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Adventures in Burma, Part III: The Leg-Rowers and Jumping Cats of Inle Lake

rather the road to town, originally uploaded by Mister Wind-Up Bird.

Flashlights in hand, we walked through black hallways and common areas of our sprawling, four-story guesthouse.

“Sorry, the generator is a little broken,” said one of the half-dozen staff gathered out front. It wasn’t too hard to see why fixing the generator might not be a priority: as far as we could determine, we were the only guests they had, and seemed to be two of what I’d generously estimate were around a dozen and a half Westerners in Nyaungshue.

The tourist trail in Burma is clearly-marked but populated by a slow trickle of foreigners, which means you tend to spot the same people repeatedly. On the downside, an off-the-beaten-path place like Burma attracts the dregs of the backpacker circuit, sour-faced budget-travellers like The Nazi and The Troll, two backpackers with a penchant for Hitler-themed shirts and dubious hairstyles, or Le Squad Francaise, a group of we-are-the-hardest trust-fund hipsters who haggled over pennies and glared hatefully at every other foreigner.

On the plus side, though, it threw us together with Uri and Chen, two incredibly nice, funny, well-traveled young Israeli professionals. We encountered them first at Yangon airport and ran into them again in Bagan, where we took shelter from a sudden windstorm at their table in one of the Burma’s many “I have no idea what the hell Westerners actually eat but I know they like cheap beer”-themed restaurants. We had a surreal reunion in Nyaungshue when we both cut down the same unlit side-street from opposite directions. In the dark, they look like any other couple, and we almost passed them by, but we have the distinction of being a pudgy 5’4″ dude holding hands with his 5’9″ wife. Even without streetlights, we’re easy to spot. We chatted for a bit and decided to hire a boat to see the sites of Inle Lake together the next day.

Which was spectacular: a real highlight of our travels so far. Seriously, it’s straight-up National Geographic out there.

Inle is a smallish, shallow lake, though it would be hard to determine the exact size, as all around the edges, it transitions into huge expanses of reedy marshland—not dissimilar to many of the lakes in southern Saskatchewan, actually. Unlike Saskatchewan, though, the marsh is dotted with villages built out onto the lake. Entire towns are built up on stilts: houses, workshops, even bars all loom overhead as you go through on boats. The local people spend much of the day on little skiffs, which they paddle to get from place to place, and use as floating platforms for work. Going to the store? Paddle your skiff on over for some soap and a coke. Hanging the laundry? Take the skiff two meters and hang it over the water. A drink with your buddies? Tie up your skiff to the little rattan stilt-house with all the liquor ads taped to the walls (just don’t ask if they’re licensed). Not surprisingly, we saw everyone from toddlers to uniformed schoolgirls to fishermen to elderly women gracefully guiding their little boats along the regular gaps between rows of stilt houses that serve as roads. 

Intha fishermen, originally uploaded by Mister Wind-Up Bird.

The Intha people of Inle Lake have also mastered an unusual leg-rowing technique, where they keep their hands free by tucking an oar under the arm and wrapping a leg around the oat to row. I can’t imagine mastering it, but we saw six-year-olds for whom it was as natural as walking.

Of course, folks aren’t there just to be scenic—they’re making a living out there. The lake echoes with thundering slaps from the local fishermen, who catch fish by striking the water with huge poles and scooping the stunned fish up in nets. Even more unusual are the floating vegetable gardens: blocks of earth and seaweed suspended on the surface of the lake by long bamboo poles driven into the lake bed, planted with tomatoes and gourds. I found it kind of fascinating, actually. I’ve never heard of this style of agriculture, and I wonder if it’s unique to the region. So many questions! Does being on the lake protect from pests? Does the sun and water increase yields? Is lake seaweed a good fertilizer? Do the poles keep the gardens from sinking, or just from drifting in the currents? Where’s an aquaagronomist when you need one?

We took a few side-trips off the water, too, to local markets, workshops and pagoda-studded hillsides. There’s a well-known “jumping cat” monastery where the monks have taught cats to jump through hoops. The afternoon jumping cat show was the only place we saw a significant number of other tourists, as boats from the upscale lakeside tourist resorts paid visits, too. It was… tremendously disappointing. Not even lame enough to function as Buddhist kitsch. But it was worth it for the song Janelle and Chen made up:

Jumping caaaats, jumping caaats,
What are they feeding you?

Inle Lake is a pretty incredible place. More than Bagan, even, it was the real highlight of our Burma trip. And it was great to hang out with Uri and Chen! Jan and I are comfortably introverted people and don’t feel much need to party with 22-year-old backpackers or strike up conversations with middle-aged package tourists. But we hit it off quickly with these far more outgoing travellers, not too dissimilar from us in age or temperament. Like hanging out with Mark in Bangkok and Yangon, it brought us out of our little travel-couple bubble a bit which is probably not a bad thing from time to time.

