My very first night in Myanmar, the country where they all say that it might be difficult to find a place to stay in the night (as there will be many places where you are not allowed to stay) (as a tourist), I knock on the door of this temple and they let me in. It’s not just an ordinary temple. It’s a temple that’s built on the top of a hill and it will take you about 100 steps to get there. I look up as I get off my bike. Am I really going to carry all my bags and bike upstairs? Well, I tell myself, it’s just the only way to go, as it’s about to get dark soon and there’s simply no other place to go. Besides, I just happened to have climbed this little mountain for the last fifteen kilometers to reach this little summit and to head down in the dark just doesn’t feel like the right thing to do. So… I start to climb up the stairs, as I carry two of my bags. Although I feel slightly overburdened, something tells me that this is the right way to do it as there’s no way that I want to walk these stairs more often than is strictly necessary. And I continue the walk all the way up, wondering whether I have to return two or three times more… Of course, that is, IF, they let me in. Yes, let’s just first ask for their permission.
As I reach the top of the stairs, impressed by its height, I walk towards this little house that looks like their communal building. I have to say, that as I slowly come a bit closer it feels more like a house, as I see a man and a woman sitting inside. No monk. I keep my hands close to my chest as I greet them and I tell them that I just arrived on the top of this little mountain, with my bicycle ‘tjakajaan’, that I am on my way to Kawkareik but that it will be dark soon and if they might be able to help me out with a place to stay for the night… Or to be honest, that’s what I would have said if I did have the language. But, as I just happened to have crossed the border to Myanmar today, this afternoon to be exact, I simply don’t have the language (yet). And let me tell you, that this lack of a language always feels painfully clear. Every time you cross a border, a new country appears, with new rules, and a new language. Its like you’re playing a game, and suddenly they changed the cards, and the rules, and the players. And you have to start all over again. Trying to unravel their rules, trying to read their faces.
And even though I had asked these super friendly police-guys at the border crossing today about their way of saying hello in Burmese. Of course, I had already forgotten their answer. As we simply all know: that’s how it works. You need a bit more time, and practice (and repeat) to get familiair with their new set of rules before you can play the cards. I do remember though that the word for thank you starts with something like ‘jesu’, but that was pretty much it. Nevertheless, the man understands my gestures, just like most of the people do, as you arrive in the beginning of the night, knocking on a door, asking for a place to stay for the night. Being a women on her own.
Still I feel touched, time after time again, as the people who I asked for help, decide to take me in as if my visit was announced. The man asks me to come in so they can take a closer look at their visitor. I realize that I’m still wearing my hat, standing outside in the dusk. I quickly remove the hat so he’s able to see my face as I come a bit closer towards their light. As soon as the man is able to read my face he tells me it’s alright, and he points at the little blankets inside on the floor. I am welcome to stay with them for the night. It feels a bit like a refuge, or ‘refugio’ as they say in Spanish. Just like a place for a shelter. It feels a bit like it might happen more often that they get unannounced visitors.
As I walk those little stairs down, I realize: this will be quite the challenge… There might be more then one hundred stairs. And I look at the endless stairs going up as I think back about those days in Thailand, where we went to some Mai-Thai (Thai-fighting) courses in Chiang Mai. They would have loved to sent us up to climb these stairs. With a stopwatch in their hand. Focussed on strength and progression. And I have to laugh with the realization that even this little mountain that I cycled today is nothing compared to this physical challenge that is awaiting for me now. But hey, if it’s the only way, it’s the right way. So don’t worry about it, and go go go! is what I say.
In meanwhile the old man comes my way, -walking down the stairs, and he looks at my bicycle. In opposite to me, he doesn’t seem to be very impressed about the (light)weight of my bicycle without any luggage. He looks up to the stairs, and then down to my bicycle. And he repeats this little …. another time. I can see him thinking….. I await his response… as I learned that sometimes, you just have to wait for somebody else to come up with a brilliant idea. It’s obvious that he is at home here, he knows best. So I just wait. As I had done many times before.
