Saturday, 25 August 2012

Burma Diaries, Continued

But first, I owe you an explanation. 

It has been my goal since the beginning of the trip to try to post a blog update at least once a week. It has now been a week and a half since my last post, and for that, I apologize. You see, the problem with my first goal is that it is not always conducive to my second goal, which is to never let my documentation of the trip interfere with the adventure itself. For most of the trip those two goals have lived in harmony, but this past month or so has made it clear that a weekly post is not always possible. In a later blog post, I will explain why I was MIA for 10 days (hint: it involves a bungalow on a paradisaical undeveloped island with limited electricity and no internet), but please know that I appreciate your patience and your readership despite my sporadic posting schedule.  

When I left off, we had returned from a fantastically miserable nine-hour hike in the rain, half of the day spent lost and frustrated. We were relieved to finally return to our guesthouse in Hsipaw and nurse our sore legs and wounded pride with an indecent amount of beer.

Day 11: Rain, aching legs and a nasty stomach bug (my first since leaving South America) keep us on our guesthouse balcony the entire day: reading, chatting with the other backpackers we had met during our hike and generally letting ourselves relax. When I ask the adorable older lady who runs the hostel if she can recommend something to take for an upset stomach, she tells me, “Wait here.” She disappears and then returns two minutes later with a bowl of plain rice, a pot of Chinese tea and a dose of her own supply of natural medicine, which she will continue to share with me for the next two days. When I thank her, somewhat profusely, for her help, she replies with a shrug, “I like to take care of my children.”

Day 12: Overnight bus to Inle Lake. We board the bus and look for our seat numbers, which are all the way to the back. As we approach, we find our seats completely surrounded by luggage. There are not only suitcases blocking the aisle to our seats, but they are also piled up on the seats next to ours, creating a little enclosed fort where our seats are supposed to be. We are giggling about the whole thing until we realize that there are also suitcases piled up behind our seats, locking them into an upright position for the 13-hour overnight trip. We scramble over the suitcases in the aisle by using other people’s armrests as stepping stones and settle in to what we will from then on refer to as our “nest.”

In our nest.

Day 13: The bus pulls to a stop in the middle of the night and the lights go on. I check my watch: 3:30am. The bus isn’t supposed to arrive at Inle Lake until 5:30 and the people getting off the bus aren’t bringing their bags with them.

It’s our breakfast stop. At 3:30 in the morning.

I shake Vincent awake and, realizing that it is after midnight, wish him a happy 35th birthday. We celebrate by sharing a truck stop pork bun and some sleep deprived musings about how anyone, let alone most of the people on our bus, could possibly eat the fish curry that was being served at this ungodly hour.

After two more hours of fitful, pork bun-haunted sleep on the bus, we arrive in the town of Nyaungshwe on Inle Lake. We book a room at a hostel chosen at random from Lonely Planet and go back to bed until midday. To have some semblance of a birthday celebration for Vincent, we celebrate his milestone with dinner at Nyaungshwe’s nicest restaurant. The meal alone is more than our daily budget in Myanmar, but I guess 35 years of Vincent merits the cost.

Day 14: We take a boat tour of Inle Lake on a motorized longboat with two other people from our guesthouse. We luck out and are randomly paired with French siblings, a brother visiting his sister who lives in Yangon and speaks Burmese. First stop, a village market, where we have coffee with a local family while our boat-mate translates. It is a unique opportunity to be able to talk to these people, who don’t speak any English and therefore don’t often get to talk to foreigners.  

On the way back to the boat, we pass some of the merchants loading their goods into their sampans, or little elongated canoes. We stop to watch and Vincent decides to offer to help, communicating by miming instead of words. Within five minutes, he and a villager are carrying heavy loads on a bamboo pole back and forth between the market and the boats as the locals stop what they are doing and start pointing and laughing. They are getting a kick out of us helping them and are wonderfully appreciative of our effort to interact with them in a more meaningful way instead of just taking pictures of their difficult work. When we finally board our own boat and pull away, we get applause and enthusiastic waves from the villagers.

