Travels

Meeting with Soe Lay in Myanmar

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The reunion, 4 and a half years later

When I said goodbye to Soe Lay, a spring night of 2011, I thought I would never see him again.

For two afternoons and nights we had talked nonstop, after taking a bath in the opaque waters of the Irrawaddy River, which flows through the millenary Bagan. The city of 3000 pagodas It was the main central focus of the first Burmese empire and is, today, one of the most important tourist attractions in the country.

Soe Lay, a 27-year-old fisherman, wrote me an email address on paper that I would lose a week later. It was that of the restaurant that belonged to the person to whom he rented his fisherman's boat. He shared it with two other faeneros, serving him as the only means to support his family.

I regretted very much my eternal dismissal and I never forgot him. When, in 2013, a travelblog reader, whom I helped organize his trip through Myanmar, asked me if there was anything he could do for me to return the favor, I asked him to look for Soe Lay. I explained how to get to the place where we share those moments, right on the border between Old Bagan and New Bagan, where the river bathed the shore where the golden stupa of a modern pagoda rose to the heavens.

Upon his return, the kid told me that he had tried but could not find it. It was my last chance.

When I was proposed to guide a group of Spanish tourists in Myanmar this year, the image of Soe Lay appeared instantly in my mind. He knew that more than 4 years had passed and it would not be easy to find him in Bagan, a city that has suffered a tourist boom in recent years and the majority of the population tries to take advantage of this new source of employment and money inflow. However, a small illusion grew back in me.

The initial photo, in 2011

The trip was taking place during the first days of the month of August and, right on the equator, we arrived at Bagan. I enjoyed a couple of days touring this monumental place with the group and the afternoon was free. I proposed to see another face of Bagan, renting electric bicycles that allow you to enter independently through the network of dirt and green roads that lead to hundreds of anonymous pagodas where you can be alone with yourself, surrounded by history.

My group knew the story of Soe Lay and they encouraged me to go find him. I reluctantly agreed, since I knew I had very little chance of finding it. I asked our local guide to write on a business card “I'm looking for Soe Lay, a fisherman from New Bagan”And we started with our bicycles.

As I approached New Bagan, my pulse accelerated as memories struck me. Through the words of Soe Lay I got to know a little more the thoughts of some people repressed by a dictatorship disguised as democracy. I learned more about Myanmar in those two afternoons than the remaining 18 days I spent in the country. And the fisherman had won me with his kindness, simplicity and awake mind.

Absorbed in those thoughts I reached a crossroads that I recognized. I told the group to wait for me at the crossroads and I took the exit on the right. I began to recognize restaurants in the street and ended up right next to the large pagoda we saw when we bathed in the river. I remember telling Soe Lay that I didn't understand how much money was left to build something like that when the people starve to death.

Bagan, the city of 3000 pagodas

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