I can see how his expressions changes as he responds to me with the words: wait, I have an idea. And he points towards this little shed on the opposite side of the street. He shouts something to the little house on top of the stairs and after a bit the women comes out and walks towards us with a big bunch of keys in her hand. The whole scenario is easy to understand: we will try to store my bicycle in this little shed at the bottom of this hill and therefore this little cyclist might be lucky, skipping this extra work-out in the early night. The man tries to fit the very first key in the lock, without any succes. And starts the second and the third one. Without any succes either. The lady gets the message to go back to the little house, and starts her walk, yes indeed, again, all those 100 steps up….
She comes back with another bunch of keys and a torch in her hand. And as I start to wonder whether I am not asking to much of these super friendly and helpful people, with my little unannounced visit in the beginning of the night, I look at their faces and realize it’s allright. There’s nobody that wouldn’t get slightly impatient with the situation. Nobody looses his nerves. With a friendly smile, we all continue this try-to-find-the-right-key-to-unlock-the-door-of-this-little-shed. Please, I think, this should be the right key, as we are slowly running out of options. This should be it. Please, let this one be the right one!
I am slowly feeling worried about this scenario, as I am pretty sure that in case of no succes, they would help me out with carrying all my bags up those endless stairs up, and theres no need to explain that I would feel pretty bad about that. We are a team now, there’s no way back. Please let this be the right key. And I look up, even though I am not sure what it is I am looking at. Crack. The lock opens up and all three of us are very pleasantly surprised. I push my bike inside and put my bags right next to it. Perfect I say. This way we can walk the stairs lightly. And together we walk the stairs up. By now it was no longer the question, there are more than hundred stairs, for sure.
I take a seat in the living room. Or maybe it’s their prayer room. I kind of get the feeling that this room functions for both. I observe the little altar in the corner of the room, filled with flowers, incense, and pictures of (without a question famous) holy places and monks wearing their red colored robes. In the meanwhile a monk has taken a seat in the living room, he’s trying to charge his phone and watch television. It’s quite of a challenge for him to do so, as he has to change the wires several times to be able to gain some electricity. Later on I would find out that in this region of Myanmar, the people only have access to the electricity once a day, in the evening. So this turned out to be the perfect time for this monk to get his electronic device fully charged and watch the television.
The monks here wear red, dark red, made from the kind of fabric that feels very soft. In contrast to Thailand, where they wear mainly orange. Isn’t it fascinating, I think, how that all changes, depending on the country (and sometimes even the region), when it comes to their rituals and their beliefs, and the way they build and decorate their temples. The temples in Vietnam for example, feel like they’re influenced by Chinese culture, with big heads of dragons, and all kind of exotic animals used for their decoration. As here in Myanmar you can feel the Indian influence. Even though I haven’t been to both countries (China, or India),
still you get the feeling, intuitively. Isn’t that beautiful I think, as I continue my observation.
The old man brings me a big jar of hot water, three little bags of instant-coffee and a cup. I give him my thank-you without language, using the gesture I used before, as I am, fully thankful. I am starving. The taste of coffee works out well. In comparison to water, there’s a lot of energy in coffee. I can feel that energy, or without a question the sugar, rushing trough my body. The old man comes back and adds two little bags of noodles to the plate. Instant-noodles. ‘You must be hungry’ is what he says without words, as if he is capable to read my mind. With all modesty I prepare the first bag of noodles. They taste like paper, but still my body is happy with the filling it gets.
I think back about the meals in Laos, where there were days of sticky-rice and bananas. For breakfast, lunch and…. dinner. Where I had to calculate carefully how much I could eat and had to save for the next meal. It might sound everything except ideal, but to be honest, I fully enjoy those moments. It’s the scarcity that makes you feel aware of the value of things. In fact, its the scarcity that gives it its value. As its the abundance that makes you forget about all that.
After dinner I ask for the bathroom, pointing at the toothbrush in my hand. Not that I expect to find a real ‘bathroom’ in here, but more to find out about their local habits. The women shows me a bucket filled with water in the kitchen and the man guides me to a toilet outside in the garden. As the women walks towards us she points at a big water-reservoir. “To wash’ she says, as she rubs her hands against her arms. I think to myself that I don’t need a shower yet, as I just showered yesterday, but something tells me it’s better to follow their instructions, to avoid misunderstandings. So I get back to the living room and take my little towel outside my bag, and together with my toothbrush I walk back to the kitchen. Looking around for any kind of sign that confirms that I am indeed at the right place to brush my teeth, I feel consoled by the appearance of two other toothbrushes. This little hole in the floor, next to their kitchen, turns out to be, indeed: their sink.
