Sacrifice, Friendship and Love: Valentine’s in Yangon

“True love is nothing more than the inevitable desire to help the other to be who he is”

– Antoine de Saint-Exupery

It being the festival of love, it’s our poetic duty at LoveLifeGoTravel to chuck our explorer hats in the ring with a tale of travel, life and love. I’ve been dying to find a context from which to share this story, and when a quick google revealed that Valentine’s day is closely linked with “martyrologies,” the ultimate act of sacrifice, I knew I’d found it.

Downtown Yangon

Yangon, Myanmar.

As so often happens on the road, I was gifted this story in a local Burmese bar – the shabby but characterful type in which worn beer advertisements are plastered and working men wheeze with a laughter that casts an inviting radiance out onto the street. I was sat on a small table outside with a beer and a paperback when two guys asked to join me. Glad for the company, and hoping we could talk in English, I folded my paperback and offered them cigarettes.

I learned they were both involved in the tourism industry and they learned that this was my second trip to Burma – one of my favourite places in the world. After a few more beers and some whiskey, Nyein Moe, the older and more confident of the pair, leaned forward in his chair and with a twinkle in his eye, he told me the story of how he came to learn English.

“When I was young, I lived 12 miles outside Yangon. I walked every day to the city to work. Twelve miles when it was still dark in the morning, and twelve miles at night.”

“One day, I had no work and I was sitting here, in this bar. On this day I met a foreigner.”

It was a Dutchman who’d just landed in Yangon for a 15-day holiday in Burma. He didn’t have a guide book or an itinerary, and he began asking Nyein Moe about Yangon.

“I was very nervous” Moe laughed, explaining that at this point in his life he only spoke a basic level of English learned from school. The Dutchman bought Moe a beer and that evening by candlelight they became friends using what scraps of shared language they had at their disposal.

Smiling, Moe opened his palms on the table and said “he asked me to be his guide.”

Moe walked back to his village and the next day walked into Yangon and sat at the bar waiting for his new friend. They spent the day walking Yangon’s busy streets, and returned to the bar at night where the Dutchman insisted Moe take some dollars, and said he wanted to meet Moe the next day.

The next day it was the the Dutchman that led Moe to a cafe by the busiest tourist street in the city, bought a pot of tea and patiently encouraged Moe to talk to other tourists.

“I was so scared” Moe chuckled “he waited for foreigners to walk past, then he’d push me and say ‘look, she looks Swedish, ask her if she’s Swedish’”

After a few refusals and stuttering failures, Moe managed to strike up conversations with passing tourists, under the benevolent gaze of this holidaying Dutchman. After every conversation Moe would sidle back to the table and they’d discuss Moe’s strategy.

This continued all day and into the night.

Hostel Walls: Advertising Space

The next morning they sat at the same cafe with a pot of tea, and once again the Dutchman was full of encouragement, and with each conversation Moe was getting more confident.

Amazingly, this pattern repeated itself for 12 days. For 12 days the pair worked on Moe’s English and most of all his confidence: something he emphasised to me that he was lacking.

On the 12th day, Moe was asked by an American couple to guide them around Yangon. I can only imagine the smile that passed between the Dutchman and Moe as he led them off into the vibrant streets of the city.

Moe earned $20 that day – 2 months salary. The Dutchman waited around and they celebrated with a beer in the bar we were currently sat at.

The Dutchman stayed with Moe for the final three days of his holiday. He didn’t leave Yangon, and spent virtually all of his time helping Moe. He flew home having seen barely any of what sights Burma has to offer. From what I can make of it, Moe was the first person he spoke to, and he happily sacrificed his whole holiday to set Moe up as a city guide.

What most touched me most about this story was the complete anonymity of this helpful tourist. It wasn’t easy or cheap to travel to Burma a decade or two ago. The way this Dutchman chose to spend his time in Burma is truly heartwarming; the simple way with which this story was presented to me, the warmth in the voice of Moe as he told it, showed a deep debt of affection between the pair. I am in complete admiration of this completely selfless way of travelling.

Moe now heads one of the main tour operators in Burma. He and the Dutchman are soon to meet again in Yangon, many years after their 15-day encounter, after Moe managed to sign up for email and contacted the Dutchman on an address he’d kept in his wallet all those years.

I couldn’t help but wish I could stay in Burma to see the renewal of this loving, dedicated and life-changing friendship.

Happy Valentine’s day!


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