Off The Map: Mawlaik and the Chindwin River

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After our one day trip to Pyin oo Lwin, we had another night in Mandalay before heading toward the Chindwin River the following morning; and with our extra night in Mandalay we had time to arrange our transport in advance.  Our plan was to head to a small town on the river called Kalewa about 350km away.  We headed to the bus depot in order to figure out the best way/price to get to this northwestern region of Myanmar near the border with Bangladesh and India. The folks at ET Hotel pointed us toward the bus station that services the northern cities. As soon as we started to get near, we were approached by several of the local touts. It had been a couple months now since we had left Africa (the last time we had really dealt with bus touts) and we had to regather ourselves as we balanced following our own intuition and gathering information from the different kids trying to win us over to use their company.  After being guided here and there, we were quoted a couple different prices and different trip durations from 8 hours to 13 hours. Feeling a bit frustrated with the lack of solid information available and chaos of the bus station, we began heading back to the hotel, planning to go with the bus that seemed to have the most reasonable departure time.

Burmese Woman and Child

As we walked back to the hotel we passed a small booking agent desk. Usually we never even bothered to check with these people as half the time we would end up paying more than we wanted or not receiving the service we were told we would get (like our experience in Thailand). But we were quickly learning that in Myanmar things worked differently than other places in the world.  The overnight bus tickets we had bought for our ride from Yangon to Mandalay had been purchased at a travel booking agent office (of sorts) as well.  At the time we were amazed how the entire booking operations work here in Myanmar.  Since computers, cell phones, and internet have been almost non-existent in the country up until only a few years ago the entire booking process and operations takes place from phone calls made from landlines and big binders full of schedules and seating assignments.  Yes… just like the old days from before our ‘Generation Y’ memories can remember.  We figured we had nothing to lose by talking to the friendly-looking woman that was smiling brightly with her freshly yellow thanka painted cheeks and offering a hello as we walked by.  We sat in front of her small desk and watched while she made some calls and her adorable daughter of five sat directly next to her watching the entire process intently. In the end, she had a bus leaving at a better time, could offer us a hotel pick-up for free, and it cost less than any of those hawkers we had talked with at the bus station. Like we said, things are just done differently here in Myanmar.  Sometimes you have to open yourself up to exploring things you may not usually explore, or even revisiting ways of seeing or dealing with things that you may have already tried.  Because each place you are and each moment you have offers new solutions (even if they appear the same) that may be different from what you expect.

The next morning we were picked up right on time. As the shuttle bus drove around to pick up some cargo from various places, we watched the driver with his four year old son enjoy their time together before he took off for at least two days (one day driving each way). The children in the country were truly some of the happiest kids we had seen in the world so far.  Completely immersed in the love of their family and anyone around them, and more often than not right by the side of mom or dad at work.  Life for them was simple but not lacking in love and family time.


The Road to Mawlaik

The road to Mawlaik is part of the India-Myanmar Friendship Road.
The road to Mawlaik is part of the India-Myanmar Friendship Road.

After all the paid riders had been corralled at the bus company’s office, we got off the vehicle so the staff could load all the goods that would be dropped off anywhere necessary between Mandalay and Homalin and the Indian border. We had noticed that as far as internal mail went, the majority of people did not normally use a national postal service.  Instead they did things the old fashioned way (just like so many other things in the country).  They would find a bus that was going to the region they needed their package sent and then pay the driver a small fee to deliver it for them.  It was a funny thing to watch.  Seeing a letter handed to a bus driver then the bus driver looking for a house or shop where they would drip it off along their route.  We wondered if this would work in the United States.  It would be an interesting social experiment.  Address a letter or postal card and then hand it to someone at an airport or in a car headed in the direction the card was addressed to.  Tell them to continue to pass it to someone in the direction of the address (from city to city to narrowed down neighborhood, and street), and see if it arrives.  When explaining this social experiment to another American traveler at a later date his response was, “Yeah I don’t think that would work so well.  People would just think you are cheap for not putting the 30 cent stamp on the card.”  He’s probably right, but we still wonder about it.

