Adventures in Monywa district - Pt.1


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Asia » Burma » Mandalay Region » Monywa
July 26th 2012
Published: July 26th 2012
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July 24

What an incredibly event-filled day!!
I'm writing this up in my blackout-prone, $25 a night hotel room (though I didn't get to post it 'til some time later as you read below). The day started early in Mandalay, as I didn't put in my earplugs before sleeping and so was woken by the quite unmusical call to prayer from the nearby mosque. I have heard a couple of exquisite ones during the day from other mosques ( a surprising number of which exist in Mandalay ) but this one probably rated as rustically functional!
Still, I managed to doze again before getting up and packed. Just as well I didn't rely on the wake-up call I asked for... the hotel staff managed to overlook that.
A short motorcycle taxi ride to the bus station, and I was punctually on the road to Monywa by 8 am. I allowed the bus staff to persuade me to spend two extra dollars and book TWO seats, to comfortably fit myself and backpack etc; and while I had occasional feelings of decadence, I was very glad of the investment, because the bus soon filled up very completely, including the seats in the aisle.
As we moved out of the city, I started to realise Burma was no longer reminding me of Vietnam in the mid-90's, so much as India in the mid 70's!
The agricultural scenes were the same you could see centuries ago - save for the windblown plastic bags littering the landscape. Ox-drawn ploughing, wooden implements, wooden bullock carts, unpaved villages, bamboo huts , palm thatched roofs.
Two hours down the road we stopped for 10 minutes and I bought a delicious mango for 100kyat ( about 10c) - but it was probably expensive, because the locals weren't buying them at all...
I felt relaxed and good throughout the trip, letting the countryside slowly go past.
Eventually we arrived in Monywa - I could tell we were at the bus station because about 50 touts keenly descended on the bus, and as a "foreigner" ( the general term used, so you can usually pick up if you are being referred to..) I was obviously a prime prospect. Fortunately ( I thought at the time ) I didn't need of their services, since I expected to be greeted by Ashin Sopaka or someone he sent.
And indeed I was greeted by his friend, who led me over to where Ashin Sopaka was having tea. Ashin then gave me the heads-up that we had special company, and that it wouldn't be possible to stay in his village overnight, as the authorities already knew of my presence. I soon met the minders, + many other members of officialdom, as Ashin Sopaka and I had lunch. Monks can't eat after noon, so lunch was early. I met the police men, the Special Branch/Intelligence service guys, the Immigration police, and I saw several other apparently senior blokes ( judging from behaviour) cruise into the tea-shop too, to check me out. It was all very polite, the usual routine questions of where had I been, where was I going, see passport etc etc, but I think even Ashin Sopaka was surprised at the level of official interest. Anyway, at least we gave them all something to do in terms of writing up reports, judging from the notes being taken.
Then, of course, it was time to find a hotel in town, since I couldn't overnight in the village. I suggested one recommended in the Lonely Planet - the police concurred that this would be good, because
In the shell of the libraryIn the shell of the libraryIn the shell of the library

These guys are sitting where the walls need to be constructed. $600 should see the whole building enclosed.
I would be "safe" ( it being near their station! ). But only one room was on offer and it wasn't worth $2, let alone $10. No other rooms were available apparently - so off we went to the next suggested hotel by motorbike, with an entourage of about 6 officers of various types. No surprises then, that with this type of attention surrounding me, ( and preceding me in the door), the next two hotels were "full" ( who needs that kind of customer!!? ). Finally, I told Ashin Sopaka, that I didn't want to offend the guys but maybe they could wait back until I got a room. Even then, I had to really stretch my legs to outpace the Special Branch guy and get to the counter first. I managed to ask if there was spare room before his presence registered, and all was well!!
If only I'd known, I'd have used a tout first, then come back meet up with Ashin Sopaka!
Quickly paying, and dumping my backpack in the room, I headed out of town in a convoy of four scooters - half of which were "minders". Ashin Sopaka's village was another hour and a half away.
The first leg was a pleasant ride along tree-lined shady bitumen roads, and because it was sunny at this point, I could really appreciate why the trees had been planted. Later the trees gave way to vistas of dry paddocks and patches of thorny acacia scrub. Then we turned off the paved road, onto sandy dirt road! I'm not a fan of dirt roads when on two wheels, let alone on thin bald tyres with no protective gear or helmet, but my rider was skilled and cautious where it counted, picking the path I would have chosen through all the ruts, so I turned the cognitive switch to fatalistic, and paid attention to the scenery!
We arrived at the village of Moe Kaung, where we stopped. It was clear we were expected... about 20 men ( village public business is clearly men's business here ) were gathered to meet Ashin Sopaka, and a number of them did the full obeisance ritual to him, before offering tea and conversation. He told me that this village too had plans to try and build a library and possibly school. Then I was shown next door, where there was a new, functional
A friendly immigration policemanA friendly immigration policemanA friendly immigration policeman

