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Impressions of Burma

09 Oct

10 May 2011

How to even begin to describe travelling for a moment in time in a country like Burma? The words that come to my mind are paradoxical, kaleidoscopic, mixed up, generous, dazzling, distressing and bewitching.

Yangon

Building repairs, central Yangon

Upside-down, back to front, and filthy from pollution. Anything with wheels and an engine that turns over serves as transport, and often is described as a car. Half the cars are left hand drive and the other right hand drive. A consequence of the junta deciding overnight, Myanmar would be a country that drove on the right hand side after historically driving on the left had side. Most vehicles are circa 1950s. Except those that are brand new sleek black totally tinted windows and have a Myanmar flag waving from the bonnet.

In spite of the pollution, there are trees and greenery everywhere. In places the verges are like a veritable forest. And the buildings… as a person not so interested in architecture, Yangon is a revelation. Everything, well almost everything, is crumbling, except a building here and there, possibly built during the colonial period, which sometimes are pristine. Right next to crumbling blocks of apartments or government buildings that have fascias that are black from the pollution. It’s impossible to tell which are abandoned and which are actually occupied. Except, in the apartment blocks, for the long ropes and strings dangling from third, forth, fifth story balconies, presumably the Burmese equivalent of a doorbell, or a means of more easily transferring goods from the market than lugging heavy bags up endless narrow flights of stairs.

Monk on the waterfront, Yangon

“Bring good walking shoes” is the advice to be found on every traveller’s forum. “The pavements and footpaths are atrocious”. Well, I can confirm this is good advice. In spite of being a person who has trekked about in the most inappropriate foot ware in many parts of the world and Australia, Yangon is one place that a sturdy set of rubber thongs just doesn’t cut it. In places it’s like a bunch of concrete from a demolished building has been cast over the side of a truck to serve as the footpath. In other places, big concrete blocks have been placed over open drains filled with putrid mess and rats, but if you stood on one end of the block, you’d fall in. There are craters and potholes everywhere. The only places that have well maintained foot paths are in front of government buildings. It is definitely a case of go slowly, watch where you’re walking…

There are a thousand different faces, at times it felt like I was walking around the streets of my home town, Darwin. Bamar and every ethnic group from within, Indian faces of every colour and shape, Chinese, other Asiatic faces that I couldn’t recognise. Really, an incredible multicultural mix.

Golden tree at a street cafe, Yangon

The famous Bogyoke Market… far more laid back, less hassle and less touting than any other Asian market I’ve ever been to. One hundred thousand million jewellery and gemstone opportunities. Textiles and fabrics from every region, state and ethnic group from within Burma, and beyond. We buy nothing the first day or the second we are in Burma, imagining that it would be easier to return on our way back through, before flying home. But, as we pull up in a taxi on our second last day in this amazing country, the driver tells us the market is closed. It’s May Day, and the government wants the workers to celebrate the day of workers, we’re told. The irony of this makes me want to weep, after having witnessed gangs of forced labour building roads by hand, old men, children, women with babies strapped on their back, in all of the rural regions we’d visited.

In Yangon, lots of shop names and their wares are displayed in both Bamar and English. I think I could spend days and days amusing myself with this. For example, at one computer shop, it was possible to purchase not only MP3’s, but MP4’s, MP5’s and MP9’s! And another was called Winter Root Computer. Very honest, we thought. And, in a restaurant, it was possible to purchase Panda Fish dumplings. Or Strange Fish something… or even Chicken Chest Rolls! Yum!

Shwedagon… not even going to try to describe this experience, it’s something that is impossible. It’s the vibe, man… ! Seriously though, this is one temple and place of religious worship that simply overwhelms every sense, and any attempt at words to explain would seem somehow pathetic. It’s simply something that has to be experienced to be believed… not, for me in any case, in a spiritual sense; it’s just awe-inspiring for its opulence, intricacy, beauty, magnitude, peacefulness and magnificence.