Once the auto parts, boxes of supplies, and other cargo were loaded on, we were free to re-board and the bus and off we went.  Sitting across from us on the bus was a nun. Being in the city with the most monks in the world, it peaked our curiosity to hear about being a woman of the cross in this country. After speaking with her for a while, we found out that she is from Myanmar, and in some areas of the north there are quite a few Christians. She told us that she was headed to Kalaymyo, where she was first stationed as a nun, and there was a large cathedral. She was now living in the Philippines, and had come back to visit for her sister’s wedding and see her old friends at the monastery. She was incredibly warm and helpful, and really wanted to share. It was nice to meet such a kind woman and get the genuine sense that this was someone who chose to dedicate her life to Christianity because her heart was filled with love, rather than some of the missionaries we had met at other points on the road who seemed to be more interested in condemning and judging with religion as their backup and proof.

The ride was a long one but once over the mountain pass it was stunning.  It felt like we were in a movie of a foreign land sixty years ago.  After having spent our first week in the two major cities of the country we were drawn into the remoteness and quite of everything surrounding our little moving bus.  Only buses passed us along the small road that parted fields of yellow flowers and greens grasses.  Now instead of seeing cars and streets lined with businesses we saw ox-drawn carts and simple homes and restaurants.  After two rest stops, a couple cups of teas (which are always free, we love this about Myanmar) and many bumpy hours on the road, we approached our destination for the night: Kalewa. There was some confusion between the driver, the nun, and us as to where we were to be dropped off.  The conclusion was to take us to Kalaymyo. The one positive of this was that just before sunset we stopped in a sunflower field for people to relieve themselves. The downside was that it meant we would now have to backtrack the following morning.

Sunflowers on the road between our intended stop of Kalewa and our eventual stop of Kalemyo
Sunflowers on the road between our intended stop of Kalewa and our eventual stop of Kalaymyo

When we did finally arrive in Kalaymyo we got off at the same place as our nun friend where she showed us to a nearby hotel.  We were super disheartened to find out that the hotel was a minimum of $45 per room for foreigners.  This was completely out of our budget range and thus we decided to try to find an alternative.  The nun then called her friend, and with their help we found another hotel where the owner agreed to help us out.  Apparently there weren’t too many hotels in the area that were allowed to accommodate foreigners and thus the prices were high.  It probably didn’t help we were in the last large town before the Indian border crossing, which meant most likely many Indians doing business in Myanmar come here. We got the room at Aung Yadanar Hotel for $30.  Not something we were super happy about, but on the plus side we had a safe and comfortable place to stay, a hot shower, free food from the owners for both dinner and breakfast, and the stellar hospitality of the staff who wanted to do everything in their power to make us feel welcome and happy.

Tea Shop Chindwin River Kalewa
Hanging out at a tea shop riverside in Kalewa while waiting for the boat.


The following morning, we found a three wheeled tuk-tuk of sorts (these three wheeled tuk-tuk/songthaew mixes were common in the smaller towns of Myanmar) who agreed to take us to Kalewa for a reasonable price.  It was only a distance of 30 miles, but the journey took us two hours including his coffee break, some detours due to road construction and picking up other passengers (on the bus the same ride had been 40 minutes).  The road was treacherous, but the scenery along a smaller leg of the river. Overall the small journey was enjoyable when we weren’t bouncing halfway out of the back. We got dropped off at the center of town, which was strategically located spitting distance from the Chindwin river. For centuries, all supplies for these small towns and villages have been delivered strictly by boat and ox drawn carts.  With the exponential rise of vehicles and development this is rapidly changing.


The next boat up-river would be arriving at 2:30pm, which gave us some time to sit down for an hour to decompress a bit after a hairy tuk-tuk ride and the last 24 hours in general.  There were many women hanging around and chatting as we sat there, most with large baskets next to them or in front of them as they re-arranged their goods.  While seated, a man came up to us. He was wearing a tired grey polo shirt–and a longyi of course. He said he was from immigration and wanted to talk to us. We were both a little surprised by this, as he showed no identification and had no uniform, but we had heard of people being approached by immigration in more rural areas. Ben decided to trust him and answered his questions as nicely as possible. He wanted to know where we were from, where we had spent the night before, how we arrived to Kalewa, where we were going, and finally to see our passports. He then asked for a copy. When we told him we didn’t have a copy, he pulled out a Samsung Galaxy S3 and took a picture of our passports, then left. This part of former Burma had been restricted to visitors as recently as only three months earlier, so it made sense that they were trying to keep tabs of who was coming and going.


