The last stop on my trip within a trip with the crew from 90th Street in Mandalay was a remote place called Shwe Set Taw. We left from Bagan and passed Chauk and Salay and Yenangyaung, stopping briefly at a large pagoda in Magwe before crossing the Ayeyarwaddy River and continuing past the town of Minbu. That was the last real town of note, and still we kept driving, and driving, and driving. I’d never seen such dry, desolate looking landscape in all of Myanmar. No large trees and no signs of habitation. Just flat, ugly stretches of no-man’s land Where were they taking me?!
I’d never heard of Shwe Set Taw before this trip, but Maw Hsi and the truck driver, along with the kids, decided that this “side trip” was what they wanted to do, so I gave it my blessing, not knowing at the time what a long journey it was going to be. From Bagan, the one-way driving time was nearly six hours! And that’s six hours driving on roads that weren’t always paved, sitting in the back of flatbed truck. My ass is still sore.
When we finally arrived, I saw a sign proclaiming “Shwe Set Taw Wildlife Sanctuary.” Huh? I had assumed that this was going to be some sort of grand sacred golden pagoda. A wildlife park? Well, I learned more about the place quickly from Maw Hsi. Shwe Set Taw certainly is an official government wildlife sanctuary, but it’s also the site of a very sacred pagoda, hosting what are reputed to be a set of the Buddha’s footprints. Maw Hsi told me that the history of this site goes back nearly two thousand years! Many people from Bagan and around the region come to visit and spend the night, and with the confluence of two large streams it makes for a nice swimming hole too. But it’s only open about six months out of the year, most of the low-lying area become flood-prone during the rainy season.
I have to say that I wasn’t blown away by the visit to Shwe Set Taw; it was sort of a ho-hum destination from my perspective. A lot of traveling on bad roads just to go swimming and gaze at a set of footprints. Once was enough! But for Maw Hsi and the kids it was one of those possible once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimages that they can tell their family and friends about. And for their sake, I’m glad we went. Plus, the kids got to buy cheap, silly sunglasses and eat more junk food, so they were quite happy!
Hpone Thant (or “Harry”, as he’s called) has a nice write-up about Shwe Set Taw on his informative blog:
For those readers familiar with Ma Thanegi’s excellent travel book The Native Tourist, the publication of a new travelogue by the spirited Myanmar writer is good news indeed. The adventurous, irrepressible — and always hungry — traveler is back with another memorable adventure. In her new book, Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy, Ma Thanegi and her colorful supporting cast travel down Myanmar’s famous Ayeyarwaddy River, as well as into the lively villages and towns scattered on its shores. But Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy is much more than an account of a trip, it also gives the reader insights into Myanmar’s complex history, culture, and its diverse populace.
Myanmar gets more negative press than any other country in Southeast Asia, thanks in no small part to the brutal and inept ways of the ruling junta. Much of the criticism is certainly justified, but the one-dimensional focus on the junta’s horrible ways gets more than a bit tiresome. Based on what is “reported” by the international media, you would assume that everyone in the country is either a political prisoner, desperate to leave, or living in poverty. Yes, there are some political prisoners, there are some people who want to live elsewhere, and there are some pockets of poverty (as in any country in the world today), but that’s only part of the story. There are also large parts of the country where people are content, businesses thrive, and the junta does not terrify the populace. In other words, things are fairly normal.
Thus, it’s enlightening to read books like Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy that give the reader a different perspective of life in Myanmar. One of Ma Thanegi’s strengths is her ability to shed light on this “other” side of Myanmar, and especially how she gets the people she meets during her travels to open up and talk about their lives. Amidst the heartbreaks and hardships there is lots of love and laughter too. And parts of this book are very, very funny. Ma Thanegi is an extremely engaging writer with a perceptive eye for detail. Even if your travels are confined to the pages of this book, with Ma Thanegi to guide you, you’re in for a mesmerizing trip.
Defiled on the Ayeyarwaddy has been published in a paperback edition by Things Asian Press. It’s available online at Amazon.com and at Dasa Books in Bangkok. Also available is To Myanmar with Love, another excellent book of travel stories from Things Asian Press with contributions from a variety of writers, including Ma Thanegi.