For some years I had wanted to do something like this.
I had been to Burma six years before and, with hindsight, it might have been that taxi journey which stuck in my mind for good. I remember driving back to the capital, Yangon, from a few days’ blissful relaxation by the sea and as the car made its bumpy way up and downhill on this deserted road still under construction, it slowed down at one bend and I saw a group of girls, some of whom looked no more than ten or twelve years old, carrying large baskets full of rocks which they then deposited by the side of the road. Meanwhile, even younger girls would take these stones and chip away at them to make them small enough to then lay on the road, like a puzzle.
As we crawled past, one girl looked up at me. Her hair and lower face were covered by a scarf which protected her from the dust but I could still see round patches on her cheeks, smothered with tanaka, a protective and nourishing face powder which most women in Burma wear. She pulled her scarf down to smile capaciously at my puzzled expression and she carried on smiling as we made our way past. The taxi driver later told me these girls earned roughly the equivalent of 80 US cents for a day’s work.
As we drove on, I couldn’t get that image out of my mind. I couldn’t help that girl, but I couldn’t forget that scene either.
Now, some years later, following online research, I had contact with a church run orphanage in Burma which had offered me the opportunity to spend one week teaching English to a group of multi ethnic students in a college in the eastern state of Shan. I was to travel to Lashio, hardly a popular tourist destination and the last town in that direction that a foreigner could travel to without special permission. China lay another 200 km east. I jumped at the opportunity.
So now, some months later, in the middle of the wet season, I boarded the morning bus at Pwin Oo Lwin (an ex hill station for the early 20th century British colonialists when they wanted to escape the heat and dust of Mandalay) in the drizzling rain and found the only available seat was a foldable one next to the driver. This meant moving my knee every time he changed gears. No problem. It kept me awake.
After a couple of hours I was able to move to a seat which had come free behind the driver, and was then engulfed for the next two hours by the attention of my new neighbour, an impeccably dressed Burmese gentleman in his sixties who spoke good English and who proceeded to recount his life to me while pointing out the scenery as we drove along.
This included the noble but still young teak trees lining the road (each with its own little plaque of identity), and a variety of turmeric plants, how he had won the lottery forty times in his life, pullulating palm trees and beckoning banana plantations, how his beloved wife had died two years previously, sparkling sun flowers and corn fields, how his daughters cared for him and sent him money from time to time, well-irrigated paddy fields and luscious lychee trees. All this while bouncing along the undulating road surrounded by lush greenery and red earthy banks, up and down in the drizzle and mist with the sound of birds tweeting all around us. I kept looking out to see where these chirpy birds were but to no avail.
In the distance, as the mist lifted, it threw into sharp relief the impressive span of the Gokteik railway bridge , towering over the river bed some hundred metres below. My fellow passengers had been on the lookout for this impressive piece of engineering to be able to point it out to me, the only foreigner on board, and my verbal sighs of awe met with their proud approval. This bridge dates back to the days of the British Empire, and was built by the American Pennsylvania company back in 1902 and ,at the time, was the largest trestle span in the world. Today, when trains approach this structure, the drivers dismount and go ahead with a spanner to check the bolts are all in place before allowing the train to creep slowly across. That train ride is a tourist attraction in itself.
At about this point, as we drove past this bridge, my amiable neighbour’s mobile phone rang (a gift from his daughter) and he then reported to me that it was his daughter checking if he was alright and whether he had gone past the hazardous part of the road yet. As I listened in controlled alarm, he explained that just after the bend near the bridge, on the road winding up hill, the Shan State Army tended to ambush the Burmese army, who they were in continuous struggle with. This usually took place at night and, indeed, such an incident had taken place the week before with one fatality. They usually attacked at night, and only the military, so, though we hadn’t yet passed the ‚hazaardous part‘, it was day time and we were civilians. I put any notions of panic out of my mind.
I did, however, smile to myself when I then noticed that the window next to us had a bullet-like hole in it, with the commensurate cracks around it. A pebble. No doubt.
On reaching our destination, my companiable acquaintance explained the mystery of the tweeting birds. It turns out the back of the bus was occupied by a dozen or so crates, perilously perched on top of each other, packed with hundreds of chirping baby chickens and it was they who had been providing the warbling sounds throughout the ride.
Due to the fact that:
-I don’t have a fancy camera
-I was on a moving bus
-my battery ran out before we reached Gokteik bridge…
these photos leave something to be desired: