After a slow morning trying to keep up with a guide and his broken English as he shuffled us through the Shwedagon Pagoda, we sat down for some peace and quiet in a shady spot that we hoped would offer us some perfect picture opportunities. It was the spot for photos it seemed, as within minutes we were asked if we’d join a small throng of families waiting to pose in front of the famous monument for a professional family photograph. Settling ourselves back onto the white and black tiled floor we were soon spotted by a half pissed local man with suspicious white stuff at the corners of his mouth, and a mischievous sparkle in his eyes…
Spotting our tattoos he found an ‘in’ for conversation, and before we could object he insisted on showing us his own ink. With a slow survey of who might be looking he started unbuttoning his shirt to reveal his white under-singlet. He paused to look around once more – Angelo and I stole a quick glance at one another – and then quickly wrenched down the neck of his top to expose the faded blue of an old tattoo. “Uhh, nice…” we said in unison, laughing awkwardly at what was unfolding in front of us. “I have some more!” he said, and he launched himself into another surveillance operation. Shuffling from one knee to the other he managed to slide his longyi up to his knees, and then, with one smooth movement which screamed experience he revealed first one thigh and then the other to us, before quickly readjusting the garment, and feigning absolute innocence.
For a country where shoulders are covered for the sake of dignity, and it is very uncommon to see anyone’s legs above the knees (or ankles, in the case of women), we were totally shocked to see a local man behave like this – let alone to have it directed at us – and at none other than the most important Buddhist temple in the entire country. But here was a man who obviously liked to break the rules a little so Angelo took the opportunity to ask him some questions about the political situation in the country, and he was pretty happy to talk about it – as he constantly checked for, and pointed out to us, the plainclothes police that were monitoring the area (including a tiny old lady – paranoid? Who knows).
We were later joined by a monk who sat with down to talk with us. Our friend Nye Nye had supposedly lived in his monastery when he was younger (Buddhist Burmese men are expected to spend a year of their life – or at least some time – living as a monk to earn merit), and he invited the three of us to come visit for tea. I looked at Angelo and, as neither of us came up with a decent excuse not to, we were led down the stairs and out of the temple.
As we wandered along the back streets of Yangon, our friend blabbered on to us about how it was his birthday and how we had to come to his house for dinner – his mother was cooking especially – and began teaching us the respectful way to say hello and thank-you in Burmese: Mangalaba and Kyeizu tin ba de. He told us we had to take our shoes and socks off before entering a home or sacred place and reiterated again, what we had to say to his mother. The situation was starting to get a bit weird, but we were both a little intrigued as to what would happened so we followed along behind him.
Winding through the back streets we finally came to the monastery. It was so big it was set up almost like it’s own little village. A huge group of young monks had abandoned their robes for just a small piece of undercloth, and were running and kicking a football around in the heat. We were led into the monastery where we were invited to sit in front of a rather large meditating monk. Being careful to not stand taller than him we awkwardly shuffled along on our knees, and sat waiting for him to acknowledge us – or at least, someone to break the silence. When he finally looked up, he said something in Burmese and our friend told us we had to bow – head to floor – three times in front of him.
The monk asked us questions – although he had an air about him that suggested he didn’t really care too much for the answers and he spent the next half an hour talking at us in Burmese, with Nye Nye translating patches to us in English. From what we could understand – which was rather little – this guy reckoned he was the next reincarnation of Buddha and he was having a hard time trying to convince everyone of it so that he could reap the acknowledgement he so deserved. Next, he instructed us to look at his face for a minute and then close our eyes and try to picture it. We had to stay like this for an uncomfortably long time that I started to wonder if the monks might be stealing my bag which I had be told to leave behind me… He went on to explain that if ever we were having problems we had to just remember his face. To make this easier, he advised Angelo to take a close-up photo of his face which we are to develop and place in our bedroom when we get home. Umm thanks, but, no thanks.
The next spot on the agenda was the giant reclining buddha. This was actually kind of cool because we probably wouldn’t have seen it otherwise, and at a mere 65 metres long and 16 metres high it was a whole lot of Buddha.
Continuing on our way to his house we walked past a shop that he ducked into, and then emerged out of with a can of beer that he asked us to pay for. Cheeky, but ok. We were under strict instructions not to mention he’d been drinking to his mum (he was only 43 years old, you see) and throwing the can aside he promptly pulled out a packet of mints. A seasoned pro it seems…
We arrived at his front door to be greeted by his mum and dad, and despite all his instruction I stumbled all over my beginner Burmese. She smiled, and led me inside. Angelo, however, had already forgotten the golden rule and marched on in with his socks on – very awkward. We were offered water and polite conversation and then Nye Nye leaned over to us and said something along the lines of: “my dad wants to see some currency – just small currency, if you have.” We looked at each other, confused: “you mean like from New Zealand? Sorry we have nothing on us.” “No, just small currency. Like K3000 is ok” – here we go. We had been waiting for the money question, or for a bag snatching or something weird, and here it was. But here’s the thing, K3000 only equates to about $3, so we obliged, and hoped we could get a taxi out of here soon.
He told us he’d walk us to the main road to get a taxi, but he couldn’t come all the way with us – thank god. On the way there we stopped off at a night school where the teacher came out so he could practise his English (and get a good look at Angelo… haha), then into a hairdresser we went to sit for five minutes while Nye Nye talked about us – and probably how he would try to rip us off, and finally into a bar where we could see “yes, some women drink in this country” in response to my earlier question. A quick glance around the place confirmed my suspicions: I was the only woman in here, and consequently I was stared at, a lot.
We were herded inside and before we even sat down he had ordered a round of drinks – a round on us, clearly. Only halfway through his glass he ordered another – glass, not round – then half introduced us to an interesting mix of people sitting at the next table. One man, part of the Party for ex-political prisoners showed us an impressive array of business cards and the like – each with a different name on it. Another, had connections with the military junta, and the rest were just curious to know about us. Another round of drinks were ordered, and I whispered to Angelo how this guy was clearly taking the piss; we were happy to pay for a drink or two considering he took as around all afternoon, but we didn’t have much money on us – so things might get ugly if we don’t try to leave soon. I started gathering my things and Nye Nye asked for the bill. He looked it over and I remember thinking – “huh, maybe he’s not gonna make us pay for it after all” – but then I was instructed to “look it over” as he quickly immersed himself into another conversation.
The bill came to a grand total of K1000 more than we had in our wallet meaning we would have to ask him to shell out the rest – not a terrible thing considering we had given him K3000 earlier. A momentary flash of panic flickered across his eyes and he subtly handed back his full glass of Myanmar Draught to the waiter so he wouldn’t have to pay for it. Then, realising that he had clearly chosen the wrong mobile ATMs tourists, he ushered us outside and finally flagged down a taxi. It had only taken two hours.
Jumping into the back seat of the taxi as we sped away from the strangest encounter of our lives so far we were faced with the next dilemma: not being able to explain where our guesthouse was to a driver who couldn’t speak English or understand our map, and having no money on us to pay him.
What a way to spend an afternoon in Yangon!