I had no idea my last days in Myanmar would truly be my last day.
I completed an amazing trek. I’m not really sure what the difference is between a trek and a hike, but everyone called it a trek, so that’s what I called it too. I had never done a trek, only hikes, so that already made it pretty exciting.
I met an American girl from New York at the hostel in Yangon. She described herself as a photojournalism student. She had a lot of energy and seemed to find it interesting that I knew a few words of Cantonese. She disappeared from the hostel for a few days, but then returned, camera in hand, telling me that she planned to do the trek in Kalaw to Inle lake.
I had already been staying at the hostel in Yangon for several months, from late April to early August. My internship was finished, my visa was running out of time, and I hadn’t found a new job nor had I been traveling. I was starting to think that I might have to leave Myanmar, and it seemed like a good opportunity to go on an adventure. If these were to be my final weeks and days in Myanmar, at least try to do something interesting an memorable, instead of just sitting around the hostel in the wet summer heat.
For some reason that I now can’t recall, we didn’t leave Yangon together. I think she had plans outside of the city, and then would head directly to Kalaw. I took a taxi to the bus station, which was a huge parking lot outside of the city, surrounded by small generic shops. The sort of semi organized chaos that becomes equal parts exciting and mundane after you’ve have the luxury of traveling around Southeast Asia, and you realize that some parts of the region are less spectacular than others — Southeast Asian regional bus stations being a not so inspiring or photogenic part of the travel experience. Yet after a while they bring a certain crude familiarity. Signifying almost certainly the beginning of an interesting and memorable adventure at a most unmemorable and even de-energizing location.
Buy the ticket, buy junk food that will serve as your bus snacks while bouncing along until arriving at your destination.
A lot of regional travel is overnight. The traffic is less, and it allows people to get somewhere while sleeping, missing less of their daily affairs. Whatever the reason, you don’t get to see as much, and you wind up with horrible sleep.
I wound up with a front seat, right behind the driver, which I thought might offer for some nice views. Probably more of an amateur move, in hindsight. I dozed off for the first part of the ride, but awesome around midnight, as we left the main road, and started climbing up muddy switchbacks. I had never been in a bus navigating this kind of challenging terrain.
When looking at the distance from Yangon to Kalaw, which was only a few hundred kilometers, I had wondered why it was a 12 hour trip. Once I realized that most of the 2nd half of the trip was switchbacks up the mountain on muddy unpaved roads, I stopped thinking less about time, and started thinking more about survival.
It’s not that it was particularly scary. In fact the driver seemed quite good, he didn’t rush (which is a rarity amongst 3rd world bus drivers, who secretly dream of being F1 race car drivers). But at 10km, in muddy switchbacks climbing steep up a mountain, you start to realize arrival at your destination is likely, but not guaranteed.
I actually remember having one of my more personally interesting life reflections during that stretch of the trip. From my front row seat, the bright lights of the bus in the pitch black night were too mesmerizing. Once I was awaken from my slumber of the smoother first half of the trip, I couldn’t stop staring out the front window as the bus battled its way up the muddy mountain, while the driver seemed exactly as focused and calm as one would need to be to complete this trip multiple times a week.
Something about those bright bus lights blasting into the pitch black night prevented my from looking away. Yet, I was sleepy from the earlier snooze, and couldn’t quite focus or think clearly. The entire sensation created some kind of hypnotic trance, a bit like lucid dreaming.
At one point through the mountain ascend, that truly felt never ending, I had the thought about death and impermanence — a realization that everything which we think that matters, doesn’t really matter.
The thought went something like this. When you die, the people that you know will be sad and miss you. As you grow older, there are fewer people around that know you, to be sad, or even remember you. Once you have been gone for a while, there might be some grand kids that have some memories and fondness of you. Most of your friends and acquaintances will be gone or also fading. Once 3 or 4 generations pass, perhaps a bit over 100 years, almost everything in the world that you knew or cared about will be gone or will not matter, forgotten, most likely without even any memory of the significance of that person, place, thing or event.
All these things which we thought were so important during our lives, even if the thing is still around, or there are memorials of the thing, people will not have any awareness of the true, firsthand significance of the thing. Your favorite seat in a restaurant, the park bench you first saw your wife, the house you bought and cherished and which brought you so much joy and status. All the things you strived so hard for your entire life, which were so important to you, they’ll be gone, no one will know about them, and they won’t matter.
That doesn’t mean they don’t matter in the moment. But rather, you might as well just do what you want. Because the difference between what you care about and what you don’t care about will come to have the same status, forgotten and meaningless in the same way, in 100 years or so.
Some people might find those kinds of thoughts sad or morbid. But I found it pretty refreshing. Not a whole lot of pressure when nothing matters.
I’m not sure if I fell asleep after that thought. I think I turning the thought over in my head for a while. It seemed both odd and fitting to arrive at that thought during this bus ride. Leaving Yangon first the first time after a mixed few months, no plan for the future or what to do next. Heading to an unknown village in the mountains, to possibly rendezvous with someone that I had just briefly met at a hostel a few days before, to then head out on an unplanned, unguided trek through rural Shan State.
I’m not sure why, but I don’t recall feeling remotely anxious about the possibility that things might not work out. I guess when you don’t have a plan in life, you don’t really have to worry about things not going according to plan.
It wasn’t much longer before the bus seemed to be pulling into a village. I had a phone with GPS and a map — that definitely makes it a lot easier to not worry. It seemed the bus was pulling into Kalaw. I didn’t know if there would be a small station, or a rest stop. Would several people get getting off or just me?
Turns out it was just a side of the road stop, still in the middle of the night, around 4am, if I recall. I got off the bus, and for the first time in 6 months, I felt something that was vaguely reminiscent of cold. Still black outside, with a few buildings lining the main road, I did what I assume every foreigner does when they get off a bus in a rural part of an unknown country, aimlessly walk around in random directions, trying to get a lay of the land, while deciding what to do next.
My travel partner wasn’t due to arrive for another hour. Another amazing convenience of modern travel, communication devices. So I wasn’t in a rush, didn’t have anywhere to go; part of my wondered if we would actually meet.
There was something across the road, a few steps up on the slope above the road, that I can only describe as a cross between a cafe, a rest stop, and a retro hipster eatery. At 4am, this spot was surprisingly lively, with multiple sets of people, mostly locals, seemingly doing what I was doing, which is to say sitting bleary eyed at this oddly rustic-chic roadside cafe, trying to wake up while also contemplating what odd set of life decisions had led to the mixture of awesomeness and oddity to find oneself at this location preparing to embark on a multi day trek through an unknown territory.
I sat down in one of the small wooden chairs, looked at the young lady bouncing between tables bringing people breakfast rice and warm drinks, and ordering in the international language of point at someone else’s dish, and then with the same index finger point upward and mouth the word “one.” To which she replied with the international language of “do you want coffee or tea?” in perfect English (Myanmar was colonized by the British, after all, so it was pretty common to find people that could speak English).
Time to sit and wait. For my rice and coffee to arrive. For my travel partner to arrive. For my body warmth to arrive. And for the energy to embark on the first part of a trek into the rolling rural agricultural hills of Shan state.
This seems like as good of a place as any to sit and wait.
End of Part 1.