Boating up the Chindwin

At 2pm the boat came – a half hour early. The first signal for us was that the ladies with their goods were all rushing to the water. Since this happened before we could see a boat coming, we assumed someone from a town further up the river had phoned ahead to alert it’s approach. How else would they know the boat was arriving early? We loved that about these countries.  Everyone kind of knew everyone in some way.  If the owner of a guest house wanted to know when the boat was coming he would somehow get the number of the boat captain or a crew member through his connections and voila — instant, direct, and reliable information. In a place that appeared to be devoid of technology, we saw that cellphone penetration had made an important mark on communication and business within Myanmar.  Cell phones weren’t easy to come by for everyone, so those that didn’t have one relied on talking to the one of the other villagers that did.  The balance of the use of this technology with live communications was wonderful to witness.  These people weren’t reliant on their phones (at least not yet), they used them as they were meant to be used — tools to better enrich communication.

Food sales boat bombardment on the cruise up to Maulaik
Food sales boat bombardment on the cruise up to Maulaik

Locals taking views - Maulaik


Getting on the boat was a mini-adventure in itself. As the boat approached, the vendors that had gone to the shore in anticipation now placed planks down to board the vessel and hopped into small canoe like crafts that paddled out to the sides of the larger boat. It was a mad dash to sell food and goods to the people on the boat. If we had been asleep on the boat when arriving, we would have sworn that pirates were attacking. When we did finally squeeze our way onboard (which was not an easy task, but a fun one) we stood with our large backpacks at the front, waiting for the vendor frenzy to slow down so we could find a seat. Eventually the women selling food from baskets on their heads began to disperse, and we crammed ourselves into the hull (which was also the seating area), with about 120 others. The seats hovered about 5 feet off the ground, so your feet would dangle unless there was a lot of cargo beneath them.  This seemed to be the case with most rows where people rested their feet on a 50 kilo sack of vegetables or a pile of suitcases. We were in fact so loaded up that if the boat did not go directly straight a small amount of water would splash in our faces, which were a few inches above the water line.

From these seats we watched the countryside for the next three hours. As it was early March at this point, there was a lot of green in the hills still, which would soon be gone. We passed along the river and saw many points where there were crops being worked on by locals. There weren’t many buildings anymore, just a few croppings of houses and occasional buddhist temples on a hillside. What we saw most of were boats – almost all of them loaded with cargo, delicately balancing on the verge of sinking. These boats would be loaded up with sacks of produce or sand or anything else you could imagine, and be operated by normally a crew of two or three. The first person was the boat driver, and the others were deckhands with two main responsibilities: help dock the boat and make sure it doesn’t sink. Seemingly every other boat was scooping out water that was coming over the brim, indicating a minor miscalculation in how much they could load on the boats to maximize each trip.


AKZ Guest House and The English Teacher

When we finally arrived in Mawlaik, we were greeted by many eager men that wanted to give us motorbike rides to accommodation. We had actually done our research for this little town, and knew the ‘center’ of things was only 200 meters away.  We walked down the road to AKZ Guesthouse while waving to the many happy kids on bikes and adult locals who were smiling and waving at us as we passed. We had now really reached the part of the country where very few backpackers visited and foreigners were something new and fun to welcome and talk about in the town.