Adventures in Burma, Part II: Bagan

Bagan stupa plain, originally uploaded by Mister Wind-Up Bird.

A thousand years ago, Bagan emerged as a place for rich and powerful Buddhist royals to build brick religious monuments to accrue enough merit to counter the misdeeds that made them rich and powerful. Today, it is a stunning monument to religious zeal—a huge, dusty plain with literally thousands of paya as far as the eye can see.

Bagan has a few more Western tourists than we saw in Yangon, as would be expected at the country’s biggest tourist attraction. Enough, at least, that you don’t get stared at in the street. But by far the biggest tourist contingent was Burmese taking advantage of the Thingyan holiday to visit the sites and pay respects at the many still-active temples.

We hired a covered horsecart and English-speaking driver for a day to take us around the pagodas. While a romantic way to see the sites, it’s also the most practical way to do it. There are only a few roughly-sealed roads to take the Chinese package tour buses to the main highlights. The rest of Bagan is rutted, dusty trails too rough for anything except horses, and the occasional cyclist willing to brave the 40-degree heat. In fact, horsecarts (and oxcarts) are widely used all over rural Burma for short hauls. While charming, they are also a reminder of how poor the countryside is. People here can only dream of the gleaming Japanese pickups farmers in neighboring Thailand have.

The highlight of Bagan is definitely climbing to the tops of the largest monuments at sunrise and sunset to take in the sheer scale of it all: red brick paya to the horizon in every direction, shrouded in the morning mist, or lit up red and gold in the setting sun. In between, we toured some of the temples, but they are much less elaborate and impressive individually than, say, Angkor. They are all laid out in a square floorplan, with four big Buddha statues, four prayer areas, four collection boxes and four gates. After a while, I found myself making mental notes on the more interesting floor tile variants. It’s really the sheer volume of monuments—over three thousand stupas, pagodas, temples and monasteries—that blows you away.

Like Angkor, there are folks at many sites looking to sell you things or provide services. Unlike Angkor, though, you can’t just push past them and let them go onto the next tourist: there might not be a next tourist for hours, so they have all the time in the world work on you. It’s really not so bad, though, once you give in and go with the flow. They are very sweet and provide actual services. We had one woman insist on applying thanaka sunscreen/makeup to us (“he look like baby!” she laughed after smearing it on my cheeks and nose), we had an old man show us the best camera angles and hidden details of a pagoda, and a young boy with a flashlight guided us through a dark monastery to the roof to see the sunset. We didn’t ask, and a little money was expected, but they were all very nice and polite about it, so we went along with it. Just easier that way. Travel in Asia is sometimes about picking your battles.

The heat was a lot harder to make peace with. An irritant in Yangon, by the time we got to Bagan the thermometer was on the wrong side of 40 degrees and stepping out of the shade was like opening an oven. This was our first real experience with intense Asian heat, and it made us think seriously about our traveling strategy. As willing as the spirit may be, when it gets this hot, everything becomes 30% to 60% less enjoyable: siteseeing, walking, eating, drinking; you name it, it’s impacted, and more than you might expect. We want to go to India, but May is the hottest month in most of the country, so some planning is in order (we decided to go to Laos next, anyway, so we’ll figure out India from there). Even in the short term: we considered going to historic Mandalay, but a check of the weather forecast (39 to 42 degrees for the following week) coupled with our limited interest in looking at yet more old Asian buildings, and we decided to pay a visit to more-temperate Inle Lake instead.

Turned out to be the right decision.

Adventures in Burma I: We’re Big in Yangon

downtown street in Yangon, originally uploaded by Mister Wind-Up Bird.

Yangan is decrepit. There’s almost nothing new anywhere, and what exists is barely being maintained. Blocks of concrete housing sit with streaks of black mold replacing long-forgotten paint jobs. Sidewalks are cracked and broken, exposing sewers and drains beneath. Taxis drive with shot suspension, broken windows and missing door handles. At night, their yellow headlights provide most of the illumination for a teeming downtown of sidewalk shopping and dining otherwise lit only by the occasional fluorescent light of a shop or temple. Like the rest of the country, the city seems like it’s in a holding pattern, a combination, I suspect, of the country’s isolation and poverty under the ruling junta and uncertainty about what could possibly follow. Along the waterfront are rows of massive, grand colonial-era buildings once occupied by the British, and later by the government of the military dictatorship. Then, in 2005, the generals arbitrarily built a new capital called Naypyidaw in the middle of nowhere and the government offices picked up and went. Now these buildings lay empty and boarded up. Despite their prime location and architectural beauty, nobody seems to have the resources or interest to turn them into offices or hotels. So, they wait, too.

But this doesn’t mean Yangon has forgotten how to party! Life may be hard and the future uncertain, but the Burmese are hardly a dour people. We arrived the first day of Thingyan, the four-day Burmese new year, and were soon after joined by Janelle’s fun-loving old school chum Mark, who we had been hanging out with in Bangkok where he’s living the expat life working a prestigious job for a prestigious company I won’t say the name of here.

