“Play it!” the kid said, shoving a cheap acoustic guitar towards us. There were now about 60 people surrounding us on the beach, and they all hushed and looked at us expectantly. As Americans, surely we must be rock virtuosos. A little Freebird, anyone?
But unfortunately for our eager audience, we are not Lynyrd Skynyrd; there would be no coastal concert on this Burmese beach. “I’m sorry” we said lamely “…but we don’t know how.”
After finally convincing them that we didn’t know a D chord from a C chord, the villagers acquiesced. Eyes then followed us curiously as we pulled six bags of greasy chowmein out of our bicycle bags. That was, after all, why we were there — we had stopped in the village to buy food, and because we expected it would be a good spot to sit on the beach and eat lunch as we cycled up the coast. What we hadn’t expected was that half the village would join us.
Even though it was 50 miles south of Ngapali beach, a major tourist destination in Western Myanmar with four star resorts and day spas, the unnamed fishing village felt like a relic from a different era. Fishermen and their families lived in Bamboo-thatched huts built on stilts, and the two general stores in town doubled as the owner’s homes, as well as the centers of village social life. When we cycled the dirt paths meandering through ferns and palm trees to the beach, children and elderly peered at us from the shadows of their huts. It was a group of teenaged boys who first gathered the courage to approach the two, strange white men in spandex shorts sitting on their beach. Once the other villagers saw that we welcomed their company, we were surrounded in minutes.
Many were drawn towards our bikes – with their shiny gear clusters, electronic trip computers, and saddle bags. The boy with the acoustic guitar, an 18 year old who spoke some English and grew up on a nearby island, was especially interested in our gear. After inspecting our bikes, he proudly showed us some of his own prizes: a Samsung smart phone, a Honda scooter, and a belt buckle with detachable brass knuckles.
Others were simply amazed we were there, excited that we would visit their village. Their village! When they saw that we were eating our chowmein out of plastic bags, a group of women rushed to fetch ceramic bowls. Another man gifted us with more dried fish than we were able to carry, as well as two fresh coconuts which he cut up on the spot. It was wonderful.
If we were not the first foreigners to ever visit the village, we were among them. There was none of that jadedness which you experience in places overrun by tourists, which was telling, considering we were sitting on a tropical beach that could have served as the postcard of a five star resort. The village was its own isolated, self-sufficient world. People recognized the word “America” but when we mentioned Barack Obama, we drew blank stares.
Of course, things won’t remain that way for long. The village’s very interest in us reminded us that we, ourselves, are a big part of the changes occurring in Burma. Five years ago, few Westerners would cycle into a remote village on the Burmese coast. But based on our experience, and the increasing influx of tourists in Myanmar, it made us wonder, how long until the next foreigners come by? What ideas will they exchange?