Our inexpensive mini-suite at AKZ Guest House
Our inexpensive mini-suite at AKZ Guesthouse

The AKZ was a no-frills guest house and probably the most basic spot we had stayed in since arriving to Myanmar, but with this also came the rarity of a true budget guesthouse in the country. We arrived and were welcomed by the owner U Tin Tun Hlaing who showed us the room, the shared bathroom, and couple of faucets or large bucket we could shower from.  The owner had even installed a new bathroom only for foreigners featuring a western toilet. As foreign guests we were given a key to use this bathroom that was usually off limits to others.  When Ben was giving our passports to U Tin Tun, he told us he’d call up the English Teacher, who would want to meet us. Not having any agenda and being open for anything we smiled and said we would love to meet the English Teacher.  We also arranged to rent a couple of bikes the next day and took his suggestion on a place to have dinner.

Just one of the many 'buffet' style meals we had in Myanmar.
Just one of the many ‘buffet’ style meals we had in Myanmar.

We were never let down by the hospitality and friendliness of the people in this country. Ok, well maybe there were a couple of times that we had to deal with less than honest or friendly people, but overall we were seriously filled to the brim with gratitude and love toward the Burmese.  U Tin Tun was one of these people who welcomed us not just to his guesthouse but to his town with open arms.  After walking us over to a nearby spot for dinner he helped us order the food (luckily the way food usually works in Myanmar is that it is in pots, already cooked up, and you choose what you want) and then even stayed a few minutes to make sure we liked it.  Only when he saw that we were happy did he leave.  The meal ended up being the typical Burmese buffet style: you get a bit of everything which in most cases actually means A LOT of everything. The two ladies running the place, who we were later told were ethnically Chinese (although we could not make this distinction), kept filling our dishes for us at the table, and wanted us to try everything. It was mostly vegetarian, and all of it delicious. Aside from a chicken and rice dish we had a soup, lahpe thoke (fermented tea leaf salad) and a couple curry inspired dishes, a sautéed green veggie dish, and split a beer.  About half way through our meal an elderly man with glasses came and sat down next to us and introduced himself as U Thant Zin, the English Teacher.  Word seems to spread fast in a tiny town.  We spoke for a few minutes before he asked us to join him for the traditional Burmese tea (made with condensed milk) at one of the nearby tea shops that evening.

U Thant Zin is an older man, in his early seventies, and uses hearing aides with a battery/control pack that he hung around his neck. His poor sight and hearing, combined with his use of the cane made him seem ancient. But there was something about him that was youthful. He loved meeting new people, and helping out visitors. He is known as ‘the English Teacher’ by locals as well because he is still teaching English lessons to students of all ages, which he has been doing for over 40 years.  He is also probably the person with the most knowledge of English in the area.  He invited us for tea at a tea shop near where we were dropped off by the boat, where the Burmese tea (slow brewed smoky local black tea with condensed milk) was 200 kyat (25 cents), and the people watching was just as good. He first asked us some questions about where we were coming from and how long we would be in Mawlaik. His English was quite good, and when he spoke, he was aware of his accent, and would spell a word immediately after saying it if he thought we wouldn’t understand him. He was also extremely polite, and if he asked anything remotely personal, he would ask permission to ask a personal question first. After chatting for a few minutes, he said, “I want you to know that I am not a tour guide, and do not accept any money. I just want to show you my town and make you happy while you are here.”  More of the Burmese open arms and open heart kindness.  He then proceeded to create an agenda for our time in Mawlaik, starting with attending a wedding the following morning.


English Teacher Takes Us Everywhere & Buys Us Tea

The following morning our rented bicycles ($1 each) were awaiting us and we decided to go for a quick tea at the spot the English teacher had shown us the day before. When we returned, he was arriving on his bicycle, which had a metal wire in place at the center of its handlebars so he could stow his cane on his bike while he rode.  Here was a guy who had outlived the average male life expectancy by ten years already and was still living alone and riding his bike around town, and teaching classes. We loved this youthful spirit about him.  The teacher was dressed up today with a button down shirt for the wedding. He was still wearing a longyi, the traditional formal and informal wear of the country.

