Mawlamyaing Stories, Part I

Querida,

I hope you are well.  Outside on the balcony, I can see the pagoda on the mountain all lit up against the indigo sky.

I met two very different gentlemen tonight as I took a walk down by the river, and had interesting conversations with both of them.  In Myanmar, often people will say “hello” and then ask “which country do you come from”?  This is what happened when I met Mr. Kye Win, who told me he owned several shops in the marketplace.  He spoke very good English, and was eager to share about Mawlamyaing and the area around it.

Mr. Kye Win kind of looked like an older schoolteacher, and he certainly had lots of stories to tell.  He told me about a graveyard close toMawlamyaing where they buried the POWs that worked on the Japanese railway during World War II.  During World War II, the Japanese tried building a railroad to connect Burma and Thailand, and thousands of POWs and conscripted locals died in the process, something like 80,000 people total.  The Japanese wanted to connect Southeast Asia for their planned conquest of India.  I have read up a bit on WWII in the Burma Theatre, and it is quite sad and interesting.  The American military sent a commando force (known as Merrill’s Marauders) into Burma to disrupt the Japanese military, which is another interesting story.

Kye Win also told me more about the Thalwin river that flows past Mawlamyaing.  It originates high up in the mountains of Tibet, passes through China, Thailand, and Myanmar before it reaches the ocean.  It is a river of many names: Thanlwin in Burmese, San Lon in the Mon language, Nu Jiang in Chinese, Nam Kong in the Shan language, Salawin in Thai, and Gyalmo Ngulchu in Tibetan.  In Mawlamyaing, it is only 30 km from the ocean, and thus it is broad and impassive as it flows past the city.

Kye Win recounted a story about the Siamese and Burmese empires, which at one point occupied opposite sides of the river at Mawlamyaing.  They tried having a contest to see who could erect a tall pagoda faster.  When the Burmese king saw that he would probably lose, he instructed his builders to build a fake temple out of scaffolding and white painted canvass, so it appeared a pagoda was built overnight.  The Siamese, looking at the fake pagoda across the river, believed they had been beaten and thus retreated, giving over the territory to the Burmese.  There was also a Mon king of Mawlamyaing who had a powerful third eye on the back of his head, so he was able to see any danger that approached from behind.

There is an island in the river called “Shampoo Island”.  Kye Win told me that long ago, upon instructions from an oracle, a king fetched water from a spring on this island and washed his hair with it, and then defeated his enemies in battle.  Since then, all the Mon Kings would wash their hair from this spring before going into battle.  I wonder if the Mon Kings also used Aveda shampoo…

I really enjoyed talking to Mr. Kye Win, he had interesting stories and was very friendly.  I bid him farewell; he said to come back tomorrow if I wanted to talk more, as he sat at that spot by the river each evening to take in the air.

As I walked back down the river, a man with long hair and wearing a dirty shirt and longyi said “hello” and asked me which country I was from.  He was smoking a cheroot, and when he found out I was from the USA he proceeded to tell me about all the countries he had visited as a sailor, when he was a younger man.  He told me his name was Mr. Lwin.

Mr. Lwin listed off the countries of the world he had been to: the USA, Philippines, Japan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Thailand, India, South Africa, Morocco, Kuwait, Russia, and Germany.  He said he left the life at sea because it was work 24 hours a day in rough weather at sea.  The sea journeys to the US would take a month.  He mentioned 4 places in the USA he had been to:  Houston, Mobile, Chickasaw, and Albany.  These are all cities/towns in Alabama on the Gulf of Mexico, and it is an interesting mental picture to imagine a Burmese sailor from Mawlamyaing being in this hot, humid port cities.  For Mr. Lwin, his favorite country is the Philippines, because of the “muchas senoritas”, because the girls there will even do your laundry for you, “very cheap”.  He did not like Russia because he got searched too many times, and Kuwait had bad weather, rough seas, and too many ships trying to get through a small place.  He also did not like India and South Africa because of too many beggars, and he was once robbed in Morocco so he did not have a good impression of that place either.  Mr. Lwin says that he left his life at sea to become an engineer, and hopefully that has agreed with him much more.  I bid Mr. Lwin farewell and continued on to find my favorite noodle shop.

I wish I could find words to describe the sunset I saw over the river tonight.  I will save that for another time.  I am heading out to the bush tomorrow, and I don’t think I will have internet access until next Tuesday.  There is so much more I could write about Mawlamyaing.  I have visited Bagan, seen the desolate and mystical landscape of temples, yet this city is still my favorite spot, my Burmese lover, if you will.  There is something rather intimate about it, it rains unpredictably, and the river is always there for a pleasant walk.  The pagodas are ancient and beautiful, and it is not as busy as Yangon or touristy as Bagan.

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