Editor’s note: This is the third installment in a travel series on Myanmar. Visit www.vaildaily.com to read the first two stories.
Our first breakfast at the Myanmar Beauty Guesthouse in the ancient Burmese capital of Taungoo is an elaborate surprise. The owners, a doctor and his wife, seem unable to do enough for their guests. Along with bountiful cups of local coffee, dish after dish and fruit upon fruit keep showing up at our table long after we’re satisfied.
“How would you like your eggs?” they ask in excellent English. “More crepes? More toast and jam? Another samosa?”
We leave the table not needing another meal until dinnertime.
East of the teak and thatch buildings of the guesthouse lay dry rice paddies with rows of palm trees fading into the smoky distance.
Wanting to explore the area, the doctor explains the route through the fields that will take us to a road along the river. The first landmark is the local bootleggers camp. Sure enough, after zig-zagging across the fields, a couple of drunks stagger out of a dilapidated thatch hut and hail us. I wave saying, “Minglabah!” the Burmese hello and continue on.
We emerge onto a dusty narrow road. A bamboo hut with a counter cluttered with soft drinks and bags of local junk food opens onto the lane. A young girl steps forward balancing a platter of luscious watermelon slices and smiles for a photo.
GREETING THE PEOPLE
We spend the next few hours wandering aimlessly through tiny hamlets, rich farmland, vegetable gardens and groves of bananas fronting the turbid river separating us from the restricted lands of the Karen people. Only recently has the government, after years of conflict, lifted its “shoot on sight” order with this ethnic group.
People greet us with smiles. The fenced dirt yards surrounding the thatch houses are swept clean. Pigs and chickens root around under the house as colorfully dressed children playing in the yard stare at us as we say hello.
A school under construction offers a lesson in the division of labor in Myanmar. Women are the laborers, balancing bricks, bags of sand and buckets of wet cement on their heads, carrying them to where a foundation is being poured.
As we pass a small monastery, school lets out. The high-spirited kids poke one another and practice their minuscule English on us. We’re happy to oblige.
It’s getting hot and time to return. Retracing our steps along with the rambunctious children, we spend the next few hours in the relative comfort of our room after which we wander up to the main highway. We feel a bit like rock stars greeting everyone staring at us, returning waves to people on motorbikes and those perched precariously on top of the habitually overloaded farm trucks.
The next morning, we rise before dawn for a tour to a logging camp where elephants are used as they’ve been for millennia. Special permits allow us into the restricted zone and provide an opportunity to experience a Myanmar few travelers get to see.
After another enormous breakfast, our guide loads us and a French couple into the back of an open pickup truck. It’s cold driving through the pre-dawn darkness. After an hour we climb out of the dry plains. The road winds through hills denuded by clear-cutting. Occasionally, jungle-shrouded villages appear where one-lane bridges of dubious construction span murky creeks.
A narrow track of thick red dust takes us a mile into the forest. From here we walk to the elephant camp.
After another mile, avoiding the frequent piles of elephant dung, we descend into a hamlet of six huts next to a stream. As we relax on someone’s “porch,” a young elephant comes up to investigate, snuffling us with the slimy business end of its prehensile proboscis.
Soon more elephants cross the stream, their mahouts straddling their necks. It’s bath time. The elephants roll in the water with obvious delight as their mahouts splash and rub their rough hides.
We cross the creek, hiking to where elephants are working. Climbing high up a steep hillside we find an elephant pulling an extremely heavy log through a dense bamboo forest. It is not a happy sight. The animal struggles mightily pushing its way through the thickets, trumpeting its frustration while the mahout sitting atop drives it on.
The experience leaves us saddened and, at the same time, glad to have seen a way of life that is fast disappearing. In a poor, newly emerging country, moral implications are too often balanced by economic imperatives.