Feeling like the guests of honor at a wedding we were invited to with the English Teacher
Feeling like the guests of honor at a wedding we were invited to with the English Teacher


The wedding was just down the street from our guest house and we had heard them playing music the night before. We were able to walk there in just a couple minutes.  The celebration was set up on the street in front of a restaurant.  The setup was a rental party tent that had been decorated in colorful ribbons and cloth.  Under the tent were a bunch of tables set up for guests, and at the front of the tent was a sign with the wedding party’s name and the date, and beside it was a PA and karaoke setup.  As we were there around 11am, there wasn’t any karaoke going on, but many people were sitting and eating.  Upon approaching there was a table with gifts, and we offered to contribute for a gift or give some money.  The English Teacher would have none of it, but he did give an envelope with some money.  Apparently we were his +2 to the wedding.



We took a seat, and it wasn’t long before the newlyweds came over to greet us.  They were dressed up as formally as we would expect in the US, but the style was different.  The groom was wearing a new button-down shirt, but no collar on his dress shirt.  On the bottom half, a new longyi.  The bride was wearing all white with a tiara.  Although they didn’t speak English, they welcomed us, and made us feel like guests of honor.  The wedding photographer took several photos of us with the couple, and the rest of the family brought out a morning dish for us to eat.  Before we were finished, we were given another large helping of the curry chicken dish they were serving.  We felt somewhat awkward as we were underdressed for the event and not having contributed to the wedding, but they wanted us there and the English Teacher insisted we not give anything to the family.  After a short while, we said goodbye and the English Teacher’s real tour began.

He took us to all the highlights of the town.  Probably the most interesting was the market, where he took us through all the stalls and pointed out many things we didn’t recognize. Everywhere throughout the day he would introduce us to many of his former and current students.  It was a small town but he was definitely still well known and one of the more popular members of the community.  We stopped by a pharmacy booth (where a former student was working) and nearby was a stand where ladies were preparing betel chew.  Betel chew is almost everywhere in Myanmar (you can’t miss it if you tried), and mostly chewed by men.  The betel tree is a variety of palm tree, with small fruit that are ripe when yellow. The inside of the fruit is somewhat like a walnut but more juicy.  After drying the betel nut in the sun, it is chopped up and a bit is added to a mulberry leaf which then has a white lime paste smeared on it like jelly in a PB&J, and a wet flavored tobacco is sometimes added (like hookah tobacco).  It is rolled up and looks like a less-greasy Greek dolma.  All that’s left to do now is chew it.  We had seen these being sold pretty much everywhere but neither of us had actually tried them.  Ben put it in his mouth and was surprised by the herbal flavors.  Apparently this one had fennel seeds as well.  It’s quite a lot for one bite, and it makes you produce a ton of saliva, as chewing tobacco we know does, but this is bright red.  There is no hiding a betel addiction in Myanmar, more than half the men on the street have teeth, gums and lips that are stained red.  It also appears like they are spitting blood constantly.  Ben had a hard time managing it at first.  He was not thrilled to be constantly having to spit and not being able to talk without drooling red saliva all over the place — but it was sure good entertainment for the Burmese.  The laughs and smiles they had were obviously worth the price of the betel roll they had offered to us for free. It lasted a surprising amount of time as well (perhaps because Ben wanted to be done with it).

Fresh leaves with lime paste and chopped betel, ready to be chewed and spit!
Fresh leaves with lime paste and chopped betel, ready to be chewed and spit!

After showing us around the market and meeting some of his former students, U Thant Zin took us around on the bikes to explore the rest of Mawlaik.  He took us to the old city hall, that had been established by the British in 1916, almost 100 years ago when the town was founded.  He then biked us to a couple other old buildings that had been the houses for the regional colonial leaders. U Thant’s favorite thing to point out to us was that these old colonial houses had chimneys, and as he told us where we were going he often referred to them as ‘chimney houses.’  One of these was abandoned, and we were able to walk around inside.  Originally it had been built for the colonial governor and attached was a kitchen house where the staff would cook for him.  Nearby there was another house, but this one had a few families, some Burmese Mountain Dog puppies (being as adorable as possible), and an enormous pig living in it.  In the front of this home we spotted some large vine plants trellised up out front.  We weren’t sure what they were, but they looked somewhat familiar to us.  The English Teacher then clarified that they were pepper plants — as in black pepper.  We had seen these while in Zanzibar on a spice tour, but not being in a jungle setting they looked different.

