Why you should skip the temple tour and visit one of Myanmar's fortune tellers
In Burmese culture, Saturday is considered an unlucky day – for fires, hair washing, starting a journey, or simply being born, especially if you are a first child. At least that's the verdict of Kyaw Si Thu, the fortune-teller of Bagan. I'm sitting on the floor of the spirit man's house, legs and elbows folded like a grasshopper as I attempt to squeeze between a mountain of books and a green-eyed cat, while the guru hands down his litany of accusations.
"You eat the wrong foods," says my guide Me Me, interpreting for Si Thu, as they both lower their eyes to my western-sized waistline. "And too much of it."
Armed with little more than my birth details – day, date, month and year – Si Thu continues. "You will get many diseases," Me Me translates. "And hurt your leg in a motorcycle accident." And if that isn't enough, Si Thu predicts marriage troubles and "much fighting".
So I'm greedy, disease-ridden, accident-prone and heading for a divorce. All this because I got bored with the temple tour and asked Me Me to take me to a fortune teller instead.
With his shiny locks and baby-face, Si Thu is no ordinary fortune-teller, having studied under Minn Theinkha, the well-known Burmese writer, astrologer and former political prisoner. "He is very accurate and honest," says Me Me, doing her best to reassure me, but actually making things worse. Seriously, I would have preferred a crackpot. One who would have told me any number of nice things in exchange for a handful of kyat.
Turns out fortune-tellers are highly revered in Myanmar, consulted almost daily, for anything from naming a baby to which courses to study at university. And not just by laymen, but even by the government and military leaders. It is said the decision of General Ne Win in 1970 to switch (overnight) the traffic from driving on the left-hand side of the road to driving on the right was based on astrological advice (it's not until you've driven on the right-hand side of the road, in a vehicle with a steering wheel also on the right, that you realise the lunacy of his plan).
Ne Win didn't stop there, he consulted soothsayers in his decision to introduce 45-kyat and 90-kyat banknotes (since 2+7 equals lucky number 9), insisted on walking backwards over bridges and supposedly bathed in dolphin's blood, to ensure he lived until the "lucky" age of 90 (the rogue lived to 92).
Then there was Senior General Than Shwe, the former dictator who ordered the construction of a new capital at Naypyidaw, 320 kilometres north of the historic capital of Rangoon, on a precise date and time in 2005 based on the advice of his astrologer.
Perhaps the most surprising superstition is the belief that if a man comes in contact with a woman's underpants he will be robbed of power. This idea was used to advantage in the 2007 Panties for Peace campaign, where women from Burma and around the world posted their knickers to local Burmese embassies in a bid to defeat the regime and end its violation of human rights.
This strategy may have taken almost a decade to achieve its goal, but with the recent victory of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, I'd say that's a win. Which is more luck than I'm having with Mr Happy, who has moved his predictions on to my friends and family for his final blow.
"If a pregnant friend visits your house you must not let her stay the night," he warns. "And you will receive some information about a relative who is not well."
On that cheerful note he consults one of his ancient books, sliding it out of the pile like a Jenga block, before delivering his final verdict. "You can avoid many of these diseases and misfortunes," Me Me translates. "But only if you stop eating chickens and start eating cucumbers."
That's it? Cucumbers are my cure. By now nothing will surprise me. Not fortune-tellers, or briefs as weapons, or lucky days to be born. I know I'm already lucky, lucky to visit this topsy-turvy country, closed for so long, but now finally looking forward to its own bright future. But just to be safe, I think I'll stock up on cucumbers when I get home.