Bagan

It is hard to describe my impressions of Bagan… a climate and terrain exactly like Tennant Creek. And it’s so hot the days we are there. Over 40C. Fortunately, the electricity persists for most of the time, except for an hour or two here and there. This means not sweltering as we sleep… our air-conditioned rooms are blessed relief in the hottest part of the afternoon. But the vista is definitely not Tennant Creek. Stupas, temples, payas and golden buddhas. Most are circa 11AD. Religious fervour and people desperately trying to sell things to tourists, it’s the only means of survival.

Looking through the temple window...

We had travelled here by bus from Yangon. We are the only non-Burmese on the bus. Again, the sage advice from traveller’s forums was that this trip was one of the hells that can be experienced in Burma. But in fact, in spite of the backrest clearly being made of a wooden board covered with a thin fabric, I found the 12 hour overnight journey perfectly fine. Except for the hours and hours of a kitschy Burmese movie that appeared to be the Bamar version of some terrible second rate Hollywood girlie movie, but that apparently was quite funny. It did shock me, it was obviously filmed in Burma, and the opulence of the set or wherever some of the scenes were filmed was overwhelming. Such as a fantastical pool and decking of marble, something you might expect to find in some bazillionaire’s summer palace. I did wonder what the Burmese folk on the bus were thinking, as these splendid images splashed across the screen. Definitely not something that most passengers on that bus were going to experience in this life.

Fragrance and beauty in the midst of...

A woman in a temple explained why she did, and didn’t like tourism. She was selling lacquer ware. It was her only way of earning an income. Twenty two years ago, she told us, the government forced everyone in old Bagan to move from their ancestral homes, to new Bagan. It is not clear to me, but possibly people were allocated plots of land on which to build their new homes. But not enough to grow any food or keep any animals, just enough room to construct a shanty type building to keep out of the worst of the weather. She was very angry about this (!!) and for that reason she didn’t like tourists. But, tourists did give her the means to feed her family. And when tourists stopped coming, such as after the 2007 riots and uprisings in Yangon and Cyclone Nargis, her family didn’t eat. So people in Bagan are damned by tourism whatever way you might like to think about it.

Lighting the way from the top of a temple...

But Bagan. Temples temples temples. Golden stupas and golden buddhas. In every direction and corner and everywhere. Big, small, crumbling, restored, as far as the eye can see. Over 4,000. What’s inside cannot be imagined or discerned from the outward appearance of the temple, except in the case of the “restored” temples that the government would like tourists to visit. And in these cases there are golden buddhas over ten metres high, north south east and west and in every possible corner, and of every possible size and stature and pose, made from wood, gold, stone, unknowable materials, benignly looking down upon us mere mortals who are unlikely to ever find the way to Nibbana.

Mostly though, there are unrestored temples and stupas everywhere, just “there”, crumbling and in ruins, surrounded by shanty houses on every side. Filled with inconceivable frescos painted in the 11th century on ceilings so high it’s impossible to imagine how the artisans could ever have managed such an incredible feat. Steep, steep, dark narrow stone staircases to the top of huge temples that give a view of the vista, which is entirely mystical.

Early morning alms...

Monks and nuns on every corner. Few smiling monks, and even fewer smiling nuns. This is in very sharp contrast to everyone else everywhere in Burma, we are flashed smiles, shy and wide and friendly and disingenuous and nervous, from everyone, quickly followed by “Mingalabar!” (literally, blessings). And sometimes followed by “Where you from” “ohhh Australia, beautiful country, kangaroo! Do you need a driver, to change money, a tour, to see my shop…” Unlike anywhere else I’ve been in Asia, a simple “No, che zu b’eh (thank you)” concludes the transaction.

Oh my, the food in Bagan! Our young and serious and delightful horse and cart driver, Col-een (“Aung San is our father”), drops us off under a huge banyan tree, where a food stall has been set up and is crowded with local people eating lunch. Nobody speaks a word of English, a table and chairs are quickly set up for us, and a veritable feast is set upon the table. It’s overwhelmingly delicious, curries and rice and bowls of unrecognisable spicy and sweet treats in which to dip our plate of semi-raw vegetables. Surreptitious and down-right stares as people checked out how we white folk might eat our food. The family running the stall are delighted that we find lunch so delicious, and we are delighted to be there.

