“Want to see the long-necks?” On the tourist trail Part 2

KG has no appetite but is feeling a bit better so this afternoon we ventured down to the jetty with a stray backpacker and booked a half-day tour of Inle Lake. We were plonked down in a long-tail boat with a small but vocal motor, which spluttered single-file down a streaming waterway lined with sugar canes, green reeds and wilting banana palms.

After 30 minutes the waterway widened out into the main body of the lake, a blue surface dotted with stick-figures of the Intha leg-rowing fishermen balanced upright on the backs of their boats man-handling those large webbed baskets. Tired, reluctant mountains sat in the background like low-lying blocks of muddy, uncut sapphire. Other boats and bright clumps of weed passed by. The thin air, strong light and dusky, plethoric faces reminded me of Lake Titicaca.

Like a scene from 'Jaws'. But who's the shark?

Like a scene from ‘Jaws’. But who’s the shark?

First stop was a floating market. Inle Lake is typically listed as one of Burma’s ‘Top 5’ attractions and Wikitravel had warned us that the standard itinerary involves being taken to a relentless series of workshops and shops-on-stilts selling products like woven fabrics, silverware, tobacco and handmade cheroots, all set up exclusively for tourists. Time Travel Turtle advised (on his blog), ‘Just be prepared to feel like you’re on a Disneyland ride, gliding along with a camera and no control.’

Our boat driver, like the hawkers in town, kept reminding us we could go and “see the long-necks” if we wanted. It’s a jarring concept. Inside some of the dimly lit souvenir shops, a handful of Padaung women are sitting around waiting to be… viewed? Or photographed, or to sell something? I’m still not really sure. Aside from intuitive shame, I was vaguely aware of some of the ethical quandaries involved in this sort of spectacle (to see or not to see, etc.). There are active (annoying) debates on TripAdvisor about whether it’s ok to take photos or not. There’s also the question of whether it’s ‘real’.

The Padaung[1], from the Kayan Kahwi ethnic group of Eastern Burma, are widely known around the world for their tradition of women (sometimes called “giraffe women”, hmn) wearing heavy brass coils around their neck, typically from around the age of 5. As they grow, more rings get added year by year. This compresses the collarbone and ribcage, eventually leading to the appearance of an elongated neck. Someone told us they’re not from Inle Lake but are brought in from other areas of Shan State by business owners as bait for curious, cashed-up tourists. It’s even been alleged that the rings are fake – that it’s now only the elderly members of the tribe who practice the custom[2] and the younger girls take them off at the end of a shift before heading home.

I wonder what it’s like to effectively sell a part of your identity (your ‘self’) and try to make an income from your family traditions, your literal image, your depressed clavicles? What’s it like to be an object of “the tourist gaze” ? Real or not, the blatant commodification of ethnic identity raises strange and disquieting questions. Are the Padaung women and girls wearing the rings just to cater to the voyeuristic demands of affluent tourists on an ironic quest for spoon-fed authenticity? And what would they be doing otherwise, besides weaving?

I wandered in, past a middle-aged woman and two teenagers serving weak green tea at the entrance. They were all wearing the rings. A brief look – their necks appeared to be longer. Feeling self-conscious (the height of narcissism?), I went over to a collection of carved wooden statues, jewelry and discardable trinkets spread out on some large tables, picked up a jade bracelet, a flimsy pair of silver earrings, then put them down again. My hand gravitated towards my wallet like an trigger finger but I couldn’t concentrate because of all the shop assistants hovering around with their soft, imploring smiles. When I asked how much something was in Burmese, one raised her voice and started calling me ‘sister’ (as in ‘sister, buy this one!’). It was awkward and a bit depressing.

Outside I walked into a flashbulb of sunshine. An elderly woman with no teeth sidled up to our boat and tried to sell me a soggy bunch of reeds for 100 kyats, with eventual success.

I’ve come to realize that the touristic encounter is almost always dissatisfying, for the tourist at least. And the Padaung women aside (uh oh more narcissism..), what about my identity, my mode of being-in-the-world?? I don’t want it to be reduced down to ritual acts of consumption. It feels somehow demeaning to both parties. Even though I don’t mind watching money flow heavily across 1st/3rd world membranes, it’s no fun to be treated like a walking – or floating – ATM.

In the end we convinced our reluctant driver to bypass the other floating shops and take us to a floating village instead.[3] I spose the idea was to see local residents going about their everyday lives – hanging out the washing, tending to their water-gardens, taking a bath under the house, transporting vegetables to and from the markets. 

Jaws 2? This time we are the annoying shark.

Jaws 2. This time we are definitely the shark.

We were steered passively past rows of stilted houses with satellite dishes and washing lines with T-shirts and strips of bamboo drying in the sun. We passed through a dense network at the edge of some algae blooms and “floating gardens” where Intha farmers plant crops like tomatoes on beds of water hyacinth, marsh vegetation and soil anchored down by bamboo rods. We learnt there are lots of nutrients in the lake-water, which is known for its ecological diversity. Like a scene from a B-grade movie called “What Tourists Want”, we were on a 3-hour quest for a glimpse of ‘the authentic’, propelled by an intrusive and creepy inclination ‘to experience…life through the perspective of an “Other”’. And one noisy boat-motor.

This brief view of aquaculture and what it’s like to live on stilts/not be able to step out your front door was interesting, but I still felt like a gawker in a human zoo – a pale, sedentary, self-loathing gawker hiding their post-modern tourist gaze uncomfortably behind a pair of UV-protective sunglasses[4], my filter of privilege, my 1st world neoliberal capitalist lens.

Inle Lake is a tourist trap but it’s not the rule. For the moment, tourists can still pretty much get what they (we, sigh!!) want in Burma/Myanmar because the encounters are still novel and, unlike the rest of South East Asia, I think for the most part the buzz is felt on both sides. This makes it feel more equal, more genuine, more ‘real’ – like human beings from different cultures in a part-meaningful, part-economic exchange with one another. A two-way street, not a cheap transaction.

Not like handing over thousands of mould-ridden kyats for a jade bracelet that I’m still wondering whether I should have bought.


[1] The question of what name to use is a loaded one. Identity labels are rarely straightforward in Burma/Myanmar, where even the name of the country is a raw bone of contention.

[2] Reasons proposed for why the rings are worn have included: to protect from tiger bites, to discourage slave-traders, to enhance femininity and attractiveness to Padaung men (hmnph). These days it’s mostly thought to be worn as a marker of cultural identity.

[3] It’s cheap to hire a boat partly because the drivers earn even more from commissions at the shops they take you to. Now I feel guilty for diverting ours to the village. Lose-lose aaargh!!

[4] A good idea given the relatively high altitude and my/KG’s anxieties about fine lines.

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