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It’ll Always Be Burma To Me (Part 2)

I got off the bus and stood, alone, bags in hand, on the deserted street that leads to Chaung Thar Beach, Myanmar. It was 3 am, pitch black, and I was kind of drunk. The 9-hour bus ride from Yangon (the capital) to Chaung Thar (a tiny beach town on the western coast) had been unpleasant, to say the least. The mountainous western region of Myanmar is devastatingly beautiful and largely untouched, but for a single, winding, one-lane road connecting the coast to the rest of the country. Much of the drive was spent going up and down this mountain road like an hours-long roller coaster. For reasons unbeknownst to me, the road was chiseled into the mountain as a kind of zigzag, meaning that the bus, which was already too big for the road it was on, was forced to repeatedly rapidly accelerate at the start of each bend before coming to an almost complete stop to accommodate the next zig or zag. To make matters worse, any time a car approached from the other direction, the bus had to fully stop and pull as far over as possible to let them pass, or, if there wasn’t enough room, reverse until the road was wide enough to fit both cars. Because of the herky-jerky motion of the constantly stopping and starting bus, coupled with a road that resembled a tortoise's shell, sleep was all but impossible, despite the (non)spacious, (un)comfortable, and (non)air-conditioned bus. Every once in a while, I would drift into a sliver of micro-sleep, only to be rudely awoken by my face slamming into the window, the seat in front of me, or the man next to me due to the bus’s incessant fits and starts. When we stopped for dinner at a rest stop, I drank as much ‘Myanmar’ beer as I could, hoping it would knock me out, but to no avail (yes, that’s the name of the beer and the name of the country, like when Budweiser put ‘America’ on all of its cans for awhile). Unable to sleep, I spent the ride staring out the window, unable to see any of the wondrous landscape due to the complete absence of light. In this fashion, the night bus inched its way through the Arakan mountains.

About 30 hours prior, I was wandering around Yangon, evading the emaciated stray dogs and sweating incessantly in the (technically) winter heat. I was trying to find an old train station built when Burma was a British colony when I saw tons of outdoor booths selling all sorts of knickknacks, most of which were indecipherable to me. It was crowded, loud, and the ground was filthy with betel leaf spit. Thinking this area seemed far more interesting than an old train station, I walked up and looked around. Many booths were selling tickets to popular spots to escape the crowded city for the weekend. Unable to read the signs or speak any Burmese other than ‘thank you’ (jesudemae), I waited until a guy who spoke some English approached me.

When I told him I wanted to go to the beach, he recommended Chaung Thar, saying it was the most popular with young people. It was 6000 Kyat for the night bus, or, for 25000 Kyat, a private car would take me there. I didn’t have a good handle on the exchange rate at the time, but the thought of taking a private car alone through the night seemed both overly decadent and somewhat depressing, regardless of price. And, to be honest, I couldn’t read the money in Myanmar because they use different symbols for numbers as well as letters. I later learned the bus was about $4.25 and the car was $18.

Upon entering the bus, the driver took note of the hotel each passenger was staying at, so he could drop you off in front of it when we arrived. When the bus made its first stop on that deserted street in Chaung Thar, I was the only passenger to get off the bus. As soon as I had my things, the bus took off again, leaving me to fend for myself in finding the UK Bed and Breakfast. I looked to my left and my right, but didn’t see anything that resembled a hotel. To the left there seemed to be a long abandoned shack and to the right, a huge compound with a giant yard surrounded by barbed wire. It looked like a prison camp in a movie, but instead of prisoners, it was filled with dogs. Too afraid to enter the dog fortress, I first approached the dilapidated house on the left, hoping to see a sign or a person who could help me, but I found no such sign and no such person. I began to wonder if the bus driver had made a mistake, but, even if he had, there wasn’t anything I could do about it now. It occurred to me that the decaying house did indeed look like a rotting version of the picture of the hotel on the booking website, but there were no signs, no lights, and no apparent front door from which to enter.

I stood in the street, contemplating my situation and hoping for some kind of divine intervention, but, when none arrived, I had no choice but to approach the citadel of dogs. The instant I got within five yards of the gate, a battalion of dogs charged me, barking tenaciously. Luckily for me, there was a barbed wire fence between us, keeping me safe. Unluckily for me, the dogs easily scooted under the fence and confronted me. Unable to move for fear of startling them, I stood completely still. Because I was carrying bags, I knew that running would be fruitless. Plus, I wasn’t totally sure I was even in danger, so it seemed premature to abandon all my possessions and flee; they were just dogs after all.

Our standoff went on for a few moments before my divine intervention finally arrived. This man had either come down from heaven or had been woken up by the howling dogs. He whistled and immediately the dogs calmed down. I would have married him at that moment.