Kalaw
It’s freezing! We touch down at He Ho airport at around 10am, expecting to be blasted by the heat as we disembark from the plane. Instead we are blasted by an icy wind, it’s around 17C. It’s wonderful after the heat of Bagan, but my thin cotton t-shirt clearly isn’t suitable attire.

A quick negotiation in the car park for a taxi to Kalaw, and we strike a deal for 30,000 kyat (pronounced “chee-att”) for the one hour, around 40km drive. This is around $40 or so; the only thing that is really expensive anywhere in Burma is car travel. This is because fuel is impossibly expensive and rationed. At the government supply stations it’s around $5/gallon (4250 kyat), and restricted to two gallons/car (per week? Not sure). It’s easy to purchase fuel on the black market, but its double or triple the cost. Consequently, taxis are expensive and hybrid fuels made from castor nuts and other vegetation are common. And, comparing the cost of fuel to an average annual salary of around $200 US/year, or just over 3200 kyat/week, it really becomes clear how out of reach car travel is for the average Burmese family.

Kalaw markets... cabbages, potatoes, and a safety helmut!

The landscape and scenery on the way to Kalaw couldn’t be more contrasting to Bagan. It’s lush and green and agricultural activity as far as the eye can see as we creep up the mountains at a torturously slow pace, dodging potholes and overtaking pedestrians, ox carts and even slower trucks loaded so high with goods and people atop that they give the appearance they’re about to topple over. The sights that are constant though are the spires from stupas and payas in all directions and the golden domes of temples set at crazy angles up and down the mountains. Clearly Buddha really is everywhere. And the monks striding along, all ages and shapes and sizes. Some of them are “real monks” apparently, and we’re told this is why they don’t smile… because the road to enlightenment is neither happy nor sad, it just is, and smiling, well that’s not part of it. I am not sure how to distinguish between a real and a “non real” monk though, and it remained a mystery for the entire time I am in Myanmar, and even now.

Modes of transport, Kalaw

Added to the landscape on the way to Kalaw are bullock carts, and I am really astonished to see that the wheels are constructed entirely from wood. The carts are filled with sacks of stuff and vegetables and water bottles and people, and we crawl pass fields being hand tilled with wooden hoes being pulled by buffaloes. It becomes more apparent that in so many ways, and especially in rural areas, many many people continue a lifestyle that really hasn’t changed much, at least in terms of how work gets done, since the 19th century.

On the way we discuss accommodation with the taxi driver. He agrees to take us to the two hotels we think might be ok. We arrive at the first, it’s a building that I wouldn’t be surprised to find anywhere in Europe. Beautiful teak walls and floors and stairways. It looks too “western” in some ways, and we decide to check the second hotel. The receptionist takes this in her stride, and assures me that the rates are very negotiable, given that it’s not tourist season. I feel slightly awkward, the rooms we have looked at are $15/night, and absolutely gorgeous. To negotiate a lower price would seem somehow ludicrous.

Nonetheless, we head off to the second hotel. It is miles out of town, and on the way there we decide to go back to the first hotel, if for nothing else but its location, right in the centre of Kalaw. We do a u-turn in the drive of the second hotel, and a man rides up on a scooter to the reception area. The taxi driver waves and calls out something to him, he is clearly very nervous… I ask him if we should at least look, to not offend the owners, but he assures me it’s ok. On the way back to the first hotel he explains that the owner of the second, the man on the scooter, is the “head military man in Kalaw”. I feel immediately concerned that we have decided not to view the rooms, knowing that consequences of the decisions and actions of foreigners are borne by the local people they are with. But the driver insists it is ok, that he is a “small man, your decision, I am just the driver and I have to do what you say”. It continues to bother me for the rest of the trip. Mental note to post this information on the Lonely Planet forum – the guide book declares that all of the hotels it recommends in Burma are non-military affiliated, and family owned and run, but clearly this is not the case.

