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Published: March 2nd 2007
Morning comes early. Tai chi is a useless endeavour. My body is aching after three days riding too small a bike, followed by a ten hour journey on a tiny bus seat followed by three days hiking and sleeping in the cold. The Portuguese couple in the bungalow next door share a cab with me to Heho airport. The lobby is no larger than a small town bus station. Three morning flights are delayed due to thick fog on the runway. I'm concerned I'll miss my connection in Yangon and speak with the front desk. "No problem, no problem," I'm assured. The sky clears and the planes land and the passengers board. Air Mandalay does not issue seat numbers. Every man, woman and child for himself. There is no warning that we are taxiing, no tables upright, fasten seat-belts, there are no safety announcements. It's obvious we are about to take off when the force presses us into the seat. I overhear the flight attendant tell my neighbour we shall land at ten to twelve. My flight to Sittwe
is scheduled for twelve. We land. Exiting the plane, I explain my situation to an attendant. I'm told to wait on the
tarmac. It's hot. A bus carries the passengers away to the arrival lounge. I'm told the flight to Sittwe is aboard the same plane! I board and wait for the other passengers to arrive. For five minutes I feel like a V.I.P. We take off. The planes shadow grows smaller and smaller, dragged across the fields and up the Ayeyerwaddy before cutting west and following the coastline, a maze of serpentine rivers and tributaries snaking through the jungle feeding the Bay of Bengal. The plane descends. Fishing boats are anchored at sea in a perfect pattern, their conical nets stretch into the sea.
Several drivers, trishaws, rickshaws and tuktuks compete for my dollars. I'm taken to Prince Hotel by an enterprising young man who pays for my ride while he shows me his travel brochures, claiming he can offer me the lowest price on a private boat to Mruak U. When I tell him I plan to catch the government ferry, he looks at me as though I 'm out of my mind. It's very unreliable, he says. I settle into a clean cozy room in Sittwe's only budget option. i rent a bike and pedal off towards the beach.
Within a block I am joined by two youths on their bikes. Claiming to be English students, they are helpful and friendly and guide me to the market where they ask around the various drug stores for sunscreen, at the fifth store success. Outside the market a crowd of young people has gathered around a loud speaker playing rock music out the back of a small pick-up truck. It is a local Rakhaing band advertising their new album. Next we head to an Indian teashop. I sit and take in the surroundings. The Rakhaing are very dark and share the town with a high number of Indians and Bengalis. The sun is bright, the shadows black and the buildings where the paint has not chipped, shine in royal blues and eggshell greens. My friends ask me if I have reserved a boat to Mruak U, a hotel. Yes. They are disappointed, dejected really. It's silent for a moment. I bid them farewell and race off for the beach, passing blue boats and bamboo fishing huts that remind me of images of the tsunami in Sumatra the year before. I reach the Point, park my bike, climb across the razor sharp
serrated rocks and wade into the brown sea, rolling up my longyi. I find a dry patch of and and lay my towel out to read. A couple teenage boys start to circle, picking up the courage to approach the foreigner. They laugh at my longyi folded up like a diaper. They have a look through my guidebook stumbling over the titles. The older one in the bunch keeps referring back to my crotch at every pause in the conversation. Young teenage boys the world over are fascinated by sex, joke about it constantly and call each other by the name of private parts. What an awkward age. We goof around for a while with my camera, one boy rustles up the courage to pose with a young girl he's crushing on. They leave me to my sunset and I ponder India across the horizon, one day, one day...
Next morning I am shuttled to the government ferry where I climb to the upperdeck and find a deckchair still held together. The lower deck is crowded with old women and piles of food baskets. The other passenegers watch me carefully for the first couple hours until their attention is drawn
sunset, Mruak U
view from hillock just north of Ratanabon
to the scenerey, a scroll unravelling, low light green hills, palm trees, fishing boats, marsh, farmers crouched in the fields. The journey took eight hours and stopped in three villages where women would climb aboard to sell snacks. It was interesteing to watch my fellow passengers, the constant clearing of throats and spitting over deck or farm blowing their nose. Most sat leaning against the rail. A deck chair cost extra. The men smoked cigars. A monk and his novice at away from he group in silence. Mruak U
was capital of Rakhaing from the fifteenth to eighteenth century. While art flourished in the Renaissance and the Americas, then Africa, then Asia came under sway of European colonization, the Rakhaing Kingdom defended itself against Indian and Burmese attacks, erected walls and canals and palaces and temples, libraries and established a navy. Eventually the Bamar centred in Mandalay took control of the Rakhaing only to be overthrown a generation later by the British. Mruak U slides into the history pages, forgotten. Several pagodas remain to tell of the past splendour, erected on hilltops and surrounded by villages of bamboo huts floating in a perpetual mist, a greyish blue smoke of cooking
sunset, Mruak U
notice all the cooking fire smoke
fires. Lakes and canals surround weave a defensive pattern around the ancient capital. It is all enchanting witnessed at sunrise from Shwetaung Paya or seen at sunset looking across the valley from just north of the palace ruins, a few hushed minutes in the day made holy in the awareness of a greater universe unchanged and man confronts his smallness, his town's smallness, his life's smallness before climbing back down into the dung. I can't recall ever visiting a town where the inhabitants have so little to do. Trishaw drivers lie flung across their livelihoods, chewing beetel, clearing their throat, napping or watching a game of chinlon, a two on two sport involving a badminton net and an oversized rattan hackysack. It was a strange experience to escape the tourist trail. Mruak U i only just now really opening to foreign tourism. One or two groups of middle-aged Germans shuttled by mini bus between temples, restaurant and ferry dock while a handful of backpackers wallowed in the shade at Prince or by the lumberyard at Royal Hotel. We look like fat white hummingbirds, our focal lenses, long beaks, flittering between shots, lifting our lens to drink of the view. There
were no twinkly xmas lights, no niknak shops, no chapatti, no lhassi. I spent one dinner listening to a Toronotonian and a Swede compare Burmese travel tales, the worst food poisoning, the longest bus ride. Both were back for their third visit. Mostly I was happy cycling and wandering the trails on my own.
I rode back to Sittwe on a private boat with a German tourist group. A quiet American fellow had also joined the crew. It was less exciting than the governmnet ferry but I was thankfully spared understanding any of their ridiculous comments. Travelers who venture in groups seldom have anything insightful to share about their destinations. Back in Sittwe I spent the night at Prince Hotel. My last morning in Sittwe before returning to Yangon was highly memorable. I will let the pics talk for themselves.
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