Lessons in Myanmar #3

  1. Kiss kissing the waiter will get you the bill, not a slap around the face!
  2. Wearing a seat belt in the front seat of a taxi is not obligatory (but it’s scary when you don’t or can’t)
  3. A tiny black umbrella is impossible to find in the darkness of a club
  4. Local sandbag markets are goldmines
  5. Myanmar teenagers are sweet and adorable yet very much like the British teenager
  6. Blind man’s buff is an athletic game in the hands of Myanmar teens
  7. I quite like pickled tea leaf salad
  8. I can have a warm shower here if I want it, I just have to turn it onto cold!
  9. I’m starting to get my bearings around the city
  10. I’m getting much better at playing frogger with the traffic but I’m still expecting to die every time I cross a road
  11. It’s possible to find rural poverty 15 minutes from Downtown Yangon:

And that’s what we did today, on a little excursion to Dalah. This delta village is just 15 minutes by ferry from Downtown Yangon from the Pansodan St Ferry Terminal, a bustling building full of ordinary Yangon life. As some of the few white faces in the place we were herded past the local ticket office and given our blue return tickets in an office, by a nice man behind a desk. I suspect our 4000 kyat was twice the price the locals pay but was still only £2.40 in real money!

A ferry was leaving almost directly so we scurried down the gang way alongside men in longyis, women in brightly coloured two-pieces carrying a vast array of items on their heads, and bicycles, some with live chickens attached.

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The ferry was rusted and peeling, faded but functional and jam-packed. Down stairs was standing room only (and far too close to the poor chickens) and up stairs was not much better. Hawkers wandered between the seats selling everything from small boiled eggs or pineapple to gaudy shirts and children’s toys.

The journey from one side of the muddy river to the other took just 15 minutes. Long enough to see huge cargo boats bearing down on tiny wooden fishing boats on a river that must be half a mile wide. The buoys have a feel of the unkempt about them, rusting wistfully away in the swirling river, and even here the faded feeling that pervades Yangon is evident.

Disembarking on the other side catapulted us into another world. Crowds of people picked their way forward into the port area but it was the cacophony of sound that really hit us. Loud voices offering rickshaws, taxis, trucks and all sorts of tourist tat came at us from every direction as we picked our way forward over sandbags and through puddles with the other passengers. In Yangon it’s common to be offered anything and everything on the street with very little force, just smiles, but here the persistence was greater and ultimately successful.

Having wandered around and down to the river to look back across at Yangon, the seven of us doggedly followed by seven rickshaws, we eventually gave in and accepted the offer of a one-hour tour for 5000 kyat. It sounded like a deal and would certainly be more interesting than wandering aimlessly.

How right we were! The bicycle rickshaws were like something out of the 1930s. Gently rusting but sturdy bikes, with wooden seats and footrests on the right of the driver, one facing forwards, the other to the back. Cushions were provided and it was generally quite comfortable, if you have the narrow hips and slender frame of a Burman! If you don’t, it’s like forcing a square peg into a round hole! Andrew, who is tall and broad, faced an hour of sitting balanced on one hip until the driver pulled in and collected another cushion to rise him above the seat and provide some, elevated, comfort.

Our adventure began by navigating the port road. I was sitting at the back, low in traffic, facing the cars, motorbikes and people who followed us. At times we were very close to each other and I kept myself tucked very small into my tiny seat. I like to think that the locals who smiled at this were laughing with me! It was only seconds however before we got onto the quieter roads of the village. Then it was a gentler race between the rickshaws to bump us through the communities of small wooden homes and businesses of the area.

Shady routes with pretty lily ponds lead to a small pagoda. We took off our shoes and entered, to be greeted by a gaggle of teenage girls who seem to spend their time hanging out there. They tried their English out on us as we wandered around, asking questions and taking photos of the slightly crumbled compound.

Pagodas tend to conform to a strict style. The golden zedi or stupa towers in the middle, adorned with bells and intricate filigree decoration. Around it are stations of small shrines, associated with your lucky day, where you can pray, and of course there are Buddas, usually the younger, more serious version of him, seated in golden splendor at various points around the temple. This pagoda also had a shrine to a particularly legendary priest who seemed to be able to be in three places at once!

As we ventured further away from the port we learnt that in 2008 Cyclone Nargis had destroyed the area and left poor people even poorer. Most of the houses are raised on stilts and built with wood and bamboo. Water, mud and rubbish sit beneath them, as do dogs, chickens and children. Emerald paddy fields sit back from the river and sandbagged paths guide you through rural fishing or farming villages where the children have no shoes and no school.

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They do however get regular visits from tourists. In the village we visited they had lined up ready for our ‘contribution’ before we’d even realized what it was they were expecting. We bought them sweets and crisps and the little monkeys would take their gift, stick it up their t-shirts and then line up again, resulting in the bold ones getting plenty and the more reserved ones getting none. In hindsight we agreed that, had we known, gifts of medicine or rice would have been better for the community but the hilarity and pleasure our gift created was a joy to watch.

At this point the monsoon caught up with us and the heavens opened. Rain in Myanmar is like taking a shower, warm and completely drenching. We were given shelter in the tiny house of the sweet seller alongside granny, granddad and baby until the worst had passed and then we were shepherded back to our waiting rickshaws navigating mud, puddles and slippery bamboo bridges in the process.

We then bumped and splashed our way back to the busy port, arriving in soggy relief just in time to catch a return ferry to Yangon and its distinctive urban decay.

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