Taunggyi doesn’t attract many travellers. Most pass by in their hurry to get to the much more famous Inle Lake, an hour away.
On Inle those tourists who manage to drag their eyes away from the exotic beauty of the lake, look up at the Shan hills and wonder at the town clinging to the cliff top. From that distance it looks not much more than a village. Actually, it’s a thriving city of around two hundred thousand people.
We discovered busy streets,
a large market,
and friendly locals keen to help us out.
One, Mr S, overheard us wondering where to find a money changer (He was one of the few people we encountered who spoke English) and offered to show us the way.
There are many, many places in the world where I would rebuff an offer like this. Where, I would assume we were about to be scammed, or worse*.
But Mr S, a small man not a lot taller than I, with kind, twinkly eyes, struck me immediately as trustworthy. He escorted us to the moneychangers, discouraged the beggars who appeared from nowhere as soon as we approached the counter, and then bid us farewell.
We invited him to tea. What a treat that was, for us.
On the way to the tea house he told us about his city, about the must see places to visit, and about the ordinary. I’d noticed all the buses parked across the road and assumed it was a bus stop.
It wasn’t. Mr S explained the buses had brought novice monks from all around Shan State to the temple for an exam. Yes, monks have to take an exam. They gathered outside waiting nervously, many with their books open and their foreheads creased by the effort of concentration. Last minute cramming looks the same all over the world!
At the tea house we learned from Mr S that the the green tea was bottomless if we ordered food. That when the tea boys brought us food we only paid for what we ate. Best of all, Mr S introduced us to all sorts of delicaces. From then on, in every tea house we visited I looked for a a type of fried bread, like a donut, that is delicious dipped in sweet tea.
Mr S told us a little about his schooling, that’s where he learned English he explained, making a joke about John and I being like Romeo and Juliette! He told us a little about his family and how hard they work, manufacturing cheroots.
I wondered what he thought about the election. But he avoided our tentative questions on that subject. In the days leading up to the election people were cautious about discussing politics in public. It was different once the results started coming in.
Mr S told us that if we needed any help while we were in Myanmar we were to call on him. I found that incredibly kind and generous, and reassuring. We had made a friend.
A few weeks later I came across this passage in Emma Larkin’s acclaimed Finding George Orwell in Burma
He was one of those courtly old Burmese gentlemen I met from time to time in Burma who spoke a quaint old-world English and had an air of sadness that lingered around them like cigarette smoke.
It made me think of Mr S.
He likes to collect calendars from around the world. I hope he has received his New Zealand calendar safely.
*As a side note, it’s not a good idea to change money on the street. I don’t recommend it.
Who helped you when you were last in a strange town?