Burma (Myanmar) by bike part 2. From Mandalay to Bago.

Le poète est celui qui regarde Gide

Everything started with a few sounds. Two minutes later we saw their source. We drove slowly along the school playground, catching curious glances coming from behind a small fence and if it was not for the man who greeted us cordially, we would not have stopped at all. We would have kept on cycling in the scorching sun towards the town called Bago.

We got off the bikes and approached to a friendly-looking man. Having exchanged the Burmese greeting mingalaba (a word from Pali language, roughly translated as ‘auspiciousness’), we broke the ice, and then crossed the gate which separated us from the school courtyard. 

Apparently, we came across a sort of graduation ceremony. We left our bikes not far from the gate and stood at a distance from the main stage, on which everything was taking place. Unfortunately, our intention of merging into the crowd, and disappearing afterwards ended up in total failure. Our presence aroused greater interest than the celebration itself.

Although it was the third week of our trip to Burma, we still could not get used to the confusion caused by our unexpected visits. This confusion is so embarrassing that both sides do not know how to behave or what to say. We say something and we try to communicate, but the mutual vocabulary ends in a few sentences. We are able to say hello, we can order tea, ask if food is spicy, we may say goodbye and that’s all. The rest are guesses or speculations.

Often we would like to stay invisible. Very likely, they have similar feelings when they see us. A human being appears, an alien, a stranger (call them as you wish) and suddenly there is an intimate space that will either bring us closer or not. You never know how the meeting will look like. Even when you try to get out beyond your own habits and preferences, when you try not to compare, to evaluate, to judge, even if you do not pay attention to the disgusting-looking dark red spots of saliva on the ground (you see – I could not refrain from that negative epithet) – it is not certain whether you will be accepted by them. Thanaka – a distinctive feature of the culture of Myanmar will not help, either. Even if you paint your face with this yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground bark, it will be still clearly visible that you are not from here, you are a stranger, or just a guest. 

One of the most important concepts in the philosophy of Derrida, the concept taken from Manuel Levinas, is otherness. What is more, words guest and otherness are connected. The arrival of a guest always implies meeting with the stranger. In the philosophy of Levinas this otherness is the source of our humanity. It explains how much we can go beyond ourselves, beyond our identity, habits, and if we are ready to meet with another person. Putting precisely, if we are ready to encounter and accept what is surprising in them, and what is not just a repetition of our own identity. Levinas called it infinity, something that makes us human beings.

No sooner did we enter the courtyard, we were greeted by one of the teachers and presented to the school headmaster. Half an hour later, we were invited to a semiofficial party, but the most interesting part of the day was about to begin. The artistic show was planned to start at 5pm.

In the meantime, we talked a bit, just a little, concerning our mutual poor knowledge of English (although, please excuse me, I have to admit, our linguistic skills were, let’s say, a bit more advanced – I apologize for self-flattering). But that linguistic barrier is not the main obstacle in attempts to communicate with the Burmese people. What usually causes misunderstandings is on the one hand broadly understood abstinence in contacts (including the official, strictly observed ban on home-accommodating foreigners), and on the other hand – a sort of idiosyncrasy that would be difficult to find in any European culture.

Burmese society operates on ana (အားနာမှု). This term could be characterised by hesitation, reluctance or avoidance to behave in a certain way because of the fear to offend other people or make them confused or embarrassed. Also, there is the concept of hpon (ဘုန်း), which is used as an explanation of various levels of ethnic, socioeconomic, and gender inequalities among people in the society. This concept justifies the existing in Burma opinion that women are lesser than men, who are considered to have more hpon.

So, we do not know, and probably we will never find out what the people at school really thought when they saw us. Very likely, we were personae non gratae, but nobody told us so, in order not to offend us.

The main show – children’s dances – began only after 6pm. In the meantime we were offered paan, which is one of the most popular stimulants in the world.

During any visit to Burma, sooner or later our attention will be drawn by dark red spots covering the ground, roads and sidewalks. It is a pigment from the spitted paan. In Myanmar everyone chews it – children, adolescents, adults, elderly people. What is it?

