Recollections of Myanmar: The Longest Day (Hpa-an to the Golden Rock)

Hemingway’s short story, “Hills Like White Elephants” crept into my thoughts as I stood riding on the back of a small pickup truck speeding its way through rural Myanmar one hot April morning. We had departed from a quaint and colorful village by the name of Hpa-an early that morning. I had grown quite fond of the place and hadn’t been annoyed that my party and I had had to remain there for an extra day than we had originally planned. Had I more time, I would have stayed there even longer, writing and soaking up the town’s charm and the approachability of its residents. However, in the essence of time and in order to arrive in Mandalay for the start of Thingyan, Myanmar’s annual water festival, we had to get a move on. Little did I know that it would be my longest travel day to date—covering all kinds of terrain using various modes of transportation.

During the previous day, Tue, my Vietnamese-American chum with whom I became acquainted while volunteering in the Philippines over the past winter holidays, and I said farewell to our Canadian pal, Cynthia. I befriended Cynthia in Seoul, South Korea, where we worked at an English immersion kindergarten. She taught P.E. and leadership there and I was a homeroom kindergarten teacher for Korean five year olds. Not long after meeting each other, Cynthia mentioned that she would be going to the Philippines for our Christmas vacation, so naturally, I asked if I could come along as I had been considering going there as well. Because of the occurrence of Typhoon Haiyan (known as Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines), our would-be beachy, soaking up rays, mini vacay turned into us partaking in a disaster relief effort instead, thanks to Cynthia and her excellent researching skills that led us directly into the base camp of the company with whom she traveled to North Korea . . . but that’s a whole other story, and so, in short, that’s how we met Tue.

Cynthia had set out a day earlier than us so that she could meet her mother and boyfriend up in Mandalay. Basically, this journey to Myanmar was chockfull of reunions. Pretty funny how a crazy idea thrown out there by Cynthia could have brought us all together again. I can’t recall exactly when it was mentioned—either after Tue had slaughtered a humungous spider during our sleepover in an actual building (while volunteering, mind you, we tent camped out on the beach every night except for twice when the rain flooded our tents) or when we were having a picnic on the lawn of a hotel, because Cynthia and I got way too excited about grass after having been deprived of it living in Seoul), and including Tue was simply mandatory. We became fast friends.

So without Cynthia, we were just us three—I forgot to mention that we had made a friend before arriving in Hpa-an. His name was Peter and he was surprisingly, an American. Go figure—during my (at that point) month-long solo backpacking trip around Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand, I had encountered very few of my countrymen, but then I flew over to Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, and there were all the Americans coming out of the woodwork. I met them all over: solo female backpackers, families with children, best bros—okay, so there weren’t that many, but compared to the number of Americans I met in the other countries, it was like there was an American convention going on and Myanmar was hosting. I felt kind of impressed by my fellow compatriots, and it seemed to me that perhaps Americans, contrary to the popular belief held mostly by Europeans, actually do travel, but that when they travel, they tend to enjoy getting off the beaten path. That’s not to say that you won’t find slews of sluggish, old American men sporting white, billowing shirts barely covering their beer bellies in Thailand or the inebriated college party kids covered in neon paint dancing to music they probably can’t even hear at the Full Moon Party on Koh Phangan. It’s simply my own observation that the places in which I’ve traveled where I’ve bumped into the most Americans have been off the regular tourist circuits.

Alas, I’ve ranted (there’s just always a backstory that has to unfold or a societal observation to be made)—apologies, and so, back to the meeting with Peter. As it should surprise no one at all, it was nighttime and Cynthia, Tue, and I had spent all day exploring the first town we visited in Southern Myanmar, which is called Mawlamyine, and so we were hungry. Getting the three of us together just makes our stomachs growl, and especially with Tue around, we ate a lot (well, until I grew tired of the greasy Burmese cuisine and my body just lost all interest in consumption). Thus, we strolled along, searching for a restaurant that captured our interest. We saw people dining outside at small tables, purchasing fried noodles or rice with chicken, beef, or pork, and it looked like the locals’ spot for dinner. As we were contemplating satiating ourselves there, a tall, thin Caucasian guy struck up a conversation with us. He was clad in a longyi, the traditional dress of the Burmese people—it’s basically like an ankle-length skirt that you wrap around you and tie at your waist. It’s worn by both men and women and I would liken it to an Indian sari, except for the fact that it only goes to your midsection. We all ended up dining together and then organizing a trip for the next day to Hpa-an. In Hpa-an, Peter and I became roommates, sharing a bed at our hostel (which we assumed was tailored toward couples because of the lovey dovey bedspread—that’s Asia for you!). Cynthia and Tue roomed together across the hall and then we all began going our separate ways, which would converge again in the future.

