An unexpected journey to Twante
Some days you just don’t know how things are going to turn out. Even without a plan, some days can take you down a very unexpected path. When I set out that morning in Yangon, I never expected I would find myself in the middle of a lake, surrounded by snakes.
It all happened because I got stranded – as most terrifying snake encounters come about. You see, I had left my guesthouse in the morning just for a quiet stroll around Yangon.
It was towards the river I had headed, an area still uncharted on my exploration of the city. As it turned out, it was a rather industrial wasteland of shipyards, customs buildings and people who seemed to have official business at either and unofficial business at neither.
But I did discover a ferry which would take me across the river to the less urban communities. So I decided to jump on and discover.
The ferry seemed to be made up of half passengers and half people trying to sell things to the passengers. Women with slices of fruit on the heads; children with treats to be thrown to the seagulls; and men with the tobacco concoctions that are chewed all day and night in this country.
Even the passengers seemed to be transporting goods destined for eventual sale. Like the man with dozens of chickens hanging from his bicycle. I felt sorry for them until I noticed they were breathing – then I felt extremely sorry for them.
Docking at a small township on the other side of the river, I quickly discovered the main business of the local community – helping people to get out of the local community.
Although I wandered around for twenty minutes and looked at the small riverside huts that made up this section of the town, it was never a long interval between someone offering me transport to somewhere else. Trishaws, motorbikes, taxi, buses were all available to me, it seemed. In the end I jumped on to the back of a pickup truck full of locals, bound for another town called Twante.
I try to be a fairly affable fellow, but I managed to start a fight in the truck. Apparently the price I had agreed with the driver (about a dollar) was three times as much as I should have paid and the locals were furious with the driver. They shouted at the driver and tried to explain to me the actual cost.
To avoid a near-mutiny, I tried to explain that I didn’t mind and that we had negotiated the special price. It seemed to put people at ease but they took it on themselves to try to make my journey more comfortable.
That was impossible. What had seemed like a fun local experience initially was extremely painful. There were at least thirty of us squeezed into the back of this vehicle and every time you thought it was full, more people were somehow crammed in.
As the truck bumped along the dusty roads, we were all thrown about as much as you could be when there was little space to be thrown into. I had a woman’s knees between my legs, a boy’s shoulder in my face, and an unfortunate man’s back under my sweaty right armpit.
But we got there and the woman with the annoyingly-placed knee, who had been all smiles throughout the hour-long trip, stopped the truck for me to jump out at the impressive pagoda at the start of town.
After checking-out the pagoda, I headed into the centre of town. Twante is apparently known for its pottery, and there were a number of interesting workshops to visit. Someone explained how they can take up to a week to build the fire so it’s hot enough to use. Almost as much work is spent carrying wood as sculpting the vases and pots.
There was something strange about the town, though. The children were unable to say ‘hello’. It was as if the whole place had been put under a linguistic curse. As I walked along the roads, kids would wave and shout out… but it as always ‘bye bye’ never ‘hello’. They were trying to greet me, though, that was the peculiar thing. It was as if one person had been mistaught the English greetings and the mistake had spread, virus-like, through Twante.
I took it as a cue, after a while, and decided to say goodbye to Twante and head back to Yangon.
You’re probably wondering when the snakes come into this story. Well, they make their slithering entrance into the narrative because of a young man called Kyawsoe, who made his entrance rather coolly on the back of a motorbike.
Wanting to avoid the pickup truck ordeal again, I had asked about a ferry direct to Yangon but had been told none were running today. I was on my way to look for more alternatives when Kyawsoe stopped and started chatting in quite good English.
Encouraged that he probably wasn’t the person who had taught the children the language skills, I talked with him for a while. He then offered to help me find a boat to Yangon. We stopped at a few fish shops, and asked if anyone was heading down the river. No luck. So he offered to take me on his motorbike to the ferry I had caught this morning.
Of course he would like some money for the trip – he was, after all, a motorbike taxi driver by trade. But I was happy to spend the three dollars to get closer to home. The day was starting to weary me. But it was not over yet. Kyawsoe had decided that he liked me and his hospitality took over… a tour of the region was included in the return journey.
And this is how I ended up in the middle of a lake because one of his stops was a temple built in the middle of the water, accessible only by bridge. We walked out there and it was only halfway along the wooden bridge that Kyawsoe told me there would be snakes inside. I’m not quite sure what he meant but it became evident quickly when we went inside the temple and there were a dozen slimy slithering tongue-poking snakes roaming freely around. Huge ones hung from the windows, an enormous beast moved slowly along the wall to my right, and another one was making its way down a tree and over the face of a Buddha.
Two nuns sitting inside seemed to take great delight at the look of shock on my face but they assured me the animals were harmless. One of them even picked one up and patted it to prove the point. It did nothing to calm me but I like to think I had a brave face to the casual observer. It was not so much a scary experience, but an unnerving one because you didn’t know where all the animals were. I was more likely to tread on one accidentally as be attacked.
I don’t know enough about snakes to know what type they were or if they would actually have been dangerous. I, however, have named them Buddha-constrictors.
And that, children, is why you should always plan your days and not get on the back of motorbikes with strangers!