Betel, Tobacco, and Pickled Tea, or: How I learned to Speak Burmese without Saying Very Much (Part I of III)

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Several years ago I took a trip down Irrawaddy. This is a previously unpublished account of that journey.

The last thing I expected was to be stuck in traffic in Yangon. I figured that it was just my luck that in a country still discovering the benefits and shortcomings of cellphones, I would be trapped in one of the great inconveniences of modern society and that, as a result, it was very probable that I would miss the five o’clock ferry to Pathein.

Of course, I shouldn’t have been surprised. The city had been growing insatiably as foreign capital poured into the once closed country. From the cigar-smoke filled suites at Trader’s Hotel to trash-strewn alleys along the wharf, there is a real frontier atmosphere in Yangon as a new generation of international robber barons busily divides Myanmar’s resources alongside government bureaucrats and the local glitterati. It’s a daily parade of colorful characters: longhi (sarong) wearing politicians, businessmen sporting well-tailored European suits and questionable ethics, wildcatters and speculators hoping to steal a deal from under the nose of the multinationals, hawkers selling everything from fake antiques to knockoff Louis Vuitton; everyone was out to make a quick buck. Like something straight out of a Conrad novel, the very soul of the country seemed to be for sale.

The decay of Yangon’s imperial past

For better or for worse, Myanmar was changing, and I wanted to get a glimpse of its soul before it was auctioned off to the highest bidder. I had determined that the best way to get a real flavor of the country was to head into the Irrawaddy Delta to Pathein, a port town famous for its paper umbrellas. The city had taken on an almost messianic tone in my imagination as if by simply setting foot in there, I would achieve enlightenment in all things Burmese.

The traffic began to break up as we drove around construction on a highway overpass. We weaved our way through a labyrinth of streets, passing the golden stupa of the Sule Pagoda and the derelict colonial buildings of Burma’s previous overlords, until finally bursting onto a long broad avenue lined with warehouses.

Sule Pagoda

The taxi pulled off to the side of the road, and the driver pointed at a crowd of people, mostly in longhis, gathered under a plastic tarp. “The boat you’re looking for is in there, past the market. Kan-kaung-ba-zay! That means good luck.”

Thanking the driver, I grabbed my backpack and headed towards the market. Almost immediately, I was swallowed up by the multitude of people, as if the river itself had flooded its banks leaving me to fight against the current. But as inevitable as a cork loosened at the bottom of the sea, I broke through the surface of humanity and found myself standing on a raised embankment overlooking the Yangon River.

Vessels of all shapes and sizes plied up and down the waters. From crescent-shaped motorized dugouts to Chinese freighters, the river was a hive of activity. Several barges were “docked” along the embankment, connected by a series of precariously positioned boards bridging the five-meter drop from land to water. But no one seemed to mind, certainly not the men in sweat-stained shirts who were busy loading and offloading sacks of rice, nor the children running along the planks with the alacrity of youth.

River traffic at Yangon

It seemed that all of Myanmar was present at the wharf: Buddhist priests draped in saffron robes, Indian traders haggling with Muslim merchants, women of ethnicities as varied and beautiful as the pagodas of Bagan. In an instant, you could travel from Tanintharyi to Kachin, or Rahaing to Shan without taking a step.

I walked over to a man in a green-checkered longhi standing by a gangplank leading to a double-decked boat below. “Pathein?” I asked. The man nodded his head. I pointed to the vessel at the end of the makeshift wooden ramp, “down there?” Again, the man nodded his head.

Looking at the ferry, if one could call it that, I was immediately hit by a sense of dread. The hull bulged and sank in irregular undulations that raised serious questions in regards to its structural integrity. It seemed as if someone had literally dropped one barge on top of another.

The ferries of the Irrawaddy

I hesitated. Maybe it would be best to stay in Yangon, I thought, where I could sleep on a comfortable bed; after all, hotels don’t capsize. But I had come this far, and the momentum of my curiosity propelled me forward, across the muddy chasm, and onto what would hopefully not be a floating death trap.

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