The baggage allowance on the twin-engine burmese flights is only 15 kilos. So when I prepared my backpack and photo equipment, I had no doubts: practicality bit elegance! My hiking boots -weighing nearly 1.5 kilos – stayed home, while 200 grams of pure rubber CROCS Band followed me to Southeast Asia.
“Followed me”, it’s not totally true. More were the times that I parked my Crocs outside a pagoda, then those times I wore them!
During my trip to Burma I visited more than 200 among temples, pagodas and shrines, climbed thousands of stairs, vivide homes and shops. Always barefoot. For more than 10 times a day I had to put on and remove my shoes. For feet must be naked in the presence of religious places and to show respect, inside homes and in some shops too.
On the night train from Yangon to Mandalay, I booked a first-class sleeper with air conditioning. I thought if I paid more, maybe the service’d be better … But the Burmese standard is very low and the luxury bunks are still modest. I chose the bunk above to have more privacy, but at night, because of a 66cl. Myanmar gobbled up in the dining car, I had to get up and down the bunk three times to use the bathroom. Blessed CROCS, always ready to accommodate my feet in the darkness of the jolting train!
I did not regret that beer though. To reach the restaurant car in fact, I had to cross ALL cars, passing through the First Class bunks, through the II Class, III Class till Indefinite Class X (?) where you find the most uncomfortable seats: 90 degreed backs and narrow seattings, not wide enought to to lie down either. A succession of Dante’s circle, including passengers increasingly poor and increasingly flooded latrines . The Burmese humanity divided by classes and wallet. Higher the military, the monks all the way down to the railway workers.
On New Years’ day, my CROCS and I woke up early: it’s Sunday and the public ferry between Mandalay and Bagan leaves at 5am. The boat has two floors, a rickety diesel engine and a roof of corrugated steel. During winter it takes 14 hours to cover a distance of 100 miles of the shallow Irrawaddy waters. But this is compensated by the costs of 7 dollars versus 70 of the 45′ flight.
Before departing the rusty ferry was already packed with people. Commuters returning to their villages, monks wrapped in red cloth and purple and woolen hats, and a few backpackers. Tourists usually prefer the convenience of the direct flight Mandalay Airways.
On the covered deck there is a walk-over part: a corridor of wooden planks of just thirty centimeters wide, the rest of the surface is occupied people, families cruched down on humble mats surrounded by bulgy bundles containg food, goods and god-knows what.
Within a few hours we all know eachother.
Of those who smiled at me, I took a picture and then stopped to show the preview on the LCD of my Canon. They seemed contempted and made sign to sit down on their threadbare mats, they looked at my funny green eyes or offered me rice and chickpeas from small aluminum bowls. In each household I sqwat down to socialize with gestures and smiles. Then I put my CROCS on and continued to the next human plot. Each mat was like a camping pitch: a well-kept garden, a small world in which I entered with respect.
I pulled out the black rubbish bag I carry around to cover my backpack in case of dust or rain, and I stretched myself on the deck. I sat and I organized my plot by placing backpack and bassoons. I greeted the new neighbors, offering myself what I had: gum mint and smiles for everyone.
The CROCS respectfully “parked” outside, beside the worn Burmese sandals.
IN THE BATHROOM
It’s hot in Burma, even when they have cold weather. It’s hot and the feet sweat. It is tempting to put on flip-flops, like Asians do. But then you have to go to the bathroom – and the bathrooms in Burma are ALWAYS sqwat toilet – and always flooded …Flip Flops are not the wisest option. Over the years I have learned that open sandals and sqwat toilet do not get along. The Crocs are semi-open, airy and if you caltulate well the depths of the marsh, and the distance from the hole, your feet remains dry …
Not very many tourists make it to Kyaikto but plenty of the country’s Buddhists do. There are only two hotels that tourists can stay in the Kyaikto Hotel and the Mountain Top Hotel, but if you don’t mind sleeping on the floor for just 1 night, the terrace overlooking the Sacred Rock is the place to be. Here the atmosphere surrounding Kyaiktiyo simply makes you feel happy with magic and devotion. I, like thousands pilgrims, chanted, light the candles and meditated during the night. My Crocs next to their flip flops. Walking to the Rock early morning to see the spectacular sunrise among pilgrims was indeed the pick of by burmese trip.
Sanctuary of Mount Popa, 70 km from Bagan, is Burmese pilgrims’ second destination (after Golden Rock) For all those burmese who openly still profess animist cults, the worship of Nats (spirits of good and evil) this is the place to go. Here you can find the thirty-seventh Nat statue: the Spirit of conjunction between burmese animism and Buddhism. To find it you have to climb a staircase of 777 steps tiled with horrible majolica from the 60s. Obviously you have to leave your shoes at the foot of the mountain where – among other things – lives a community of monkeys who enjoy poohing on the staircase.
Proceed with caution, look down to the ground to spot the droppings – but also to avoid eye contact with the horrible beasts. If you dare to secure in their eye, they go mad with rage and show fangs in a terrifying growl.
I hate monkeys. They jump up when you least expect it and they steal dangling things from your rucksack. And they are dirty. Even my feet are always dirty, but at the end of the day in the hotel room, with a hot shower and a small pumice stone, they go back smooth and clean.
The CROCS, instead, to soak in ®Amuchina …
Crocs are neither walking or hiking shoes, however, I wear them for most day of all my adventurous trips. They are light, easy to wear and to clean. If I had been afraid to get my feet dirty, I would have lost all of these meetings and these memories of Burma … If I had hesitated a single moment entering the reality of Burmese people and their veneration, I would have missed out on so much.
My feet are finally freed, they followed the eye and not the brain.