The Burmese military’s offensive against the Kachin in northern Myanmar is raising human rights concerns among American officials.
A Journey’s End
It’s hard to figure out the exact words to use in describing the end of our journey. With so many stories to share and things to show, it’s tough to find the best way to call an end to things. We’ve been back to the United States for a few weeks now and I’ve found myself at a loss for words to describe the last few weeks of our journey. I refrain from saying this is a “once in a lifetime” experience because it’s really not for us. Both my wife and I travel frequently and quite broadly. The likelihood of us returning to all the places over our past trip is unlikely, but we’ve met so many wonderful people along our journey that it would be criminal for us not to return to see them.
For those interested in looking at some of the various pictures we accumulated along our journey, please checkout the images we posted on Flickr.
themasontheory asked: HI MATT HOW ARE YOU? JANET
Very well. Thank you
I’ve not been to any other place that more aptly fits the adjective bucolic than Inle Lake. In our brief time in Myanmar, we’ve seen some rather amazing scenery, especially in Bagan and the mountain regions of east of Mandalay, but Inle Lake has to be one of the most idyllic sceneries of a lake set in a mountain valley in the world.
The climate of the region is quite different than other parts of Myanmar. Bagan is an arid climate where it’s mostly scrubland amid the temple complexes. When we were there it was largely dry as it’s now entering the summer months in this part of the world, but during the rainy season the area is much more lush with color. The delta regions of the south are hot and humid and resemble what one would find in the drainage areas of major rivers: high humidity, flat terrain, green and dense foliage.
A visitor to Inle Lake quickly finds the climate here rather cool in comparison to other areas of Myanmar. The lake sits in a valley surrounded by mountains on all sides that are comparable in height to what’s in the Appalachian mountain range. * The mountains themselves allow for a greater depth of field when juxtaposed with the flat terrain of the valley floor and the lake region. (*It lends to a wider perception of the valley than probably is genuinely true of the area.)
Nyaungshwe is the most prominent town near the lake and its location to the north allows for an ideal location for trade, transportation, and accommodations for the communities surrounding the lake. The town is fairly compact and the grid system lends to easy sense of direction in relation to the river that feeds into the lake south of Nyaungshwe. The town is filled with markets for locals to trade, barter, sell, purchase an assortment of items ranging from: food, produce, livestock, seeds, clothing, dried goods, oil, gasoline, animal feed, crafts, et cetera.
In addition to the town being a location for trade, it’s also a hub for the majority of visitors to the area to either find accommodations or arrange transportation and trekking to the surrounding regions of Inle Lake. There’s also a significant number of restaurants here with all sorts of local and exotic delicacies to appease everyone’s tastebuds.
The most common way to access Inle Lake from Nyaungshwe is via an enlarged canal or river running south of the town. The canal is wide enough to incorporate a number of boats hauling people and goods to and from the town to the communities surrounding the lake. The canal itself is also a bird sanctuary with an assortment of bird species both large and small flying around the region.
Once passing through the several miles of canal via boat one finds themselves suddenly thrust into this considerable expanse of water opening into a spectacular view of the northern part of the lake with mountains on all sides of the lake acting as a protective fence to all things in the valley. In the distance one can see all sorts of activities being conducted on the water. Most either center on the Intha men and their unique paddling styles or the boats shuttling locals with their trade alongside the tourist boats to the many villages both on the lake and around the lake.
It was impossible not to notice the subtle change in the makeup of the water as the boat ferried us across the lake the morning we started our exploration of the region. The water gradually becomes this unique glassy silvery blue that seems to harbor reds, blues, and greens in the waves of its shadows as the early morning sun hits the water. We found ourselves utterly enchanted by this experience and found the numerous attempts to capture this appearance of the water failed with each effort with our cameras.
On paper, the lake is roughly 13 miles long while 3 miles across, but once one is actually on it the feeling of grandeur and size seems to increase by twofold. Both Meta and myself found ourselves enthralled with the dancing colors on the water and the Intha men fishing in their canoes upon the lake.
The Intha people have gained celebrity status due to their unique way of paddling with one leg while balancing on the end of their canoes while at the same time casting their nets or pulling in their catch of fish for the day. The subtle grace of their maneuvering on one leg is quite hypnotizing when seen for the first time.