That leaves us at the beginning of this tale again, with Tue and I plopping down on the wooden benches in the rear of a small Japanese pickup truck. We made sure to get there early (we had learned that public transportation in Myanmar runs on time—like right on the dot) and awaited the staggering arrival of the other passengers. At first, it appeared as if it would be a comfortable trip over to the next town of Kyaiktiyo, which boasts of the famous pilgrimage site for the Burmese people atop Mount Kyaiktiyo where the Golden Rock balances precariously on the edge of a cliff. Legend has it that it is held in place by a single strand of Buddha’s hair. However, as one learns while traversing through Southeast Asia, when a mode of transportation looks as if it’s reached maximum capacity, there’s always room for at least thirty more people, a couple bicycles, and maybe some farm animals too. And not to disappoint us, women wearing brightly-colored longyi loaded into the truck. Soon the benches were invisible, covered entirely by two American behinds and too many to even count Burmese backsides. But there were more paying customers determined to get to Kyaiktiyo. Young men arrived and climbed up on top of the pickup truck, ready to spend the trip lounging on the luggage of the other passengers’ stowed up there. It was starting to boil inside of the truck and I was fortunate that with each new arrival, I hopped off the truck so that they could squeeze inside of the sweltering vehicle. Sometimes you have to look out for yourself, and I knew that the last thing I wanted was to sweat out of all of my fluids and have to resort to peeling off my clothing in front of conservative Burmese ladies. More and more locals arrived and several plastic blue stools were positioned in the narrow aisle of the truck. Children climbed in and plopped down onto their mother’s laps, peering curiously at Tue and I.

Finally, with no other passengers waiting to squeeze into the jam-packed truck, we were on our way. I sat at the very end of one of the benches in the truck and I was glad that I was able to enjoy the scenery as we jaunted along. One of the workers who had helped load everyone’s baggage onto the truck stood holding onto a bar on the top of the vehicle. His grip was loose and it was apparent that he had done this journey many times before. The wind blew into his face and he chewed betel nut, the tobacco of choice in Myanmar, occasionally spitting it out to one side of the moving vehicle and letting the wind catch it until it came splattering to the ground like cherry red paint.

During one point in the journey, we stopped to pick up some Burmese people standing on the side of the road. I scooted over as much as possible in the crowded vehicle to allow a woman in her twenties to sit beside me. Despite being so cramped, I noticed people sleeping. A little boy, in particular, was getting the best slumber of all, as he lay sitting on his mother’s lap, his head tilted back onto her shoulder. For me, however, I knew sleep would be impossible. Even just sitting down on the wooden benches with my legs unable to move was unpleasant. After a while, I could take it no longer, so the next time we stopped, I jumped off the truck, nearly twisting my ankle in my effort to reposition myself, to make it easier for the newest passengers to board. Then I waited until everyone was seated. The girl whom I had been sitting beside offered her seat to me. I politely declined and instead, gestured to the man who had been standing on the rear of the truck. Using charades (a talent I’d perfected since living in Korea), I communicated to him that I also wanted to ride standing on the back of the truck. He consented and I hopped back on and we were on our way.

Immediately, I knew that I had one of the best spots on the truck. The country flashed past me (back to Hemingway)—one side of the road was lush and green, while on the opposite side, the land was black and brown and dying, as if a fire had torn viciously through the area, with the road being the only boundary which it could not cross. I felt amazing during those two hours that I stood on the back of that truck racing its way across rural Myanmar. The wind felt amazing on my face and it wove through my hair like the teeth of a comb. Even the heat was kept at bay by the constant jet stream of air hitting my body. The sun felt wonderful and although I knew I would look like an absolute mess by the time the ride was over, I couldn’t care less. I was having a blast. It was the start of “embracing the danger,” which after that day, became my mantra regarding traveling around Myanmar, and Southeast Asia, overall.

