Breaking Burma Day 91: Shifting into High Gear

After breakfast, we were assigned our motorbikes that we rented for the day. Continuing the narrative of new experiences, I got to try a semi-automatic motorcycle for the first time with gears and a kickstart, which I struggled with initially. Eventually I came into my own as I felt the cool breeze rush past me ever so faster with each increased notch of kph. The reality of a full-on bike trip through Vietnam is becoming an increasing likelihood the more time I spend on a motorcycle. Since I got the scoop on what’s to been seen around Hpa-an from the guesthouse reception, I became the tour guide for the day through thick and thin. The roads in the city had no lanes beside the main divider even though the road stood a fair six lanes of traffic wide. With that in mind, traffic composed of buses, trucks, tuk-tuks, motorbikes, and cars weaved amongst each other in an organized chaos with us in the thick of it. Eventually the pavement vanished into a rocky stubble that led to our first cave of the day. On the way, we waved at the many locals lining the road. They had the biggest smiles on their faces as if our presence made their day. Whenever we got lost and pulled off to the side of the road, someone was always willing to help even if we didn’t ask for it. The entrance road to the cave was lined with hundreds of red monks as this was a religious site. If there is a ridge, peak or hole in the rock, the Burmese will find a way to build a shrine on top of it or within it. After this particular cave, we went in search of the cave highlighted on the map and in our guide books: Saddan Cave. In between the vast green from the paddy fields that consumed much of the land, the winding narrow red dirt roads cut across many pebbles and dislodged rocks creating a bouncy ride. Even though we were sitting down, I endured a pounding as the roads rattled my bones and shot me upwards for brief airborne hops. At Saddan, we walked through a cave that reached all the way to the other side through a deeply hollow channel into the mountain. That path led past many Buddhas, both large and small, reclining and seated, before reaching the main stretch filled with hissing and laughing like a hyena bats, a colony of thousands. As physics says, what goes up must come down, the majority of the floor had a thin but noticeable layer of guano on it. Normally such an inconvenience wouldn’t be a problem but when you are walking barefoot out of respect to Buddhism, those slippery, greasy steps felt like a queasy mud path for the feet. After exiting through the other side we decided to take the boat back to the entrance. The boat if you want to call it one is more like a canoe, a wood hull large enough to fit three passengers and a Burmese paddler. As soon as we all sat down in the canoe, the boat sank into the water to the point that we had a matter of a couple of inches between the water surface and the top of the boat. The piece of wood drifted along the water quite slowly before passing though a narrow chute of deep grass, mud, and water. Taking for as long as it was in the blazing heat, I baked like a roasted duck with the timer set to extra crispy. After a further walk back to the entrance, we hopped back on our bikes to a quote unquote lake. Along the way, we ran across a couple Israelis that we recognized from the guesthouse who unluckily came up with a flat tire. Toon and I went over to a home just down the street where I could communicate via charades what the problem was. He didn’t say a word of English but shouted out into the distance to the apparent handyman in the area. The man went about fixing the tire as if it were his duty. Myanmar continues to outdo itself with its friendliness. People have helped me and others before but I always got the feeling that they wanted something. With Burmese people, all they want is a ‘hello’, a returned smile, and possibly find out where you are from. To those back home, get over to Myanmar before it is too late. I worry that this magical place will turn into Thailand, a pure tourism mecca. The influx of money will benefit these people greatly but it will surely sour the beauty and freshness that their culture and joy has sprung upon me. We reached the lake which ended up being more of natural/man-made community pool. Regardless I jumped in to cool off. I will take advantage of every opportunity to escape the beating sun in some way. As we ate our lunch at one of the restaurants, two cows ambled by as if it were the most normal thing in the world. Nearby we visited another pagoda that sat precariously atop a narrow, lumpy rock, all of which stood in the middle of two orbiting streams separated by a thin patch of land. It was getting late so we had to head back to Hpa-an before completing the tour I set out to complete so that I could get a much needed shower. After washing, I said goodbye to Toon, Joris, and Charlene, my friends for the past couple days (felt like we knew each other for much longer), hoping we might be able to meet up again sometime down the road in Myanmar. After waiting longer than necessary for the bus to arrive, I boarded realistic about my expectations for getting sleep but it began to outdo the train ride in more different, cruel ways. For starters, the air-con bus had, you know, no air-con so a hot and sweaty journey awaited me. The perk of the bus was the two TV screens hanging from the ceiling but shortly after I was ready to rip them from their sockets, bash them against the seats, and throw them out the blessed window. The TVs played MTV music videos from hell with the worst musical accompaniment known to man, sounding like a stuck record that repeats the most horrid part of the song eternally. I swear Myanmar and SE Asia have erased all that has been learned in the history of music and film making and are just now starting where the early primordial humans began bashing rocks and animal skins. If I weren’t blind as it is, I was about ready to gouge my eyes out so I wouldn’t have to subject myself to such cruelty. It felt like the movie Clockwork Orange in which the main character must sit with his eyes peeled open through movies filled with horrifying, inhumane scenes. The A/C eventually kicked on as we rolled into our first pit stop but that plus soon got outweighed by a dark cloud that would hover over me for the duration of the journey. When I went to get a bowl of soup at the restaurant I saw and chatted with the Belgians and the Brit, holding true that we would see each other again shortly. When I was boarding the bus I asked the bus attendant when I would be getting my passport back since they needed it when immigration stopped the bus for a quick check. The woman knew no English beyond the word ‘passport’ so she became quite useless. Eventually a couple of Burmese with some knowledge of the English language chimed in. They said she gave my passport to the two French girls sitting by me because we are the only white people on the bus so by default we have to be traveling together. They clearly didn’t have my passport. I stayed calm for someone in my position but I couldn’t help feeling despaired. For the longest time I was adamant that this bus would not move an inch until I got it back. Without my passport I am nothing. Dealing with people that can’t understand my expression of how everything clearly went down was utterly frustrating. They called immigration back in Hpa-an as we began pulling away from the bus stop. The English speakers Burmese tried to assure me that they would make sure I get my passport back. Still without that almighty document, I sat down with the weight of the world crashing in on me. Traveling for this long in SE Asia especially is continuously exhausting both mentally and physically. I try not to think about how long I have set out to do this entire trip, because the number of days can become quite daunting.

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