The rest of the day is similarly interesting and engaging. We pass “floating villages,” built on stilts above the lake. Each house has a sampan, or flat-bottomed wooden boat, tied to a dock on the water for transportation, while some homes even have floating gardens full of tomatoes or enclosures for pigs perched over the water. It’s hard to imagine a lifestyle in which one needs to take a boat to visit the neighbors. 

We also visit a small shop on the lake where village women hand roll cigars called cheroots filled with a mix of light tobacco, spices, fruit like banana and coconut, and various other flavorings. We sit and chat with the women, who laugh and gossip and sing as they work, and we try the cigars. They are light and flavorful and even I, a die-hard non-smoker, am hooked.                

Day 15: There are certain days while backpacking that we do absolutely nothing. Today is one of those days.

Day 16: We leave early in the morning for a three day, two night trek in the mountains around the lake. It’s just the two of us with our guide, who we call Dante although I’m not entirely sure that’s his name. The first day is only a five hour hike. The air cools considerably as we gain elevation and we pass through idyllic country scenes: bamboo houses, waving children, extensive tea plantations and mango groves, lush green farm land flanked by banana trees. Water buffalo lounge in giant mud puddles. Oxen pull plows through rich brown soil as a peasant in a conical hat looks on. 

For lunch we stop in a tiny village and are welcomed into a home belonging to some of Dante’s friends. The house is a standard two-room bamboo structure, elevated onto stilts with a sort of dirt-floored basement underneath. We eat in one room while Dante, our cook and the host family eat in the kitchen room. Burmese tradition dictates that guests eat before the hosts, so although we feel a little awkward eating by ourselves, we follow the custom. A pack of local children crowd in the doorway to watch us while we eat, whispering "calapiu", or "white Indian" in their tribal language. 

After lunch we hike a couple more hours, passing a village primary school as we go up. We stop at the school and peek in on the children in the open classroom. Our presence is soon detected and chaos ensues: the disciplined calm is abandoned as the students wave to us, laughing and showing us their homework. One of the classes is learning English, so the teacher asks me to lead the class in the lesson. I read simple phrases off the chalk board and the class repeats after me. The kids are too excited to have an English speaking teacher to actually pay attention to what they are reciting, so my echo is just a sloppy mix of sounds meant to sound like English words. It’s really quite adorable.

We arrive at our overnight stop: a Buddhist monastery tucked away on a wooded hill in the mountains. It’s a small operation, only two young monks and four tiny novice monks taught by one head monk, a venerable man of 65 with a mouth full of betel, a bald head and spectacularly sporadic facial hair growth. The monk speaks little English- and even when he does his mouth is so packed with betel nut that he is incomprehensible- but he adores tourists and dotes over us like a grandmother.  When we first arrive, he is using a machete to cut thick stalks of bamboo. Within fifteen minutes, he has constructed a little bamboo bench for us to sit on. Admittedly, it isn’t the most comfortable place to sit, but we make sure to spend a lot of time on the bench, and exclaim to each other how comfortable it is in loud voices every time the monk passes by.

One of the younger monks teaching the novices the Buddhist chants
Don't be fooled by his betel-filled frown- that monk loved us

Just as we are feeling that we are in the most relaxing, spiritual place in the world, Dante calls me to come into the shack that serves as a kitchen and try their rice liquor. I am enjoying the sake-like drink when I spot something I never expected to find in a monastery: there, hanging upside down on the wall from a rusted nail is a massive bouquet of the most famous five-leaf plant in the world. While often called an “herb,” it’s not something you expect to find in the kitchen, especially a kitchen in such a spiritual place.

“Wait, is that…?”

Dante nods, grinning over his glass.

“Does the monk…?”

“No, but he knows we do and he doesn’t care.”

