The events described in this post occurred in December 2016. Be sure to read Artists in Bagan: Part I first!
Are we really going to do this? The question was on both of our minds.
We were stretched out in our hotel room, still dusty from our day on the road. Sam was laying on her stomach, consulting her phone, while I had my right foot hoisted in the sink. My second toe was swollen beyond recognition, red as the face of a child in a tantrum and oozing yellow pus. I have a terrible habit of picking at my feet, which has led to several infected wounds over the years after I’ve torn my cuticles open and exposed the subcutaneous layers that are not meant to see the light of day. Like I said, it’s a terrible habit.
I had swaddled the toe in bandages, but a day of walking barefoot around temples (no shoes allowed at holy sites) had taken its toll. I dried my now-clean but still-throbbing toe, reapplied antibiotic ointment, and wrapped two fresh Band-Aids around the scene of my guilty crime. Moments earlier, we sent a voice recording to Sam’s Uncle Ryan, a doctor, for a consultation. Although, a) we hadn’t heard back yet because of the time difference, and b) I had discussed my malady in a voice akin to Jimmy Fallon’s Sara character from his Ew! sketch, so I wasn’t sure he would take me seriously.
Toe needs addressed for the moment, we returned to discussing our evening plans. Are we really going to do this? Will we really trust someone we had just met and follow them to a group of unknown people? All at nightfall in a foreign country where we knew no one, no less? Sam and I had enjoyed our day with Aungkolatt, a local artist who sold us a couple paintings and gave us a free tour of his inspiration around town. Neither of us had any “bad vibes” from him. Still, objectively, his proposal for us to meet him and his friends at an intersection on the outskirts of town at nightfall for a picnic did raise a red flag in our minds.
That said, Sam and I had spent the past year and a half teaching in Indonesia, and we had both come across similarly dubious situations that turned out just fine. So we decided to follow the Millennial anthem You Only Live Once, and that was that.
A few hours later, as the appointed meeting time approached, we emerged from our air-conditioned room and were pleasantly surprised by the cooling evening temperatures. By now I had named my yellow motorbike Bumblebee, of Transformer fame, and a deep feeling of contentment came over me when I turned the key and the two-wheeled machine sputtered to life.
On our way to the meeting spot, we stopped for some snacks to share and a to-go container of Tea Leaf Salad, a national favorite dish that also happened to be vegetarian. Aungkolatt, our host, had invited us to a picnic, and I had explained my vegetarian-ness as well as I could. However, after years spent in Southeast Asia, I have found it to be essential to be prepared to meet my own dietary needs.
With a growing sense of excitement and a twinge of nervousness (What if they’re killers luring us into a trap? we openly mused), we cruised through Bagan’s stone city gateway, the feature of my painting. The paved road led us past our earlier points of interest, where Aungkolatt shared lessons on Bagan life. At last, we reached the intersection where we were told to meet. It was a few minutes before the appointed time, but already there were two men loitering in the gravel on the side of the road, presumably waiting for us. They were roughly the same height, one rail-thin with an undercut and his top hair pulled back into a ponytail. The other had a stockier build, prominent tattoos, and was smoking a cigarette, which he threw on the ground and snubbed out as we approached. They were both wearing western clothes, jeans and t-shirts, forgoing the longyi traditional tunic that most people in Myanmar wear regardless of age or gender.
Sam and I pulled our brakes even though the traffic light was green. There were no other vehicles around. “Hi, we were told to meet here…?” I ventured, unsure if these men spoke English.
“Yes, yes, we were waiting for you. Come,” the one who had been smoking swept his hand at us before he climbed onto his motorbike and his companion did the same. Sam and I exchanged glances. Where was Aungkolatt? Who were these guys? Should we follow them? The same conclusion that led us this far spurred us on: You Only Live Once. We followed them as they sped past the traffic light as it turned yellow.
The turn was discreet but recognizable: we had been here earlier that day. We followed the two as they turned onto the hidden dirt track and sped recklessly through the darkness. We moved much slower, ever-cautious in the fading light as we skidded through sand and wove around thorny scrub branches. Finally, the track spat us out on the river’s edge, where we had been only a few hours prior. Aungkolatt was there waiting for us, with about six other guys in addition to our two guides. He smiled when he saw us.