As I walk outside with my little towel I know, now the real challenge begins. Something tells me that the people here bathe while wearing a thin towel wrapped around their body. But something tells me I am not able to do this, as I think about this piece of cotton that I could use as a towel, which I travel with, which I carry in my bag, carefully locked in the little shed at the bottom of these stairs. So now what, I think. As I would feel totally comfortable, being this European girl, with taking a shower outside in the garden in my underwear, somethings tells me that that’s not the best idea, being a women in a holy place, surrounded by monks. So it takes me a bit to find a solution. Using my creativity I come up with a plan B: I can take a bath in the toilet, as this building is completely covered from the outside. And besides, as I justify my creative solution, it’s not that much different from the bathroom, as both have a little water reservoir and a little plastic cub. And so I go in the toilet to take a shower, with my little, little towel, and I disappear.
As I get back to the living room, feeling impressed by the result of this little ‘shower’- I feel perfectly clean, I discover a little mattress in the living room: my bed. A big piece of cotton is used to divide the living room from the bedroom. On the floor I see a big blanket, covered with a small blanket and a pillow. The women made me a little bed. Right next to hers, to be exact. She brings out this super big mosquito net to cover my little mattress and that’s how she’s created a perfectly fine place to sleep for this spontaneous visitor. I thank her with my both hands in front of my chest, as that’s what I am: thankful. Thankful to be taken in, in this very sincere way. Thankful to have a safe place to stay. I tell her goodnight as I tell myself that it’s time to go to sleep now. But as the women walks in, one hour later, and I am still writing in my diary, she invites me to join the evening prayers.
I follow her closely, as we walk outside, this time it’s completely dark. We walk some stairs, this time up, and reach a little temple. It’s a special place without a question, you can feel that immediately. The women lights some candles and incense, the light and all its aromatic flavors change the whole atmosphere into something even more beautiful. She takes a little mat and takes a seat on the floor at one of the little temple-houses, and invites me to do the same. Without words. You can feel that her choice for this one particular temple-house is everything except random. And as I sit right next to her, in all quietness and concentration, with the sounds of her chanting in the background, I feel goosebumps all over my skin as I just came to realize: how lucky I am to have a woman like her by my side. It’s all these countless women all over the world that had taken me in and taken care of me, that showed me a little bit about what their life is all about.
The very next morning I got invited by the old man, for a walk to the temple for their daily morning-ritual. His enthusiasm is easy to read in his eyes, so without a question I confirm his request. The little offers are prepared in the very early morning and ready to be taken to their holy places. Little bowls with rice and breadcrumbs, with cookies and flowers, and a little bottle of lemonade. All carried carefully in a bag. And off we go. I have no idea where we are heading to or what this morning-ritual is all about. But soon I will find out. And so we start our walk. Just like a student follows her teacher, I carefully follow the footsteps of the old man. And after a small thirty minutes we find ourselves at the bottom of the temple, at the very top of a hill.
I watch how the lady and the man start the preparation of their rituals. With fascination I see how they support the monks and maintain this little temple. From a little distance, to make sure I am not too much ‘in the picture’ out of respect, I see how they change the little bowls with food and fresh flowers for the old ones. And as they are all super focused on maintaining their duty, I look at their rituals and think: yes. This is exactly why I am cycling. As this place, a place where I just happend to arrive accidentally, now turned into a place that has a meaning to me. This is why I cycle I say. Experiences like these go beyond the words you find written in books, in more than one way.
We start our walk downwards and, with the dedication of a pupil, I follow my teacher on his way back. After they ask me different times whether I am sure I don’t want to stay another day, and whether I am sure I have had enough to eat to continue my ride on my bicycle today, it’s time to say goodbye. We all will be walking those stairs again, downwards this time.
Together we get my bicycle out of the little shed, and I thank them for everything. As thankful is exactly how I feel. Thankful that we have met.
As I get back on my bicycle and cycle the very first switchback down the mountainpass, I can still see the old man from a distance, as he’s standing outside. He’s waving at me. It’s a wave filled with kindness and familiarity. I give him a big smile back as I continue my ride, and I can hear myself thinking: this is exactly what cycling is all about.
My very first night in Myanmar.
And I already feel at home.