“Yes! Hello! Yes!” She had probably been watching us approach for some time. Meandering from temple to pagoda to temple again, we had been slowly exploring one small section of the vast Bagan temple complex, a collection of 2000 temples and pagodas from the 11th and 12th centuries. And we virtually had the place to ourselves. Well, except for Chu Chu, who had been on tourist lookout all morning.
“You want to climb? That one, over there, that one you can climb.” I’m usually one for responsible tourism, but the temptation of climbing up the crumbling brick structures was too much. I mean, these were temples that had survived a Mongol invasion, earthquakes, and British imperialism – surely they could handle me climbing monkey-like on their facades for a few minutes. And a few loose bricks could reveal a secret passage into which I would slip, in search of forgotten treasures of the last king of Bagan. Having been trained in archaeology by years of careful study of the Indiana Jones films, I would have little difficulty dodging cobwebbed booby traps, escaping Nazis, and building counterweights to the apple-sized statues of the white elephant, the traditional symbol of Burmese royal authority. After stuffing the white elephants into my side satchel and high-fiving my assistant Chu Chu, I would enjoy, just for a moment, my temple-robbing prowess. But what was that? Bricks were falling from the passageways around us! We must have triggered a booby trap. “No shoes!” Chu Chu cried as she pointed at my feet. Yes, indeed, I had broken the most important rule of Buddhist holy sites: I had forgotten to remove my flip-flops.
“No shoes!” Chu Chu said again, breaking me from my daydream of conquest. Standing at the base of the temple, we kicked the flip-flops off feet dirtied by a morning wandering dirt roads, and we began the climb to the top. Chu Chu said that she would stand guard at the base of the temple. Her disregard for authority and the rules of the temple complex probably came, at least in part, from the fact that Chu Chu and the rest of her family were forcibly removed from Bagan by the the government in the early 1990s. Declaring Bagan an archaeological zone, the government gave the residents of Bagan, many of whom had lived there for generations, one week to move out. On the 7th Day, the bulldozers arrived. Many of these former residents now worked as unofficial guides, horsecart drivers, or trinket sellers to the tourists who were venturing here in increasing numbers.
But those tourists were no where to be found today. Other than the Frenchman we had seen at breakfast (Bon jour!), essentially we had Bagan to ourselves. From the top of the temple, we thought we might spot other tourists.
“There – over there! I think that’s one by the pagoda,” I stated confidently.
“Nope. That’s a goat. Try again.”
We spent the next 15 minutes taking pictures, looking for tourists, and enjoying the sense that we were all alone in Myanmar.
Walking through the dark corridors of these ancient temples alone with gilded Buddhas and crumbling frescoes is otherworldly. In almost any other part of the world there would be fences and hawkers, tourgroups and audio guides. Here, nothing but silence. The abandoned temples also proved welcome homes to thousands of birds and bats, who littered the temple floors with impressive accumulations of poop. Without the constant march of tourist feet sweeping them clean, the floors proved ripe and ready for the bare feet of curious visitors. We earned many lifetimes of good luck that day – appropriate, I guess, for a society that believes in reincarnation.
Traveling in reincarnation cultures always makes me a bit nervous. The cyclical view of life has to shape one’s general assessment of risks. In Myanmar, the stories of traveler-laded pickup trucks falling off cliffs, trains with frequent derailments, and high-fiving pilots (wait, was that a bicycle?) all seemed to support this. There is no safe way to travel in Myanmar, so the goal becomes control of the controllable and hope that your driver or pilot is not nearing the end of his reincarnation cycle. We needed a driver to take us to Mt. Popa, a remote temple built atop an extinct volcano in central Myanmar, so we hit the streets to find one.
We stopped by a money changer to exchange a couple crisp, mint-conditioned one hundred dollar bills. Like many shops in Myanmar, this was a family-run operation, and while a young woman carefully inspected my American currency, her father ran down the street to get kyat. Her brother sat down next to me.
“I saw you today,” he said.
“Oh… where?” I said, a little anxious about the spotting.
“At a restaurant down by the river.”
I looked at Jess. Further confirmation that we were indeed alone in Myanmar.
“Do you know someone who can drive us to Mt. Popa?” Trying to brush past the fact that this guy had spotted us at a restaurant 30 minutes away by horsecart.
“My brother can take you. He speaks very well.”
Done! After negotiating a price and time, we were off to have a beer at a bar next to our hotel.
We stopped at a restaurant near our hotel for a couple of pints of Myanmar beer. We were the only ones at the bar, but I guess that was to be expected. After reviewing the day’s pictures, stories, and our plans for the next day’s trip to Mt. Popa, we decided to call it a night. With three workers and two customers, one would assume the attention of the waiter and bill would be easy to get, right? Nope.
The problem lay in the smooch. To get another person’s attention, the Burmese equivalent of a “hey” or “excuse me” is a smooching sound. At first, the sound is a bit disconcerting as you think everyone in the restaurant is flirting with you or your wife. You brush your hair back, sit a little taller in your chair and think, just for a moment, wow, I could be a star in Myanmar. But the moment is fleeting as you realize it’s just a request for table service. To this point, I had managed to avoid using the smooch. Timely eye contact and an exaggerated and slow-motioned international sign for “check, please,” had done the trick. But now, alone and without attentive staff, it was smoochie time. I puckered my lips, glanced at the staff (who were huddled over a cell phone in the corner) and… SMOOOOOCHED.
There was no response. Well, except for Jess, who was laughing hysterically, most definitely at my expense.
“You were too gentle. You have to smooch with authority, Norcini. Pucker up, Buttercup.”
I loosened my shoulders, rolled my neck, and prepared for another go at it.
This one was definitely more firm and projected. I gave myself a 9 out of 10. If someone had sent a smooch like that at me from across a bar, I’d definitely have noticed. And been creeped out.
Still no response from the staff, who continued to huddle over the glow of the cell phone. Jess laughed harder.
Tired of smooching myself, I stood up, walked to the staff, and asked to pay the bill. They smiled, I smiled. I handed them a dollar (Myanmar drafts are only 50 cents), and left, determined for the first time since Middle School to master the smooch.