Pyu Ancient Cities, Pyay, Myanmar
Scott is what he calls himself – he wouldn’t tell me his traditional Myanmar name. Scott does three things around the small city of Pyay, six hours north of Yangon. He teaches English at a local school, he is a motorbike taxi and guide around the Pyu Ancient Cities, and he sells cups of yoghurt from a small stall on a side street. Scott offered me the second if I would come along to the first with him. In the end, he threw in the third as a bonus.
I first met Scott when I was walking through the streets of Pyay one morning, looking to find another guesthouse I could move to because I didn’t like the one I had ended up in after a late arrival the night before. (It was the kind of place that felt like a prison cell you had been sentenced to for the unforgivable crime of not making a reservation somewhere.)
There are always a few guys who will offer you their taxi services in these small cities… but Scott seemed different. He stopped and introduced himself and had a bit of a chat before he proposed taking me to see a few sights… and he offered to do it for free if I would come and speak to his schoolchildren in English for a while.
There was no pressure, which was lucky because I had other things on my mind (trying to get early release from the guesthouse gaol) and hadn’t yet thought about my plan for the day. But Scott told me he’d be at his yoghurt stall if I wanted to do something, he explained where it was, and then he drove off into the ubiquitous Myanmar dust.
As it turned out, after looking at my options, spending the day with Scott seemed like a pretty good one and so I went and found him exactly where he said he would be – surrounded by yoghurt (which, as I would discover, was not the only culture in town. Boom tish.)
Pyu city of Sri Kestra
I had wanted to visit the ancient city of Sri Kestra on the outskirts of Pyay and, to be honest, was the main reason I was here. Scott knew the place well and so I hopped on the back of his bike and we went off to explore.
Sri Kestra was the largest of the cities built by the Pyu people between the first and ninth centuries. Their civilisation once stretched north to south for hundreds of kilometres along the Irrawaddy river, had advanced irrigation techniques and was part of the introduction of Buddhism to Myanmar.
Much of the city is gone today but there are still the ruins of the royal palace, a collection of temples, parts of the walls and gates and the four breast-shapes markers at each of the four corners of the boundary.
Scott was clearly quite well-educated generally but he seemed to have a particular interest in history. He explained the different parts of the ruins… but he did it with a degree of tut-tutting. You see, he wasn’t at all impressed with the work the local authorities had done over the years to restore the site. New bricks stuck together with cheap concrete, cement used to fill out partially-destroyed ancient Buddhas, and large sections of wall which had been left covered in dirt and bushes. Scott’s view was that ruins should be left as they are – just tidied up so they’re visible and not hidden by the natural build up of the years.
On topic, later that night I met an Italian woman on the night train who had spent the last couple of months in Pyay working at the Sri Kestra site. UNESCO is considering including it on the World Heritage List and a team of experts are working with the locals to develop an appropriate restoration plan. One of the things this woman was most disappointed in was all the use of concrete and cement on the site. She would’ve got on well with Scott.
It was a day of learning – but not just for me. As promised, we visited the school where Scott teaches and I spoke with the students for half an hour or so. They asked me all the questions they knew in English and I told them several times I was from Australia, that I had been in Myanmar for two weeks and that my name was Michael. I also told them I liked soccer because, even though I don’t particularly, it just seemed easier. I feel a bit bad about lying to a group of twelve year-old monks-to-be.
In the end, Scott’s tour had taken almost six hours. Even though I had already paid for the petrol and lunch, I gave him some more money as a thank you. Excited, he pulled out a pile of papers from his yoghurt stall and showed me the books he was making for his students. On each page he had handwritten English grammar rules and exercises. He told me he would use the money I gave him to photocopy and bind more books for the kids.
Who knows if Scott was telling the truth? I’ve got no reason to doubt him, though. There are many countries in the world where a story like this would sound like a scam – and probably turn out to be so (students in Beijing wanting to practice their English at a teahouse, anyone?)
But not in Myanmar. I never really doubted Scott’s sincerity and that judgement proved to be correct because I had a great day with him. He even drove me to the train station later that night. There’s a genuine friendliness and generosity to the people here and they extend it to their foreign guests. It’s heartwarming to find people like this anywhere in the world but especially in a country so poor as Myanmar.