This guy was so polite, and, unlike the normal police and security police, actually wore his uniform - the others said their uniforms were "itchy", and I was left guessing if that was literal, or a euphemism.
pre-school!! Save the Children and UK Aid had assisted , judging from the signage, and I got to be the first person to sign the visitors book. I grabbed some video, and was incredibly touched by the greetings and songs that the children had rehearsed. I have no idea of the training level of the staff, but it was clear they are doing great things!!
Then it was off down the increasingly narrow and rough road to Ashin Sopaka's village Tha Bay Aye.
We sat in the future library ( you can read more about the library in the BestFriend facebook page ) and he told me of his plans and vision for it in the future, once constructed. It is actually being built on the very land where he was born - a kind of recognition to his mother and her view that education is critically important.
The project needs more funds to go to the next stage - which is walls!! The foundations, frame and roofing are all complete.
As we sat talking, tables were placed near us, food and tea were offered to him, again with full obeisance, (though the food was really for me, since Ashin could not eat it) and most of the adults of the village arrived and settled down to witness our conversation AND the conversation between Ashin Sopaka and the minders. Two more immigration officers arrived - they'd been waiting for a couple of hours because the village belongs to a different area to Monywa, which meant THAT area had to check up on me too, so they'd been ordered to do so! They seemed very nice guys and very respectful of monks. They had to hang around until I left, too.
The regular keepers of Ashin Sopaka, have a more relaxed, less formal relationship with him. There is some degree of joking , but there are subtleties of wariness too I think. What was really fascinating was to witness his public dialog with them, in front of the villagers, about the problems caused by the regulation that foreigners could not overnight in the village. Conversational, over food, but educational in purpose and effect. Very Socratic in style. Let's hope the changes mean there's no risk of a similar end now!
Looking for common ground with villagers, I asked about the seasons, how things were growing etc, and was told that it was a bit too dry, they'd had no rain for two weeks, and needed it. About half an hour later the skies open up and a deluge descended. This of course meant that I was lucky and had brought the village rain!! So big grins all around.
However I wasn't so lucky, and neither were the minders!! Because they DIDN'T want to sleep in the village, which they'd be forced to do if I did, they had to be my taxi service back to town! - a source of amusement to everyone, even them.
So we waited and waited until the rain almost stopped - then they said "Let's go", and I said "Let's wait til it stops a bit more", but another deluge started, so they were grateful we hadn't gone... and Ashin Sopaka was quite amused by it all, thinking that they'd have to let me stay after all.
Evening was descending and the dirt road was now incredibly slippery. We finally headed off on the bikes, thinking the rain was finished, and not a minute too late, because we just escaped a flash-flood raging down a dry gully towards the village as we headed out. Then it was half an hour of slipping and sliding and gully-forging, with me in a poncho and clutching a laptop bag under one arm ( yep, should have secured it at the hotel!! ), and all my other valuables under the other. Once again fatalism seemed the most appropriate state of mind. Then the downpour re-commenced!!
I felt sorry for the minders - I at least was protected by a poncho, even if my boots and pants were soaked, and after all they were just following orders from above 😉
One of them rode a scooter with particularly bad tyres, so we waited several times for him to catch up. We forged on through the dark until we reached paved road, and we were all happy there'd been no fall - I think they were worried they'd REALLY be in trouble if I got hurt on their watch! The possibility of being medivacced with broken bones crossed my mind, but somehow didn't stick... a kind of serenity had obviously taken over.

Finally the rain relented again and my minders asked if I wanted a drink. I thought it a great idea, so we stopped and we shared a beer and some stir-fried veges. The conversation was friendly and ordinary , but the notebooks weren't out ( maybe they were sodden!! ), so I counted it as a positive.

Quite a day!!
And weather permiting, I'll go back tomorrow to video the village.

Finally I arrived back at the hotel and thankfully, a HOT shower - though wi-fi was turned off . " Try again in morning" the staff said. So I did! But it wasn't working until the day after!! Seemed to suit the slow peaceful pace here 😊

I've added photos, but video will have to wait at least until I'm in Thailand

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