“Welcome!” he grinned even wider. The others looked up and smiled too. One was busy lighting long-stemmed candles, holding a lit candle in one hand and using it to light the others and melt the bottom so that it would stay upright once planted on the ancient stones. Another of his friends sat on the ledge of the ancient stupa, tuning a guitar. All of his friends were young men, ranging in age from their early twenties to their mid-thirties, and all wore casual western clothing.
A crescent moon steadily climbed in the sky. With each passing minute, more stars appeared overhead, glimmering faintly in the distant Irrawaddy. Sam and I parked our bikes in the same spot we had earlier that afternoon and joined the group on the far side of the stupa, close to the water’s edge. We sat down with them and made our introductions, saying our names and what brought us to their corner of the world. The guys were all friendly, though only a few of them spoke English. We tried out our new Burmese vocabulary, taught to us that very day, much to the delight of our hosts. As a round of laughter died away, we could hear another motorbike roaring up the path toward us. We looked over our shoulders as two more guys, both riding one motorbike, pulled up. They were laden with bags. Dinner had arrived.
A few others got up to help unload and serve the veritable feast they had provided. There were all sorts of dishes, accompanied with plenty of rice, all homemade. And, to our delight, a hefty case of chilled Myanmar lager appeared with the food. Cans were passed around and we toasted our new friendship.
For hours we sat and laughed and sang in the moon shadow of the stupa. Sam told wild tales of her life in Labuan Bajo, a port town in Indonesia that is famous for being the gateway to Komodo Island. After a couple beers, I sang “Bento,” a song about a corrupt politician’s son sung by Iwan Fals, a folk hero of Indonesia. We swapped jokes and stories with our new friends, smiles illuminated only by the glittering night sky and still-burning candles. Food aplenty was passed around, and our hosts provided their own version of Tea Leaf Salad for my vegetarian pleasure. Privately, in an English aside, I toasted Sam, so thankful that she had come on this trip with me. She was and remains a wonderful friend who has the most generous heart and is up for anything.
At some point Aungkolatt, the one who had brought us all together, bid us farewell to return to his family. Sam and I thanked him profusely and waved goodbye as he spun off into the darkness.
Finally, after hours of jovial togetherness on the riverbank, the temperatures had cooled sufficiently to make everyone feel ready to move on. The tattooed guy who led us to this spot came up to us as the others were loading up their motorbikes. Earlier in the evening, he and several others shared that they all worked at a tattoo studio, hence the heavy ink. He informed us that he and some others were heading back to the studio to continue hanging out, would we like to come?
Spirits soaring from a combination of good friends, glittering constellations, and Myanmar beer, we agreed and followed them into the darkness. When our tires were back on the pavement, we followed the group and sped even farther from our hotel. We came to another small neighborhood, wound through darkened houses and shuttered shops, and pulled up in front of the warmly lit Bagan Poem Tattoo Studio. We parked and followed the guys inside. They immediately flopped into what we can only assume are their usual places, stretched out in chairs and on pads on the floor. One of them spread a rattan mat down and gestured for Sam and I to join him on it.
We lingered for hours, watching a man get a Sleep, Videogames, Sex, Repeat tattoo, and we even got Sharpie tattoos ourselves. Around 3 a.m. we bid our farewells and walked out into the chilly night air. Our new friends waved goodbye from the doorway, and off we went–in the wrong direction. It took a while for us to find our way back to the main road and get going in the right direction, but after a couple false starts, we made it back to the hotel.
I threw on a sweatshirt and fell asleep almost as soon as I hit the pillow, but not before smiling faintly and running through the events of the day. Who knew a turn of curiosity could lead to a hello, that led to so much more.
Note: Some of these events were described in blog posts I wrote at the time: “Quality” Time in Bagan and “Ning koh lar?: Living like a local in Bagan. I wrote a more detailed version of this story because a) I had forgotten that I had already written about it and b) This is a very fond memory for me, so I wanted to capture it with more details and vibrancy.