It was only moments after our flight touched down that a simple conversation with a cab driver in Yangon set our heads spinning as we tried to grasp the concept of Myanmar’s once oppressive military rule and the political games allegedly still being played as the country struggles to reintegrate with economic leaders in the international community.
Still, with allegations of continued oppression and government corruption, we made it our mission to avoid the travel pitfalls associated with Myanmar luxury resorts and airlines run by government cronies. Unfortunately, the ailing country’s tourist infrastructure leaves travelers with little options, so we boarded a government owned airline and set forth to Myanmar’s rural Inle Lake region.
We found ourselves in a shell of an airport, the dark, thick concrete walls unwelcoming. Stranded by the late arrival of our driver, we were rendered helpless and left to argue with a slick but kind man whose face could not hide the lie he was telling. “I’m your driver,” he said innocently. “From the hotel?” we questioned skeptically of the man who seemed to have no clue who we were or where we were going. It was our only dishonest encounter in all of Myanmar.
Eventually, a driver from our hotel arrived, apologizing profusely for a flat tire on his old, well-kept stately sedan, still it was hard to hide the four bald tires, a sign money wasn’t spent where it wasn’t absolutely necessary even at luxury resorts in the struggling country.
The dated Mercedes darted along a thin narrow roadway, the pavement often giving way to the dry dirt below, and passed aged, well-worn ox carts piled high with produce and people. It was as if we had entered a time warp. Vehicles were only used by the wealthy, and even those were antiquated compared to modern cars and trucks, and contemporary machinery, buildings and infrastructure are relatively nonexistent.
Dozens of Burmese flanked the narrow roadway, each and every one dressed in the traditional longyi, a lengthy and patterned fabric skirt, and the women’s faces hidden beneath pale yellow thanaka, a powder turned cream-like substance made from tree bark. Children, who in the US would find themselves entranced by video games, computers and tablets, instead played alongside the roadway or worked alongside their family members in the fields.
Two hours later, we entered the back gate of what would prove to be a beautiful Burmese resort complex perched on the banks of Inle Lake. The beautifully detailed, carved black wood bungalows rose from the thick greenery surrounding the property.
After we settled in, we pulled up a seat beneath beautiful, individual pergolas lining the calm, dark waters of Inle Lake. As we sat soaking in the sinking sun, we watched as three young boys clamored about a narrow wooden boat beneath a clapboard home raised from the water by narrow, rotting stilts. It was only a picturesque glimpse of what was to come.
We awoke the next the morning to find a long, thick wooden boat awaiting our arrival at the hotel dock. Our boatsman, who didn’t speak a word of English, smiled kindly as the hotel staff directed him where to take us and what time we needed to return. The car engine perched atop the rear of the boat roared to a start and the thick wood cut through the calm, open waters of Inle Lake.
The dark waters, broken only by the silhouettes of Inle Lake’s famous leg-rowing fishermen, reached toward the gentle rolling mountains on the horizon. Our boat motored alongside men bobbing and balancing on the back of their small wooden boats, their legs wrapped around a long oar stretched along their side and pivoted deep into their armpits. It’s an art developed out of necessity and simply perfected over time.
Our curiosity to know more about the antiquated, yet perfectly fitting and effective means of fishing held our attention, and it seemed like only minutes before our boat once again docked, this time in front of a stilted, worn, wooden shack, the exposed floorboards and siding slowly rotting away.
Here, several Padaung or Long-Necked women sat, as if on display solely for tourists. But something wasn’t right. We were the only tourists. We made our way through a maze of old tables filled with dusty, cracked and worn wooden Buddha figurines, pottery, jewelry and other souvenirs.
“This can’t be the floating market,” I thought to myself worried we were embarking on nothing more than a tour of Inle’s commission shops. I carried around the small glass of hot tea thrust into our hands upon entering the shop as I looked for the perfect opportunity to pour it out without being caught.
It didn’t take long before we found a backdoor and stepped out beneath the cloudy, overcast sky into a row of tables sparsely occupied by Burmese women selling more trinkets. However, it wasn’t the tourist crafts that caught our eye – it was the authentic, local market bustling in a nearby dirt patch tucked into the thick water-lined growth.
Sensory overload ensued as we worked our way ever closer to the heart of the market. Here, dozens of ethnic Burmese men and women sat behind piles of fresh peppers, beans and potatoes, their faces covered in thanaka and their legs shrouded by longyis.