Paan, known in Burma kwun-ya (ကွမ်းယာ) is a combination of a betel vine leaf (Piper Betel), areca nut (plants originating from the Philippines, but cultivated throughout the tropical Asia and the Pacific Islands), slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) and powdered milk (reducing the acidity of saliva, which allows for the release of alkaloids acting on the nervous system, causing a feeling of bewilderment), and additives such as cinnamon, cardamom, tobacco, and sometimes even heroin or coca.

The wrapped leaf is chewed. After a while paan releases a red substance, which you need to get rid of somewhere, hence the common spitting. Blackened teeth visible in many smiles are a side effect of excessive consumption.

Since areca nuts and betel pepper leaves contain many substances that possess psychotropic or antibacterial effects, paan has been used for centuries as a means of improving digestion or killing parasites. 

At school, where we waited for the performance, betel became only a neutral element of an interaction. How I felt and looked like after taking it to my month may be seen during the video accompanying the text. 

We could not stay till the end of the show. About 8.30pm so-called immigration officer appeared and gave us a clear sign to leave, saying shortly – we were to leave the school grounds and made to go to the hotel, located thirty miles away.

Perhaps the essence of every journey is based on what cannot be told about it. There are moments in life that we would like to experience again. There are also moments we seem to be experiencing, although they have not really come yet.

Maybe our best memories from Burma, seemingly being experienced now, will be still coming to us, and will never fully materialize. So be it.  


Burma (Myanmar) by bike part 1. From Tachileik to Mandalay

All started quite spectacularly, although we would’ve never made up such a start ourselves. We crossed the border in Mae Sai/Tachileik without any problems, having valid visa for 28 days, issued in Chiang Mai (Thailand). Then we went straight to the bank to exchange money. We were greeted by five men before entering the building. The bodyguard began, followed by the employee who was opening the door, and then a few uniformed men, dressed in long skirts, blue shirts, and flip-flops.

The visit ended successfully, and we left the building with a bag filled with thousand-kyat banknotes (the first consonant of Burmese currency – ‘kyat’ – is pronounced with ‘th’ sound, as in ‘cheer’ or ‘chilly’).

We had lunch in a nearby restaurant, and after that, with great mood and full belly we set off to the north. Some people said that the road from Tachileik to Mandalay could be closed for tourists. But the people say different things, and we decided to check ourselves and to make sure it this is really true.    

We were turned back after cycling just ten miles, at the first checkpoint. With an apologetic-looking face, a policeman in flip-flops explained to us in his broken English that he was very sorry but we shall not pass and ‘we should go back to the shadow’ (no, he didn’t resembled Gandalf at all). He advised us to go back to Thailand and get permission to continue traveling, or go to Tachileik airport and take the plane.

It turned out that the tickets were far cheaper than we had thought, and the airfield crew really helped us a lot. Not only did the ground personnel from Myanmar Airlines bring pieces of carton for wrapping our bikes, but they didn’t charge us for excess baggage. If they did, we would have had to pay additional one hundred dollars per person. We took a commemorative photo and promised we would recommend the airline. Yes, I can recommend it with all my heart. If you are interested in how wrapping and all looked like, you may watch the video, which you will find at the end (at the very bottom) of the text.

We flew to Mandalay without any mishaps. In the town we spent the night in the hotel, for which we paid equivalent of twenty dollars per room. And it was the price for the tourists. Locals or the Chinese (and there are lots of them travelling) usually pay about three times less. 

There is one big problem for budget travelers in Myanmar – you have to sleep in hotels and wild camping is strictly prohibited. Similarly – locals can’t accommodate you. I will write more about that topic next time. Now – enough to say, that during our stay in Burma it was possible to omit that strange requirement and only a few times we were forced by circumstances (or our tired bodies) to stay in hotels.  

Places in which foreigners stay in Myanmar have to have a special license. Again – we slept a few times in guest-houses, which definitely didn’t have ones. I will write more details about that next time. Now, I just want to say that there is one gap in the system – Buddhist temples. Several times we slept close to the temples. Only a few times monks refused our request to pitch the tent. Usually there was no problem at all with staying with them. 