It was incredible how we could just walk up and into many of the homes or gardens of the town and those living there would smile and want to show us around.  We never did really pick up on the Burmese language so actual conversing was difficult without a translator, but the language of smiles and peaked interest between both parties was never lost.  We were fascinated  by their beautiful and simple way of life and they were fascinated by the strange foreigners who were exploring their streets.

A good number of the homes were constructed with beautiful old teak wood and you could tell they had been around for many years.  They were one of those things in the world that seemed to somehow mystically grow more beautiful with age.  Many of them were on stilts and all of them had a second story.  This was because in the rainy season the village would flood usually every 7-10 years.  And when they say flood they mean really flood.  Boats become the means of transportation and the streets we had been biking down would have been covered with four or five feet of water.  Almost like what New Orleans must have been like after Hurricane Katrina. But this was just part of life here in Maulaik and the locals were used to it.

Some of the teak houses in this part of Myanmar
Some of the teak houses in this part of Myanmar

Some of the other featured sites for the day were the old but still active golf course, a nearby Christian church, (which was still running from the colonial era, but now with far fewer parishioners), and the main Thanbodi Buddhist monastery and temple.  The greatest part of the day for us was the people we meet at each spot along the way.  At the church we met the man running the grounds and learned about the renovations he had been making (the new building was built right next to the old one from over 100 years ago) and the charitable work they did in the community.  U Thant explained how renovations at the church were slow because they had a harder time raising money (since a majority of the population is Buddhist).  Knowing this and seeing the kindness of the man running the show, we offered a small donation knowing that every little bit counts.  Next we got to meet U Thant’s spiritual advisor at the monastery, a monk that had had the privilege of studying in India.  He was very kind, and when we sat down with him he offered us an oatmeal drink and a bunch of biscuits and tea.  We chatted for a while and explored the temple area while listening to a meditation take place in the meditation hall.

Before we knew it most of the day had slipped by.  We had seen a great part of the small town and surrounding areas and met more people than we had ever expected along the way.  All of us were a bit tired and the heat of the day had began to get to us.  We were ready for an evening rest, but our 70+ year old guide was not deterred.  He had one more stop for us to make before we returned our bikes for the evening.


Toddy Family

Without even knowing it, U Thant decided to take us to happy hour.  He had pointed out specific trees throughout the day explaining to us they were toddy palm trees that produced the tasty and well known sky beer.  When we gave him a puzzled look he was shocked.  How could someone not know what sky beer was?  This was the reason we were now off to discover what the sky beer was all about (also commonly referred to as Toddy Beer or Palm Wine).  Toddy is a drink that is made from the sap of the toddy tree. As outsiders, we would call it a palm tree. That would be because we don’t really know or recognize that there are many different types of ‘palm trees.’ The toddy tree happens to be the only one that has the delectable sap with effects similar to beer when consumed.

Toddy Time! - Maulaik


We were taken across a wood plank bridge and behind a few houses there was a shade structure, made completely out of toddy palm leaves. Underneath it, were a few locals that had obviously been enjoying the toddy sap for a few hours already. They invited us to join them at a small table, and the owners of the toddy hut came out, a man and woman in their thirties with a little boy. They welcomed us, and we learned that this family is living with U Thant Zin in his home (the one that is also a classroom at the bottom level). They gave us pieces of cardboard to sit on, a couple small cups, and then brought out a terracotta pot of the toddy. The drink itself looks a lot like watered down milk, and we were a bit hesitant to try it. Our new friends that were well on their way to finishing their own toddy bucket were eager to show us how to dip our cups in the bowl and down it all in one sip. Not knowing how strong it is, though, we sipped on it slowly, and the family brought little sealed baggies of roasted peanuts to enjoy with the ‘palm wine.’

The English Teacher gave us a bit more background on toddy, and between he and male owner of the toddy hut, they indicated that it is collected in the summertime only, because it is spoiled if any rain or condensation is collected in the bowl that is hanging in the tree to collect sap.   What this meant for the family was that they would move to an area with lots of toddy palm trees during these summer months, and live out of a palm shed next to their toddy hut bar when they didn’t have someone like the English Teacher to stay with.  They had set up their one room hut next to the open air toddy bar, and could cook over a little fire near the entrance for themselves or toddy drinkers when requested.