The chatter between buyers and sellers and friends and family nearly drowned out the sound of sizzling vegetables in a deep fryer boiling over an open flame. Nearby two young monks stared intently at what seemed to be an old movie poster plastered to the wall of a run down building. It was astonishing. There we stood, almost motionless, surrounded by cultural traditions and practices that have transcended time.
They seemed unaware or at least unbothered by Dan and I, each donning our high-tech outdoor jackets and pants, toting our camera, lenses and equipment. While those in Myanmar recognize the power of tourism and are slowly beginning integration into a modern world previously deprived to them by government leaders, the Burmese have not adapted to the evil pitfalls of the influx of outside money…yet. No one asks for money for photos, their bargaining and prices are reasonably in line with the country’s standards and their honesty and kindness are reflected in much of what they do. Aside from a once violent and oppressive ruling regime, those left out of the highest corrupt circles of leadership have truly created and maintained a welcoming, earnest society. Unfortunately, much of the country is still plagued by poverty and a lack of basic community infrastructure including health care and advanced education.
Here, standing in this elemental setting, I found myself caught between being charmed by their seemingly primitive lifestyle and outraged by the country’s allowance of a dictatorial regime that thrusted people in poverty and removed opportunity for personal, social and economic advancement.
Still, it seems the curiosity, charm and sense of remoteness won me over. I was enamored with the market, the people and the place. Dan all but had to tear me away from the crowded market, and just as he did boats full of organized tour groups, once the only way to travel through Myanmar, made their way into the vibrant, exotic market.
We didn’t return to the boat and instead found ourselves balancing upon two thin bamboo poles covered with loose slats of worn wood to cross a muddy waterway to explore a nearby swath of white and gold temples reaching toward the dark sky. We found ourselves surrounded by silence, and reveled in the opportunity to reflect on the remoteness of our travel; yes, we were in Myanmar, a mysterious place we never envisioned exploring much less enjoying.
As we sat, an old man, his body bent toward the ground with age, slowly made his way through the maze of beautiful temples and carefully began selecting the delicate, colorful buds of flowers growing alongside the waterway to take as offerings to the large, dilapidated figures of Buddha resting inside each temple.
This time, I pulled Dan from this picturesque, serene sanctuary and back into the boat, which we realized was quickly becoming our vehicle to discovering the alien countryside.
It was then we realized the tourist pitfalls could in fact NOT be avoided, even in Myanmar. We were shuttled to silver shops and weaving centers all hungry for business and designed solely for tourist benefit. We shuffled our way through silver workshops and weaving center, each interesting in their own right, but still a tourist-centered business. We watched as women sliced lotus stems, taking the stringy, silky fibers found within and rolling them into thread.
The women then found their place behind large, old, wooden looms to weave the thread into a beautiful masterpiece whether it be a beautiful longyi or a magnificent scarf – it was surely something worth witnessing.
Unfortunately, the last stop proved to be an experience I would rather soon forget, but one that we now look back upon and laugh. Our boat glided gracefully up to the docks of a beautiful, sprawling Burmese building – the cat house. Our driver nodded toward the wooden walkway leading to an entrance and smiled as a young woman made her way out to greet us. “Would you like lunch?” she questioned innocently; or, are you just here to see the cats. “The cats?” we said with hesitation in our voices. Our confusion seemed to be missed by our host who led us straight to a large cage crawling with sleek and slender Burmese cats.
The sound of the metal door closing and locking behind us was my worst nightmare. I panicked as the woman walked away leaving us alone with dozens of skittish, unpredictable cats. Dan bent over and picked a small bright green ball lying near his feet and rolled it across the cage causing a stampede. “So, we’re just supposed to play with them,” I asked aloud as the cats scurried after the ball. “I guess,” Dan said as he reached for a thin rope and dangled it into the air. I snapped a few photos before I headed toward my salvation – the door.
The rather bizarre experience was not the way I had imagined ending our time on Inle Lake nor was the food poisoning that set in for Dan as our boat headed back to the hotel. To be honest, in our ten years together, I’ve never seen Dan so sick, and he endured not only the boat ride back to the hotel, but a two hour car ride back to the airstrip we arrived at and another two hour prop-plane flight to the high, dry desert-like plains of Bagan.