Myanmar With Mo Mo and the Gang

His name was Mo Mo.  He approached us at 8 a.m. at the crossroads of sticky, sweaty Yangon, formerly called Rangoon until the military junta renamed it in 1989.  He was small, compared to Andrew, who towered over him like one of the Petronas Towers.  He was toothless, but knowledgable.  Frail, but firm. He casually followed us, until he noticed we had no idea which way was left or right. That was when he became our tour guide, personal assistant and friend.  He had the day off from his government job as a woodworker and had some time to kill.  He quickly grew fond of Andrew’s crisp, clean, plaid, brand name shirt and admired Andrew’s style, not just of his fine clothing selection, but of his privilege of traveling with two women. Andrew’s nickname became “John,” and he frequently received compliments on his beauty.  If he heard chatter behind him, he anxiously turned to Andrew in a frantic, “What’s the problem, John?”  Then demonstrating his impatience towards me as I would straggle behind taking in the energetic scenery of the city, along with a couple of pictures (or ten), he would then add “Where is she, John.  Where is she?”  He helped us accomplish a great deal and saw more of the city in one day than we would have by ourselves in a week.  Since it was a national holiday, the banks were closed, therefore he guided us to a shady magazine stand to exchange our crisp, clean, perfect, new bills in exchange for crumpled up, dirty, damaged Jhat. We walked side by side clusters of monks in monasteries, visited the 70 meter long reclining Buddha at the Kyaukhtatgyi Pagoda’s, caught a glimpse of  the awe-inspiring Shwedagon Pagoda and prepared for our 12 hour bus trip at the one, the only, bustling and congested Ruby Mart. Little did we know this would be the last time we saw ol’ Mo Mo, but a great first impression of the country and it’s people!

His name was Maung Maung.  He greeted us at another crossroads, as we set off to explore the sights of Bagan on two wheels, once again unsure of which way to go.  I kindly thanked him, but tried to avoid getting caught in a conversation that normally would lead to the postponing of our scheduled activity (which usually included food).  Fail.  Andrew and Claire patiently waited as I scrolled through his paintings.  He was truly talented, although I didn’t know that him and the rest of the locals would be trying to sell me the same sand paintings outside each pagoda.  He was an artist, struggling to make ends meet on a competitive tourist based business, so I gave him a bit of my time, as I would want the same if I had created masterpieces worthy of international customers.  We agreed to meet him the following day at 7 PM to get a better look.  When we had lost track of time the next day (and reality), while spending the last hour sun gazing out over a sea of ancient pagoda points dotting and covering the plains of Bagan, the sun had set.  We missed our appointment, and we still had about a 20 minute bike ride ahead of us with two dull headlamps.  But, he came to save the day.  Equipped with his motorcycle and serious bright lighting, he guided us back to the nearest temple to Kumudara, our fabulous triple bed, pool front, pagoda viewing hotel room.  To show him our gratitude towards his (what we thought) heroic, but (what he thought) effortless deed, we did business with him. I am proud owner of four of Maung Maung’s sand painting art.  But, we wondered how did he find us?  And with over 2,200 pagodas to view the sunset from?

Go Go was his name.  Resembling Mogwali from Kiplings, The Jungle Book, he could scale trees, he could state history of his land, he could mingle with locals of all ages, and…he could sell souvenirs simply with his canny and clever tactics, not to mention his considerable charm. Age 12 going on 21, he was born to be a business man.  After our vegetarian feast at Be Kind To Animals, we left agitated by our obnoxiously loud and irritating middle-aged male table neighbors, who boasted their Italian and Russian pride, while scrutinizing and belittling our American heritage.  There we saw a smile that transposed all the negative into positive.  “Come with me.”  He hopped on his oversized, rusted bike as we followed, riding along side horse and buggy carts, kicking clouds of dust in our faces, struggling to keep up with Gogo.  He showed us the highest of them all, Thatbyinnyu Phaya Temple.  Then to Ananda Pahto, one of the finest, largest, best preserved and most revered of the Bagan temples.  He showed us Gubyaukgyi Temple, built in 1113 and led us inside, only to discover a magnificent painting dated from the original construction of the temple, considered to be the oldest original painting in Bagan.  Once again, we saw more in one day with our friend “Gogers”, than we would have in week on our own.  After our detour to fill up my flat tire, we were off to see the sunset, the same sunset that Maung Maung rescued us from!  Hesitantly, he pulled out his postcards for sale, that were kept safely in his traditional Shan hand-woven bag while we sat in a meditative silence.  After his service, kindness and friendship, we willingly bought two packs.  It was the least we could do to thank him for his company and gentle spirit that assisted the three musketeers for a fabulous day out.  After Gogo left us, he must have relayed the message to Maung Maung of our whereabouts and unsafe biking condition in the dark.

We trusted Maung Maung, so we knew we were in good hands when we set off for Mount Popa in a luxury car an hour east with his brother-in-law.  His name was Un Un.  Air con on, seat belts fastened, we passed displays of life as it was now, mirroring life as it was back then.  Ox and carts, manual labor, straw hats bobbing up and down in the rice fields, hands working together to create survival for all.  Ung Ung was quite silent.  He held two hands on the wheel, sitting straight up with caution, peering out the window with his head cocked forward.  The only thing that seemed to relax his driving demeanor was humming along to the Burmese tunes, which he did with much emotion.  I asked him how long it would take to climb to the top, but all he responded with was, “I do not know! We are not Buddha, you know.”  I smiled, but refrained from the small talk this ride.  We arrived at Mount Popa, also known as the Mount Olympus of Myanmar, safe and sound.  Un Un denied my usual invitation of our company and waited in the car, while we ascended the barefoot climb up the 777 stairs.  Mount Popa is the most important nat (spirit) pilgrimage site with numerous temples and relic sites atop the mountain that sits 1300 metres high.  The climb to the top was easy, but sprawling with spunky monkeys who apparently love to steal water bottles and proudly succeeded to snatch mine.  As locals carry up armfuls of flowers as offerings, they guarded them from the pesky primates who attempted to get their greedy hands on anything.  After requesting to take a picture with some local kids, we proceeded to be in a photo shoot with a family of over 30, each member hugging us tight and handing us their babies to pose with.  As we reached the top, they excitedly bombarded my cheeks with kisses, leaving me feeling like I was a holy nat myself!

Happy family!

Happy family!

About to leave, I sparked a conversation as I sat in the car with Un Un.  I cracked his shell just a bit, and he even cracked a smile when I showed interest in his rings.  As we returned home, he opened up even more, sharing with us stories of his family life and his previous 18 years living in a monastery. When finally warmed up to us, he invited us into the back villages, where most likely no tourist had visited ever before, to his family’s house that resembled a hippy commune.  His grandfather grabbed Andrew’s leg with one hand, comparing it in size with his frail, almost non existent limb, muttering words we could not understand.  Un Un sat in a bamboo chair still humming away, while his family surrounded us, simply observing and smiling, as if they had never seen our breed, while we drank tea and ate peanuts smiling back.  But, we were in.

The following day, Un Un insisted on taking the roll of being our personal driver, taking us to non-governmental lacquerware workshops, exchanging our money with the locals at the same rate as the bank but to avoid supporting their government and giving business to the locals.  We spent our last hour with Un Un once again catching an impressive, incomparable final sunset in Bagan.  I sat listening to Un Un about his experience living in a monastery.  Un Un’s wisdom he inherited from his 18 years as a monk illustrated a life none of us could compare to or even begin to comprehend.  Maybe he had no pictures of the Eiffel tower, or wild nights at the dance club, but he remained content, and encompassed a surreal sense of tranquility and fulfillment.  In those 18 years, he never touched a note of money or a single coin, therefore had no connection with it.  As we said our final goodbyes, I became stressed.   Had we had given him too little for all he had done for us?  He patiently replied, “Money is poison, my friend!  Please don’t talk about money. All I care about is friendship.  And you are my friends.”  He put the money on the dashboard without even a single glance and wished us farewell ($4 each for the half day outing which was double the amount he wanted).  About 5 minutes later, he came strolling to our porch and gave us a paper with his phone number. “If you have any troubles, anything, please call me, my friends! I will always help!”

