Tribal Council: Can We Sleep Here or Not?

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Finding a place to sleep has been one of our biggest daily challenges on this stretch of the walk. In our Daily Nest post, we highlight a few of the places we slept during the last eight weeks. This is one night’s surprise.

It’s about 3 p.m., time for us to start thinking about where we will sleep. In Burma, this is never an easy task for the kind of trip we’re doing. We cross our fingers, ask the universe to  fix something up for us, and hope a dash of luck and a good amount of patience and preserverance  lead us somewhere safe.

We launch our digital maps and scan what lies ahead for the next handful of kilometers. Ah, look! A Buddhist monastery on the edge of what looks like a small town a short way up the road. Score!

In Thailand, we slept in a few temples, and used them as go-to options in villages that had no other type of accommodation. In Burma, sleeping in temples isn’t always a given. Monks can–and have–turned away visitors who do not have police permits to sleep at temples. But, other backpackers told us their stories of kind monks who put them up for the night, and we had occasiional good fortune, too, going this route.

A few nights before, for instance,  we walked into a temple and were greeted with open arms. The refuge came after a strange walking day that involved being escorted into a wedding feast by the groom, generously  offered plates of  delicious food, refusing to pay $45 for a room at the only guesthouse in town, and taking up an invitation to sleep in a family’s home, an offer that was revoked a couple hours later because someone told the police about the man who extended home-stay to us, something that is still illegal here, and we were asked to leave. Forced to walk on, the two head monks at this temple took us in. They were classy middle-aged men who carried themselves with grace and elegance; they were funny, thoughtful, compassionate and interested in how we were walking through the world. We had a great evening with them and the kids and teenagers who shared cookies, chips and watermelon with us. The night and those monks have woven themselves into one of my favorite memories of Burma.

With the memory of the happy temple stay fresh in our minds, we’ll see what Lady Luck has in store for us tonight.

We walk to the monastery, and immediately turn into a spectacle. A lady and a couple teenagers approach us with big smiles and surprised eyes. After a few basic hand gestures and a picture of a tent, they get that we want to sleep there for the night. They are eager to help us, like most people in this country. Hospitality is an inherent part of Burmese culture. They bring us to the head monk, the guy we need to get the okay from before we can put down our bags.

It starts off well. The monk, draped in a long, flowing maroon robe and probably a few years younger than us, laughs when he hears we walked from Myawaddy and that we plan to continue to the sacred temples in Bagan. He invites us inside the main sparsely decorated reception room, and invites us to tell him more about our trip. We sit in a semi-circle, legs crossed in meditation pose. A gentle-faced 15-year-old boy pulls out all the English he knows to help with the translation. Eventually, the monk takes out his phone. This is our most dreaded moment of the day: The phone call that determines our fate for the night.

“He calls the boss,” the boy tells us. We thought he was the boss, but maybe there is another head monk because maybe monasteries work differently than temples. Maybe he has to ring the police. We don’t know. So we do what we’re told. We wait, and continue smiling and explaining how we started in Bangkok and how much we like Burmese people, how lovely the countryside is, and how tasty Myanmar curry is. Everyone is smiling and laughing, including the monk who has started to lean sideways on the floor, his fat belly leaking out of his robe. He spits the red juice of chewed betel nut, the teeth-staining Asian equivalent of tobacco, into a silver bowl.

“The boss” shows up, drops to his knees and bows three times in front of the monk. “How can I help you, and where do you go?” the boss turns to ask us.

“We’d like to sleep here tonight. We walked all day and would like to pitch our mosquito net in a small corner of the monastery. We will leave tomorrow at 5 a.m. Is that ok?” we reply.

There’s more conversation, more smiling, more things getting lost in translation. The boss gets anxious, the teen doesn’t know how to translate everything, and the monk makes another call in-between betel nut spits, speaking loudly into the phone now in speaker mode.

“Wait. Boss coming.” The teen finally decides those are the only words that matter. Oh, another boss??? We keep smiling and explaining our walk, answering the “Where you go” question that keeps rolling off the tongue of nearly every Burmese person we meet. “Where you go?” seems more important than “Where are you from?,” the more natural first question we’re usually asked in many places in the world. We’ve learned, though, that many people here aren’t really interested in knowing our destination; rather, the implied question, wrapped politely around “Where you go?”often sounds like “Why are you here?” or “What are you doing in our village?”