One thousand golden buddhas

We do a day trip from Kalaw to Pindaya, to the cave of 8,000 buddhas. Honestly the strangest, most surreal experience I’ve ever had. The cave is enormous, huge stalagmites and stalactites and columns. To arrive at the cave requires a climb up what feels like a thousand steps, to an elevator that takes you to the its mouth. When first “discovered” by western archaeologists (it’s always been known to the locals), it’s ceiling and inner walls were covered in gold stamped with images of Buddha. It also contained a massive gold Buddha, we are told by our guide Doe. But these have all been removed. Doe remarks that it is a very different place to what it was 30 years ago, when he first visited. At the entrance of the cave a huge, gold topped stupa has been built, and within the rest of the cave there are literally thousands and thousands of buddhas, purchased and placed in every nook and cranny high and low and simply everywhere by people from every corner of the globe. Including Eliza and Jean Claude from France, John from Atlanta, the Chin family from somewhere in China, others from Korea, Hong Kong, Holland, Spain, Japan, Italy, Taiwan, Thailand, every single country you could possibly name. Mostly they are gold, but some buddhas are stone, some are marble, some are wooden. The ambience and atmosphere is quite simply bizarre to me, causing terrible urges to laugh hysterically in utter amazement.

Narnian-esque

From the top of the cave’s entrance, looking back down the mountains and across the vista, it is like viewing a Narnian landscape. There are golden spires in all directions, the size, scale and sheer number is truly incredible.

At the cave’s entrance is an extraordinary hand painted sign explaining the incredibly complex stages of enlightenment, before Nibbana, in English and Bamar, and in pictures. It’s a revelation to me, including the seven (I think) hell realms that one can be cast into. The worst of which is Awizi. Doe tells us it’s very common to hear people shout “Go to Awizi!” in the middle of an argument. So, not so different, after all…

Princess in a parade

Back in Kalaw we are utterly amazed to find ourselves standing on a street corner, watching a parade of people making their way to the monastery that is behind our hotel. They are Shan, all in traditional dress, with an incredible array of instruments and drums and bells. Men dancing, singing and playing their instruments. Women dressed in the most gorgeous longyis, carrying bunches of peacock feathers, and baskets of flower petals that they toss over little girls dressed up like princesses riding on magnificently decorated horses. Locals just milling about and getting on with things, not really paying much attention to this incredible spectacle. Doe had been surprised we wanted to watch the parade, and I can only assume that it was his assumption that there was nothing special about this… isn’t this what happens in every village?? He does explain though, it is a noviation parade for the boys from one particular area of Kalaw, where the boys of an appropriate age are taken to the monastery to be initiated into novice monkhood. It can take a community up to five years or more to save enough cash to actually undertake the ceremony, according to Doe.

I discover over the few nights we are in Kalaw that monks chant. Endlessly, at the end of the April full moon. For seven (or maybe nine) days, 24 hours a day, non-stop. Ironically, our hotel is called Dream Villa. I decide, at 4.00am on the second night, it should be renamed No-Dreams-In-April Villa. I try to imagine the sound is soothing, but on and on and on and… it’s just not. So, sleep-deprived and less than full of energy, we set out on a trek to Inle Lake with a guide and a cook. July, our guide, is a beautiful 19 year old woman, Pa’O mother and Danu father. The father’s ethnicity is followed in Burma, she tells us, and so she considers herself more Danu than Pa’O. She speaks five languages, and has been a guide since she was 17. She completed university this year, with an English major, even though her first ambition was to do law. She dreamed of being a police-woman, but her mother would not allow it. Now that she is a guide her ambition is to take tourists everywhere in Burma. Her English is impeccable. I compare her to the 19 year old girls I know and just feel awe-struck.

