Ethel Blah Blah, the Burmese Blabbermouth

She cursed like a sailor, chain smoked cigars and loved to sing Elvis songs (there are a few videos of her singing Wooden Heart on YouTube) – Ethel was definitely not your typical tour guide.  We found Ethel on a busy street corner in Burma, or should I say, she found us!

Ethel smoking a much loved cigar

As soon as she heard us speaking English, she eagerly grabbed my arm and started to chatter incessantly – she didn’t call herself Ethel ‘blah blah’ for nothing. This little old lady could talk with the best of them. We were skeptical at first but after sharing a lunch of noodle soup she quickly won us over and convinced us to use her as a tour guide.  Hands down, she is the best character I’ve met throughout any of my travels.  Ethel has made it into magazines and many blog entries – if you Google her, you’re certain to find many results.

Our few days with her in Rangoon were a whirlwind and we had the opportunity to see some things I would have never thought possible, thanks to our chance encounter.  Our crazy few days included:

A monk’s birthday party – five of us, plus Ethel (don’t ask how we all fit), took a very decrepit taxi to one of the city’s many pagodas. Here we had the chance to meet her friend before taking a rowboat across the river. Having had to get government permission to take the city’s main ferry across the river (a mere 10 minute journey), this was obviously a spot they didn’t expect any tourists to visit. There were many monks milling about once we reached the other side and I’m sure they wondered what in the world we were doing there.  People had obviously been bussed in for this occasion, as this seemed to be a much revered monk.

Locals attending the Monk’s party

Afterwards we sat and chatted with Ethel’s friends, while they fixed our hair and put some traditional make-up, ‘thanaka,’ on us.

They insisted on brushing my hair and putting on some traditional make-up

Decked out in Thanaka

A visit to the maternity ward of the local hospital. One minute we were having tea at a roadside stall, the next we were being marched into the hospital so we could see the facility where Ethel had surgery a couple of years earlier. Somehow we ended up visiting the maternity ward – which was the last thing I’d ever expected my afternoon to entail.

Only moments earlier we’d decided to try betel nut – if you’ve ever travelled throughout Asia and noticed people with stained red mouths, this is what they’ve been chewing. You don’t want to swallow any of this and need to constantly spit out the gross red liquid. This is not a healthy habit to develop, but trying it seemed like a good idea at the time. Getting stuck in a hospital with a mouth full of the nasty red juice was awkward to say the least! Classy, I know.

Despite being unable to open my mouth, our brief visit to the hospital was something else. The maternity ward was one busy open room and we were met with warm smiles by the many families. I felt like a bit of an idiot since all I could do was nod and smile… I was extremely careful with what I ate and drank while here, as this is NOT a country where you want to end up in the hospital.

Betel nut preparation

An afternoon with Ethel’s granddaughters. We spent a few hours visiting with Ethel’s lovely teenage granddaughters. They spoke literally no English, but I really enjoyed my time with them. We went to the store and picked up pencils, notebooks (for the kids in Ethel’s neighbourhood) and of course ice cream for ourselves and the girls. It doesn’t matter what language you speak, or where you’re from, everyone loves ice cream (especially when it’s so hot out).  Upon her instruction Ethel’s granddaughter Rosie held my hand the entire way to the store. I guess this was to ensure I didn’t get lost, or wander in to the street!

With out new friends

A visit to Ethel’s home. On our last afternoon Ethel took us to see where she lived and to meet her neighbours. Ethel rented a bed in a home for $12 per month and no one should have to live like this. I don’t think there was even a toilet inside. Ethel took the notebooks and pencils we’d purchased and gave them out to the kids in the neighbourhood, who had gathered there after school to watch tv (this was the one tv for the entire neighbourhood).  It’s hard to imagine that something as simple as a new pencil is a luxury to many people.

Some new school supplies

I have no idea what has since happened to Ethel, or sadly even if she’s still alive. We exchanged emails for a brief period of time and I heard from Rosie’s teacher that the family was no longer able to send the girls to school. We sent a package of make-up and clothes, which unfortunately never made it to them.

If anyone has encountered Ethel on their recent travels to Burma, I would love to know.

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6 Comments on “Ethel Blah Blah, the Burmese Blabbermouth”

  1. scott sears Says:

    Awesome read as usual!


  2. Tom Stockwell (@waegook_tom) Says:

    What a great story. Hopefully she’s still alive and well, guiding more tourists around! Sounds like you had a great experience for sure – although kinda crazy that you needed a special permit for a 10 minute ferry ride! Oh, bureaucracy.


    • AdventuressAbroad Says:

      Thank you Tom – I hope you’re right! Meeting her was a major highlight of not just my time in Asia, but of all of my travels. Here’s hoping she’s showing some other backpackers around the city, talking their ears off.


  3. Denis Says:

    Nice to know she is still around and equal to herself!
    I also met her in Rangoon in 1994 (yes, that was back in the previous millenium), she toured me for nearly nothing, seeing things only the locals would know about. She unfortunately put me in a hotel whose owner was one of those generals from the government. That was a bit creepy to say the least.
    I think my memories are now more of her never ending talking than the few places she brought me to!
    As I didn’t have any pictures of her from that time, I really enjoyed your post. Now I feel nostalgic…


    • AdventuressAbroad Says:

      Hi Denis!

      It’s great connecting with you. I was thrilled to have read your comment about meeting Ethel many years ago.

      I visited Burma about three and a half years ago and it’s somewhere I’d love to return to. I can only imagine what it was like when you were there in 1994!

      Ethel really helped to shape my time in Burma and it sounds like your experience with her was quite similar (although I didn’t have the same creepy hotel experience)! I can still picture her singing Elvis songs and talking non-stop. And like you, it’s her chatter that I remember the most. She’s well connected these days, with both a Gmail and Facebook account!

      Thank you for taking the time to comment. It was very much appreciated.


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