I didn’t sleep at all on the 12-hour night bus from Inle Lake to Mandalay. Every time I started to nod off, the bus hit a bump that almost launched me out of my seat, or else it took a turn so sharp I was in danger of falling into the aisle or squashing the angry-looking guy sitting next to me. And I didn’t want to squash the angry-looking guy sitting next to me, considering that he had an assault rifle wrapped in newspaper resting at the foot of his seat.
At 4:45am we arrived in Mandalay. An aggressive pack of taxi drivers and hotel touts awaited us. I hired a motorbike driver to help me find a hotel, and the second place we tried had an open room. I crashed hard until 10am and then went for a short walk to get my bearings.
A 15-second clip from that short walk shines some light on how awkward and foolish I tend to be after arriving in a new place: wearing a T-shirt almost completed drenched in sweat (while the locals looked cool and comfortable), I tried to cross the street but kept misjudging the traffic, nearly causing an ugly motorbike accident; then when I finally reached the other side of the street I tripped on the curb and almost wiped out. Yep, people like me are out there representing the most powerful democracy in the world. You really can’t blame the Burmese people for being pessimistic about the prospect of decisive foreign intervention.
That afternoon I set out on a longer walk, intending to stop at the Shwe In Bin Kyaung monastery on the way to Mahamuni Paya. People in Mandalay seemed much friendlier than in Yangon, and as I walked along most of the children waved and said hello. A few mothers, seeing me walk by, grabbed their infant children, pointed at me and said something I guessed was, “Wave to the foreigner!” When I said goodbye after stopping to talk, kids would occasionally shout in English, “See you later, alligator!”
Shwe In Bin Kyaung is in Mandalay’s “Monk District,” and as I got closer it seemed like every fifth person had on maroon robes. The map I followed seemed to be pretty accurate, but heavy rains had flooded parts of Mandalay, especially near the river, and by trying to stay on dry streets I missed the monastery. Eventually I just took the plunge and waded through the water with everyone else.
On one of the flooded streets a family – a father, wife, and small child – passed me on their motorbike. We waved at each other and said hello (“Min-gala-ba”), and they stopped just ahead of me. When I sloshed my way up the child handed me a small card that had an image of the Buddha on the front and some Burmese writing on the back. It looked just like a baseball card. Has Topps expanded into the burgeoning Buddhist trading card market?
It was almost dark by the time I finally found the monastery, so I reluctantly skipped Mahamuni Paya (a temple that contains the country’s most famous Buddha icon) and headed back to my hotel. That afternoon there was no question the journey was better than the destination.
The next day I hired a taxi driver to take me on a tour of three popular sites in the area around Mandalay. Our first stop was Sagaing, a hilly area covered with over 500 temples set scenically along the banks of the Ayeyarwady River. By the time I’d climbed up to the highest monastery I was, once again, covered in sweat.
Our second stop was Inwa, an area that once served as the Burmese capital and is only accessible by boat. The taxi driver took me to the ferry, where I met a Brit who was so quiet he made the handful of questions I asked seem downright chatty. He was also going to Inwa, where most people hire a horsecart to take them around, so we agreed to share a cart. On the ferry ride over I tried, and failed, to discover some hint that this guy had a personality. The BDT (British Dial Tone) and I spent over two hours together and never even bothered to exchange names.
At Bagaya Kyaung, a large teak monastery in Inwa, a group of young monks were chanting in a classroom next to the central temple. The room was heavily shadowed and most of the monks were only dark silhouettes, but one sat on the floor under a window that provided just enough light for some ISO 3200 shots.
I took the ferry back, and after a late lunch the taxi driver took me to our last stop – Amarapura, also a one-time Burmese capital, connected to the mainland by the world’s longest teak bridge. As I walked across the bridge a group of monks approached me and completely reversed the usual dynamic. “Can we take a photo with you?” they asked.
At Amarapura I checked out Kyauktawgyi Paya and then returned to the bridge to have a beer and wait for sunset. Several women with a fishing pole in each hand were wading through a flooded restaurant, and as I photographed them a group of young Burmese guys sat down next to me on the bridge. A couple of the guys carried cameras and eyed me intently as I shot. It’s really easy to make friends with Burmese photographers, even if they don’t speak English – all I have to do is loop my camera around their neck and let them try it out. The guys on the bridge laughed and made fun of each other as they took turns with my camera, and by the time they were finished I had a team of photography allies. “Hey baby!” they yelled in English at the fisherwomen, trying to get them to look up so I could photograph their faces.
As the sun set a monk walked up and introduced himself. He said he was hoping to practice his English, which was already very good. He looked like he was in his early 20s, but he said he was 31 and had been monk since he was 10. “You are the first American I ever see on this bridge,” he told me.
“That can’t be,” I said. “There are many tourists here.”
“Spanish, French, and German, yes. But not many Americans. And now not many tourists, because we have election.”
“Right,” I agreed. “The election is coming soon.”
“Do you know monks not allowed to vote?” I told him I didn’t know that. He frowned and changed the subject. “Do you like Myanmar?”
“Very much,” I told him. “The country is beautiful and the people are really friendly.”
“Yes, but bad political system,” he said. “Political system very bad. When they no like someone, they kill.”
At first I thought I misheard him. We were standing on a busy bridge and people were constantly walking past. Why was he speaking so openly? “That’s terrible,” I commiserated. “Do you think the elections will change anything?”
He shook his head. “Most people think elections no make difference. So why vote?
“Do you think there will be protests?”
“No, I do not think. Because people scared. Government shoot. But I do not know. I think better you leave Myanmar before election.”
People continued to walk by, and I felt uncomfortable enough about the conversation – for the monk’s sake – that I started asking about his life in the monastery. He walked me through the 10 precepts he follows, which he said no longer feel like hardships because he’s been practicing for so long. He said he plans to stay in the order indefinitely. As we walked back towards the mainland I stopped occasionally to photograph the colorful sunset over the water.
At the end of the bridge the monk asked if I would help him practice his written English over e-mail. I happily gave him my e-mail address and we said goodbye. On the ride back to the hotel I couldn’t get over the fact that he spoke so openly in a public place. Only a couple of days later, while I was reading the book Finding George Orwell in Burma I came across a passage that said the sangha (the holy Buddhist order in Myanmar) is “rife” with government informers – soldiers who shave their heads and disguise themselves as monks. Then a fellow traveler happened to mention that in Inle Lake he saw a sign that said, “Beware of fake monks.” It felt ridiculous and overly paranoid, but I had to wonder if the monk I met on U Bien’s Bridge was really a monk.