Our plane lifts up and over the smog laden Yangon, over the towering hotels and the dilapidated slums, over the meandering rivers and the quilted patchwork of brown and green farms below. It’s odd how Myanmar goes from being the reality of my everyday life to just a figment of my memory. It’s as if Myanmar froze the moment I stepped onto the plane; the smoking noodle stands and the lines of buddhist monks transfixed forever in my mind just the way I left them.
The sights get old. The pagodas are magnificent, the landscapes drastic, but day after day of passing from one to the next is repetitious. Our last week though was magnificent. Sam Khar, a small and remote village along Inlay Lake, opened a door to a week of entirely unique experiences. Sam Khar is home to both Bikkhu as well as the 13 year old girl, So-tis-ikine, my family sponsors. Amidst the dust covered homes; the small pier housing long, wooden fishing boats; and the roaming cows, Bikkhu runs a small schoolhouse for the local children. Arising at dawn, we would stroll amongst the waking town and through the drifting smoke of tens of cook fires to Sotiskine’s home where a lavish breakfast awaited us.
The children would gather, staring shyly at us until I would return their gaze, at which point they would giggle and hide their faces. During one meal, as I devoured the customary fried whole fishes placed before us at a pace these children likely had never witnessed before, one of the girls sprinted from the room. Unbeknownst to us, she hurried to Bikkhu’s school and told him desperately to come quickly. These foreigners were in mortal peril! He arrived quickly and discovered all the children sitting in horror, terrified that I didn’t know the fish had bones and that I would choke and die. None had the english to communicate and none the understanding that if fish bones could kill me, I would have died long ago. Bikkhu, laughingly assured them that they would not have to bury any white men that day, and shared the joke with us.
Monks can only eat food freely given to them and thus, each morning, Bikkhu would set out on his Alms-walk. With us by his side and a gaggle of children giggling merrily following close behind, he would walk from house to house, blessing those who placed steaming dishes of food into his alms bowl. By the end of his rounds, he carried a bowl heaped with rice and vegetables and meat, an amount of food not even I could eat alone. “What do you do with all of the food?” I asked him. He motioned towards the children, “anyone who comes on my alms walk gets to share,” and adding with a laugh, “I also have four dogs!”
Our days were filled with excursions with Bikkhu and the local children—boating, swimming, and climbs to local pagodas. On one trip to a local waterfall, the children decided on a shortcut through a corn field that would also allow us to bypass the opium fields and the trigger-happy opium farmers. An hour later, sweaty, itchy, and soaked, we were lost in a jungle that would give Tarzan pause. As I lead the way, pushing through vines and foliage, I came to a fist sized spider that had cast its massive web in an apparent effort to trap and feast on local children. I decided I valued life over pride and began to look for an alternative route. The 10 year old girl behind me nonchalantly passed me and walked straight through the web like some Herculean goddess and triumphantly led us to the beautiful swimming hole.
Several days after leaving Sam Khar, we join Bikkhu and the children on a several day field-trip. The mode of transportation we discover, as it rattles and wheezes up to our hotel, is a flatbed truck that 40 years ago was on its last leg. Today, it looks like a poor man’s human trafficking truck, a vehicle that deserves the quick and merciful death of a car compactor. Packed high with an unrecognizable heap of children and bags, Abba and I carve out a corner amongst the masses. A three hour ride seem neigh impossible as my legs attempt to defy the laws of physics and compress into themselves. I think about the worst method of travel I experienced in the army and conclude that this truck is still decidedly better.
Traveling with the children is so enriching. The sights we visit are not particularly exciting, but being with Bikkhu and watching the children interact with one another feels entirely authentic. As the trip progresses, the kids slowly warm up to us and we spend the evenings walking hand in hand with them. After dinner, we gather in the monastery grounds for games of running and jumping and screaming whose complexity would astound even Einstein. I can pass college calculus, but two hours into a game called “come,” and I still don’t understand the basics. We feel a sense of sadness as we part with them. We had this brief glimpse into their lives and now must return to a place so far removed from them. But the promise of returning is always there and the impact they made is undeniable.
With the trip having ended, I look back on a series of monumental experiences made greater because I spent them with Abba. The time was profound and the opportunity to witness a country before it succumbs to western influences was really truly unique. After backpacking through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos earlier this year, Myanmar truly felt special. Spending a month without once being ripped off or scammed was incredibly refreshing and I so appreciate the compassion and warmness of the people. I pocket my passport, one more stamp on its pages, and eagerly await the next adventure.