Her name was Su Su.  We spent the morning at the local market after arriving at Inle Lake, shuffling through fragrant wafts of cilantro, and dodging women balancing baskets on their heads.  Suddenly, I had “that feeling.”  “That feeling” you get after foolishly eating a piece of mysterious spongy substance bought from a local stand.  I was stuck in a maze of toiletless terrain.  I found my way out and to the nearest building looking establishment.  Frantically, I barged in asking for a bathroom.  Curiously, the woman wanted to know everything about me, but it was an emergency. I had no time for chit-chat.  After returning from the alleviation (sorry if I am revealing too much information), a cup of tea and green tea salad was set on the coffee table for me, followed by an invitation to their home for dinner.  My intrusion served as the foundation of a new friendship and a wonderful home-cooked meal of fish crackers, cauliflower and potato curry, green tomato salad, cilantro flavored soup and rice.  The second course consisted of steamed corn, rice cakes, more green tea salad and Chinese tea in their garage that doubled as a living room. Su Su owned the Silver Princess, a.k.a “Silver & Fancy Shop,” and Alyi Alyi, her husband, worked for a micro finance project ( based nearby in the Shan State area.  Their son resembled his father with his stunning good looks, and also warm, but shy mannerisms.  We concluded our journey by spending our last evening with them, perusing through wedding and baby pictures, receiving a 5 foot high stack of the Frisbee sized rice cakes we mentioned we really fancied, and catching a glimpse of the Olympics on their color TV, which seemed to be an uncommon household item in most areas of Myanmar.

These were only a few of the many people who graced us with their angelic presence on our two week adventure through Myanmar.  This country truly moved me.  More than India, more than Italy and France,  Latin America, South Korea and other South East Asian countries I’ve explored.  No peddling, or pushy people only wanting your money.  No scams that come along with most tourist traps.  I have a strong sense of intuition, as many may react to such travels and openness to the locals negatively, but I write this to counteract the stereotype of calling this country dangerous.  Of course, it’s unsafe for some of the minority groups, who are at war with the central government, but they won’t let you get near any areas where that is happening. As a traveler there you are very safe.  Let me repeat, very safe.  

The country’s uplifting, yet serenely spiritual ambiance, not to mention untouched, pure beauty of its natural surroundings, characterizes the nature of its people, which greatly influenced and enhanced our experience by meeting Mo Mo and the gang, who served as such extraordinary representations of the country itself. And hopefully, it stays this way forever.

To view my pictures:

Myanmar 1

Myanmar 2


6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. thaicurryinkorea
    Aug 22, 2012 @ 15:56:53

    Wonderful! You captured the people’s warmth very movingly!


  2. wanderingdamsel
    Aug 23, 2012 @ 10:36:27

    Amazing how people with such simple lives, who have considerably less than us can be so rich in life. You did a wonderful job portraying this!


  3. Momma Wooden
    Aug 24, 2012 @ 09:47:21

    What an amazing trip. I can see that it was top of your list! (So far) You really captured the feeling of the country and it’s people through your words and your wonderful pictures. You really know how to “experience” your travels. Keep on traveling and writing and be safe! Our prayers are with you. Love…….Mom


  4. Janet O'Reilly
    Aug 27, 2012 @ 23:31:24

    Johanna, through your writing and photos I have vicariously traveled Myanmar! Thank you, thank you! You attract such interesting and caring people.
    Love you, Aunt Janet


  5. Judy
    Oct 24, 2012 @ 03:53:54

    Wow Johanna, I have tears in my eyes! Thank you so much for that wonderful break from all the craziness and b.s. we are experiencing with this presidential race! So nice to know there is still a piece of the world that holds such wonderful people!


  6. alongthewaytj
    Jan 20, 2013 @ 04:22:16

    Oh my gosh I feel the same way about Myanmar. LOOOOOVED it so much it is so special. I wonder how it’s precious culture will fare under the new political situation. Here’s hoping for the best…


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