They explained that the palm wine collected in the mornings has a different taste from that collected in the evenings, because the evening sap was dripping throughout the day, and the heat gives it a different flavor.  This day time toddy beer seemed to be the more popular and preferred flavor.  Before we left the family insisted on filling an empty water bottle with toddy for us to take .  They explained that we should not keep the cap on to tight because of the quick fermentation (which would cause the bottle to explode).  Once the white foaming liquid was in a clear water bottle we immediately recognized it as something we had seen on small tables alongside the road (indicating they were for sale).  We hadn’t really given much thought to this unidentifiable liquid foaming over the bottles before, but now it all started to become more clear to us and we found that throughout the remainder of the trip we spotted it much more often.


Lost Photos and Forging Memories

Now cooled down from the toddy and the shade we headed back to the guest house to rest for the evening. As we lay in our little bunks we both agreed that this had been one of the best days we could have asked for.  We were soaking everything in and preparing to join U Thant Zin for dinner at the cheapest spot in town (where we wanted to at least buy him a meal to thank him for his generosity).  Never really disappointed with the food (or the price) in Myanmar we all consumed wonderful dishes of Khauk swè thoke (which is another style of noodle salad) for a total bill of $1.75.  We followed this up in the traditional Burmese way of heading over to the tea shop (across the street) to have a Burmese style tea.

At this point the blissful and perfect day presented it’s challenge to us.  Together we headed to the local ‘photo’ shop (which was also owned by good friends of U Thant) where he wanted to show us a video of the town during a season of flooding and also get some of the photos we had taken printed.  Once there we realized that Ben had accidentally deleted all the photos from the past two days.  Not wanting to believe this was true we both reassured the English Teacher that we would be able to recover the photos, but in reality fear, anger, and humility brewed in our spirits.  In our hearts we were devastated, as we had spent such a wonderful day with the locals of the town, seen so much, and taken so many photos.  The hurt and anger was in part because we didn’t have the photos now to share with someone who really wanted them (one of the only things we could give him that he really wanted) and in part because we felt like we would be losing so many of the memories from such an amazing day.

We took a second (a few times that night) to try to rationalize our thoughts and emotions surrounding the situation, but it was hard.  It was a huge challenge to keep ourselves seeing the positive and not feel like we had let both our new found friend (the English Teacher) and ourselves down.  We  also happened to be about a week into a meditation program we had started doing daily here in Myanmar during our travels.  The focus of the program was morning and evening meditations with a different small exercise to keep in your back pocket for the day.  Currently we were in the thick of shifting our perceptions and the way we immediately see things, especially the challenges and curveballs that life throws your way.  This was definitely one of the harder tests our inner selves had to face early on in this practice.  Even with the pain and anger that we found ourselves in we turned to the principles we were supposed to be practicing:

Truth/Acceptance: We screwed up. We had deleted the photos, they were gone and not coming back.  Accepting this as the new reality was the first thing we had to do before we could decide to move forward.

Forgiveness: Of each other and ourselves.  No matter how much we could point fingers or take the blame it wasn’t going to bring back the photos. We had to forgive ourselves both for the mistake and also for our anger we held inside because of it.

Love: Moving forward from a place of love.  Once we had really brought in some truth, acceptance and forgiveness this part seems to come naturally.  Even if it is just a little bit at a time.  And really, even with our upset minds and psyches we knew deep down that the love we had shared with all of the people that day would never be lost with those photos. (Doesn’t it always come back to love?)

A night of letting these principles soak in combined with a couple meditations later we awoke refreshed and with a new plan for our last half-day in Mawlaik.  We had arranged to be with the English Teacher for a couple hours in the morning but we still wanted to try to capture as much as we could when the opportunity presented itself, including getting a photo with the toddy hut family who we had spent quite a bit of time with the day before and felt a close connection to.  Ultimately we will always hold the memories and those couple of days dear in our hearts.  There have been several times on this trip where we have found ourselves in the most amazing moments without a camera.  But at least we have had each other to share these moments with.  Together we can always re-live and remember without a photo.  But for this trip, we managed to leave with at least a few photos from the last day (and some gathered from a couple families at the wedding).   With these few photos our memories would be spurred and we could better share with others the beauty both in the nature and people we had experienced  from this part of the country near the Burma-India border.