That evening our cook, imaginatively called “Mr. Cook” by our guide, makes us a massive feast of delicious Burmese food, which is accompanied by rice liquor, whiskey and what Dante refers to as “happy smokes.” We are a little hesitant to take part in the more hedonistic parts of the meal out of respect for the ever-present head monk, however he doesn’t seem to mind and simply sits there, chewing his betel and watching us with mischievous smiling eyes. In the end, the novelty of indulging in morally questionable activities at a monastery wins out over our intentions to be respectable, upstanding adults.

Maturity has never been our strong suit.

Our gut-busting trekking dinner, courtesy of Mr. Cook
The monk made me a turban in the fashion of the local tribal women. It goes perfectly with my happy smokes.

Day 17: In theory, the second day of our trek would see us walking 6-8 hours through remote hill tribe villages, one of which would house us in a home stay for the night. Instead, we wake up to pouring rain, while our guide and cook wake up to crippling hangovers: it’s not going to be a very productive trekking day.

To Dante and Mr. Cook’s credit, they both woke up far earlier than us and have a gorgeous breakfast laid out on the table by the time we shuffle into the common room. That day, we try to hike, but the rain has turned the paths into muddy, slippery death traps, so the going is slow and arduous. Taking things from a glacial crawl to a veritable standstill is that in each village we pass, we find some of Dante’s friends urging us to come in out of the rain and join them for a snack and a tea. We quickly learn that “tea” is code for “rice liquor” and that it is considered quite rude to turn down the offer, even if it is 9:30 am and we’ve only been walking for 30 minutes.

After only a couple hours of walking (and many more sitting in village huts drinking rice liquor), we decide to call it a day and head back to the monastery for the night. There is a full moon celebration- an important Buddhist custom- at the monastery and around 30 villagers have descended on the building to be led in meditation by the monk. It is fascinating to watch how the villagers flock to show their respects to the monk, the same one we smoked and drank in front of the night before. They bring food and gifts to offer the monk and it is obvious that they regard him as something between a father and a demi-god.

At one point in the evening, a sloppily drunk villager joins our dinner table and tries to talk to us, slurring in his tribal tongue. The monk is not impressed: apparently it is ok for the tourists and their guides to indulge in his presence, but the same does not go for the locals. The monk stands up in front of the man and shakes his finger at him, speaking calmly but tersely and making it clear to everyone in the room that he is displeased with the man’s behavior. He doesn’t even have to raise his voice but the effect is immediate: the villager cowers, shoulders hunched and head down, like a dog being scolded for doing his business on the carpet. The scene is uncomfortable yet telling: in how many cultures does one man have such unquestioned, unchallenged respect from another?

Day 18: Our hike back to Nyaungshwe is long, but relatively easy and we arrive unscathed back to our guesthouse. We’ve had a sufficient amount of Burmese culture in the past few days, so we feel justified as we indulge in huge plates of pasta for dinner.

Day 19: After three days of trekking, I decide to splurge and get a Burmese massage. And by splurge I mean I spend six dollars. 

My masseuse even comes to my hotel room and spends the next hour pummeling me into euphoric oblivion in my own bed. It is slightly less painful than my Thai massage, despite the fact that the little woman is all but using my back as a trampoline. At one point, she stands on my butt and does what feels like an enthusiastic tap dance routine, but all I can do is sigh happily and wonder if life could get any better than this.

Day 20 & 21: We take an overnight bus back to Yangon, which, while uncomfortable, is largely uneventful. Our last day in Burma is spent avoiding Yangon’s oppressive, interminable rain by spending hour after hour in tea houses. We go back to our hostel around 4:00pm to find that there is a neighborhood-wide power outage. I surrender to circumstance and go to bed, sleeping through the night until we wake up for our flight back to Bangkok the next morning.