If the Intha’s have gained fame for their leg paddling style, it’s their villages and floating gardens, which should gain them a cult following amongst amateur and professional horticulturalists. Their villages on the lake are largely elevated on bamboo poles to a height of 6-10 feet and then surrounding gardens all floating on the surface of the lake is something that can only be experienced. Photography and videos fail in delivering the lush, green, and quite spectacular view of these villages with their large homes and gardens all set this place apart from anywhere we’ve ever seen.
Through the first day we stopped at various places to see textiles, food, temples, and even a cigar factory, but it was the afternoon adventure through the floating gardens of one of the Intha villages on the lake that had us realize how truly special this place was to rest of the world and not just Myanmar. After touring the village and the floating gardens once we asked the boat driver to take us back through again to see the gardens once more before we called it a day.
On the second day, we decided to see a local market in a neighboring town by bicycle. The main roads are abysmal in Myanmar, but the secondary and backroads are even worse if that’s even possible. After spending what seemed like hours on the road avoiding potholes, broken rocks, tractors, carts being pulled by oxen, motor scooters, and other various mechanical devices that defy imagination we finally arrived at the market only to find it closing down for the day.
As neither of us found the idea of hopping back on our bikes and heading back the same stretch of road exciting we consulted our trusty (and bootleg copy) Lonely Planet Guidebook on Myanmar to see what the village we were in had to offer outside of the market. Outside of the local Buddhist monastery above the hamlet and a winery, we found something referencing an old bridge leading to another Intha floating village.
Within a few minutes we found ourselves looking across manicured rice fields and a beautiful teak bridge leading to a small Intha village on Inle Lake. The two of us have found our most enjoyable experiences in this country by accident and this adventure would be no different. After about 10 minutes of walking across the bridge taking in the surrounding marshes and fields we found ourselves at a dead end of sorts. At the end of the bridge was the village, but before the village a chasm of approximately 15-20 feet separated us from the town itself.
We quickly realized our time in the village was going to be confined to observing from a far when a young Intha woman who happened to be sitting in the same area asked if we wanted to see her village via one of the canoes. After a minute or so of thought we took her up on the offer to see the village via her canoe. Seeing the place through a local Intha guide who explained everything in the community really brought home the experience to us. She paddled the majority of the time with her one leg while waving to neighbors and directing our attention to the gardens or things of interest in the water hamlet.
She was barely any taller than Meta and here she was taking us around her village explaining the customs, building practices, and agriculture of the area without much effort. We found out she was married and had a young son a few months shy of two years old. The practice of paddling with one leg was something she had learned early on in childhood and was something she and her husband were going to do with their young son. It seemed that every child in the village regardless of age was as comfortable on a boat at an early age. Our guide’s skill and acumen with her movements on the boat were impressive and rather graceful. One couldn’t help but find themselves enchanted with watching her move on the boat.
After having lunch at the woman’s family restaurant, we decided to head back to our guesthouse before an unexpected afternoon rain shower rolled in on us. After narrowly avoiding a downpour and then a nap, it was time to get out for the evening and grab some dinner. A day or two earlier in the week, Meta and I had found a small restaurant near our guesthouse where two brothers operated a restaurant with their family members and where we could find one of our favorite dishes in the area: Shan noodle soup.
The soup with its unique Shan style noodles and mixed vegetables is quite hardy and filling. It’s a small bowl, but with everything in the soup one doesn’t need much else for dinner. We had talked to the brother’s on the previous visit, but this time around we really had a chance to talk with them about the dynamics of the current Myanmar society and the history of the country. When talking of anything of a political nature it’s wise and prudent to only go where the host leads you and even then it’s safe for all parties to avoid overly sensitive topics as the lady on the lake or the protests throughout the country in 2007.
Both brother’s are fairly educated and interested in anything more regarding their country written by writers of Myanmar descent or others interested in their culture. I recommended a couple of books I’ve been reading about Myanmar to them. One has already been translated into Burmese while the other, although written by a Burmese author living outside of Myanmar, has not been translated.