Give way to fellow mountain travellers...

We walk, and sometimes drag ourselves up and up and up the ridge of a mountain. It’s much harder than I expect. Along the way we encounter every manner of farm animal and beast of burden, occasionally stopping to rest and consider the valleys and the view. July points out the various crops being grown, and tells us that in most areas of these valleys, until recently, the most common crop was poppies, but that the government had stopped the farmers growing that, and taught them how to grow vegetables and other crops instead. It’s hard to imagine…

Danu boy with bullock

We have lunch in a Danu village, at the home of an old couple. There are lots of children about, it’s the school holidays, but most of the adults are away in the fields. The couple are delightful, not caring one bit that we couldn’t understand a word of Danu, and instead trying very hard to explain what was being said in sign language and charades. Sometimes July is there to translate, but mostly she is helping to cook lunch. We are totally exhausted, and must look it. The house is built high on stilts, and is constructed of beautiful smelling wood. It has two rooms, at the top of a very steep stair case, with a small veranda at the front entrance. The main room is completely austere, devoid of a single stick of furniture, except an enormous, two-door French looking cabinet in the corner, and bamboo mats on the floor. The second room is the kitchen/eating area. Along one wall in the main room is a huge stash of green, and some red, tomatoes. They’ve been harvested very recently, and as they ripen they are taken into town to market. A 16km up and down mountains return journey by foot, as nobody in this village has a cart or motorised transport. So they are carried in sacks on people’s backs or heads.

Mountain view on a cloudy day

The old woman constantly berates the old man, he has given us tea from the wrong tea pot it seems, or has said something obviously ludicrous, or perhaps he’s not remembered a particular event or detail correctly… The precious things are clearly stored in the French cabinet; after we have exchanged cigarettes and talked for a while and downed endless cups of green tea, she gets up and from within the thousand folds of her Danu trousers she extracts a key. With great ceremony she unlocks the cabinet and carefully selects a cushion, relocks the cabinet with much gravity and then hands me the cushion, indicating that I should lie down and rest. This is indeed precious, I am truly grateful and doze off for a while.

After a rest and lunch we sit around talking some more, and the conversation comes around to money. Do we use kyats in Australia? Is it the same money system? Fortunately, I have some Australian notes, and bring these out to show the couple, and July who has been translating. They are all struck dumb, really amazed, and examine the notes in the minutest detail. Then they are shouting, which brings all the kids in the village dashing up the stairs and into the house to see what all the excitement is about. Everyone is talking at once, and taking turns at examining the notes. This leads to a conversation about banking, and EFT-pos, July can’t really believe what we’re saying… that you put a card into a machine, and it gives you money that you have in the bank. The whole thing is clearly inconceivable. I show them a credit card… but the old man remains fascinated with the notes, and repeatedly says that if he saw it on the ground he wouldn’t know to pick it up, as he wouldn’t recognise it as money. Sagely, the old woman tells us that she thinks the banking system in Australia sounds like “a very good development from your Government”.

Never trust a buffalo!

We head off, and thank Buddha it’s an overcast day. More up, up, up. Much steeper than before lunch. We have encountered numerous small herds of buffalo, always with a herder. We pant our way up a very sharp incline and around a corner, right into a herd of about 15 buffalo. Keep walking, July says, it is ok, the herder will be here somewhere. The buffalo clearly find us offensive; we must really stink to them. A huge beast, with horns at least a metre and a half wide, turns to face us and really starts snorting. I call out to July… I am feeling incredibly vulnerable. We are on a very sharp and narrow path, on the side of a mountain. There is nowhere to go, up or down, only straight ahead or back along the path. Straight ahead are more buffalo including mothers with calves. July calls out for the herder, but there is no response. She tells us to stand still, the huge and clearly agitated buffalo closest to us has started to advance towards us. She picks up a stick, and indicates Cath to do the same. But really, a stick is not going to be any defence… that much is obvious. July is obviously starting to panic, and repeatedly says things like “oh, this is very bad, this has never happened before…” She ushers us back up the path, and tries to calm the buffalo by clicking her tongue and calling out “yo yo yo yo”. We are in very real danger, as more and more of the herd turn and start advancing towards us, July by now instructing us when to “move, one step two step, no no stop stop, don’t look at the buffalo, slowly slowly, ok one step two step”. It is truly the most terrifying experience, but amazingly we make it around the corner and July tells us that the danger has passed. The buffalo, she says, are territorial and we are no longer a threat. They will not come around the corner. I am completely dubious of this… waiting at any moment to have to scramble up a tree or down the side of the mountain, or simply just away. My worst fears, thankfully, are not realised.

