Breaking Burma Day 110: Pyay – Southeast Asia Done Right!

After sleeping blissfully in the cool embrace of my air-con room, breakfast was a surprisingly full spread of fried samosa and spring roll along with the usual set of characters. The owner was happily running about to satisfy whatever needs his guests may or may not have had. After explaining to him that I needed a ticket tonight to reach Yangon for the following morning, he said he would buy it for me when he was out and about trusting that I would pay him back. Before my tanned yet still white skin could see the light of day, I chose to spread the thanakha yellow suncream all over my face and arms turning myself into a sight worth seeing. The bicycle that I rented from the guesthouse attempted to defile my manhood by the way it was situated pointing upwards at a less than comfortable angle. With a map in hand, I went to see Pyay’s main daily market because that is usually an indicator of the liveliness and pace of a town or city. Like most everywhere else in Pyay, I was the only white person/Westerner at the market. I pushed the bike through the awesome chaos that existed there with people selling a variety of foods and other goods, including trucks full of bagged onions. Even one stretch might as well have been advertised as thanakha lane based on the numerous people trying to sell this wood. I kept smiling and saying mingalabah to anyone who gave me attention (probably more so for the ridiculous amount of yellow suncream I had smeared across my face than the fact that I was a white person in a pure Myanmar market). A few girls were especially friendly in saying hello and ‘mingalabah’ so I figured why not sit down and engage with the locals even though we didn’t know much of anything of each other’s languages beyond hello and thank you. These girls were weaving or doing something with piles of people’s used hair (kind of weird but I will roll with it). For the most part we awkwardly stared at each other while I mimed to no luck while they spoke in Myanmar not realizing that I know next to nothing of the language. Eventually I said ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’ showing off the little that I know before continuing on through the remainder of the market. Next on the agenda were the far ancient pagodas and ruins from the Pyu capital of Thayekhittaya just outside of town. The pagodas weren’t much of anything beyond sizzling my bare feet. Just off the road where I stopped to simply take a picture, a group of young and older women on their lunch break were quite taken by the sight of me. [Brief side note: these women, just like many other Myanmar people, carry their shared meal of various curry dishes and sauces in small circular metal tins attached and stacked together] After mingalabahing and trying to explain with hand gestures that they all are very beautiful, the whole lot of them laughed and giggled like a bunch of school girls. Eventually they got back to work as I watched do their daily job. In an act I couldn’t quite understand, they took large clumps of dirt and grass and pulled at smaller strands dividing them up one at a time before placing them back into the mud and water. Each one of them young and old moved at a pace that I could have never kept up with. Having seen many water logged fields with this formation, I could now appreciate all the work that went into this curious art. After saying goodbye to my gals to which I received a long all encompassing wave and goodbye, I went in search of the ruins nearby. The ruins had an absurd 5000 kyat price tag which I tried to dodge but I eventually someone caught me. Even though it would have been nice to kill a couple hours seeing some more history but after Bagan these temples simply would not have been worth the extra coin. After the long sweaty ride back into Pyay, I stopped at Shwesandaw Paya (‘Shwe’ meaning gold) to the pagoda taller than the famous one in Yangon with a ten story tall giant seated Buddha set off to the side nearby. When I finished looking around and praying as my aspiring tour guide friend from Bagan instructed (five bows to the floor), I left knowing I would have to come back for a worthwhile sunset spot. After leaving the main staircase that led up to the pagoda, a security officer stopped me to ask where I was from in a friendly display of chatter. He didn’t know much English but when he noticed I was curious about a certain food stand churning dishes unlike I had seen before, he offered his to me. I explained with hand gestures (how else?) that I couldn’t accept but insisted I accept his offering. I took his snack bowl of rice noodles coming in variety of sizes and shapes as well as some crouton sized pieces of bread all of which were mixed with a sweet milk that for me represented an Asian style bowl of cereal. It was pretty good, especially considering the experience of standing there eating with the locals as if I were one of them. They all looked at me speaking amongst themselves. I told the woman making the food that it was delicious and thanked the man with a rare shake of the hand for him that I appreciated his kindness and generous. After all the cycling I did I was still hungry so I stopped at an restaurant to avoid the usual Burmese fare. I ordered a chicken curry biryani which comes in a platter of your chosen main dish with rice, sauces, a soup, cooked veggies in their own spicy sauce, and chapatti, either fresh or fried. The food was delicious but was truly noteworthy was the fact that each time I finished a section of the platter, my Indian waiter came over to refill that bit with another helping. Essentially I was eating at an all you can eat Indian restaurant. I wondered whether it was not in fact all you can eat but actually a pay per helping but by the end I only had to pay for the extra serving of rice that cost me a mere 10 cents to total off at a healthy cheap rate of 1900 kyat (roughly 1 USD is equal 1000 kyat but the dollar has gotten increasingly stronger). No matter where I shopped in America I could never buy the ingredients that made up that dish for the price he gave me, let alone the time it would take to cook it up afterwards. I even encouraged the guy to keep the last 100 kyat from the two 1000 kyat bills I gave him as a tip but he refused to accept it. What a strange, strange world I am living in. After feeling full and satisfied, I rested for a bit at the guesthouse during the hottest part of the day. With the sun no longer at full blaze, I out exploring the unchartered waters of the outskirts of town and the many side streets that led me there, each one making me realize that I had yet to come across a single white person today besides the few that hung around the guesthouse. As much as I wondered whether I would have been wasting my time in Pyay as a stopover to Yangon, this city gave me an authentic, genuine feel for what SE Asia and Myanmar is like when you tear away at the tourism that alters the personality of a place. Eventually I stopped and watched some guys play chinlon. These young men had unbelievable flexibility as they threw up their legs towards the net to try and spike the ball speedily towards the opposition. They did all of us while wearing their longyis like a man sized diaper, having been hiked up and twisted to show way too much leg. Back at the hilltop temple, the sunset was quite nice to close my last night in Myanmar (a depressing fact indeed). The night market near the Aung San statue was lacking life so I went back to the guesthouse after buying a chinlon ball. Before taking a shower for the long journey and day ahead, I rested and chatted with some Danish girls who gave me some intriguing ideas about volunteering in Nepal. Later on, I got a motorbike taxi pickup to the bus station where my driver made sure to handle everything, including lugging my large heavy bag around to the bus like a butler that I insist I didn’t ask for but these Myanmar know hospitality and friendliness. All I had left to do was look forward to a sleepless night on the bus to Yangon.

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