With each tiny village we passed by, children and adults alike waved at me (I’m sure it’s not an everyday occurrence to see a blonde-haired white girl riding on the back of a pickup truck) and I waved back. I loved seeing the smiles come over their faces as we said our Hello’s and Mingalaba’s! The Burmese in our truck were just as kind as the local villagers we drove past. They offered food to Tue and I, which we graciously accepted (being as how we were constantly hungry) and we had short conversations with people due to the language barrier. I liked making observations about the other passengers. All of the young men aboard the roof of the truck amused me—one had on headphones and would often sing out loud the lyrics of whatever he was listening to or dance to the music. Each one of the youths sported sunglasses and exuded a natural essence of cool, and I couldn’t get over the fact of how comfortable they appeared to be, sitting where they were, never considering the dangers of falling asleep and falling off or the outcome of a potential crash. Maybe that’s a form of “embracing the danger”: never even considering that it’s present. I even noticed that one of the youths had Korean writing on his sneakers and it made me smile.

After three hours and numerous stops along the road, our journey came to a close. Off we went to purchase our tickets to take a truck up to Mount Kyaiktiyo because hiking up to the top as we had originally planned would be cutting it too close for us to make it to our next bus, this one to Yangon. Somewhere along the way, we made the acquaintance of a friendly couple (an Australian girl and her Dutch boyfriend) and our foursome filled our stomachs and then headed to the place where we were to board a truck to take us up the peak of the mountain.

By this point of the day, I was already filthy—dust-covered, sunburnt, and with my hair matted and covered with all sorts of environmental particles. Even with a wet wipe bath (having wet wipes while traveling around Southeast Asia is imperative), I was still disgusting, and little did I know, it was about to get worse.

We arrived at the place where we were to embark upon our drive up the mountain. It resembled a warehouse of sorts and besides a large crowd of people, there were platforms with stairs. I soon discovered that these stairs were our method for climbing into the dump truck-sized vehicles that would careen us up to the Golden Rock. When our truck arrived, we waited our turn (there are no queues in Asia, so you just go when there’s even just the tiniest break in a line) and piled into the monstrously large truck. Without a doubt, it easily had six rows of wooden benches onto which at least eight people found themselves uncomfortably tucked together. Personal space has yet to be discovered in Asia and so you find yourself involuntarily swapping sweat with a stranger you’ve only just met within minutes.

Our foursome found ourselves loaded into the very rear of the truck, which of course had no seat backs. We merely had a metal bar behind us to grab onto and the saving grace that we were packed in so tightly that being sandwiched in between two other human beings just may keep us from flying out the back of the truck. When we were on our way, we only knew a couple of things that we could expect: that the drive would take forty five minutes and that there was a golden rock perched every so perfectly at the top of Mount Kyaiktiyo.

Up we went, with the truck’s engine groaning and straining to make it up the twisting roads leading their way around the mountain. Along the way, there were stations designed for cooling down the engines of the overworked vehicles. Water was dumped upon steaming engines and we saw young girls carrying gas cans atop their heads, walking up the steep path of the mountain road. The local Myanmar people and what I presumed to be Japanese tourists all sported floppy hats that made me smile. I counted all the ones in my line of vision in from my seat on the last bench. Perhaps they were selling them somewhere at the base of the mountain.

It was just our luck to have chosen the one, little truck that could not—to reference “The Little Engine that Could” and so maybe a quarter of the way up to Mount Kyaiktiyo, we had to stop, temporarily blocking the other trucks pummeling up the winding road. Fortunately, we were able to get moving once again and our upwards roller coaster ride resumed. Occasionally I switched which arm held onto the metal bar behind me and I considered the possibility that either me or one of my friends could fall off the rear of the truck. However, I pushed those thoughts aside and laughed and smiled with my friends as we made that insane ascent up to the Golden Rock. I was finally living my mantra, “embracing the danger” and feeling that if today were to be my last, wouldn’t it be a fine way to go? No real regrets, ending life the way I strove to live it. I enjoyed the people around me, the rush of adrenaline shooting through my body, and the beauty of the land all around me.

We climbed and climbed and at last, the journey was over. We disembarked from the truck and carried on walking toward the Golden Rock. During my travels around Myanmar, I frequently forgot where I was; I’m not sure if it could be accounted for the fact that I had visited so many places that they had all sort of begun meshing together or that Myanmar just made me feel like I was in a place I had never been, like India. Regardless, at the top of Mount Kyaiktiyo, I lost all sense of where I was in the world. After garnering our foreign visitor badges, we proceeded to climb the stairs leading us ever closer to our destination. Antoinette, the Australian girl with whom we had ridden in the truck, and I nearly lost our chance to see the famed rock altogether. We both wore shorts and I sported a tank top—not acceptable clothing for visiting a site of pilgrimage. Luckily with a bit of ingenuity, we fashioned some less revealing clothing (I wrapped my teal shawl around me like a longyi) and we were permitted to enter the sacred site.

