The Seat with Holes

She chose the broken chair. Three wicker chairs stood side by side at the bus stop – the one to the far right was missing a noticeable portion of its weave. But she sat down, opened up her big flowered bag and took out a cigar. She was not the kind of woman who could be bothered by imperfections. The lines of her austere face confessed as much. This tough Burmese woman. Smoking never looked so cool to me. So defiant.

This May morning, it is raining. My eyes are red and tired. Sitting near my newly found cigar-smoking idol, I await the 6am bus to Yangon. (There are no separate buses for tourists in Myanmar as there are throughout Thailand and Cambodia.)

Hpa An has been a beautiful experience. This quite town in the southeast of Myanmar welcomed me in ways I would have never imagined. Every smile is returned a smile. People passing by in town notice quickly that I’m a traveler and say “Hello” or “Mengalaba.” Young men play something similar to hacky sack on the sides of the streets, and laugh when you join in for a few kicks. Shop owners make their best efforts to offer you things in English (which few people here speak.) The language barrier doesn’t seem to limit the Burmese ability to offer help, though – whether it’s with sign language or drawing.

Yesterday I made a pilgrimage. I rented a bicycle and rode for about an hour to the base of Mt. Zwegabin. It was not easy to find the entrance. But many kind Burmese people helped me along the way. The road was peaceful and easy, peppered with little community of thatched-roofed houses and open storefronts. I waved and said hello to many happy waving children along the way, their cheeks painted with milky-white homemade sunscreen. Chickens crossed the street in front of me. Goats as well… The overwhelming green of unkempt fields took me, drowning me in gratitude. In one instance with the wind in my face and wheels speeding downhill between two mountains, I had a moment of pure awe.  It occurred to me that even if I didn’t find this mountain it had been a great day.

The start of the trail, Mt. Zwegabin
The start of the trail, Mt. Zwegabin

When I did finally reach the gate, the route to the trail was inescapable. Golden gateways and fields of white and gold Buddha statues lined the path. Hundreds of them. There was no mistaking that you had arrived somewhere important. Somewhere spiritual.

I slowly moved up the path between the mindful eyes of the Buddhas and came to the start of my trail.  (Thank goodness I didn’t realize just then how long and tiring the journey up would be!). Every long winding staircase ended in the start of another. But it was worth every aching step to reach the pagoda at the top. And not just for the view or the accomplishment (though I did feel very proud!). But to be welcomed with elated kindness from strangers. Offering tea and snacks as they carefully polished metal statues of Buddha until they gleamed.

Feeling welcome as a foreigner is a joyful experience. So many times you feel resentment or animosity. But not in Myanmar. I think Franco put it best when he said, “These people are so… innocent.” A girl from a group of Burmese teenagers took my arm and motioned me to take a picture with her at one of the viewpoints. She giggled and told me “thank you, have a good trip!” It’s truly astonishing to me the power of these small acts of kindness. The flowing feeling of good energy.

Some young Burmese girls I met on the trail of Mt. Zwegabin.
Some young Burmese girls I met on the trail of Mt. Zwegabin.

So I could tell you which guesthouses to stay in and which ones to avoid. Where to rent a bike or how to get the bus. And I probably will in a another post, but for now there’s a much more simple and important message: Come to Myanmar. See something beyond the tourists’ hotels and restaurants of the more commercialized cities in Southeast Asia. You are welcome here, and you will not be disappointed.

As I finish this post, the rain is still falling outside my window. My heart is a bit heavy from some hurtful words exchanged between friends. And at the same time it is full with the unexpected peacefulness of being here. I think to myself, “There is no pain I can’t endure.” Strength is a beautiful thing. Like the Burmese grandmother with her cigar, I will take the seat with the holes.

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