Pyin U Lwin: Riding Shotgun
Portions of this letter were published in To Myanmar With Love. ThingsAsian Press. 2009. pp187-188.
Pyin U Lwin, Shan State
Sunday January 16, 2005
Dear Family and Friends,
This morning I am having a hot cup of real coffee.
Most of the coffee in Myanmar has been "Coffee Mix." A packet of instant coffee, sugar and powdered milk. Just add hot water.
Thankfully, coffee is grown in the hills nearby. Pyin U Lwin, an old British "hill station" in the mountains is just 67 kilometers east of Mandalay.
And hot is what I need. This morning I could see my breath! Man, it's cold. Osama was good enough to make some vegetable soup for breakfast. I dined out in the sun, with several layers of clothing. I remembered to bring along my scarf and hat, but I neglected to bring my woolen gloves. Why in the world did I pack them if not for mornings like this?
The drive up here was about two hours including a brief stop at a service area/tea-house where young boys filled up the radiator. Then they let the hose continue to pour water to cool the motor for the continuing ride up the mountains.
I rode a "share-taxi" - a very small car. This long- legged foreigner paid extra for the front seat. Three Burmese were crammed into the back seat. If you think this is bad, you should see the buses!
Almost all of the motorized vehicles in Myanmar look like refuges from low-end Japanese or Thai used car lots where they were surely awaiting the scrap heap and the shredder. But somehow they found salvation and rebirth in Burma.
Needless to say there is a thriving industry in new and used tires, and new, used, rebuilt and recycled automotive parts and supplies.
As you may know, the Japanese, and the Thais and the British and a few other misguided nations, drive on the left hand side of the road. The steering wheel is on the right. The Burmese have it right. They drive on the right. But, thanks to the Japanese, the steering wheel is also on the right! Are you following this? Are you smiling yet? Think about it the next time you are chowing down at your favorite all-you-can-eat sushi joint.
PS For all my fellow WW II history buffs, refer to your atlas. I am on The Burma Road - actually a network of roads starting somewhere in India and ending somewhere in China. Don’t worry. I’m not planning to travel overland to these countries. Also, check out flying over "The Hump."
Over the past months, I have written about some unique and some standard means of transportation here in Southeast Asia:
Pony cart. Tri-shaw. Tuk-Tuk (a motorized tri-shaw or small three wheel pick up truck). Motor-bike taxi. Trucks. Bus...air con and open. Train...slow and slower. Airplane... usually on time with excellent service. Even on short flights, nice meal served by smiling, hospitable staff. Shame on you...UA, DL, AA.
Today's ride was the most enjoyable.
Think of a black-and-white Western movie from the 1950's. Can you hear the clatter of the Wells-Fargo three-team stagecoach, racing across the dusty plains with the payroll on board, bad guys in pursuit?
Now, in your mind's eye, miniaturize the coach, decorate it colorfully, and hitch up one pony. Now you have the Pyin U Lwin "taxi."
I hired one for an hour. I sat inside for the ride, but later posed for a photo, riding shotgun.
Thousands of descendants of Indians and Nepalese live in his area. So, as we drove out of town I passed a Mosque. Then I visited a Hindu Temple. It was richly decorated with large sculptures inside and the exterior had dozens of small carvings. I am motivated to head for India soon. The town itself has several old British style colonial buildings including a bell tower supposedly built by Queen Victoria. Chimes like Big Ben every quarter hour!
The driver dropped me at the base of the tallest hill in the countryside. I made the climb to the Buddhist temple, huffing and puffing, but happy for the grand view of the valley and town below.
Inside this temple are eight small niches, one for each day of the Burmese week. Wednesday is divided in two... Morning and afternoon. I located Wednesday morning, my birth day and sat in front of my Buddha. I can sit cross-legged for 30 minutes now.
On the sides of each niche are the symbols for that day. Wednesday morning is an elephant with tusks. (Afternoon, no tusks.) Lucky Elephant. Lucky Chang.
I thought, "How lucky I am to have been born on Wednesday morning. Lucky Chang. How lucky to have been born at all. How lucky I am to be enjoying the ride."
I hope you are enjoying your ride.
PS Back in town I headed for the nearest saloon...only kidding. Actually, the market for a noodle soup. Then moseyed (?) on over to Pyin U Lwin's answer to Starbucks, "The Golden Triangle Coffee Shop and Bakery." I ordered a latte and a blueberry muffin. Cost about the same as a complete dinner at an Indian restaurant! Some things are just universal.
By the way, the only "bad guys" chasing my coach were a couple of dogs, barking at the pony. I haven't met any bad guys at all. Only happy folks, happy to meet me and chat. Happy to be of service. Happy to welcome me into their shops, restaurants, and places of worship.
I am happy to be here.