During Thingyan, the Burmese spend four days drinking, eating, dancing, and dousing each other with water. Actually, “dousing” doesn’t quite cover it: during Thingyan, the buckets and hoses come out in full force, and Buddha help you if you want to stay dry. Our introduction to Thingyan came when we got into a taxi with every surface covered in Scotch tape and plastic sheeting, and almost immediately a pickup full of teenagers pulled up next to us and a good ten liters of water was suddenly tossed into the windows directly onto our laps. That was pretty much the end of our being outside the hotel and dry simultaneously.

On the last–and wildest–day of Thingyan, Mark was able to get the young concierge of our hotel to spend a few hours of his day off to hang out with us. He took us to party central, where huge temporary stages full of young Burmese take hoses to hand and drench other young Burmese who cruise by in the backs of old Japanese flatbed trucks.  On the street, people drink and dance as Burmese hip-hop and Lady Gaga are blasted through concert speakers. The whole experience is decidedly more music festival than religious ritual.

Very few Westerners take part in this part of the Thingyan festivities. I think we saw maybe four or five in total. We were certainly not unwelcome, though! Apparently, dousing the round-eyes is great fun. Everybody wanted to throw water on us, bust a few moves and then shake our hands and throw out whatever random English phrases they had at their disposal. A group of girls insisted on all kissing Janelle’s cheek, and we almost lost Mark when a crowd of teenagers grabbed at him trying to shake his hands despite the fact a firehose was simultaneously trained on his face. But our friend the concierge kept us safe and all together, and negotiated beer and taxi prices for us. In exchange, we bought him all the Thai beer he could drink (a lot, it turned out) and, I’m sure entertained him with our mixture of cluelessness and enthusiasm.

I suspect without Mark and the concierge we wouldn’t have done it, which would have been a shame. It was really an incredible feeling, walking the streets of Yangon at ten in the morning with a beer in one hand and a gaggle of Burmese teenagers trying to shake the other, while hoses blast you with cold water and truckloads of cheering partiers trundle by beside you.  Lemme tell you, if you suffer from low self-esteem, being a foreigner at a Yangon Thingyan will fix you right quick.

Back From Burma

Main Street, Burma, originally uploaded by Mister Wind-Up Bird.

“I do not like H-A. Very sorry, do you have anothers?” We were in the tiny office of a Yangon black market money changer. Two paperback-sized stacks of thousand kyat notes lay on the table in front of us. We had agreed on a rate, walked in 40-degree heat to our hotel to fetch two mint-condition $100 US bills we had brought from Thailand, and delivered them to the money changer. Now he was refusing to accept them because he didn’t like the serial numbers.

“No, we do not,” I said, with more than a trace of exasperation. Janelle made a sputtering sound.

The black marketeer was polite, but firm. “Very sorry, maybe you can change in Bagan.”

US dollars are widely used in SE Asia alongside the local currency. In Cambodia, they are even dispensed by the ATMs. But Burma is different. Burma has no ATMs, no credit card readers, no international banks, and the official exchange rate is a fraction of the black market. You have to bring in all the US dollars you will need as cash, plus extra for emergencies, and exchange at whatever rate you can negotiate. To make it even more frustrating, the tiniest rip, dye mark, stamp, or even crease and the bill will be politely but firmly refused.

As, apparently, will bad serial numbers. We had heard that CB- prefixed bills had been counterfeited by North Korea, but HA? More counterfeiting? A ploy to distract us? Indo-Burmese superstition? Who knows?

Not letting things like this get overshadow the positives is important. The Republic of the Union of Myanmar is poor, isolated and supremely fucked up, but also stunningly beautiful and incredibly charming. Taxi drivers wear traditional longyi and take their hands off the wheel to give a wai gesture toward temples as they zip by in rattling 30-year-old Toyotas. Westerners are stared at in the street, but smile and wave and you usually get a wide grin back. Astrological omens dictate the government spends hundreds of millions to move the capital to the middle of nowhere, and the devout have covered religious monuments in billions of dollars of gold, but the country’s largest city goes without street lights. Meanwhile, the countryside continues as it did decades, if not centuries ago, with rice planted by hand, fields plowed by ox, and horsecarts taking tribal people to market. It’s all seriously National Geographic.

We’re back in Bangkok, a 90-minute flight from Yangon that propels you 40 years ahead. I have tons to say about Myanmar/Burma, though the next couple of days are going to involve running errands and traveling, so it may take a while to get it out of my notebook and onto the haiku factory. But sit tight and you can hear how we got to be treated like rock stars in Yangon, saw the thousands of stupas of Bagan by horsecart and cruised through the stilt villages and floating gardens of Inle Lake, easily one of the most incredible places we’ve ever been.