Although I usually try to find something good about every place I visit keeping in mind that simply being there is a privilege in itself, there’s the odd time when I’m more likely looking forward to leaving than to exploring.
This is a story about such a place.
I boarded the rickety bus decorated with kitschy seat covers and braced myself for the 14-hour ride. At the time I set off from the port of Kawthuang, the sun was still caressing my skin but by the time I arrived at my journey’s end, the sky had turned to a midnight blue though it was well past that hour. I stepped off the bus feeling groggy with heavy eyelids just begging for sleep. The utterly empty streets were dimly-lit beckoning me, daring me, to follow their path to unravel their hidden traits. The jagged barks of the skinny, disheveled street dogs echoed through the misty dusk. The mishmash of decrepit British Colonial-Era buildings hinted at better days from a distant past.
I had arrived in Myeik – a small seaside town hanging like a tear drop in the Andaman Sea in the deep South of Myanmar.
But mysterious Myeik had to wait. After finding a decent (albeit expensive) place to finally get some sleep. I was awakened by the sun that was patiently waiting to clothe me in its warm rays. All that lingered in the darkness in the early morning of my arrival was now laid out before me like a canvas. From the roof top of my hotel, I could see the puzzle of rusty roofs and in the near distance the sun was glittering off the Andaman Sea like a thousand shiny diamonds. I keenly accepted this open invitation and headed straight to the port – one for which Myeik is known for.
Passersby bearing swarthy complexions glanced at me with curiosity, their timid eyes scanning the stranger before them, distinctly different in my appearance and attire. The uneven sidewalks were covered in cracks like rivers appearing on a map. Cars honked incessantly and motorbikes whizzed by leaving their marks on the dusty streets. This is why I travel – the craziness, the chaos, the unfamiliarity, the unexpected – but what came next was shocking to say the least.
I walked towards the port and was immediately enchanted by the rows of weather-worn wooden boats bopping lazily in the water but as I got closer, my brows contorted, my nose twitched intuitively signaling me to cover my mouth. A smell so vile, so gut-wrenching, so horrible – a concoction of rot, garbage and defecation – filled up the air. I can only describe it as the smell of death – thick and daunting hovering mercilessly over all of Myeik like the black veil of a widow.
And then I saw it.
The water, opaque and brown the color of feces, was at low tide revealing an overwhelming amount of garbage spread out and stretching out into the bay. What lay before me was disturbing, bewildering, disgusting. I cringed and gasped as I watched barefoot men carrying packages nearly twice their weight, women carefully pulling up their longyi to avoid soiling them and children ankle-deep in garbage completely oblivious to the imminent danger just below their feet. Each one trudging with apparent difficulty, their feet sinking into the slimy, grimy mud covered in a slither of oil.
I started to walk hastily in the opposite direction trying to escape the foul stench. And then I realized the stench was following me like a dark shadow; I was surrounded, completely immersed, imprisoned. It felt like I was fighting my way through a swarm of ghouls ravenously trying to swallow me up.
But the smell of death had a stronghold on me.
It was imbibed in my clothes, it settled comfortably in my hair, invaded my nostrils and penetrated my skin. It suddenly dawned on me that the whole town of Myeik soaked defenseless in this stench; its residents constantly breathed this toxic air every day. The stench showed no signs of discrimination; it discreetly seeped in their lungs and cunningly etched its way in their dreams while they slept. I can only assume (but hoped I was wrong) that the smell of death was but a foreshadow to an inevitable early death of their own.
The next day, feeling equally cowardly and relieved, I left Myeik along with its swarm of ghouls. I was one of the few fortunate ones who could literally pack up and leave never to return again. My heart ached for those who were constantly confronted by the ghouls and who had no choice but to stay perhaps out of survival – because why else would someone endure such an insanely unhealthy environment?
That evil stench is far away from me now but it managed to carve a place in my olfactory memories, determined to never, ever let me forget Myeik.
Read all about my travels in Myanmar
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Have you ever been to a place you wanted to leave as soon as you arrived?