What I saw was proof that I truly was in Myanmar—women donning human-sized woven baskets atop their heads (some with actual humans in them), overweight people being carried like pharaohs on sleights with two people on either side lifting them to see the wondrous site of pilgrimage, vendors selling various kinds of unsavory Burmese snacks (go there and it’s doubtful that you will disagree with my critique of the cuisine), balloons, and trinkets, and families shuffling around barefoot along the tiled floor covering the mountain top. Everywhere you looked, people lounged on mats, small children played together, and others prayed or meditated. I felt very out of place—not being Buddhist, Burmese, or non-Caucasian—but not unwelcome. As we walked along with our feet making contact with the sun-warmed tiles, we finally spotted the golden rock off in the distance. The boys found their place in the queue so that they could paste their golden squares onto lower half of the famed Golden Rock. Women, unfortunately are not permitted to participate in this ritual. Antoinette and I stood behind the fence encircling the Golden Rock and watched and took photos as the boys chose where to place their squares upon the sparkly gold rock. Lit candles stuck to the ground outside of the fence and dried candle wax formed delicate, white pools in various patterns. Young and old Burmese men carefully crouched down to stick their individual squares to the rock, deeply concentrating on just the perfect placement of their tiny piece of paper, while others said short prayers, clasping their hands together and closing their eyes while facing the rock. It was an impressive sight to see. After the boys finished up, we strolled around the top of the mountain.

I discretely snapped photos of people I found interesting that were sitting down below the rock. I spied an older monk with two young boys—monks in training, if you will—that were peering through the wrought iron gate overlooking the valley down below. The older man wore a hot pink bandanna atop his head while one of the boys wore a lime green one. The third monk sported what appeared to be a terry cloth towel to protect his bald scalp from the harsh sun.

During our walk around Mount Kyaiktiyo, we were asked to pose for pictures with local people. I took a photo with two teenage girls and a woman whom I presumed to be their mother. All three women wore gorgeous longyi in different floral prints with very feminine blouses over top. One of the girls had a red, flat-brimmed baseball cap turned to the side over her dark mane. As the photo was taken, the girl standing beside me, linked arms with me. The gesture used to seem foreign to me, but I had become accustomed to having new acquaintances do just that while residing in Korea. It was a very sweet and simple display of acceptance and friendship.

As we were leaving the Golden Rock behind, I noticed a teenage girl sitting alone—she had four hearts formed by thanaka on her face and she looked like the embodiment of a modern day angel. I was intrigued by her outfit: she also wore a flat-brimmed ball cap (hers was blue with a word in a language unfamiliar to me written on the bottom of the brim and also on the front of the hat), a gray T-shirt with a red M&M and a blue M&M that read “Completely Nuts,” and yellow capri pants inked with polka dots and repeating the phrase, “Happy World,” over and over again. I asked for permission to take her photo. She obliged and held a peace sign off to one side of her body with her eyes peering off into the opposite direction.

Before hopping onto the first available truck to take us back down the mountain, we saw two toddlers armed with backpacks connected to water guns and stopped to observe the hilarity that ensued as they scrambled after one another, soaking one another with water, until one child finally grew tired of the constant stream of water being directed at her and began to cry.

We found a truck into which we could all fit and sat near the rear once more. To say we were squeezed in like sardines would be a major understatement. We were much more squished than that, rather like the toes of a child inside a pair of shoes several size too small for their growing feet. However, this time we were prepared for the trip and we cozied up to those sitting beside us. The Burmese people had found themselves some treats atop Mount Kyaiktiyo. The men possessed fresh supplies of betel nut and sloshed it around their gums, occasionally spitting out the spent bits. They reminded me of boxers in a ring, cleansing their mouths of blood after enduring a gruesome beating. The women and children returned with small sodas and various kinds of candy I could not recognize. Floppy hats were pulled down firmly upon heads, so as not to be blown off during the ride and off we went. We zipped and zoomed and for brief seconds our stomachs lurched as if we were riding an amusement park ride and not coasting down a mountain in Myanmar.

Several times, we paused to give the engines a moment to rest and at one particular stop, we noticed an advertisement for a technical school. A Burmese woman dressed in what was clearly a very western-style dress appropriate for a nightclub was screened across the poster. My friends and I could not conceal our amusement at seeing this “sexy” woman promoting computer classes at a technical school.