A short while later, another guy wearing the traditional longyi skirt men wrap themselves with, enters the room. He, too, bows toward the monk, who now has taken on a “kiss-the-ring-king-of-the-fiedom'” kind of presence. The monk has fallen sideways, propped up on his elbow. He gives a chin nod to the woman who greeted us and with a wave of his hand, the woman jumps up to retrieve and clean the monk’s spit from the bowl. OMG! How did this happen? The monk has become Jabba the Hut from Star Wars, his eyes getting big and buggy. It’s weird. This whole thing is turning weird. A handful of men trickle in from the street, creating rows of spectators who want to watch the show unfold. More weirdness.

The second boss asks us, through the teenager, what we want to do, where we are going, what country we are from, and where we stayed the last few days. He asks for our passports and visas, which we have handy because sometimes there are checkpoints on the road and we need to show ID. The two bosses pull out their smartphones and take pictures of our visas and passports. One of them jots down our information in a torn and tattered lined notebook, the kind of notebook his school-aged child probably uses for homework. He doesn’t seem to understand or read English because he asks the teenager for help; the teen points out our names on the visa and repeats the letters.

“What kind of visa do you have and where did you get it?” the boss asks in broken English. Lluís leans over and shows him the letter T in the line marked “Type of Visa. “Tourist visa. We got it at the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok,” Lluís replies. We sigh softly. Ok, we are being manually added to some sort of official town “guestbook.” We suspect that the book has a very short list of foreign names since the second boss-man cannot even distinguish the writing on a visa provided by his government.

We keep smiling and answering the same questions. We sound like broken tapes stuck on replay mode. The two bosses keep examining our passports. We like to think they are admiring the stamps of other countries we have visited.

Finally, a new decision is made. The monk calls someone else, and the teen, also smiling, mutters his famous command: Wait.

Times passes, and we’re running out of things to say. Lluís makes small talk with one of the men hanging around the dimly lit room, which is growing darker as the afternoon drags on. He asks about the age of the baby the bystander is holding and tries to make the baby laugh. The monk remains spread out sideways on the floor, and the two other bosses are chit-chatting.

A guy with glasses enters in a hurry, does his bowing thing and then gets down to business. His English is the closest thing to perfect we have heard in weeks.

He runs through all the same questions we have answered three or four times already. This is getting dull, but we tell him the same story, with a smile, it’s a less enthusiastic smile, but still, it’s a smile. We congratulate him on his very good English. He tells us he lived in Singapore for five years working in the technology field and is now an English teacher offering private lessons in the area. We are impressed. He translates our predicament to everyone in the room. We notice that the woman and two teens who initially helped us have quietly  stepped out of the room.

“This is the mayor,” the translator tells us, pointing to the first boss. “This is the police chief,” he adds pointing to the second boss.

“Nice to meet you, and thank you for helping us,” we reply, smiling.

And, there it is. Surprise! A tribal council has convened between the religious, political and police leaders of this tiny town to decide where two oddball walking tourists will sleep tonight. We heard stories from other backpackers and cyclists about this kind of stuff, and knew we would probably have a similar experience sooner or later. Guess it will be today.

We know, too, from what we heard that we shouldn’t panic or worry much; people and police are nice and the situation won’t or shouldn’t escalate into something aggressive. Word on the street is that the police will simply tell us to take a bus to the next town with a designated tourist hotel. They will tell us this is for our safety and comfort. That’s exactly what happens. We’re told we cannot sleep in this monastery tonight and we have to go to the next biggish town.

Still smiling, we say, as politely as we can, no. We do not want to take a bus and stay in the next town tonight. We explain that we are walking the country, will reach the next town tomorrow afternoon, and we sleep there tomorrow night. We stress how important it is for us to walk, that it is a calling, a spiritual type of endeavor, for us to walk as much as possible. That it’s like walking meditation, something we hope the conservative Buddhist sitting around us can relate to.

“But this is Burma! It’s not set up for tourists like this!”

“But this is Burma! It’s not set up for tourists like this! This is a small town. There is no guesthouse. You cannot stay here. It is not allowed,” the English-speaker says, adding a bunch of hand gestures and head shaking to make his point. He’s flustered not by his lack of words, but rather by a system he knows doesn’t work. “The government will change on March 31, and maybe soon after that we will have a guest house. But, not today.”

Everyone agrees, shaking their heads, more in the way that says they don’t know what to do with us rather than insisting that we leave.