We promised the brothers we’d swing by one more time to say goodbye before we head to Yangon on an overnight bus tomorrow evening.
Shwedagon Pagoda in Yagon, Myanmar
Bagan at Sunset
The Smell of Puke at 2:00 AM While Frantically Stuffing Fragrant Scented Kleenex Up My Nose
The prospects of having to be contained in a space designed for the average height and weight of an average Japanese person for approximately 12 hours left me with many emotions: none of them synonyms of happy, elated, joyous, or ebullient. If anyone has ever been on a bus in a developing country, the buses, let alone the road conditions, are enough to leave anyone of above average height or of a Western frame rather scared if not downright delirious with fright.
My wife on the other hand is able to squeeze herself into any seat without much issue. She views any chair or seat on an overnight bus as 8 hours of solid sleep. Seeing her quietly and comfortably asleep an hour into a 12 hour caravan of horrors left me lonely and insanely jealous of her uncanny ability to sleep anywhere without issue.
On this particular night, we were on a 12 hour bus ride from Mandalay in north central Myanmar to Inle Lake, approximately 300 miles away in Shan State in Eastern Myanmar. Outside of the two of us, and a young woman from Japan, everyone else on the bus were locals and assumed experts of their own bus system.
With most busses in Southeast Asia, it’s customary to have music videos, movies, or the favorite choice of many locals — karaoke music — to entertain the passengers. The sound for these spectacles is generally quite loud and done in mono tone so as to leave anyone trying to listen to anything else or trying to carry on a conversation utterly frustrated.
On this trip, the first hour was dedicated to some inane television show with hard to follow storyline of a musician who was also a leader of a gang that drove around on mountain bikes wreaking havoc on those who didn’t share his musical tastes or fondness for 80s white watched jeans.
Into the second hour of the journey a Myanmar comedy movie started that had Meta and I laughing for the first couple of hours, but by the third hour of this gem are patience for the slapstick comedy and bizarre storyline had worn thin. Although neither of us understood one line of the Burmese dialogue, the physical comedy that appears to be popular here was something we understood well.
Overall the movie was quite funny, but by the third hour of this herculean piece we had long since given up any hope of laughing at another act of physical comedy again for the remainder of the trip. (I had long given up hope of maybe a Raiders of the Lost Ark popping up on the screen.)
It’s customary to stop every few hours to provide access to the bathroom and food otherwise people tend to get rather tense. With each stop along the way, the food tends to get a little harder to appreciate, even for the locals. Most of the food along the rest stops consists of something fried with rice, alongside something dried, pickled, cooked in oil, or steamed and breaded.
I noticed at our first rest stop many people consuming gross quantities of the fried food. This particular stop must have been famous for its fried food because the fry cook was kept busy throughout the many busses coming and going. This should have been an ominous indicator at what would unfold throughout the remainder of the evening’s journey.
Mandalay is pancake flat with one lone hill that rises above everything else in the town. The journey from Mandalay to the area around Inle Lake is quite mountainous and filled with steep precipices and valleys that even at night are pretty awe inspiring.
As the bus rounded each mountain curve I couldn’t help but notice the general overall steepness of the road we were traveling and the number of switchbacks we were doing while we ascended the mountain. The road, if it could be called that, was nothing more than a paved path really only meant for a small truck, not logging trucks with a full payload of teak or full size traveling buses packed to the gills with people and their goods bowling by in the middle of the night.
There were moments when I sensed other on the bus who weren’t asleep holding their breath as the driver passed another slower moving bus or truck while coming dangerously close to an edge without a foreseeable bottom in sight. If it wasn’t the mountain curves or potential of going over a cliff that was going to add our number to Natural Selection’s list for the evening it was definitely going to be the crater size potholes we were weaving around on the road.
I’m not sure the genesis of it all, but I can safely summarize it could have been a little of everything I’ve mentioned above as reasons for what was going to happen next on our evening’s playlist: mass vomiting.
It started rather quietly with the lovey-dovey couple to the right of where Meta and I were sitting when the young man’s girlfriend or wife opened the window and then the small plastic bag everyone had in the seat in front of them became filled with her most recent meal. Over the next few moments, Meta and I watched in horror and pain as we heard the young woman and with her boyfriend’s help relief herself of that evening’s dining selection.
