are too strong, The hard did not feel as if, if you pinched it, it wouldn’t give (and another part of it would rise up and grasp you on the face), and the oily was more balmy, is if rubbed with ointment, but not recently.
I spent the time in this temple in wonder, as was becoming the whole day, yet not frightened. This was not a large room, there were more snakes than humans in it, yet for some reason I was unafraid. Put yourself in unfamiliar surroundings and you react to the surroundings very strongly. I was in a situation where it was just natural and normal to be surrounded by snakes at every turn, and I felt utterly unperturbed. Though I dare say if any one of those big pythons had woken up and shown any animation whatsoever I’d have run out and dived into the lake, whatever was in it.
* * *
A couple of days before, the day I’d met Lin, on my first outing into the city, I’d bought a longhi. To us, this is a sarong. To westerners reading this, apart from David Beckham, it’s a curtain without the hooks. Just a wide swipe of cloth, with no elastic at the top end, you step into it like a dress, or pull it over yourself like a duvet cover (I recommend the former), then do some quick-hand manoeuvre to tighten the thing round your waist, then scrunch some of it up into twists as is if you were knotting rubbish sacks, stuff the ends inside your ‘belt’ and hopefully it’ll stay on for more than 3 seconds. Now comfortably and locally attired, I could now stride into the magnificent Sula Pagoda and wander around. About twenty minutes earlier I’d tried to go in and a couple of girls at the stalls at the foot of the steps had pointed at me and said no. I thought it was because I was wearing shorts, too much bare flesh for a sacred place, so I’d nipped off to buy the longhi. Now, having bought it, I realised that it was the other way round, I was wearing too much, and that they actually wanted me to take off my sandals. However the longhi was surprisingly comfortable and I didn’t regret buying it. Or the cheap, bright gold sunglasses I’d got from the shop next door.
Before long, inside the pagoda, Lin had approached me, and asked what team I supported. He said he liked Manchester United, which was a good start. And being as I say, extremely relaxed about everything, I let him show me round the rest of the golden pagoda. He explained things like the shrines. You go to the shrine that corresponds to the day you were born. Lin had a piece of paper on him that could determine when this was. As he unfolded it he asked me when I was born. When I said 1966 he burst out laughing and unfolded the paper even further. Turns out I was born on a Sunday (which makes me bonnie and blithe and good and gay, according to the children’s rhyme), so we found the Sunday shrine. At all the shrines there is a Buddha, a small water feature, and a particular animal; cows, monkeys, dragons. I forget what Sunday’s beast was, but the idea is that you take a ladle and anoint the head of the animal with water three times. This is a simple procedure for good fortune, as so many things are in this country and religion.
Lin wasn’t pushy, or in any way grasping, he was easy to talk to. After the burst of laughter I’d asked him how old he was, he said twenty-one. A language student, learning not just English but French as well, he politely steered me round the Sula pagoda, and when we left started pointing out nearby ex-colonial buildings; I would say remnants of the old British Empire but these were huge, stately buildings, in excellent condition, imposing and four-square. This area had been the seat of the British government in Burma, and like the Arc de Triomphe, we’d begun the road system at the Sula pagoda, and all roads led to it.
We meandered along a small street market, just chatting, really. There was a boy with a huge basket of bugs. I’d told myself before I came here that I was going to try anything that came my way. Lin saw my interest, and offered me one. I made him take one too, he bit the tail end off and ate it, so I did the same. Quite tasty really, and not too crunchy, or slimy. The boy dipped a tin can into the pile and held it up full, but I didn’t want that, I’d only wanted to try a single one; he looked disappointed. Yes, I could have eaten a few more, but the tin can must have had about 100 of the small insects in.
Soon we came to the Yangon river, wide and light brown. Across it I could see that the city had stopped, and that this was a different area altogether. Lin asked if I wanted to go over, which I did. But I’d run out of time, I had to be back at the hotel, ready to go to work in about 45 minutes, so there was no way I could start crossing rivers. But he wrote his number down, and I jumped in a cab back to the hotel.
All this was a couple of days before. This morning I’d asked the concierge to ring the number, and Lin had immediately agreed to meet me down at the ticket shed for the ferry. Hence the Man United shirt, easily spottable, clever lad, and now I was stroking snakes about 40 miles away on the other side of the river.
