We landed in Shan State before dusk and caught at taxi down to Inle Lake with a strange oversized Italian man in his late forties. We had acquired him, somehow, in the Heho domestic airport terminal, and he sat in the front seat emitting a strong twin scent of nicotine and mental fragility.
Gazing out the window I was struck by the ochre and maple-streaked fields passing by, the lime green fronds scattered on the messy fringes, the random blooms of electrified blood-red on top of dried branches with warm light filtering through like sparkling beer – by a sense of being somewhere very different, like watching a foreign film on a crackling projector. As a backdrop, the sun was quietly dropping behind an inky line of mountains. The faint remnants of cloud looked like stickers on a blue board, and the atmosphere was lit up a pale, diffuse gold-green which was reflected in cold triangles of water embedded in the rambling landscape like a fine, shiny lacquer.
I have lacquer on my mind after two days spent in Bagan, a string of 3 small towns in central Myanmar – Old Bagan, New Bagan and Nyaung Oo – known as a ‘mini Angkor Wat’ for its scattered concentration of Buddhist temples, stupas, wats and pagodas (still not sure what’s what), many of which date back to the 11th and 12th century.
It also has a lot of lacquerware. In Old Bagan, a temple hotspo), women sell lacquer-covered bamboo cardholders, pots and jewelry boxes as souvenirs outside the pagoda entrances and family-owned lacquerware businesses pop up on the roadside almost as much as the rust-coloured ruins.
I’m in Burma/Myanmar with a journalist friend, KG. We’ve known each other since preschool. With my trusty bundle of Burmese phrases and her forthright interviewing skills, we make a good travel team. The locals we encounter all seem very inclined to talk and have been providing rambling answers to our rambling questions, which KG has been recording on her digital SLR with the view to doing some radio stories when she gets back home. One hotel owner seemed to think we were VIP and drove us back to our guesthouse in the company car. It feels like we’re somehow already in the loop 9not that I’m sure what The Loop is, but I think we’re in it – woo!).
That being said, we are very much on the tourist trail, and it’s starting to become a tourist multi-laned highway. Unexpectedly, there’s WiFi everywhere, and being ‘on the grid’ with all our needs attended to, despite the rumors, invokes a sort of disappointing relief. In Bagan there are painted signs advertising fruit shakes, air-con, foot massages and Indian, Chinese and Western food sprouting up like capitalist weeds on the sides of the dust-covered streets, not to mention a ubiquitous supply of horse-drawn carts with leathery, bored-looking Burmese drivers and underwhelmed-looking flubby white people sitting unsteadily on top. It’s sort of charming, sort of naff. With things changing at an at an ever-increasing rate since the floodgates opened three years ago, I guess more and more tourist traps will be an inevitable side effect.
The sense of excitement at being in Burma at the moment – the last ‘Asian Frontier’ aside from North Korea – is mixed with a mounting anxiety that very soon it will be just like everywhere else in the globalized world. That you have to see it now, now, NOW – before it’s too late and the oversized digital Gucci billboards pop up and McDonald’s start pumping out the Happy Meals and there’s nowhere left to explore on earth without being part of a million-strong expedition of fellow chump tourists. Would-be travellers. It’s a disturbing thought.
But for the purposes of this 10-day trip, we’re embracing the tourist thing. We even sensibly picked up a photocopied version of Lonely Planet Myanmar in a Yangon street market, which KG refers to tenderly as ‘the LP’. The chapter on Inle Lake mentions a jumping cat monastery and a ‘hot spring with tofu’ but we’re consciously adopting a non-committal/skeptical attitude to these sorts of intriguing but suspect prescriptions. The plan for the next 2 days is to eschew FOMO, wandera round, interview some more locals about what they think of all the changes that are happening, rent cheap rickety bicycles with no brakes instead of those shiny motorized “e-bikes” by way of resisting modernity, and visit the lake.
Everyone says it’s breathtaking but I’ve learnt (the hard way) that in these situations it’s better to keep one’s expectations low.