Our three weeks in Myanmar were some of the most interesting and eye-opening we have had since the beginning of our trip. Myanmar is not a comfortable or easy place to travel on a budget: it still wants for the basic infrastructure necessary for tourism on a large scale. To a visitor, however, this simplicity and perceived naiveté are what make it unique. As I’ve written previously, Myanmar is on the edge of a precipitous movement to modernize and change. Once it does, it will no doubt become a top tourist destination: Bagan will be like Angkor, Inle Lake like Lake Titicaca, the Western beaches like Thailand’s southern islands. The Burmese will see more tourist dollars, which will allow them to catch up technologically and economically to the rest of the world. Women will wear make-up instead of tanaka while men will don trousers in the place of their longyis. Who knows, maybe people will even stop chewing betel as they become more aware of its health risks.

These changes will no doubt benefit the Burmese population and allow them to become citizens of the world, rather than live in an isolated society cut off from other cultural influences. People who have never left the villages they were born in will be able to afford to leave the country. People who have lived their entire lives without electricity will be introduced to the internet. Life expectancies will increase, infant mortality will plummet.

Progress is a good thing, right?

But I’m selfish. I don’t want Myanmar to change.

I want to go back in five or ten years and still see children run to the windows of their homes to wave at us and yell, “Hallo!” or shyly hide behind their mothers’ legs and stare at us in the streets.  I want village leaders to still welcome foreigners into their humble bamboo shacks and thank them for coming to their country, offering their guests tea and cake that they themselves can hardly afford. I want old and young alike to still crowd around the view screen of my camera and gasp in delight at pictures of the temples in Bagan, a sight that they have never seen despite living within a day’s travel from it. I want toothless elderly women to clap their hands together in laughter as they echo the phrase the white girl in traditional tribal dress has taught them: “Sank yew.”

The white girl wants to say so much more to these people, who have showed her such warmth, such kindness, such sincere hospitality, but her lack of Burmese vocabulary keeps her from expressing her gratitude any other way.

So she only repeats, over and over again, the words, “Thank you.”


  1. Thoroughly enjoyed your post - as usual it is filled with "you" - your humor, warmth, compassion, love, and your delight in the world around you.

    1. Thanks Kate! That makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. :)

  2. Hi! My wife and I have been following your blog for some time now (as we are on our own adventure) and love it. We don't comment often, but wanted to say that these Burma posts are some of your best. The place sounds amazing and you really seemed to give it its due with all the time you spent, places you visited, and people you met. It's hard to find a place where the people are interested in the tourists as much as the tourists are interested in the people, but you seem to have done it. Great pictures too!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Jason! Glad you guys are reading and I hope your trip is a blast! Enjoy every minute.

  3. Sank Yew Elissa

    Shooot I started to write in English but it is too complicated to express what i want to say so I turn into French.

    Il est évident que tes posts évoluent au fur et a mesure, ce qui est incroyable c'est que c'est une réelle évolution pas un progrès, pas une régression mais une réelle évolution.
    J'ai l'impression qu'on plus vous avance au plus votre regard se porte sur les gens, vos contacts sont plus profonds et intense. Au debut ton blog etait plus un blog de randonneur-voyageur-aventurier et maintenant je retrouve beaucoup plus d'emotion profonde, en tout cas je suis tres emue (et tres amusee aussi) par tes derniers posts.

    Par contre il y a des constantes :
    * A chaque fois le plus bel endroit que tu as vu depuis le début : ce qui fait plaisir car cela veut dire que tu es toujours aussi enthousiaste et excite par votre voyage, tu n'es pas blasée.

    * Tu nous fais partager tes découvertes avec toujours autant d'humour et de talent d’écriture. J'ai bien aime ton passage ou tu glorifies la modernité qui arrive en Birmanie , j'etais mitige je me disais "oh comment peut-elle dire ca, mais c vrai que peut etre ce serait bien pour eux" et j'ai ete rassuree par "But I’m selfish..." This was brillant.