Last month while in Burma I spent a few days in the town of Meikhtila, in the center of the country between Naypyidaw and Mandalay. The bus from Taungoo was packed with people and chickens and bales of bamboo, and stopped every couple minutes to pick up more passengers. The distance was 150 miles but the trip took eight hours. I had called the day before to reserve a room at the main hotel but was told it was fully booked. I didn’t want to return to Rangoon or go on to Mandalay, so I went to Meikhtila anyway. Sure enough, plenty of rooms were available.
The bus dropped me off in the Muslim part of town near a large mosque, across from a teashop where a man was baking nan in a fiery clay oven. I took a motorcycle-taxi to the hotel, had dinner and walked around the neighborhood to get oriented my first night. After the bustle of Rangoon, the small-town atmosphere was welcoming. Shop owners relaxed outside on tree-lined streets, chatting with each other.
Aung San Suu Kyi and her former husband Michael Aris visited Meiktila on their honeymoon in 1972. It’s a pleasant town on a large lake. An English-style clock tower looms over the center of town. In my three days there, the only other foreigner I met was a middle-aged man from Russia who spoke to me in Spanish.
The next day I visited one of the mosques on the other side of the railway tracks near my hotel. It was Friday afternoon, the Muslim sabbath, and was filled with men attending early afternoon Namaz service. After prayers they met in the front hall to socialize. One of them offered me bananas. Down the street there was an Indian grocery store run by Sikhs who had immigrated to Burma after the British left. I couldn’t help but notice the brisk business they were doing with a diversity of customers—Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim.
I began my day at the Golden Rain Tea Shop, which was on a leafy street alongside three other large cafes. I noticed a brightly lit shop that turned out to be a beauty salon. It was graduation season and everywhere in Meikhtila exquisitely dressed young women were getting ready for their commencement ceremonies. Photo studios were doing a brisk business.
In one salon owned by a group of gay men from Mandalay, a bride had just had her hair styled and was waiting for the groom to arrive.
Later in the day I photographed young girls breaking rocks by hand and paving the road. This was the norm for most, who had to leave school after a few years to do manual labor or housework or sell vegetables at the market. It reminded me of how little things have changed in Burma for centuries.
One month after I left, the media reported that fighting erupted after an argument between a Buddhist couple and Muslim owners of a gold shop. After my experience in this peaceful town, the news reports about the fighting and killing and burning of homes is unbelievable to me. I had talked with dozens of residents of Meikhtila, both Buddhists and Muslims, and I never would have guessed such violence would erupt.
On my last day in Meikhtila, I waited for the night bus to Rangoon at the Asia World stop, at a shop house where an extended Muslim family lived. The bus from Mandalay was two hours late but the father invited me in and offered me grapes. He showed me the rows of family photographs that covered the walls. As I follow the news, I fear for him and all his family who treated a stranger with such kindness.
An eery thing that I noticed after the bus picked me up was that an elderly monk who was sitting in the front got angry and started banging his plastic water bottle on the seat. The man next to me said that the bus had broken down before and the monk was frustrated because of the delay. This scene was uncharacteristic for the Burmese, and particularly a Buddhist monk. Now I wonder if it foreshadowed the shocking events to come.
Geoffrey Hiller’s photographs have appeared in magazines in the USA, Europe and Japan. His web documentary Burma: Grace Under Pressure received awards from The Christian Science Monitor and USA Today, among others.