After two weeks of cycling I may say that Myanmar completely stunned us. Everything was so full of life. Starting from the cuisine. Although I liked food in Thailand, in comparison with Burmese, Thai cuisine seems to be quite monotonous and far too spicy. We liked very much the way they serve the food in Burma – you get it in the bowls, from which you may take as much as you want. If suited me particularly, because, no matter if you like Thai food or not – the size of the Thai portions is far from filling your belly, especially when you cycle and you need more calories. But even if I had travelled without bicycle, in Thailand I would’ve had to order two dishes not to get hungry after an hour, which was not the case in Burma – I have to admit we ALWAYS had to leave some leftovers on the table.

We liked their tea, which taste I remember from my travels to India. They mixed tea with condensed milk, and call it ‘La Phat Yay’ (the first two words are pronounced as [lapa] and the third word have two vowels, as in English word ‘yeast’, so you should pronounced it like [lapayea]. If you want to say: ‘I want tea’ You can try: [lapayea taucheende]. Good luck – people will love it once they understand).   

The food was good, so were the people. We were astonished by their curiosity, humbleness, hospitality, and yes, embarrassment. Their sad faces caused by the fact, that they can not invite us to their houses. Their existence – so strange, so unreal, and given to us just for a moment. How many more of those encounters will we have on that trip?

What is particularly visible instantly when you look at them – their faces are painted. They call it thanaka – a yellowish-white cosmetic paste. Apparently, it gives a cooling sensation and provides protection from sunburn. Some people say it even helps removing acne.   

We don’t know the language. Everything seems to be illegible, even more than in Thailand, because in Burma rarely you may find letters and sounds you will recognize. They have their own alphabet and letters, which are absolutely unfamiliar to us.

And, generally, we don’t understand people, either. We look at each other, but we don’t know what they say. We may guess, but that’s all. Sometimes it is enough. Sometimes the huge gap remains and the big wall of misunderstanding stands between us. Nevertheless, we try to climb it to see what’s on the other side of it. Maybe once we get it, the wall will disappear.   


Thailand by bike

“Each medium of expression imposes its own limitations on the artists – limitations inherent in the tools, materials, or processes he employs. In the older art forms natural confines are so well established they are taken for granted. We select music or dancing, sculpture or writing because we feel that within the frame of that particular medium we can best express whatever it is we have to say.” Edward Weston

After a few months spent in Poland I decided to change environment for a while and go on next trip. This time I went to Thailand. I flew from Warsaw to Bangkok with Fidrygalka. We stayed for two days in the capital and then started cycling towards Chiang Mai, the city situated in the north of Thailand. It took us twelve days to get there, where we spent a month. I was working on finishing writing the book, which hopefully will be published in 2019. It is based on the journey from Patagonia to Alaska I undertook in 2016-1018. Maybe one day it will be translated and published in English, but I suppose, rather posthumously.    

Anyway, returning to the trip – I would like to write about Thailand. Frankly speaking I have very little to add in the topic that the world on the road seems to be like a fairy tale. The accumulation of magical and fantastic elements is so intense and frequent that after a few days you stop treating them as something peculiar, and you start perceiving them as a full-fledged reality, not requiring confirmation by any rational knowledge. And, as if everything happened in a real fairy tale – time quickly and unnoticeably curves its trajectory, and from linear becomes cyclic.

We wish we knew some Thai language. Surely, you can smile, you can use gestures, you can express lots of things without even opening your mouth. But even though – there are lots of things happening around us, to which we do not have the key, or simply we don’t know what to say. We don’t use ice in water or drinks, but you get it in the cups before you fill them in. We don’t use fans, but how can you explain you would rather turned them off? We use toilet paper in restrooms (instead of Thai method of cleaning their bottoms with a hose) but how can you ask where the paper should be thrown away?

