Did you know that March is National Umbrella Month? Funny that. How does this relate to a travel tale, you ask? I’m about to tell you how a rainy day in Yangon turned into my best ever travel moment. And, yes, there is an umbrella in this story.
It’s 2009. May. The middle of the stinking hot season in South East Asia and I decide, on impulse, to spend a week in Burma. I’m walking the streets of Yangon one sunny afternoon. Temperatures have been hovering around 40 degrees all week and it is HOT. I’m pawing of street market stalls buying dodgy bootleg DVDs and even dodgier jewellery made of bullets when suddenly the heavens open. Bucketloads of rain are literally spilling down on top of me and I’m quickly getting soaked through. The vendors all quickly pack up their things and I stand there like a dummy not knowing what to do. Anywhere else in Asia I’d simply hop in a taxi or on the back of a bike and zoom back to my hotel. But this is Yangon. Taxi’s are few and fair between and the ones I do find don’t know where my guesthouse is or can’t speak English. The only thing to do is to keep on walking. Not that I know where I’m going….
Out of nowhere a kind voice asks me, in English because obviously I don’t speak Burmese, if I need an umbrella. I turn around and see an even kinder face repeating the offer. A young monk introduces himself to me and suggests I step under his umbrella. I gladly accept and he proceeds to chat away at me in pretty good English. He offers to take me to a tea shop to wait out the storm and, again, I gladly accept. We retreat to a little shop and sit on plastic children’s chairs and sip a strange blend. I am a stranger in this environment and receive a lot of strange stares. We pass the time by discussing the usual topics – where are you from, where are you going, what do you think of Burma? An hour passes and the rain ceases. My new friend escorts me to a taxi. Giving me his phone number he insists we meet again when I pass back through Yangon at the end of the week.
If he hadn’t been a monk, the whole thing would have been terribly romantic.
The week passes. I travel to Bagan and once back in Yangon, the receptionist at my guesthouse helps me call the monastery. After a few failed attempts, we finally make contact with my monk who has been out at English lessons all day. We make plans for me to arrive the next morning and visit the monastery in which he lives.
I’m greeted by a friendly wave from the gate of the monastery. My monk shuffles me around the grounds showing me the different areas – the monks quarters, the mess hall and the incredibly simple orphanage where 40-odd boys from around the country have come to live having lost their parents to violence or to Cyclone Nargis the year before. The boys are much more interested in their television than they are in meeting a foreigner. We proceed to the mess hall where I’m left alone with the Abbott to discuss Buddhism while my friend collects our lunch. The Abbott speaks a little English and with the help of a phrasebook we converse. My monk returns with a home cooked meal for the two of us to share. As monk’s rise early and don’t eat after 12pm, lunch is served at 10.30am. Each day a different woman from the community prepares a lunch for my monk. I’m sure on this day she’s been instructed to prepare a feast fit for a fat foreigner.
After a large meal of vegetarian delights, I have to make a speedy exit to catch my flight back to Bangkok. Not wanting to waste a moment of time together, my monk accompanies me by taxi back to my guesthouse to collect my bags and then on to the airport. He tells me I’m the first foreigner he’s ever had the courage to speak to despite taking English lessons for a year. He tells me of his plans to move to Sri Lanka to study for a Masters’ degree at a Buddhist University. I feel compelled to give him my remaining cash to pay for more English lessons and contribute to his flight – about US$200 and a few handfuls of Kyat. Our extraordinary meeting comes to an end as I slip past the security gate and onto my flight but our friendship continues to this day through the modern marvel of Facebook.
If I’d had my own umbrella the best moment I’ve ever had on the road would never have happened.
The moral of the story? Never be prepared and always talk to strangers.
>>> If you’re visting Burma and looking for more ideas on what to do then check out this post on things to do in Yangon for inspiration!