Pa'o woman

We are staying in a Pa’O village for the night. No electricity, no running water, no mechanisation whatsoever. It has been a very long day, and we’re completely exhausted. Surprisingly, we are able to buy two beers from the local “shop” (a corner in somebody’s house). It is Myanmar Beer, and quite fabulous. The house is very similar to the one in the Danu village, except it has two small rooms off the main room, and the kitchen/eating area is a small hut next to, rather than connected to, the main house. Also, the ground story of the house is enclosed with bamboo walls, and is filled with thousands and thousands of cloves of garlic. No danger of vampires here…

We sit on the small, rail-less veranda on the front side of the house in which we’ll be staying. We’re gratefully sipping beer and smoking cigarettes. This is the cause of much pointing, laughter and staring; hardly any women in Burma smoke, so the sight of two foreign women doing just this is quite a spectacle in this village. As we eat dinner with July and the cook, crowds of villagers come to the kitchen/eating hut and sit around the fire place. July tells me that they have come to check us out, as not many treks take tourists this way. We make several babies cry. We also endure a young woman who laughs continuously like a hyena and is clearly full of hormones and boy crazy. She chases the cook, and several other young men, around the room. I guess some stages in life, for some people, are the same no matter where in the world you are.

It rains all night, and for the first time in my life anywhere in Asia, I suffer from a serious case of the runs. After being drenched for what feels like the twentieth time to visit the squat toilet at the back of the house, I am feeling completely miserable. Sloshing through the mud, desperately trying not to slip over, I wonder how I’m ever going to find the energy for another 18km of up up up up the next day. I decide I’m not, it is supposed to be a holiday, not something to endure. Cath is awake, unable to sleep. We stand at the veranda door and at 4am or so decide that rather than continuing, we would ask July to take us down the mountain to the main road, to try to catch a ride the rest of the way to Inle Lake.

Not diamonds...

In the morning July is neither perturbed nor surprised by our decision, or if she is she conceals it very well. We head off, and it’s all down down down. Through the red, red mud. The smells and the views are glorious, but it is certainly not diamonds that we find on the soles of our shoes. Every 100 metres or so we need to stop to scrape off the 10 kilo mud bricks that we’ve accumulated. It’s funny and infuriating at the same time. We pass rice paddies and endless fields with Pa’O men and women toiling away. They are very distinct, and easy to spot, bright orange or red headscarves are worn by everyone.

We are lucky when we arrive at the village that has a main road passing; five minutes after arriving a very fancy taxi pulls up and deposits three foreigners who are going trekking on some other part of the mountain. July negotiates a good price with the driver to get us to Inle Lake. We are utterly grateful.

At the end of a muddy mountain path...

Inle Lake

Nyuang Shwe street scene

Nyuang Shwe, the small town at the northern end of the lake, is very obviously a tourist town. We stayed at Mingalar Inn, and it’s gorgeous. The rooms are absolutely huge, and beautifully decorated. There is a really lovely, very big open-aired veranda that looks out onto the main street. The veranda also serves as the breakfast area. For $12/night, this was wonderful.