The drive down the mountain, as expected, concluded with no catastrophes or floppy hats unaccounted for, and it was time for the next stage of the longest day of traveling. It was back to Yangon, where Tue, Cynthia, and I had marked our reunion since last saying farewell in the Philippines. The bus ride back to the city that is frequently mistaken as Myanmar’s capital was uneventful, and surprisingly so comfortable that even I fell asleep without a single issue. Tue dozed off as well, but he can literally fall asleep anywhere. He even fell asleep on the bumpy, windy, ride down from Mount Kyaiktiyo—now that takes talent.

Upon reaching Yangon and its bustling and chaotic bus station—the hub from which buses depart to take passengers all over the country—we were grimy, exhausted, hungry, and still processing the amazing sights we had seen throughout the day. It was time to say another temporary goodbye—our new friends hopped aboard a bus to take them to Bagan, I believe, and  Tue opted to remain in Yangon for Thingyan, the much anticipated annual water festival that takes place all over Myanmar, and is celebrated to the extreme in the major cities. I, on the other hand, was in luck when I managed to lay my hands on the very last ticket, so they told me, that would take me to Mandalay that very night to join up with Cynthia for that city’s version of Thingyan.

In the meantime, I had time to kill. Tue and the others stayed to eat a little something, keeping me company. I was irritable at this point, discouraged by unclean restroom facilities—in reality, an overflowing squatty potty in a small, foul-smelling room with no paper of any kind to wipe yourself clean. Those are the moments when you truly appreciate sanitation in the Western World. In Myanmar, and in many parts of Asia, urinating can be a chore—a very frightening and distasteful event, in fact. Despite my attempts to remain positive while traveling, which I normally do very well, I had lost my good spirits due to fatigue and the inability to stomach another morsel of greasy Burmese food. However, as it seems to always turn out, during my worst moments of discontentment, something happens that dispels all my annoyance and completely humbles me more, while helping me to see the beauty of the places in which I travel.

After receiving basically a plate of grease topped with noodles and bits of chicken and a soda that strongly resembled “grape drank” both in design and taste, I shrank down in my seat in the tiny bus depot restaurant. I wished for a sandwich . . . and a hygienically sound restroom . . . and a bus ride that wouldn’t take 10 hours. I didn’t receive any of those things, but the restaurant proprietor came up to me just then and she smiled at me. Then her young son and his friend came and sat down at the table next to mine and they both smiled at me, in such a genuine way that it melted my bad attitude away.

As I started getting ready to catch my bus bound for Mandalay, I inquired about the restroom and the savior of a restaurant owner took me to the rear of the restaurant and offered me toilet paper. Then when I finished urinating in the cleanest bathroom I had used that entire day, she handed me a hand towel upon which to dry my hands. I could have cried. I morphed from being a sourpuss to an eternally grateful sap within such a short time span that I could seriously have hugged that generous woman. I thanked her again and again, said goodbye, and headed off to find my comfortable seat in the air-conditioned bus. I was shocked that it wasn’t filled to the windows, but I knew better and had my suspicions confirmed when later on, the aisle became unfit for walking due to all of the bodies crammed into it.

I slept a little, watching the darkness pass by the windows, marveling at how there could be such smooth roads through such an under-developed country. About halfway through the ride, our bus pulled into a heavily crowded rest area. I followed the other women into the building where you could purchase snacks and meals of fried rice and noodles and out to the other side to where the restrooms could be found. To my frustration, women squeezed into every space available, making it nearly impossible to even enter the bathroom facilities. Elderly women standing less than five feet tall elbowed their way through the crowd to get ahead, evoking evil looks from younger women, unnoticed by the old women hell-bent on using the restroom no matter whom they had to push out of their way.

Finally, after utilizing my eighth grade basketball skills and boxing out women trying to cut in front of me—call it “survival of the fittest”—I could see the stalls in front of me. Oddly enough, there was one stall which no one would enter, although some women tried. I found this peculiar because bathroom facilities are so unhygienic in Myanmar that they cause Western women to cringe, but to a Burmese women, that is normal. Therefore, I knew that whatever was in that stall must have been beyond revolting. There was no way in hell that I was going to check it out. I tried warning some of the newcomers about the stall, but some failed to heed my warnings and proceeded in, considering themselves lucky to find an unoccupied toilet. No one survived it. One woman reappeared after a few seconds, showing signs that she was close to vomiting. Another came back out of the stall with her eyes wide and mouth covered. I didn’t even want to speculate on what it was they had seen.