We order rice and chicken without red chili, because we don’t like spicy food, but the meal is so hot that we can’t eat it and we have to order something different, which in turn, appears to be absolutely gorgeous. And the funny thing is, you don’t know what it was. You’d like to get to know the name of that dish, but even if you figured it out, it’s impossible to repeat it – all attempts to imitate Thai language end up with laughter and misunderstandings.

So, we create our own phrases and names, for example: grilled banana (pronounced something like kuey ping), or banana with sticky rice (hau tom mat) or muffins with beans (ha ko), or our favorite – fried banana with coconut cake (kluay khaek).

If our ignorance of the language causes misunderstandings while ordering dishes, it does not pose any drawbacks when we try to find a place to stay for the night. It turned out that it is enough to enter any village and suddenly you are surrounded by a group of people who want to help you. Almost each night we ended up close to a monastery where we were able to pitch our tent, in an atmosphere of sincere, cordial commitment. Thai people seem to be extremely hospitable. And they always smile. They smile as wide and often as the Colombians do.

Usually, they do not know anything about Poland, and it is not surprising to me at all. Some Poles should come to Thailand to see that Poland is not the centre of the universe and millions of people carry on living quite well without being aware of its existence. So, we try to explain, if we can, that we come from a country with its own language and a thousand-year history, although now without a king. I mention the king quite intentionally, because Thailand has its king and his omnipresence is very noticeable – on hoardings, billboards, walls, monasteries, banknotes and coins.

By the way, the pride of the Thai king is not necessarily felt by all inhabitants (though Heaven Forbid, you must not admit it and show any disapproval in public), since we saw portraits of the late ruler – Rama IX, abandoned in the rubbish bin. Apparently, the monarch here, like in the United Kingdom, is an unprofitable institution, but nobody seriously thinks to abolish it.

We are white, we are strangers, and yet, or maybe because of that, we are treated as partners. We are treated like a child who sometimes needs to be helped to understand the world. Nobody tries to cheat us. The people we meet want to help, even if our mutually understood vocabulary comes down to ‘good morning’ and ‘thank you’. Generally nothing more is needed. How easy it is to be good. Or just a bit better.

I was wandering once, why those people are so nice to us. Maybe their positive attitude is misleading because and it is only culturally conditioned. As we know, appearances sometimes may be very deceptive. But even so, I‘d rather meet someone who is seemingly good, instead of being with people who openly show aggression and lack of tolerance.

So, we are in Chiang Mai, in a hotel for which we paid the equivalent of about one hundred American dollars per month per person – this information is for those who ask me who supports my long travels. I do. I earn some money and then I spend them. Mainly on food and accommodation. Plus I buy spare parts to the bicycle, and common things such as toothbrush, soap, sometimes shoes (but clothes I change seldom – on average each three/five years, depending on their quality).

The last years I used to get by having equivalent of about three hundred American dollars per month. For everything. It is not much, I agree. Sometimes it would be better to have a little more, for example, in order to find a safe place to stay for the night or to buy more food. But it’s ok. I don’t starve, far from that. I can’t complain. And Thailand, luckily, is pretty cheap, comparing to Europe, or to the United States.   

But let’s go back to Chiang Mai for a while. We have peace here, an air-conditioned room, a few pounds of free (!) bananas each day (that reminds me my stay in the United States, where I had to pay a dollar for one banana), free drinking water, our own coffee maker and a bazaar with a mass of good food, just ten minutes walk from the hotel, where the dinner costs an equivalent of one American dollar.

Surely you may find in Chiang Mai and in other parts of Thailand more expensive and elaborate meals, if you are unwilling to eat directly on the street with the locals. You may find good restaurants with waiters, where you will spend ten times or more buing one dish. But the street food is cheap, tasty and definitely healthier from lots of stuff you find in European or American supermarkets, including those with a very funny label ‘organic’.  

We came from Bangkok without any GPS. Actually, we don’t even have a cell phone. Really – you can survive pretty well without those ‘amenities’. We are guided by the sun, the stars and the signposts, although those are not always legible.

Maybe it’s even better that we don’t understand everything here. There is a room for imagination. The room of imagination. A small one will do. A tiny room (for) the imagination. With a large window wide open. Open to the world.