Meeting some of U Thant Zin's students in their various classrooms
Meeting some of U Thant Zin’s students in their various classrooms

coconut juice - Maulaik



We spent our last morning gathering some gifts of fruit and mont sein paung (which is a Burmese steamed rice cake) for U Thant from the market. After some morning classes he had taught we met him at the small school room where he had been teaching and walked with him back to his private home. His teaching schedule was very busy at the moment as many students were nervous about their english levels leading up to an exam in the coming week.  When we arrived to his private home (which had a school room as the downstairs semi-open air room) a few students were there waiting and wanting to ask him questions.   The father of the toddy hut family was also already there, up in a palm tree that morning, cutting back leaves and preparing it for toddy drink collection.  We hung out in the downstairs classroom area of the house while the toddy hut father worked in the toddy tree, and some more of U Thant’s students came by.  While we were getting the shy students to introduce themselves and practice a little English firsthand, the father of the toddy hut family climbed the coconut palm tree in the yard and delivered us the biggest, juiciest coconut we’d ever had.  It was absolutely delicious, but had so much coconut water in it it was hard for the two of us to finish it.


After this, we went over to the toddy hut once again, with the intention of taking another photo with the family.  The day before we had told them we would give them a photo of their family, but now we’d lost that photo, so we were heading back.  We were not surprised to see the now-familiar faces of the same four guys drinking  toddy at 10am, and they were a certain kind of ecstatic to see us as well.  While we couldn’t communicate with them directly, they were really enjoying us being back for another round (or so they thought).

Just before we we headed back to pack our bags and begin our journey onward we stopped by the photo shop of the town again (which was also the lower room of a private house).  Now that we were there in the daylight we saw how they powered their business in a town that only had three hours of power a day.  The shop was equipped with a generator, solar panels, and tons of car batteries spread throughout the office to keep energy flowing while the rest of Mawlaik is out of power.  It was pretty impressive and something we hadn’t even thought of the night before.  We had one of our new photos taken printed for the toddy hut family and the English Teacher.  On the back of the photos we tried to copy the Burmese handwriting of the English Teacher who taught us a common phrase in Burmese that mean “thank you for your giving and kindness.”  The family that ran the photo business gave us a home made video of the town of Mawlaik that they had recorded a few years back.  Once again, we were getting an incredible, personal, once in a lifetime experience, mostly in thanks to our new friend the English teacher.

Us with the toddy hut family & the English Teacher (left)
Us with the toddy hut family & the English Teacher (left)

As soon as we left the photo shop we made a quick stop at toddy hut to deliver our photo to the family.  The village toddy beer drinkers started laughing that we were back again, and wanted to arm wrestle with Ben over some sky beers (at 11am).  He kindly declined, and we gave the family the photo and tried to get out of there before they encouraged us to drink another vat of sky beer.  The family was very grateful, as they may not have had a photo of their family since they had their young boy.

Having gotten the photo to the family, we said goodbye to U Thant Zin, our new friend.  We got his mailing address as well, in the hopes that we could one day down the line send him some English schoolbooks for his students, and maybe a postcard from the US.  We reflected on our experience here as we ate lunch and waited to board a day and a half boat ride back down the Chindwin toward Monywa and eventually make our way to Bagan.  These three days in Mauwaik alone had given us everything we had hoped for in coming to Myanmar.  A remote and beaten path experience, a chance to see the untouched lives of Burmese people, and an opportunity to experience more culture and food from this mysterious and previously off-limits part of the country.  We felt we got all this in spades, and perhaps losing many of our photos helped us realize how wonderful the moments we had here actually were.


For more photos from our boat trip up the Chindwin River and the town of Mawlaik,  click HERE.