I had to keep an eye on the clock today too, there was also work to be done, but not till about 4 o’clock, so I’d told Lin I had to be back at my hotel by three, in fact I wanted to eat at a place I’d looked up at around two. When I told him this, he said I should eat with him, he was actually inviting me into his house! Or rather his aunt’s, with whom he lived. I was shamefully dubious, then suddenly realised what a generous offer this was, and what an opportunity to get much closer to Myanmar life than I’d have thought possible, so I said I’d love to. What on earth would we be eating, I wondered.
Our next stop was a factory, or rather a hovel full of looms, where a couple of young girls sat all day, expertly weaving on the clanky wooden machines as if driving a car, or playing an organ. The footwork needed to operate the various wooden crossbeams and different parts of the looms was extraordinary. This was where longhis were made, perhaps mine had been made here, and the speed with which the material crept through the machine was amazing, as the girls nimbly performed the same set of movements over and over, the loom constantly in motion like a sort of giant clumsy mechanical spider. We stayed here in the semi-darkness for only about ten minutes, then we were off on the bike again, this time to a pottery.
Also in a dusty shack off the road, more young girls skilfully crafted the clay on spinning stones, producing a gourd-sized bowl every five minutes. These would be taken out to dry in the searing sun before being glazed. I filmed a bit of the procedure on my phone, and a very young girl turned her face away and giggled.
Soon the sides of the road became busier again, and we drove into a town. I saw the sign saying Twantay, and shortly we pulled up outside an open café. This was where Lin’s aunt lived, and we went inside and sat down. She was in the kitchen area, which was at the front of the room, simply a circle of silver pots, in which she stood and beamed at us. She brought us bowls of rice and we went up and helped ourselves to small portions from the various pots: pork, chicken, beef, fish from another giant brown river on which Twantay was built, a tributary of the famous Irrawaddy river, it turned out. But this was magnificent to me, eating in a proper locals café, a small single room, fans cooling the close lunchtime heat, eating what anyone would eat, so far removed from the pristine buffet at the hotel; this was real street food. And of course it was delicious. Three or four small curries, eaten with my rice bowl and water to drink, though I was offered beer as well. I’d so landed on my feet here, and the whole day was such an adventure, much more so than anything official or organised. I’d just bumped into a lad, and taken off into a virtual wilderness with him on the back of a scooter, and therefore experienced close-up things which I’d otherwise never have seen.
After lunch, and many thanks to his aunt (no money was ever mentioned to pay for this food), Lin turned the bike round and we headed off, the long, long way back to the ferry. It was going to be close. At this point it was gone 2 o’clock and as far as I could tell, I was about 50 miles away from the Yangon river, which I would then have to cross, then get a cab back to the hotel. I had a different, more familiar world to return to; 50 miles seemed more like a million. But we sped back out of town, the outskirts became a highway, flashing along in the sun, past occasional rickety homesteads, rubbish dumps, past turn-offs for the pottery, the looms, the archway leading to the snake temple, the street where Wendy made handbags from old newspapers, the dusty road to the frightful bamboo village, the gentle white monastery, and finally back to the thriving, bustling port. We met up with the two lads who’d set off with us, now that they had limped back with the broken scooter, and now money was mentioned. I think I handed over about £70 in all, and was very pleased. It was very casually done, and what I’d paid for was stupendous. All those many, many sights and experiences, hiring two bikes (though only one of them made it) and two drivers, zooming around this completely new world, with its inspiring workers and squalid conditions, the speed of the bike cooling me in the dry heat, for about 5 hours in all, I felt this adventure was one of the best days I’ve ever had when travelling, and it all started with a chance meeting in the Sula pagoda two days earlier.
After settling up, Lin and I got back on the ferry, yelled at by the flock of traders on the shore then the flock of seagulls by the boat. We drifted against the tide, back across to the noise and hot bustle of the new city, I gave Lin a further 30,000 chets, about £20, as I didn’t think he’d received any earlier, and thanked him for it all. I hope it was a good amount for him. He didn’t ask for it, and had actually said I should pay less earlier, as one of the bikes had failed.
When our group met in the hotel foyer at 4, the usual questions were asked about ‘what did you get up to today’, and people told of their various exploits. When I was asked I said I couldn’t begin to tell them the amount of things I’d done that day. When I finally reeled off what I could remember people were astounded, and impressed, and I was certainly hailed as the adventurer of the day, if not the entire week. Because it was, one of the best adventures of my whole blessed career. I can hardly believe it all happened.