Loud, incessant rattling ricochets about the room. At times, it sounds like a car trying to start with a dying battery, other times, like a battalion of rickety military tanks lacking mufflers arriving at your doorstep. You toss from side to side, hoping to ignore the clattering racket but such is a hopeless endeavor until finally, after a good half hour, a deep clunk emanates from the wall and everything goes silent.
The death of the chaotic racket means the time is around 6:00am and the power for the village has been cut for the day, the daily ritual. From 6:00am to 6:00pm, there is no electricity produced en masse for Chaung Tha, the utility ceases power production. Every morning, the naturally loud air conditioning unit grows louder and louder as the electrical current wanders further and further from its standard. Once woken by the monster, you tug at your power strip, stripping it from the wall outlet with the intention of saving your devices from the anarchic electricity. This is how every morning in Chaung Tha starts.
As the sun is just peaking from the horizon, you are walking across the main asphalt road which runs to the end of the town. A quick nod and a “hello” in Myanmar’s language to the guard staffing the beachside resort across the street gives way to you traipsing along the stone walkway which curls around the resort villas. Past the coconut seller’s vacant stand on your right and the beachside bar on your left, you kick off your flip-flops by the large wooden telephone poles that lay on their sides in a row, demarcating the beach from the resort and its wooden fence.
A daily gaggle of locals roam the sand and pick up trash and natural debris. Once everything is collected, they separate it according to some methodology which puts some of it in a burn pile, some of it in a trash pile and the rest into a hole dug in the sand. You wonder if that buried refuse will get picked up more than once before it decays into nothing. In any case, it is a nice social effort to keep the beach clean, and much appreciated.
The air is cool, a light wind sweeping the coastline. The morning waves seem more docile than their later day cousins as children gather crabs in a bucket and try to sell them. Unsold crabs get released back in the ocean. You imagine it as an environmentally sound resource management effort that is taught at a young age, but the real reason could be any number of things you reckon.
As you walk, you are interrupted by the typical cadre of locals who want to ask you questions or take your photograph. You understand a little bit about the responsibilities of being famous, constantly stopped and posing with a motley crew of beach visitors flashing a victory (or peace) sign to the lens.
As the temperature climbs steadily, you leave the beach, back through the resort shortcut, nodding again to the security guard who is nodding off in the shade of his hut and head to the hotel restaurant requesting the same daily breakfast: a pot of tea, a glass of orange drink and a bowl of mohinga—a rice noodle fish stock–based soup.
After a day of exploring the beach, eating a watermelon, drinking avocado smoothies and talking with locals, you decide to head to the very end of the beach—past the temple in the rocks, past the bike rental operators, past the mobs of people having beachside snacks and past the crazy horse owner who painted his horse to look like a zebra.
At the very end of the tourist activity, the beach takes a hard turn to the left at the mouth of the river and everything changes.
There are a couple other-worldly places in the world that you’ve visited, places that elicit an out-of-body experience that pushes you out from reality and into the surreal. Endorphins flood your soul and place you into a hushed reverie. Your breathing slows, your attention span lengthens and your senses heighten. Such is the outcome of having rounded the corner into the outskirts of Chaung Tha village.
The sun is glowing a remarkable golden hue and casting it, and your shadows, across the scene. Behind you is a small island where the sun is dropping behind a patch of trees; boats bobbing in the water. In front of you is this golden village of remarkable simplicity and squalor. Palm trees interspersed with huts, made of wood scraps and contorted boards, dot the view. The results of a time machine.
Between the first row of huts and the river mouth is a super-wide stretch of rippled mud, exposed by the outgoing tide, with small patches of tidal mangrove trees sprinkled about. Half of the rudimentary fishing boats are anchored in the water, with the rest anchored in the mud, awaiting the incoming tide. A great deal of trash peppers the ground, with ever greater quantities as you near the huts. The trash, primarily plastic-based, shakes your system into a host of hypothetical questions and internal ethical debates.
The view is beyond remarkable, a stunning mixture of poverty and beauty with a pure rawness that supersedes words. No other visitors, foreign or local, walk around the bend. It is as if this village does not even exist, hidden around the curve on one side and behind the tourist lodging on the other. Tourists ripping through the ocean on jet skis on one side; barefoot kids walking with pigs through mud on the other.
You imagine crony developers one day seizing the property with the consent of corrupt bureaucrats and running bulldozers over the forcibly–vacated village. You wonder if the villagers have dealt with that ilk, and thus fear that happening or if the thought doesn’t cross their mind. If it does, perhaps they think you are surveying for a western resort? Do they welcome your presence or not? Why would you be over there otherwise? Perhaps the river mud protects them from all of this.
Perhaps it isn’t so natural to be so moved by this place and, as is always the case in such places, it is impossible to capture the true essence with a camera. You don’t expect anyone would understand why you are taking photographs and moving so methodically about.
The smell is a mixture of decaying organic matter, mud and fish. Large wooden structures with a plethora of thin wooden legs support copious amounts of fish skins and other expired sea life, invariably awaiting the strong daily rays of sunshine, drying them for usage in Myanmar’s cuisine. The silhouette of a man rakes in the setting sun, spreading out the skins evenly to aid proper drying.
The smell. The sights. The colour. The feeling of peacefulness amidst such a rudimentary standard of living. As the dark washes out the last of the sun, you start your walk slowly towards the lively tourist noises back around the bend. Your mind is completely immersed in what you just saw.
You have found a true soul in Chaung Tha, and a stunning place in Myanmar itself. This is a hard thing to describe or convey. You are quite certain that no one would understand the greatness of it, or be able to feel the purity, the serenity. Rather, they’d see the squalor, smell the decay and retract their steps quickly in the direction of the jet skis to remove it from their conscious.
Your mind is captivated, bubbling over with thoughts as you walk towards your hotel. You are determined to revisit this place again tomorrow, not just to the outskirts, but into the village itself.
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