We notice the light is changing and the sun is dropping. For more than two hours we’ve been lost in this loop. We thought we would have already poured buckets of cold water over our heads to wash away today’s walking grime, and would be chatting with monks and people who hang out at temples.

“We don’t want to cause any problems for anyone. Really, it’s okay. We’ll take our passports and our bags and walk through the night to the next town,” Lluís suggests. We all know what we won’t say out loud. There’s no way after walking 30 kilometers today that we will walk 36 more to the next town at night. We look as exhausted as we are, and it’s pretty obvious that we will do the only thing we can do–find a place a few kilometers from town to hide and camp, another illegal option in a country with limited alternatives.

“Maybe we can sleep at the police station? That’s a safe place, right?” I toss out this half-baked idea. Everyone finds it funny, and laughs it off. “Not possible,” the police chief says, twisting his hand and wrist in the classic way Burmese convey “no,” “no have” and “not possible.” It’s the same motion we use to indicate “so-so.”

“You must go to the next town to sleep. Cheap accommodation there,” The English-speaker translates.

“No, we would like to sleep here. It’s not about the money. We want to walk, and if we go to the next town, we will take a bus tomorrow morning to this point so we can continue our route,” Lluís says. I chime in once in a while, but I’m in a room filled with men in a conservative Buddhist country so I choose to play demure, an impossible task for my outspoken character.

Another round of useless chattering about how nice Burma is kicks up. We become impatient. “We need to go. It’s getting dark. Can we sleep here or not?” Lluís asserts, drawing the line in the sand that says enough is enough.

The answer is the same. No we cannot stay, but they bend a bit. We will not have to pay for a bus; someone from the town will drive us an hour up the road to the next town.

It’s clear we will not win the negotiation tonight. Other nights we will have better luck in other towns with other monks and other police officers. But, now, because time is not on our side, we have to leave. It’s their country, their rules. We pulled out all our cards, smiled until our cheeks were sore and now have to accept that the system won’t change fast enough to help us today. We hope other backpackers will somehow benefit from our persistence and failed attempt to create a workaround. Lluís and I talk in Catalan sketching out our next steps; we don’t want them to know more than they need to know. The less they know, the easier our lives will be.

The group of men seem to sigh with relief when we say, “Ok, we go to the next town.” The tourist problem that walked into their town on a late Saturday afternoon has been resolved. We will go and be someone else’s concern, they won’t get in trouble for hosting us, and everyone, in their mind, will be happy because they have made sure the tourists are safe in a bed somewhere.

Happy is not our word. Disappointed, disillusioned, confused, exhausted and grudgingly resigned come to mind. We pick up our bags, force another smile to hide our frustration, and extend handshakes to the English-speaker and the two bosses, a gesture we do out of obligation not sincerity. We avoid eye contact with the monk. He has lost our respect and we feel betrayed.

I make excuses for the monk, the mayor and the police chief…it’s not them, it’s the system, it’s the change that coming but isn’t here yet, and they would help us more if the rules were different. Lluís rolls his eyes. He thinks all of them are jerks who enjoyed the power play.

The teen who helped us hours ago hops into car. He doesn’t say much, but I get a sense that he feels responsible for us, that he wants to make sure we have a safe place to stay. As the sun drops over the horizon and the sky turns pink, red, purple, he points out his high school, the hospital and the shiny gold pagoda. We talk about his school break and summer holidays.

It’s dark when we arrive at the guesthouse. Another round of negotiation begins, this time about the price of a dinghy room with a fan.

The room we were forced to stay in after tribal council.
The room we were forced to stay in after tribal council.


We are backpackers on a budget, and we do not want the expensive, fancy room with air conditioner, TV and an in-room bathroom guesthouses insist on selling us at three times the price of what we would pay in Thailand.

The unsmiling guy behind the desk yields, and hands us the key to a cheap, windowless room. It’s like a jail cell, tiny and less clean than I like. It’s the place we are sentenced tonight. It’s the roof over our head that will keep us safe until dawn. We drop into the bed ready to give into what luck brought us, but we are yanked away from sleep to, finally, shower off the day’s dust and disappointment.

Tomorrow, we will break the rules again and hitchhike down the road. We will walk, without our big backpacks, from the place where we were stopped to the guesthouse (the featured photo).

We will find our way forward. One way or another, we always do.

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