It transpired that the dilapidated house across the street was indeed the hotel I had booked, but it was no longer a hotel at all. The dog master told me that I should continue down the street towards the beach, where there were many other hotels I could stay. I wanted to tell him that I had already paid for a room at this place, but I didn’t know how to say that in Burmese and it didn’t seem like there was anything to be done about it.

I turned and dejectedly began walking down the street. The man went back into his house, unfortunately not making sure all the dogs went with him, at which point a pack of about 13 dogs followed me down the street, salivating that they might finally get to fill their bellies. I trudged about 100 yards before deciding not to give up on the reservation without at least trying to get into the hotel. I would hate to squander the whole $13 I had spent on a three night stay. And yes, I was also afraid to walk the desolate road with a snarling pack of dogs tailing me.

There was a door around the back of what was formerly the UK Bed and Breakfast, so I approached and tentatively tried the door. Miraculously, it was unlocked. I entered what looked to be the living room of a frat house, largely devoid of any furniture. In the center of the room was a large, rectangular plywood table with cup stains in the shape of a beer pong game and a floor that was littered with red cups. Unfortunately, however, there didn’t seem to be anyone inside. I was, at least, free from my terrifying canine escorts. On one side of the room was a single wooden chair, which, it being 4 am and me being somewhat drunk, looked as appealing as any bed I’ve ever seen. So, I sat down and attempted to go to sleep in this ghost of a frat house past.

Perhaps because I was sitting upright on a wooden chair and perhaps because I was afraid at any moment the owner might enter, think I was an intruder, and kill me, I didn’t sleep very well. Some time later, I heard a noise. It was someone snoring in a room nearby. I approached the door, but thought better of entering the room unannounced. After about twenty minutes of purposely making noise in hopes he or she would wake up so we could resolve this situation and I could go to sleep, I heard more noises from the room. Whoever it was was moving around, hopefully not grabbing some kind of weapon.

When the door opened, a man stood there, his face a mixture of confusion and annoyance. I tried to look as innocent and non-threatening as possible. Having rudely woken him at 4:30 in the morning, originally our discussion went nowhere. We couldn't understand each other and google translate wasn’t helping much; not to mention he was none too pleased by my presence in the first place. Eventually he understood that I had booked a room in what had been his hotel. He explained that it wasn’t a hotel anymore and that I should try to find accommodations elsewhere. But, when I was able to prove that I had already paid for the room, he finally realized that he couldn’t just blow me off (In reality, he definitely could have and I couldn't have done anything about it). He made several phone calls, not a word of which I understood, and then told me to grab my bags.

We went outside and he grabbed his moped, motioning for me to get on the back. He drove me down the same street I had tried to walk down earlier, towards the beach. The sun had begun to rise, making the whole area seem much more inviting. After about a five minute drive, we stopped at a hotel, ‘The Happy Chaung Thar,’ which was right on the beach. He sat me down in the outdoor lobby and started talking to the receptionist. As I waited, I read a poster on the wall that had rules and cultural traditions for tourists in Myanmar to follow. Most of them were obvious and simple, like ‘wear decent clothes when visiting religious sites.’ Some were necessary, but unfortunate, like, ‘don’t give any money to strange children on the beach.’ The one that especially stood out said, ‘practice safe sex,’ which seemed semi-normal, except that in the picture, there was a foreign man in a suit talking to what seemed to be Burmese pimp, wearing a longyi, with what seemed to be a Burmese prostitute standing a few feet away from them, as if to say ‘going to a prostitute is encouraged in Myanamar, but please wear a condom.’

Shortly after, the guy who had driven me there got a key from the receptionist and showed me into a room, a much bigger room than the one I was meant to have in the UK Bed and Breakfast. He sent me in, gave me a thumbs up and was off. I had finally made it somewhere I could sleep. It was 5:26 am. I collapsed onto the bed and instantly fell into a deep sleep. I still don’t know if he paid for my room or if they just let me stay there for free, but I was never asked for any money by ‘The Happy Chaung Thar,’ which made me very happy indeed.

The End

Epilogue: At 6:10 am, I woke up soaking wet and sticky with sweat, which was confusing because prior to falling asleep, I had blasted the air conditioning, relieving me from the collective heat of the bus ride, the intense 90 degree winter heat, and the stress of possibly being mauled by dogs. I wondered why it had turned off and why I couldn’t get it to turn back on. I later learned that, at this hotel and most of the other hotels in this region, they don’t have enough power to have electricity all day, so they only turn it on at night. It would turn on at 6 pm and abruptly turn off at 6 am. Thus, on all three nights of my stay, I woke up within 15 minutes of it being turned off drenched in sweat. Summer in Myanmar, when it is routinely well above 100 degrees, must be wonderful.

P.S. I worry that this story doesn’t give a particularly flattering portrait of Myanmar, but I had an amazing time there and it was one of my favorite places I’ve ever been. The enjoyable parts of the trip just weren’t as funny, so I didn’t write about them.

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