A blank look creeps across the face of my fellow tourist.
Locals are simultaneously fascinated and curious as to why a foreigner would come to such a place, so far off the radar of your average traveler.
“Nobody goes to Monywa!”
When informed Taylor Swift and I were from the same state Khaing’s giddiness was obvious and belied her 27 years; “Do you see her when you are out?” I couldn’t help but laugh.
Khaing’s parents weren’t too keen on her moving to Mandalay, the center of northern Myanmar, in order to obtain a criminal justice degree. Undergraduate in Monywa, an hour away, while living with a friend? Done. But alone in the big city, four hours and a world away from rural Hpo Win? That was a bridge too far.
So for now this educated young lady sold Buddha souvenirs and guided foreigners around the 14th century Po Win Daung caves. Most tourists — and there aren’t many — arrive with a guide or via taxi from Monywa, so guiding only happened two or three times each week during the dry season.
The ‘easy’ route to the site involved riding door to door in an air conditioned taxi. Easy in this case also means a bit boring. I chose the far more interesting course; walk through the back streets to the river, obscenely loud boat across the muddy Chindwin River, 45 minute shotgun ride in a breezy pick up truck.
Monywa is a large city with a population pushing 400,000, but it feels smaller. It’s a friendly, welcoming place.
A few Burmese men at work in an open-air garage called out as I walked past. “Mingalabar!”, I waved back. We swapped morning pleasantries and entered into a conversation about American politics. Like almost every Burmese citizen I met, the guys enthusiastically approved of my American citizenship and gave Obama’s recently completed presidency a big thumbs up.
Most Burmese men have teeth stained permanently red from the constant chewing of betel nut and these guys fit the stereotype. Brightly colored spit marks pretty much every sidewalk and road in the country and Monywa’s back streets were no different.
I dodged the red landmines and made my way to the exposed banks of the Chindwin River. March is the end of the dry season and the river was at its lowest. The boatmen wouldn’t allow me to ride with the locals, insisting I charter a separate boat. Safety first, they said.
Inside the shack which acted as a ticketing office I protested, but not at the cost — I simply wanted to share the transfer with Burmese folks going about their lives. Request denied. Three dollars lighter in the wallet, I navigated the steep slope down to the water’s edge.
Perhaps the loudest, most noxious outboard motor in Myanmar propelled the rickety wooden boat through the brown water. But it had a roof. And the breeze felt nice. The boats passing from the other side made for lovely scenery as Monywa faded in the distance. But that engine!
The western bank of Myanmar’s fourth longest river was surprisingly busy. A small tourist village occupied a stretch of road nearest the water. The only thing missing — tourists! I was the only white person around.
Rather quickly I had several transportation offers — private taxi, bench seat in the bed of a pickup truck, front seat in a similar pickup. My pale complexion plus hot and sunny weather meant a front seat ride. After a handshake and greeting my driver and I were off. A tiny golden Buddha bobbed on the dashboard as we bounced across the dusty plains. One quick stop for photos of a giant open-pit Chinese-run copper mine broke the trip.
PO WIN DAUNG
Some of the caves at Po Win Daung are quite substantial and home to wall paintings in various states of preservation, red, green and black most prominent colors. But a more accurate description of the majority of the caves would be grotto. A good number were just large enough to house a petite Buddha. “Mind your head.” Most had low openings with locking iron gates. The site is home to a large number of monkeys who have a tendency for mischievous conduct, so the gates were there to keep them out.
In a particularly attractive cave with a shiny marble Buddha Khaing asked if I wanted to have my photo taken. “Okay, let’s take one together.” She demurred, but happily snapped my picture. “I am very shy…”.
Next up — the famous temples of Bagan. Read about my exhilarating trip over the temples in a hot air balloon
We moved on, up steep rocky paths to an outcropping which overlooked the entire area. “I like quiet.” A girl after my own heart. But for a few trees in the way we could see the location of her family home in the village across the valley. It was physically beautiful, obviously poor and a totally different scene from Monywa, just an hour away.
I have yet to mention the middle aged woman from Khaing’s village shadowing us since my very obvious arrival. The lady sold paper wrapped peanuts for visitors to feed the resident monkeys. I initially gave her a “Chay zu chin bar ay” (thank you), but she kept following us. Just a persistent local trying to earn a few kyat, I thought. But Khaing knew what was up. As an unlicensed guide, refusing to share her fee or tips with her village elder could cause trouble.
