My friend Campbell and I decided it was a fun idea to ride around Myanmar a couple of years ago. This five-part blog post will give you some insight into the things we learned, the stories we heard, the people we met, and the history behind many of the things we saw.
A Man Who Was More Than Shakespeare
Campbell and I were sitting on the side of the road at 6AM eating breakfast; an amazing noodle soup combined with lots of tender chicken pieces. The soup was jam-packed with noodles which we were planning to use to power us the next 50km of 4×4 roads from Mektila to a distant town before needing to fill up the tank again. We saw a very old man walking with a cane to aid his steps on the rough ‘pavement’ that made up the side of the road. He was wandering towards us, looking up every now and then to check he hadn’t overshot his target. He stood by the side of our table for one moment before deciding to take a seat. His face moves closer to ours, squinting towards us as to make eye contact and get our attention. We had his full attention. We were just as interested in him, as he was of us. He opens his mouth and whispers, “You can read English?” We nodded, acknowledging that we both could. “Do you know poetry?” he whispered again. Our response was again, nodding.
“Wait here” he said, and he stumbled along on his walk, this time moving quicker than his approach. Campbell and I looked at each other. We were full of intrigue, and didn’t really ask anything to each other, we simply looked into each other’s eyes and made odd faces. He had walked into a shop, and was now stumbling back. He had in his hands two pieces of paper, which were flapping around in the wind. He sits down again in the same rickety chair. He puts his papers on the table and stares into our eyes with his own very pale and aged eyes. “Do you know Shakespeare?” he said. We both looked at each other, trying to decipher the complicated English word that he had said to us. “Oh, Shakespeare” I said. “Yes, Yes, I know it. He paused for a second and proclaimed, “My poetry, it is more. I am more than Shakespeare!” and he lifted his hands up in the air to show how much greater he was than possibly the most famous poet in English literature.
We looked at his poetry, all hand written in very legible writing, using quite complicated words and was pushing the limits of my English language. The poems were basic, but clever. We stuffed them into our bags for a read later on, and shook his hand. “Jez-u-timba-de” (Thank-you-very-much) we told him. It was time for us to depart, as we didn’t know how long or hard we would have to ride this day, in fact we didn’t even know where we would be by days close.
It baffles me. How can a random old person in a town in the middle of no-where speak English, however nobody else for the past week has been able to?
Burmese Tailor in Thailand: More Myanmar Insight
Campbell and I got a few bits and pieces made in Thailand by a tailor. Our tailor was a bit out of the main touristy area, meaning it was a very quiet little shop. A young man helped us out with our custom clothing; all fine and dandy. We got talking to him a bit deeper than the standard greetings, and it turns out that he was originally from Myanmar. And boy, did he have some amazing stories to tell us…
The way that he had fled Myanmar was by lying to the government and telling them that he was going to Thailand for a short holiday. He was able to leave on a bus, unlike tourists who have to enter and leave via a plane at Yangon. With him, he had all the bits and pieces he needed to set up residency in Thailand. He seemed to think it would be ok for him to move back to Myanmar one day, however he had no reason to be back there as all of his family and friends had now moved across to Thailand. He enjoyed living a freer life here. The Thai government does not force the Myanmar people to leave (which is an exceptionally nice thing to do), however they do charge a $200 foreigner tax per year. The foreigner tax wasn’t any problem for our tailor as he makes about $300us per month. His living costs included renting an apartment with his family which costs him about $1us per day (very tight living quarters!), but he said he is living reasonably comfortably.
He also informed us about Myanmars’s allies, which are Russia, China and North Korea. He said they were giving Myanmar ridiculous amounts of money for their projects, such as the new capital Naypyidaw’s infrastructure, in return for access to their resources. Our tailor seemed to believe that Myanmar didn’t want to spend money repairing roads, as they believed that their allies would eventually fix them for them at no cost. Apparently the Chinese people love living in Myanmar because they tend to be quite wealthy and they are able to have more than one child, unlike in China with their strict one-child policy.