After completing a successful urination, I made my way back to my bus, and I realized that all of the traveling I have done has made me an ace at locating buses that are hardly marked in foreign countries. To my credit, I have only hopped aboard the wrong bus once, realizing very fast that it was the wrong one, filled with elderly Korean hikers in a sea of neon-colored clothing, as opposed to a bus of expats and youthful Korean hikers.

The seemingly never-ending day was coming to a close. The sun had yet to rise by the time I dragged my weary body off the bus and into the deserted bus station in Mandalay. Instantly I was met with shouts from local men offering taxi services. This is a common occurrence in Southeast Asia and it’s tiresome. I hadn’t even gathered all of my belongings yet, so I was short-tempered and unresponsive to the constant pestering. Once I had successfully located my rucksack, I sought out someone to transport me to a hostel. I had no clue where Cynthia was staying, but I knew that I could track her down once I had access to WiFi, which was no guarantee, but I was hopeful.

For my driver, I selected a man who looked to be no older than in his late teens. I was unsure if I had made a smart choice, but I wanted to catch some sleep, in an actual bed, and so I wasn’t preoccupied with how I arrived at that bed. I secured my travel bag to my back, tightening the straps so that I could ride comfortably without having to worry about the weight of the bag sending me to the ground faster than a mouthful of betel nut. We took off and I realized that it was the perfect time to be on the back of a motorbike. The sun was just beginning to make an appearance, and it glowed all orange and red in the dusty brown sky. We cruised along and the boy made small talk with me and informed me that he worked for his father’s company and that he was a safe driver.

He accelerated and I imagined that I was riding along with a mysterious lover in some foreign land. No doubt, I was in a foreign land, but this stranger was only playing, unbeknownst to him, the role of my romantic partner. I smiled at the silly thought and chalked it up as my imagination becoming overactive after a lengthy period of going without quality sleep. All of Mandalay was asleep and my first impression of this city with the exotic name was that it sure was dusty. It seemed very different than Yangon, which to me embodied western influences amid an almost-Indian atmosphere trickled with Buddhist temples and other structures. Mandalay, on the other hand, seemed like an afterthought, as if no one was really sure what to do with the city. Should they westernize it, should they even bother paving the roads, should they let the dusty desert surrounding it consume it to reclaim it as its own?

The motorbike rolled over the ground and I braced myself by gripping onto my driver more tightly as we encountered potholes. He did a good job avoiding the spots where there was road damage, but when it was inevitable to drive over it, the motorbike bounced slightly and then resumed its course. As the sun climbed higher into the colorful dawn sky, we came across young monks with heads shaved and deep red robes walking in a line barefoot across the street. Mostly elderly women came outside to meet them on the street to give offerings of rice and other staples. The boys accepted the offerings and placed scoops of rice into the jugs hanging over their shoulders. My driver stopped the motorbike to allow the monks to cross ahead of us. Some of the boys looked no older than prepubescent and they trailed behind a much older monk with hardened skin and a malnourished frame. I felt like all of the monks walked similarly—as if they were forever moving and there was no need for instructions from their brain to guide them any longer; their feet already knew exactly where to go.

Relying on your instincts and common sense are vital when embarking upon a solo excursion to unfamiliar lands. I find myself typically hailing taxis and asking them to take me to a hostel, hoping that they understand what I’m asking them and then leaving the decision in their hands. I’ve learned how to trust others by traveling the way I do, and on this swelteringly hot early morning in Mandalay, I was relying on this youth to get me to a suitable place of accommodation. He brought me to a guesthouse that seemed fair enough. I booked myself a single person room with a questionably clean cot and a fan. I showered, at last, scraping caked on debris from my skin and washing dust and god-only-knows what else from my hair. I approved of my state of cleanliness and hopped into bed. I was out like a light. The longest day concluded just like that. After having ridden on motorbikes and in buses, pickup trucks, and dump trucks, I had braved the heat of the day, repulsive squatters, a harrowing expedition up to the Golden Rock, and Burmese cuisine. I saw golden squares flitting across the ground, being blown away from the gravity-defying Golden Rock, monks walking in procession collecting their donations at dawn, buses playing a mind-boggling game of Tetris in the parking lot of the bus station in Yangon, and smiling faces blurring past me as I caught sight of them from the back of a Japanese pickup truck. It was an exhausting day, a hot and busy day, and a beautiful one all around.

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