Back in London: You can’t go home again (phew!!)

IMG_3152

After just over 7 months in Mae Sot I’m back living in London.

It’s a funny feeling – not the affluenza-induced despair I was expecting (Westfield-Bondi Junction popped that cherry) but a dreamy inversion, like I’m traveling through my adopted hometown.

On this reverse travel high, familiar things take on an unfamiliar quality – bricks, pavements, Airwaves gum, Pret-A-Manger, brown leather jackets, shuddering traintracks. The glowing aisles of Sainsbury’s. The pulsing bells of Southwark Cathedral. The tired, ironic voice-overs of beleaguered British tube drivers telling their passengers over and over to “mind the closing doors”.

It’s still the same old London but everything’s all buffed up and dewy, like a freshly washed car. I’m being mindful without even trying. Maybe this is the silver lining to that melancholic phrase, “You can’t go home again”.

Bricks… bricks!!

What does it mean to travel? Why does everyone like it so much? I think it’s to do with this filter-bending effect it induces, a sensory trick akin to popping a pair of glasses back on after wiping off the dirt streaks. It reminds me of the way I felt bike-riding around Mae Sot. It’s what makes travel so drug-like, the flipside being that coming home carries the risk of a comedown. Even after a brief weekend away, the returned traveler can feel deflated, morose, hungover; after a relatively long time they may fall prey to ‘reverse culture shock’, where the dip is more pronounced, and the sudden transition back to R.L. causes them to plummet to a miserable, alienated “re-entry” funk at the bottom of a U-shape curve.

I’ve often been left frustrated and dissatisfied by short trips over international borders, many of which I’d throw in the Tourism (not Travel) basket. I never felt like they had a much of an effect, and if they did it was almost imperceptible or wore off immediately. Living somewhere else rather than just passing through means the effects of travel are more likely to stick, for better or worse. In the end this is what makes the whole expensive, tiring, disaster-prone enterprise worthwhile.

Maybe the way you feel coming home is a sort of litmus test for how meaningful/life-changing a trip really was, if that was the intention?

For the moment the effects of this one seem to be lasting, like they did, mostly, while I was away. This is helped by my current situation. A series of bureaucratic obstacles have meant I haven’t been able to start back at hospital yet so instead of going to work I’ve been spending mornings, afternoons and early evenings wandering around Zone 1 like a badly dressed dandy thinking through abstract philosophical questions while listening to songs on my iPhone. The other day I went for a walk along Southbank beside the stale, lapping olive-grey Thames water. Watching heavy clouds lit up an eerie periwinkle blue trip over the surface, moment by moment, I thought of how neurons are like filter paper and how it’s like the ISO has gone up on mine so that now I can absorb a lot more in conditions of low lighting – literally. A handy ability to have in the UK!

Low-lying London clouds

Low-lying clouds

I want this grainy ISO-400 clean-clothes-out-of-the-dryer feeling to last, and I hope the change in perspective it brings proves more durable than a disposable contact lens from Specsavers. I really hope it doesn’t evaporate as soon as I step through the automated doors into A+E next week (gulp). I don’t want to revert back to my pre-departure baseline. Somehow, I want to stave off hedonic adaptation[1], however inevitable it might be.

Watch this space.


[1] From Wikipedia: the supposed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes.

“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.

‘Inside Burma’ – first impressions

IMG_5960

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.

IMG_6092

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.