I’m writing this from a bus. We have just flown into Bangkok from Mandalay, and are traveling down to Phuket. I am wrapped in luxury the likes of which I haven’t seen in weeks. It’s a new Scania-made bus. Leather seats, subdued lighting, faux flowers, curtains, split-levels and a tiled bathroom replete with a wall-to-wall mirror. As if that’s not enough the bus comes with WiFi! Having grown accustomed to dusty roads and noisy tuk-tuks, this luxury is almost overwhelming. Trappings of an alien world. It doesn’t even feel like homecoming, this return to the ‘developed’ world. It just feels discombobulating.
As the bus glides smoothly over well paved roads my mind is rife with memories of the country I have left behind. Myanmar. Dirty, dusty, inconvenient, under developed Myanmar. I had grown to like it. Love it in fact. Like a stray dog that kept coming to your house time and again till one day it stops coming and you realize how much you miss it. Just yesterday I was ready to leave the dusty world behind and go back to modern luxury. But only now that I had left Myanmar did I realize the hold it has over me. Little by little I had grown to love that little country.
How I miss the simple smiles of the people, so transparent their welcome as it shone through their Betel-Nut ridden teeth. How I long for the kids running behind shouting “Hello” and “Bye bye” all at the same time and with equal enthusiasm; not knowing the meaning of either, but their delight unmistakable. How I wish I had meandered some more down their streets, stopping to engage in simple hellos with people happy to see a foreigner amidst them. How I want to spend just a few more hours in the Shan countryside, looking at the verdant mountains, listening to the birds chirping, and feeling the sun on my face.
I remember this time when the train I was taking from Mandalay to Pwin-Oo-Lwin stopped as a coach had derailed and all the workers were trying to put it back on track. As I stood watching one brave Myanmar man came over and tried to connect with me using his sparse knowledge of English. He asked me where I came from and for how long I was in Myanmar. I told him. Then he asked me, “Happy?”.I nodded my head.
“Why?” he asked.
Startled at this unexpected question I said the first thing that popped into my head.
“Well, I couldn’t come here before as the borders were not open. I’m happy that I finally could get to see your country.”
There was silence. I was speaking intent on the workers diligently working while talking. I turned to look at him. His eyes were brimming with tears.
I was stunned. Never had I seen someone so happy on hearing that a foreigner wanted to visit his country. I went on to tell him of the beauty I had seen of the Shan mountains, and of the welcoming, friendly nature of the Myanmar people. He couldn’t look at me anymore. He turned away, sniffling, rubbing his eyes and holding back his tears. I was touched. These people truly loved their country, no matter how much their government had held them hostage, taken their livelihood or ravaged their homes. Myanmar had a way of seeping into your heart, and gently tugging at your heart strings.
There is a legend in Myanmar, one made before air travel existed, when voyages to foreign lands were made by ship. It says that while leaving, if one were to look back at the skyline to the Shwedagon Pagoda of Rangoon, then one is destined to return. I left from Mandalay so the Shwedagon Pagoda was definitely not in sight. However as I write this, not just the Pagoda but the streets, the smells, the smiles, indeed every sight is firmly etched in my mind’s eye. And you have etched a place in my heart Myanmar. One day I will come back.