There is no photo of him. There is only a memory of his nameless face set against the backdrop of Bagan’s templed plains.
There he stands, weakly waving, with a smile that stops just short of his eyes. They remain blank, non-fixated. His hand falls flat, defeated, before we round the bend. My now-husband’s words, uttered as our horse-drawn cart pulls away from the gentleman, haunt me to this day:
“He looks so skinny and hungry. And did you see his toe? It’s bleeding… We should’ve bought something from him.”
Onward we go.
This was December 2012, days before the world was slated to end per Maya doomsday predictions.
We were traveling in Myanmar, a country in the early stages of opening its doors to the world after decades of rule by a military junta.
Referring to this nation correctly can be a topic of debate in light of its conflict-ridden past. Burma had been the country’s title from its time as a British colony up until the political coup, but Myanmar was its name pre-1885.
Now, accessible once more, Myanmar offers a wellspring of experiences for the intrepid traveler.
As of 2012, even in the most developed city of Yangon (formerly Rangoon), life seemed suspended decades in the past. With diners hunched over their plates on plastic stools at street-side food stalls, motorbikes whizzing past in wheezing glory, and faded colonial-era government buildings standing resolutely, all of the hallmark signs of Southeast Asia were present.
Absent, though, were the KFC, the corner Starbucks, and the infamous golden arches – staples of globalization seen in other Southeast Asian capitals like Bangkok, Jakarta, and even Hanoi as of late.
We were seeing Myanmar’s capital before conglomerates penetrated its nascent market.
Then, too, there were the places untouched by centuries of time.
Places like the Swedagon Paya of Yangon, where worshipers intermingled with monks to perambulate the massive golden stupa, performing rituals intended to yield peace, good health, and prosperity.
Places like Bagan (Pagan), with its thousands of age-old temples peppering the landscape.
Places like Mandalay and Inle Lake and other, less-traveled places which were not on our itinerary during this too-short trip.
Nevertheless, what we did see and hear was enough to merit ranking the time spent in Myanmar among our top travel experiences – even now, four years after the fact.
But while Myanmar’s environs continue to permeate our consciousness, it’s some of the stories of the Burmese people that have persisted most vividly of all.
In Bagan, it was not uncommon to encounter sellers before entrances of temples – sellers of souvenirs, of refreshments, of artwork – and the more trafficked the tourist site, the more plentiful the sellers and their wares.
The life of these sellers clearly required grit and patience – most held a belief in the concept of “lucky money” from the first sale of the day. They made music with the crumpled bills, running them through rows of dangling bells, giving a final flourish to seal the ritual.
When it was already mid-afternoon and you were someone’s first customer, you knew it must have been a long day of holding out hope.
It can be easy to overlook these individuals – to pass them by without so much as a second glance.
However, there are three of these sellers who have imprinted themselves permanently in my mind.
Together, they represent a series of memories: portraits of Myanmar.
This is an overview for a three-part series; it is followed by the first installment: “Portraits of Myanmar: A Picture Worth a Feast for Four.”
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