‘Inside Burma’ – on the night bus

726pm. I’m inspecting a wilted chocolate doughnut and unidentified bun squished into a small cardboard box with flowy Burmese writing on it. KG is not interested. She’s sitting in the puffed-up recliner next to me, huddled in a fluorescent apricot CottonOn hoodie that looks a lot brighter than she does, staring up at the TV screen, which, incidentally, is playing the same music video of an albino popstar that’s always on in Lucky’s teahouse in Mae Sot – weird.

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This is the second night bus we’ve caught on this trip and I’m the one who made us get it, instead of a significantly more expensive flight, despite KG’s besieged intestinal tract not being 100% recovered. Although it smells like garlic cloves in here and the air-conditioning has that Legionella-feel to it, it’s sort of warm and cozy (not literally – technically it’s v. v. cold).

We waited around for several hour in this strange, chaotic makeshift terminal on the side of the road, straddling our backpacks expectantly. The driver and most of the other staff of the Shwe Mandalar bus company are loud middle-aged men with their bellies stuffed tightly into dark green longyis. They herded us on and chuckled explosively when I attempted (in Burmese then in English) to check this was the 730pm bus to Yangon. HAHAHA??!!

We haven’t started moving yet. An eager younger man in a pressed white shirt just brought round a tray of Sunkist cans. He looked confused when we declined.

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On top of the snack box and the soft pink blanket with bunnies on it, it looks like we get a complementary toothbrush- yay!!

 

 

 

I am feeling overwhelmed with guilty excitement. Guilty because I’m a lot more excited, it would seem, than my travel counterpart. The garlic-clove smell isn’t sitting well. She is looking unimpressed and a bit pale…

127am. We’ve pulled into a vast and bustling highway market with a series of all-night cafeterias. All the spare change and bright, jangling lights make it feel a bit like a casino. And at the same time, it feels vaguely… communist? Maybe part of the dictatorship hangover?

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KG’s perked up after adjusting to the bus smell and we’ve been ranting at each other about relationships, being 30, jobs, biological injustice, men – specifically Australian men – and what’s wrong with them. Neither of us has needed the toilet up till now, which is lucky because there isn’t one on board. My night bus guilt is starting to fade.

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In the stores they’re selling avocados and oranges, packets of banana chips, an infinite range of fried snacks, jellies and plastic jars filled with things that look like dried black fungus.

 

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Some of the labels have Snow White on them.

 

 

 

I just bought a big glutinous grey rice-based blob of something wrapped in plastic but threw it in the bin after a couple of thought-provoking chews. I also bought a bottle of white ‘grape wine’. KG rolled her eyes at this. It seems I’m impulse spending. And I think I just saw a monk instagram something. Brain over-stimulated. Starting to get very tired.

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“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.

On the tourist trail Part 1

This morning was taken up wandering around Nyaungshwe town, Shan State, on a quest for a cheaper guesthouse. It was hot and our backpacks are heavy and KG is still unwell. After the sixth monotonous  ‘…….No’, we scratched our heads, looked around and realized we’re surrounded by Chinese tourists. Busloads of them, literally. With new buses arriving every day. Now almost everything’s booked out. Ugh.

Tourism has been a major driver of Myanmar’s rapidly unfurling economy since the 1996 boycott was lifted three years ago. The number of international visitors shot up from 300,000 in 2010 to about a million in 2012; last year hit a record high of 2 million; and there’s a ‘Master Plan’ in place for a yearly forecast of 7.5 million by 2020. The service industry in a scramble to keep up is apparently experiencing some growing pains in the form of rising travel costs and hotel shortages. In the words of one European restaurant owner it’s ‘a big baby’, in need of intensive support and supervision. This means more trainings, HR, oversight, investment – the rusk sticks and Bonjela for economic teething woes.

This view was echoed even less diplomatically by an incensed young German one night in a bar, where we had found ourselves out late with a bunch of earlytwentysomething travelers. He had been in Bagan for 3 months trying to instil order and reason and systems of accountability into the hotel he had been somehow charged with managing.

After the second bottle of Myanmar beer, at the climax of a never-ending rant about his valiant but futile attempts to raise the baseline salaries of his unappreciative employees, he went a bit livid with sweat beads, bulging forehead veins and tense jaw muscles appearing. I think at one point even threw his large menacing hands up into the air in a display of moral despair.[1]

I guess with this sort of exponential influx it’s bound to be a bumpy ride. But from an economically ignorant outsider’s perspective things seem pretty on track. It’s true that often our requests to order something or inquire about room availability have been met with expressions of blank apathy, incomprehension and mild fear, and that most of the teenage-looking waiters and hotel receptionists don’t seem 100% engaged with their new jobs, and that the prices are a lot, lot higher than in good old Thailand. But aside from this morning’s room situation, I’ve felt all my touristy needs are being scarily well-catered to. In fact, everything’s too easy. I feel like a big tourist baby, one with some very big handfuls of kyats and US dollars on her person.

Economic efficiency is a laudable aim blah blah but I nevertheless hope the ongoing international influx doesn’t bring with it too many more German managers.

[1] N.B. Jerk factor aside, German/Burmese is not an ideal culture combination.

Travel bug

Last night, after a wonderful dinner of liquid gold gloopy tofu, tomato salad and Shan guacamole (Burmese food is maybe the best in the world!!) my hardened journo travel buddy developed a raging gastroenteritis, starting with a small, innocuous vomit on the side of the road.

Back at the guesthouse, things escalated at an alarming rate. We were up the whole night, KG alternating between very loud, violent retching spells and desperate toilet runs, letting out screams of “Fuck you, parasite!!!” and quiet sobs, “Pleease parasite, please leave me alone, pleeeaaase…” – me suppressing a recurring impulse to point out it was likely bacterial and that it’s not a good idea to brush your teeth with tap water in South Asia, if you have a choice. At 2am with her sitting up in bed hugging the vomit bin it didn’t seem a good time for a lecture. 

After several hours of deranged parasite talk I started to get worried. Judging by the bathroom noises she was losing a lot of fluid, but she couldn’t keep down any water and her pulse was sitting at 100 beats per minute. In one very dark moment she expelled the only anti-emetic pill I had brought (dammit!), which we had strategically administered in between stopwatch-timed vomits. At that point I thought we might have to venture out in the dark to try and find some sort of healthcare facility with an IV drip, which didn’t seem like a fun prospect in the middle of the pitch-black night in Nyaungshwe.

At around 4am the retching subsided and her pulse went down and by 5am we were asleep. It’s now nearly sunset, and the poor thing has been in bed all day. It will probably be another couple of days before she recovers her baseline vivicious strength.

One of the perils of trying to squeeze a trip to a place like Burma in 10 days is that if you get taken down by a pathogen of whatever nature, it puts a real dent in your travel plans. A boat trip down Inle Lake is off the cards for the time being.

‘Inside Burma’ – first impressions

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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.

Temples (Old Bagan)

Temples (Old Bagan)

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.

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Lacquer pots on the roadside

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.

Digital photo shop - the times they are a changin' (slowly)

Digital photo shop – the times they are a changin’ (slowly)

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.