It’s 4:30 in the afternoon and I am standing outside of my hotel in Mandalay, Myanmar. I hail a motor taxi to take me to the base of Mandalay Hill. After a 15 minute drive, I arrive at my destination. A short, middle-aged man with a beetroot-stained grin approaches me from the other side of the street.
“You climb Mandalay Hill? I’ll wait for you right here. I’ll take you anywhere you want on motorbike. I wait here.”
I gaze at him for a couple of seconds as I process his offer. It seems like less of an offer and more of a declaration. Yeah, sure, whatever, I think. I smile and nod nonchalantly before proceeding down the road to visit a few temples before I start the climb.
I wander over to Kyauktawgyi Pagoda, slip off my flip flops and glide through the passageways. I catch a glimpse of a group of novice monks out of the corner of my eye. I quicken my pace to follow them.
In the Myanmar Buddhist Tradition, it is mandatory for every boy to serve as a novice and stay at a monastery for at least a week between the ages of 7 and 13 years old. Many boys enter and stay in the Buddhist Order for much longer than the week minimum. Those who seek to become a fully-ordained monk must complete the formal religious training and be at least 20 years to enter the Buddhist Order.
The group of novices gather in front of one of the pagoda’s many buddhas and say a quick prayer. They spot me and flash smiles my way. One brave novice asks if he can take a picture with me. Before I know it, the novices are lined up on either side of me and I transform into one of those photo-opp Santa Clauseses and Easter Bunnies you see at the mall. The process is silent and orderly: two boys come stand on either side of me, smile and pose, and then the next pair of boys rotate in.
I pose in 9 pictures for 18 boys. When we finish, I snap a picture of the young novices for my photo collection.
I leave and cross the street to Kuthodaw Pagoda, home of the World’s Largest Book. Surprisingly, finding the book proves to be quite a challenge. It turns out each of the white stupas houses a page of the book inscribed on their 5-foot tall stone tablets. It is not intuitive at all.
I return to the foot of Mandalay Hill before sundown to start the 40-minute climb up to the top. The short, middle-aged man with the beetroot-stained grin is waiting for me. He is very keen on driving me somewhere.
“Hello! Hey! I take you on motorbike to the top. Or if you’re going to climb, I’ll wait for you right here, okay? Then I’ll drive you.”
:Okay, okay. I’m going to do the hike to the top. I’ll let you know about afterwards,” I respond.
I climb barefoot up many, many stairs while beads of sweat steadily drip down my face. A few days before, I had an allergic reaction to something and broke out in terrible hives. I developed about a hundred inflamed, itchy welts on the backside of my body which have not yet healed. With each step, I can’t help but to think how terrible the combination is of heat and sweaty clothing rubbing against my ailing skin. I have been taking steroids for the inflammation. I begin to wonder if I should have accepted the short, middle-aged man’s offer to drive me up on his motorbike.
I am happy and relieved when I finally make it to the peak. I circle the top pagoda a few times before claiming a spot against a pillar near a colorful, mirrored mandala. I must have a somber look on my face because a curious monk approaches me. He has a soft, welcoming smile and I can’t help but to feel better after feeling his positive energy.
He asks me if he can take a picture of me leaning against the pillar. Then, he suggests we pose by the mirrored mandala. Snap, snap, snap and then he left and went on his merry way.
I lean back down against my pillar and two novices come up to me. They ask for permission to join me. I smile back in approval and they plop down on either side of me. Turns out these boys have been studying English for the last 2 months and are eager to practice with native speakers. They are 16 and 19 years old. Their monastery provides English classes for several hours each week, but many of the students seek further practice by climbing Mandalay Hill and conversing with tourists on top. The novices tell me they come to the hill every single evening to practice. Their English is quite elementary but the 19 year old tells me that maybe in a year, if I come back, he can explain all the Buddhists teachings to me in English.
After sunset, they walk me down the stairs to the foot of the mountain and wave goodbye. The short, middle-aged man with the beetroot-stained grin is waiting for me.
From the first moment I met the guy, I felt he was a good person. He was persistent, but felt harmless. I am always cautious when I travel. I have to be extra vigilant, especially as a female solo-traveler.
I don’t know what it is about this country, but Myanmar is a place where I feel safe. I get good energy and positive vibes from people. I wouldn’t hop on the back of a motor taxi in most countries, especially after being approached multiple times by the same persistent motor-taxi driver, but Myanmar is different. This is a country where people constantly yell “HELLOOO” and flash smiles my way just for the sake of being friendly. Things feel genuine. People are excited to share their culture and country with tourists. They are hospitable and proud.
The short, middle-aged man with the beetroot-stained grin formally introduces himself as Tun Tun. We agree on a price for him to take me back to my hotel and I hop on the back of his motor taxi. Tun Tun’s English is surprisingly pretty advanced and we have a conversation about my plan for the remainder of my visit in Mandalay. I tell him I read about a place called Snake Pagoda where two or three large pythons live among the buddha statues. Lucky for me, he knows the pagoda well and tells me he will pick me up at 9:30am the following morning to make it in time for the python’s 11am bathing and feeding ritual. Tun Tun is nice. He safely transported me to my hotel, but my guard is still partially up. I hesitantly agree to the 9:30am pick-up time. I officially hired myself a motor taxi tour guide.
Tun Tun is waiting outside of my hotel at 9:30am the following morning. I hop on the back of his motorbike and is pleased to see he has a helmet for me today. Maybe longer journeys call for heftier safety measures.
We briefly stop at an older pagoda. Tun Tun waits outside with the motorbike and holds my flip flops while I circle the temple, barefoot.
Next, we arrive at Yadana Labamuni Hsu-taungpye Paya, more commonly known as Snake Pagoda.
Tun Tun explains the history of Snake Pagoda: In the 1970s, two pythons were found coiled around the Buddha statue at the pagoda. The monk carried the pythons back out to the jungle, but the following day, the two pythons had returned and had even brought a third. The monk returned the three snakes to the wild but apparently they kept coming back. The monk concluded that the snakes must be an important symbol for the pagoda and began to care for them. The original pythons were old and have since passed away, but were replaced with three new pythons who happily and freely live at the pagoda.
They are well fed and tenderly cared for every day. Every morning at 11am, the monks give them a luxurious spa treatment in a bath filled with flower pedals.
After their swim, they are lovingly dried off and pose in a handful of snakelebrity shots before slithering back up to their beloved buddha.
I hop back on Tun Tun’s bike and we zigzag through the rush hour traffic back to my hotel. I tell him I am leaving tomorrow, but he insists on jotting his phone number in case my plans change and I need a chauffeur again. He flashes me his familiar beetroot-stained grin, backs up his motorbike and pulls away.
I walk to the hotel entrance and the young doorman graciously opens the door for me. He looks to be about 6 or 7 years old, certainly too young to be working. Unfortunately, that’s how it is in much of Myanmar – education takes a bench in the unforgiving game of life. The boy’s spirits and demeanor hide the reality well, though. He flashes me a big smile.
Everyone smiles in this country. Everyone smiles all the time.