It’s April 1st, 2016. I’m sitting on a plane going to a country; some people may not even know it exists.
In Bali, the night before I left, I had just lost my debit card, for the second time in three weeks (that’s a whole other story).
But to be honest, I wasn’t worried.
I still had my credit card and I could withdraw the cash I needed while I waited for the UPS package from Jersey.
Shout out to Ma Dukes for the package.
Thingyan Festival celebrates the new year for Myanmar
Little did I know, losing my debit card, for the second time in three weeks would lead me to an experience, a lesson learned, and a friendship that would last a life time.
This is a story about generosity. A story that gives back lost hope in this crazy world we live in. This is a story about, OO Aung Zaw U.
I landed in Yangon, after closing the Indonesia chapter of my story behind me. I was excited and ready to begin a new chapter in Myanmar.
Walking through customs, I take out my credit card and wait in the long line for the ATM.
I insert my credit card and it immediately asked me for a pin number. Right then and there, I knew I was doomed. I didn’t have a pin number for my credit card.
I try to connect to the spotty Wi-Fi to contact my Mother to see if there was anything that could be done. But in my heart, I knew I truly had to figure this one out on my own.
The Wi-Fi was terrible so I sent a follow up text just letting her know that I was going to somehow figure it out and when I did, I would text her.
I waited around in the lobby a little bit. Asking random people who spoke English for help, yeah, nothing. These people could care less. Which I guess is understandable. To be honest, I immediately felt lonely. And without money, even lonelier.
I walked outside and got smacked in the face by the humid sweaty air. I began to ask the taxi drivers if they could take me to my hostel and once I got the money I would pay them quadruple the fare.
Yeah, that was a complete waste of time. It’s a $5 cab ride to the center and they were asking for my gold chain as they laughed in my face.
I said, “Fuck it, I’ll just walk”.
As I’m walking with my bag on my back and my knapsack on my chest, multiple taxi’s, pullover to ask me for a ride. I would communicate with the international sign language of, “no money” and they would speed off.
Not even ten minutes into the walk, I was beginning to become frustrated. Definitely getting tired and sweating profusely from the intense sun and humidity.
I would say a mile down the highway and after 12 different taxi’s, I finally found my guardian angel. Or did he find me?
He asked in his broken English, “you need ride?”
For the 13th time, I replied with the international sign language of no money, but this time with an attitude.
He told me, “five hour walk to center”.
I didn’t respond.
He told me, “get in, I take you”.
I repeated the sign of no money.
He insisted, “no worry, get in, I take you”.
I can’t tell you the weight (literally and metaphorically) that was lifted off my shoulders.
When I got into his taxi, I immediately felt the ice cold air from the A/C and thought to myself, things are looking good.
But what I didn’t know was the bond and brotherhood that we were beginning to create.
He asked me if I was hungry or thirsty. I replied with one simple word, “both”.
He laughed and said, “ok ok ok”.
His English was actually pretty good for someone who lived in Myanmar. He had later told me he lived in Singapore for almost eight years and that’s where he learned his English.
From this point, he took me to a restaurant and it wasn’t an Applebee’s or Burger King.
But rather a place underneath torn tarps that shielded us from the blistering sun. It wasn’t the greatest meal, but I needed it more then ever.
After the meal, he took me to see white elephants. It was amazing, I had known this guy for not even an hour and it was if we had known each other our entire lives.
For the next five days in Yangon, he would pick me up outside of my hostel and we would go on an adventure. Visiting his village, was one of the most humbling experiences of my life.
I just remember everyone being so genuinely nice and equally as curious as to why a white person was infiltrating their walls.
Aung Zaw would take me to different pagodas, including the most famous, Shwe Dagon Pagoda. Shwe Dagon was one of the coolest places I’ve ever had the chance to go to. This giant pagoda protects four pieces of Buddha’s hair. Visiting in the daytime versus nighttime are two completely different experiences.
Shwe Dagon Pagoda during the day
During the day you deal with the crowds of people, the blistering heat, and since you can’t wear shoes/socks inside, your feet burn. You get use to the heat burning your feet but even in the daytime, the vibes were real.
Later that day, I told Aung Zaw, “can we go back to Shwe Dagon at night? I really want to go back at night.”