This seemingly innocuous act contributed to an avalanche of people in front of us and behind of us heaving and pulling out their respective plastic bags to deposit their contributions to growing list of pukers. I had never witnessed a seemingly synchronized and well choreographed effort by so many complete strangers to do something so vulgar.
My personal favorite was the gentleman in the faded camouflage hat violently vomiting while his seat partner was desperately looking for an escape. The noises being emanated by the gentleman were something only a Hollywood special effects department could once create, but on this evening the jostling and shakes of metal and steel on this Myanmar road was going to take down several other victims.
Most people know I have a very low tolerance to the sound of people vomiting and then afterwards the resulting smell of the committed act. It takes all I can muster not to vomit myself from the smell, but on this evening we were saved by the cheap and fragrant scented kleenex purchased at the Mandalay bus station earlier in the evening for the equivalent of an American quarter. Meta and I would take pieces of the kleenex to place up our nose to provide a safety zone from the suddenly pervasive smell of vomit that was slowly taking over the bus.
And as simple as it started it was over. Within a few minutes most people aboard the bus had relieved themselves of their evening meal in their bag, and most likely their seat partner’s bag if they weren’t already using it. Most either pitched their shame out the window or tried to hide it beneath the seat under the idea the smell wouldn’t carry in a packed bus with poor air-conditioning.
The rest of the trip was without any notable incidents occurring and passed with little fanfare. By the time we had gotten to our intended destination near Inle Lake, most of what happened over the evening was already becoming a distant memory on the roads of Myanmar.
Photography for a Traveler
I am not a very good photographer, but the opportunity to capture something along our travels that triggers emotions or memories of a time in our lives is forever tempting. We often find ourselves in a situation where a moment emerges without warning that could be captured via an image to share with others, but in Myanmar, we’ve found ourselves pausing and thinking about what it means to be a traveler and a participant in a culture.
With each day here we find ourselves experiencing things quite unique and different than any other place we’ve ever been. Myanmar is a country of immense beauty from the thundering waters of the Irrawadady moving South from the North, the arid plains of Bagan or the northeastern foothills of the Shan State, to the white sand shores where the Andamen Sea washes up on the beaches of the Southern delta region, this country is stunning.
Even with all the beauty here, it’s the people that draw visitors into this place. People say Thailand is the land of a thousand smiles, but they don’t have anything on this place. We’ve had nothing but great experiences in each place we’ve traveled to in this country.
Each day brings new opportunities to meet and find ourselves involved in a multitude of storylines that can bring one to tears or leave someone rolling over in stitches. When a person reads about what the people of this place have experienced over the last 49 years, it leaves one angry and upset, but the people of Myanmar know what’s happening with their government. They’re well aware of the corruption and cruelty administered by the military junta in charge. I don’t pretend to know much about this place or its culture, but from what we’ve observed in conversation, daily relations, and through reading the history of this place it’s clear the people live their lives the best way they can.
More often than not we find them laughing or smiling at the most innocuous of things or enjoying idle time with their significant other or children. It’s evident everywhere here that this country is far behind much of the rest of the world in so many things, yet, as previously mentioned, the people of Myanmar are well aware of it. They are innately curious as to where one is from and anything they can know about the outside world. It’s a land of people hungering for knowledge in a world that’s largely forgotten about them.
As a traveler, one mainly visits this or that location with the occasional interaction with a local person(s). Whereas one who participates in the storyline of the people they meet finds a deepened knowledge of culture and themselves where all parties involved reap some benefit. An analog to this thinking is of the young boy we spent time with while in Bagan. He was only eight years old and odds are he’ll forget our names as time passes by, but the memories of spending time with us and learning from us will remain with him. And the same goes with our time with him. We very much enjoyed seeing Bagan through the eyes of a young boy both confident in himself and curious of the world outside his own.
As Meta and I have experienced Myanmar on so many levels we’ve learned to become participants in the dialogue of this country, if only in the slightest of conversations. It’s much more rewarding to be involved and understand the people we are seeing and getting to know than merely standing behind a camera lens ready to snap that next photo or image of this person or place.
Burmese Kids in Bagan