Inle Lake itself is incredible. It’s monumentally huge, and seeing the leg-rowers in real life is simply amazing. The dug-out canoes that are used by the fishermen are very long, with a flat panel on the end for the rower to sit on stand on. Rowing with a leg keeps both hands free for either casting or retrieving the fishing net, or traditional fishing cone that is still used by some. The fishermen’s physique is quite stunning, I don’t think I’ve seen bodies that muscular and strong except on professional body builders.

Leg-rowers fish trap

Like other places, houses are built high on stilts, only here they are literally built in the lake. From a distance it looks like they’re floating. It’s quite a stunning sight. Some areas of the lake are obviously poorer than others, with rickety, falling down houses that are constructed of woven bamboo and straw thatched rooves in desperate need of repair. Mostly, these are areas where there are floating gardens. Like elsewhere, farming and agriculture seem to be places of grinding hard work and extreme poverty. The floating gardens themselves should be identified as a wonder of traditional technology. Huge tracts of earth are cut away from around the lake, towed back to wherever the farmer lives, staked in place with huge bamboo poles, and voila! Tomatoes, egg plant, cucumber, squash… every vegetable imaginable is grown.

At a village on Inle Lake

Naing Win was our guide on the lake. I think in some ways we offended him, because we didn’t want to visit the temples. Religion and religious devotion is absolute in the places we’d visited, and I suppose, in some ways, it’s difficult to understand why a visitor might not want to see the special locations and objects of your devotion. Instead, we asked if we could go to his village. He was very pleased to take us there, but I think his family members, including his grandmother and his father, were somewhat surprised to find two white foreigners sitting in their living room. We also managed to make his baby nephews cry, it’s possible we were the first white faces they’d ever seen.

An abiding, and incredibly complex and distressing memory from Inle Lake, was visiting a paper making and textile weaving “factory” where Padaung women were set to work. These are women who have copper rings applied around their necks, from just under their chins to their collarbones. The first rings are applied when a girl is around ten, and by the time they are adults, it is almost impossible to for their neck muscles or bone structure to hold up their heads without the rings. The rings are unbelievably heavy, it’s quite impossible to imagine how they can be worn. I have read that the application of the rings was to make the women unattractive to invading tribes; thinking about the practice in the 21st century is kind of like considering female circumcision. Especially as there was a very young girl, possibly 10 or 12 years of age, in the group of women. It felt incredibly uncomfortable watching a group of tourists posing with and taking photos of the women. On a less confronting note, their textiles are absolutely beautiful, with really bright red dyes that are unique to the Padaung.

From Inle, it was back to Yangon, and then home. Honestly, the whole experience was like being flung backwards in time, and then forwards again. I can’t say that I think of it as a holiday, I am still not quite sure how to describe a few brief weeks in Myanmar. And I am still thinking about whether I would go back. In so many ways, it’s a country that can only be described as totally unique and totally incredible. Its diversity, people and landscapes, is astonishing. Just as astonishing as the very obvious human rights abuses, and outright corruption and theft by anybody associated with the police or military.

So many of the people we encountered are hungry for conversations with foreigners, and absolutely generous about sharing their stories and their points of view, and their great pride in their country. Really, everybody I met had a very clear sense that their Burma, or their Myanmar, is unique, and quite incredibly beautiful. The abject poverty that is experienced by the vast majority of the population is absolute and absolutely obvious. It’s confusing and uncomfortable to think about this, considering the incredible cultural, mineral and resource wealth of the country.

It is also a crime against humanity for the western world to believe that there are trade embargoes and blockades in place; it just is not the case in a practical, everyday sense. Every multi-national you can name is operating in Burma. Via their Thai, or Malaysian, or Chinese affiliates.

And it really is impossible to limit the amount of money that goes to the junta; it’s illegal for any non-military citizen to have American dollars. So one way or the other, all the US cash that goes into Burma ends up in the pockets of the junta. But it is possible, even in the smallest way, to provide a family with some income, however trivial. Just through purchasing a meal, or taking a tour, or buying a scarf. But for me it’s totally paradoxical, and totally impossible to decide whether these small things justify anything.

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Posted by on 09/10/2011 in Travel musings

 

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