Locals like Aung Zaw receive free entry but foreigners have to pay each time. So, I would have to pay again for re-entry but I didn’t care. I needed to experience this.
Just seeing the giant gold pagoda from the outside, I could feel the vibrations. But, once I got inside.
It smacked me like the heat after leaving the cold, comforting air conditioning.
Shwe Dagon Pagoda
The way the lights reflected off the gold, everybody, including the Monks, all in prayer, as the candles burn. You could feel the energy.
We hung out there for about two hours, walking around viewing the different statues again, and Aung Zaw explaining the stories of the Buddha again. I couldn’t get enough of it.
Aung Zaw praying to the Buddha
He had to drag me out of there. I did not want to leave. My soul didn’t want to leave. It was so peaceful, the air filled with tranquility.
One of the best days in Yangon was when Aung Zaw and I took a road trip to, Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, or also known as, “The Golden Rock”.
Aung Zaw and I in front of The Golden Rock
The legend says, "Buddha brought this rock up from the bottom of the ocean and placed it on top of this mountain". Aung Zaw described this to me as, “one of the most sacred places in Myanmar”. It was one of those places he told me, “If I was in Myanmar, I had to get there”. The only thing….it was four hours there and four hours back. Not that I cared about how long it took.
But, for the last four days, Aung Zaw had been driving me around, everywhere and anywhere I wanted to go. Not asking me for $1 at all during these adventures (not that I could give him any money anyway, I was still waiting for my card). We would pick up some passengers along the way so he could make some sort of cash. He would ask me if I cared if he picked up people, but why would I? He needed to support his family.
Our adventure was filled with nothing but tears of laughter, some confusing conversation, and ice-cold beers.
Kyaiktiyo Pagoda was a cool experience. I had never heard of it before and the only reason I was going there was because of a taxi driver who picked me up on the side of the highway, four days earlier.
When you go to these pagodas, you cannot ignore the feelings and energy you feel there. I will say though, Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, was the hottest on my feet. I definitely had burns on my feet at the end of the day.
You would see people running from one shady tile to another to help their feet.
After a long car ride home through the beautiful country and a classic Myanmar sunset, I got back to my hostel with Wi-Fi and got the confirmation that my debit card hard arrived at another hostel.
"The Orb", a typical sunset in Myanmar
The next day, we got my card, I looked at Aung Zaw and asked him what his favorite dinner was. He said, “roasted duck”.
That night, we went to the "Golden Duck Restaurant".
It was an amazing meal. Again, filled with laughter but at this point, we began to reminisce on our six day friendship. We knew our time together was coming to an end.
After dinner, I gave Aung Zaw $240.
He looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, “no, Chris, too much”. I couldn’t help but feel bad that I couldn’t give him more. He didn’t want to accept it at first, but I begged him.
After I gave him the money, he took me to the bus station. My next part of the adventure was bringing me to Bagan. A location, Marco Polo said was, “one of the most beautiful places” in the world.
It was a really, really tough goodbye. For the past six days, we had spent almost every second together. I met his family. He brought me to his village. We laughed and talked for hours. We were from two completely different parts of the world. But we spoke the same language of respect, love, and laughter.
(From left to right Aung Zaw, his wife, his son, and their neighbor)
I told Aung Zaw, he was one of the most influential people I had ever met. I made sure he knew that I would never forget his kindness and generosity. He taught me so much. He taught me lessons about life and about friendship.
I couldn’t stop thinking about one thing though. How could someone with nothing (financially), not even a front door on their “house”, give someone they don’t even know, everything. The taxi we were driving in? He didn’t even own. He had to pay $35 a day to rent.
And I thought of the answer. He told me he was the oldest of eight siblings, he had little brothers my age. Maybe when he saw me, he saw his little brother. Maybe he wouldn’t want his little brother to be walking alone down the highway in a foreign country.
I don’t know.
All I know is, I have nothing but love and respect for, OO Aung Zaw U.
It just goes to show you, no one is too small to help you. No one is too small to teach you a thing or two.
I honestly don’t know what I would have done in Myanmar had I not met OO Aung Zaw U. I think about him and his family almost everyday. I carry his laughter with me everyday. I carry his spirit with me everywhere I go.
When I think of Myanmar, I think of my friend, my brother, Aung Zaw.
Until we meet again brother. Thank you for being my guardian angel.