We wound up a steep path for the views, of course, but also to talk beyond prying eyes. She was happy to take a photo with me here, away from local view. I told her to sit next to me, selfie style. She sat about two feet away. “Come closer!” We both laughed.
Khaing typed her phone number into mine and waited patiently as I tried to text the photos. Repeated message failure. Myanmar’s telecom services were not yet (as of March 2017) able to support multimedia text messaging. Khaing explained the peanut lady’s presence. I offered to pay her here, before we finished, so no one would see. “Wait until we go into a cave.”
She was well versed on Buddhist history and symbolism and taught herself English by watching movies. Guide service — top notch; connecting with a local girl — even better. I especially enjoyed playing Elvis Presley for her on my phone. We talked about our family lives and Burmese women’s fashion. The latter point was funny. Most Burmese, men and women, wear a long skirt-like wrap called a longyi. I asked if she owned any pants. Her instantaneous laughter provided my answer.
Back down in another cave I pulled out a 10,000 kyat note. “No! That is too much! Take back 5,000.” 5,000 kyat is just under US$4. I reached into my pocket, swapped the big note for a handful of smaller ones and was instructed what to do; buy peanuts from the village woman for 1,000 and give Khaing 2,000. She pocketed the other 2,000.
It all went off without a hitch and Khaing thanked me profusely. “You are a very kind person. You listen well. Thank you.” She said she would see me next time. I said next time I would see her in Mandalay. She smiled and said she would never forget me. I said I would pray for her next time I visit a pagoda.
DO IT YOURSELF
While Monywa is thoroughly off the main tourist trail, it isn’t a difficult place to visit. The most logical gateway is Mandalay (MDL), 3-4 hours away, home to excellent attractions and worth a few days of your time. Air Asia, Air KBZ, Myanmar National Airlines, and Golden Myanmar Airlines keep Mandalay well connected to the rest of Southeast Asia.
The drive in from the airport is the perfect introduction to Myanmar; horse carts trotting down the road, cows hanging out, green fields, Buddhist stupas. As the Lonely Planet guide says, highly recommended!
Read about E-biking around Bagan, the next destination on my 27-day trip through Myanmar.
Most visitors travel the route to Monywa via minibus, but full size buses make the journey as well. Departures all day. One day’s notice is usually fine, but two would guarantee your preferred departure time and company. For visitors with minimal time, a taxi or private vehicle and driver combined with en-route sightseeing is a particularly attractive option. All transportation is easily arranged through your accommodation.
Four options — walk, motorbike, tuk tuk, taxi. You won’t make it a block before being offered the latter three. All are easily arranged at your accommodation as well.
I stayed at the King and Queen Hotel in Monywa. Staff couldn’t have been more welcoming and friendly. Rooms were comfortable and kitted out with my absolute favorite, the BBC News Channel. Decent buffet breakfasts included. Don’t miss the evening rooftop views. Walking distance to everything.
I befriended a local businessman who stayed at the Win Unity Resort Hotel across town. It looks nice and gets decent online reviews, but it is a bit out from the center of action. Depending on your perspective, that could be a good thing.
I ate breakfast and enjoyed a quality rooftop dinner at my hotel. As I said, Monywa is not tourist focused, so don’t expect a variety of international dining options. It does have the standard array of street food vendors and market stalls to round out a reasonable meal, though it’s light on actual restaurants. Eureka is a cross between McDonald’s, a cafe and a small town bakery. It’s a nice spot for a quick meal, cold air conditioning and a refreshing fruit shake. You could do worse.
Seeing the Sights
It’s pretty easy to arrange tourist activities on the streets in Myanmar, especially in smaller towns/less touristed areas. If you’re lazy or don’t feel like being bothered, the King and Queen has an impressive list of day tour choices.
I did a tuk tuk tour to the spots east of Monywa the day prior to visiting Po Win Daung and very much enjoyed it, but I think they just call up one of their tuk tuk contacts and off you go. Not much English spoken, but good fun and cost effective. The car-based tours may be fully guided (though it’s not necessary); check with the hotel to be certain.