PINDAYA, Myanmar – The 77-year-old man didn’t speak a word of English and my Burmese vocabulary was limited to thank you. Somehow, though, we were able to connect over an open fire in his tiny home in the mountains outside Pindaya, Myanmar.
I’d just finished trekking through the nearby jungle when my local guide told me we were stopping to eat lunch at the man’s home. Wearing the traditional Burmese sarong known as a longyi, he asked me – or, more accurately, gestured to me – to write my name and nationality in his paper notebook beside the previous European visitors. He in turn wrote down his name in beautiful Burmese script on a torn sheet of paper for me. I asked my guide, who knew limited English, to help me translate it, but even my guide couldn’t help. Instead, I had the man repeat his name over and over until I phonetically spelled it out in English. U Kah Poh.
The experience might have been frustrating for some people, but I enjoyed every minute of it. Just a few days before this encounter, I’d left a network of friends in Cambodia I had made over the previous six months in order to travel on my own for a few weeks before returning to the U.S. I was exhausted, second-guessing my life decisions and wondering if I had it in me to travel on my own for several weeks.
Then I arrived in Myanmar, a country I had wanted to visit since a nominally civilian government came into power a few years ago after decades of military rule. After flying into the largest city of Yangon, I took another flight up to the airport in Heho and then made the one-hour drive to Pindaya, a town located in Myanmar’s Shan State, which is known for its limestone caves that include more than 8,000 carvings and images of Buddha. Big, small, cracked, shiny, every imaginable type of statue is crammed into the cave that is open to the public. Visitors take an elevator up to the Shwe Oo Min Pagoda and navigate the cave like a maze, making sure not to get stuck in a dead end.
Earlier, I had taken in Pindaya’s local market, which runs every five days. There, vendors sell a variety of food, handicrafts, electronics and more. Though the language barrier was a constant issue, I found everyone friendly and helpful. When I ran into a mobile phone shop to seek out help with my SIM card, it only took a few hand gestures before the store employees understood that I needed help connecting to the Internet.
I later hopped back on my bicycle and rode throughout town before heading to Pone Taloke Lake, where I sat and reflected on the fact that despite the challenges of navigating a new place and an unknown language, the people I met in Pindaya were friendly, accommodating and eager to help.