South by Southeast: The man from Kathmandu

Everybody wants to talk to you in Myanmar. Almost daily I was greeted by a welcoming committee of friendly taxi drivers, curious adolescent monks and mysterious jobless “men about town” wanting to shoot the breeze. In a country that restricts access to the media, it’s not surprising the Burmese are eager to talk: they seem hungry for access to the outside world. For the most part, the exchanges are entertaining and harmless: a refreshing way to meet the locals. So my walk to the teashop that Sunday in Mandalay was no different than any other. A cloud of trishaw drivers quickly enveloped me, asking “Where you come from?” and offering their services. That is of course, until one posed me an unusual question I hadn’t heard before:

“Have you read Pico Iyer’s Video Night in Kathmandu?”

I paused. I had of course – I count the book among my favorite travel narratives…particularly for its slice-of-life portrayals of the various cultures of Asia. In one of the book’s most memorable chapters, Pico shares his recollections from Burma, describing the country in all its chaotic, wonderful glory. One character named Maung Maung even invited the author back to his house.

“My name is Maung Maung. Pico featured me in his book. I’m on page 24.”

I was astonished. Here was a man claiming to be a character from Pico’s famous Asian novel, one of my favorites, who happened to randomly meet me as I walked down the block in Mandalay. Doubts filled my head. Could he be some kind of con artist? How many Myanmar visitors have read Video Night in Kathmandu, anyway? There was no way to tell for certain – but like so many other chance encounters I had in Myanmar, I decided to go with it, curious to see what might happen and convinced fate had presented me with an opportunity. Keep reading below to see what happened…

Maung Maung and I took a seat at the local Burmese teashop. The middle-aged man pulled out a cheroot from his shirt pocket and proceeded to regale me for the next two hours with a stream of consciousness explosion: critiques of the Burmese military junta, dirty jokes, stories about his wife – even some anecdotes about his life in Myanmar and time with Pico. It became a tale of woe. He claimed a university degree in Mathematics, but as he told me, the government wouldn’t hire him because of his outspoken political views. Here before me then was a 50-something man, apparently university-educated, who earned his living by pedaling tourists around Mandalay. It was downright sad. Then came his pitch:

“Could you help me out by hiring me for a ride? I’ll take you to meet my family.”

I was torn. Even if he wasn’t telling the truth about the book, I wanted to help him somehow. And visiting a family sounded amazing. But my rational mind said otherwise – maybe this was some kind of setup? Would I end up getting mugged in some back alley in Mandalay? In the end, I figured It was worth the chance. With visions of Video Night in Kathmandu filling my head, I agreed to let Maung Maung pedal me to his home on an antiquated bicycle trishaw.

We started off in the quickly gathering darkness, Maung Maung’s thin frame straining at the pedals down a labyrinthine maze of back alleys. The streets were alive with activity. A cluster of dirt-crusted children kicked a soccer ball in the dust. Mounds of rotting garbage simmered in humid evening air. Silhouettes of women crouched over bubbling pots of noodles, faces lit by cooking fires. The chaotic scene filled me with a nervous mix of excitement and anxiety. Each new turn of the trishaw down the anonymous streets provoked a wave of anxiety that I would be lost and left for dead in the Burmese gutter.

And then we arrived. The house wasn’t much to look at – the home’s sole room featured a stark cement floor flanked by wicker walls. A rickety wooden table and chairs anchored the room’s center. In corner was grungy mirror, a few fading color photos tucked around the edge. A ceiling fan whirled drunkenly from above. His college-age daughter and son stood awkwardly, hands glued to the chair frames. They smiled at me curiously, puzzled by the sudden appearance of a gangly white foreigner in their midst. I don’t know what I had expected, but It was awkward. But then again, the best travel tales rarely unfold like they do in our favorite books. Much like a visit to Myanmar, the reality of our travels is often far more confusing, dirty and inconvenient than we expected. It’s only later we look back fondly at these moments of serendipity, now coated by the glaze of nostalgia and time.

I lingered for a few minutes and asked Maung Maung to leave. I thanked his family profusely, hopped back in the seat of the rickety trishaw and we pedaled off towards my guesthouse. Maung Maung dropped me off, I gave him a few dollars for his services, and just like that he was gone. A work of fiction safely filed back on my bookshelf.

So who was this guy anyway? Did I get “taken for a ride,” parted from my money by a con-artist? Or did I actually spend the evening with a character from one of my favorite books? I don’t think I’ll ever know for sure. One thing I do know for certain: the answer to my question is still out there, slowly pedaling its way down the darkened alleys of Mandalay.

Gadling writer Jeremy Kressmann is spending the next few months in Southeast Asia. You can read other posts on his adventures “South by Southeast” HERE.

Curious to read more about visiting Myanmar? Check out the previous post HERE.