I need a holiday. Just four weeks in Myanmar and I've seen more zedis, stupas, pahtos, payas and pagodas, more sitting, standing and reclining Buddhas, than I have in the whole of Southeast Asia in the previous three years. And more gold leaf than I've seen in my entire life.
I wasn't even planning to visit Myanmar this trip. Then I learned about a really unusual "Fire Balloon" Competition that takes place at Taunggyi near Nyaungshwe during the Full Moon Festival. Fascinated by all things aerial, I changed my itinerary, expecting that the competition would be the highlight of my visit.
It wasn't. The highlight was the warm, generous, incredibly friendly Burmese people I met. People who genuinely wanted to talk to you, just out of curiosity or to improve their English. People with no connection to the tourist trade who clearly welcomed visitors, who didn't regard foreigners simply as walking ATMs.
I talked to locals on the trains, on buses, in monasteries, around the monuments, and especially in my favourite Burmese institution, the tea shops. They're never very far away. Cascading out of the shop, across the pavement and into the gutter are small tables with tiny stools that look as if they belong in dolls' houses. On the table will be fresh cakes in plastic, and whatever you order, even if it's just a "coffeemix", there'll also be a complimentary pot of Chinese green tea. Oh, and when you come to pay, I'd always thought the universal sign for asking for the bill was to hold up one hand, palm towards you, and mime writing on it with the other hand. Twice when I did this in Myanmar, the waiter thoughtfully brought me a pen and paper!
Sit on your own in a Delhi tea shop, and a local will join you. Tell him you are English and, nine times out of ten he'll say, "Ah, capital is London, Prime Minister is Tony Blair, currency is pound, would you like to come look my uncle's shop?"
Do the same in a tea shop in Myanmar and someone will also join you very quickly. Only they don't want to sell you anything. They're interested in you, and they simply want to practise their English.
On one occasion I arrived by bicycle, hot and breathless, late for my rendezvous with sunset views from Mandalay Hill. As I started to climb the steps, I was approached by four smiling young men who said they were studying English. Could they accompany me to the top? Anywhere else and part of me would have assumed they were hoping to sell me something or to act as my "guides". But I'd already been in Myanmar for three weeks. I knew better. On the way up, they asked about English football. They wanted to know where I'd been in their country, what I'd seen, what I'd enjoyed. I asked them about Mandalay, what I'd missed, what they recommended for my next visit. They were all hoping to go to university, and attended a private language school to improve their English, but often came to the hill to practise with foreigners.
They were a little surprised when I wanted to take their photo at the top of the hill, and even more so when I asked for an address and promised to send them four copies. We stood together and watched the sun sink through the clouds, filling the sky with a combination of colours only nature could get away with. One of the group gave me what looked like a business card. It was the address of their language school, and they invited me to join them for dinner the following evening. I would have loved to accept, but I had already booked my bus to Bago for the next day...