This week’s activities have been a mix of laughter, relaxation and terror. Mostly terror.
After class ended this week we enjoyed a sunset boat ride around the rivers which meet at Mawlamyine. The students were in fine form keeping me laughing for most of the trip, and some of them also got to practice their English and tour guide skills by pointing out sights to an American journalist who was perched on the roof taking photos. On the walk home we happened upon yet another random festival procession. This time with monks and white shirted men carrying an LED encrusted shrine with built in generator, a child dressed as an angel and the usual trucks overloaded with earth shattering speakers blaring music. Coming across these things is great as the participants always want to explain what is happening, get you in their photos and often want you to join the party. Our last stop before home was a shop so I could buy some more deodorant, which should not be noteworthy at all, however when your deoderants are manufactured in Thailand it has to be. Due to Thailand’s reverse tan obsession my only options in this shop all included skin whitening ingredients. At least now my armpits will be extra white!
We’ve also had the displeasure of discovering how massive spiders can grow in Myanmar due to a second bathroom intruder at home. Black spiders bigger than the palm of my hand are not welcome on our around my toilet. I shudder just remembering it now.
Yesterday was our weekly field trip with the students, and this time we were to visit the Phar Phaung pagoda and caves out in a very remote area of Mon State. I really must emphasise the word remote here. The road to the site was one of the worst dirt tracks I’ve ever been on in my life, and our little Toyota truck with sixteen people in the tray was not cut out for it at all. The journey could be best described as two and a half hours of being thrown around in a perpetual dust cloud as we barely broke ten kilometres an hour. When we finally reached the caves we jumped out of the cab to see the sad faces of those sat in the tray who were all thickly coated in a fine red dust. After a quick clean off we headed with our local Karen guides up to the cave entrance.
The mouth of the cave was full of Buddha images and everything you come to expect inside a pagoda, but was impressive and unique in it’s own right. Over a barrier you could see deep down into the darkness of the cave and our guide hinted at the extent of the network by mentioning that two people went in without a guide recently and got lost for two whole days. Thinking our tour to be over, it came as a surprise when we suddenly started heading deep into the cavern. Nobody had brought torches as this was unexpected, and no safety equipment was available. I must also mention everyone was barefoot as it is a religious site. For the next hour and a half we were lead down slippery ledges, through mud and bat shit, up precarious wooden ladders, over and under immense boulders, in the pitch black, with only the lights of our mobile phones to guide us. All the while thousands of bats screeched flying all around us. It was utterly terrifying but for some of us equally exciting. I’ve been in caves before but nothing like this. Sometimes you would emerge from a narrow low passage to find yourself looking down into cavern as big as a football field, and deep enough that one wrong step could be your last. It was like that scene from the Goonies times twenty, and it seemed to go on forever. At one point I thought Laura was going to have a minor breakdown, and some of the girls wanted to be sick, but eventually we emerged into daylight and thankfully everyone lived, though all a little shaken.
We returned to the main hall of the pagoda to find an old monk had arrived and had an audience of men seated before him. Our students took a quick collection and made an offering to him. He gratefully accepted before sparking up a cigarette (something we’d never seen a monk do before) and beginning to speak in Myanmar. At this point we noticed the local men on the floor were all drinking beers, and we weren’t sure if we’d returned to a pagoda or a pub. The monk had told us that we should now head to a hot spring which was about an hour’s drive away. Despite having our own plans, I’m pretty sure when a monk tells you to do something in Myanmar, you do it. So after a free lunch put on by our cave guides (who are also volunteers/great people), and a load of group photos, our course had been altered and we departed for the hot spring.
Two of the cave guides offered to lead us there and rode ahead on a scooter. They promised a much better road than the one we came in on, but they did not deliver. After nearly two hours of terrible village roads and dust storm round two, they tried to get our driver to take the truck down between some rice paddies. Having had enough he made the smart choice and refused so we all jumped out and walked across the field. Whilst the views were amazing, the sight of a large dead snake of a venomous variety in the waterway had a few people on edge. When we reached the hot spring nobody was overly impressed. It was over thirty degrees Celsius in the sun, so some boiling water coming from the ground was wanted by none. We quickly departed.
As we were now off course we had to take a different route home, this led us through villages where kids were falling off bikes at the sight of white people. We also spotted a number of armed militia men. Then there was a ferry to cross a river. We had half an hour to kill waiting for this ferry so sat about in the tea shops at the port eating and drinking. After about twenty minutes, a very pissed off looking man in civilian clothing started aggressively calling one of our students to come to his table. She ignored him a couple of times before he walked over and got her. Two of our students followed and sat with him and his colleague whilst he glared at Laura and I. Immediately we realised this was about us. For the next ten minutes they were interrogated about who we were, why we were in this town, where we’d been and where we were going. We could tell from the man’s tone and body language that he didn’t believe them. We started to worry at this point. More of our students saw what was happening and walked over to corroborate their story, and whilst he looked very unimpressed he eventually let them go. They then came over to explain what had happened, and that the men were from the government and one claimed to be a General. Apparently we were very close to a township which is forbidden for foreigners to enter and they wanted to know if we’d been there. Our students had no idea that there were areas forbidden for foreigners so they were quite shocked by the whole ordeal. We were just thankful not to have accidentally gone through that area, there seem to still be quite a few in the country and they are rarely advertised.
After an eventful day we rolled back into Mawlamyine filthy, tired and aching all over. After a quick dinner, the sound of drums drew us into a side street nearby which just happened to be a Chinese new year carnival in full swing! It wasn’t a non-event at all, we were just far too early last time. There were rides, food stalls, beer stands, a stage with dancers and music, and an extreme amount of gambling! We were just in time to see a brightly lit orange dragon hurtling down the street to begin the main performance as fireworks exploded overhead.