Saturday, December 06, 2014

Diaries of Myanmar

This year in October, Jared and I made our way to Myanmar to attend one of his closest friend’s wedding.

To be honest, I can’t say that I have ever had much of an interest in visiting the country. Perhaps a more accurate way of saying it is – I didn’t even know much about it. Sure, I know who Aung San Suu Kyi is and if I were given a photo of her in a group of twenty people, I could probably pick her out in an instant. I know it used to be called Burma, now it’s called Myanmar, and its capital is Yangon. But all that trivia is no basis to form even the slightest impression of an entire country, and my interest did not extend beyond its reputation as a mecca for backpackers.

So I’m afraid to report that when Jared first proposed the trip to me, I was immediately more concerned with whether we could visit the Padaung tribe, famously known for their long-necked women. I must have first gotten glimpses of them on Ripley’s Believe it or Not when I was young, where years after, the name evoked vague recollections of a tanned, wizened face juxtaposed atop gleaming coils of gold, a protective shell around a feeble neck that would snap if the rings were ever taken off.

It took us a long time to finalise our itinerary because, other than the Padaung tribe, we weren’t sure what else we wanted to see. A hot air balloon ride over Bagan was on the cards, but at every other destination temples ranked amongst the top ten attractions, and neither of us were particularly disposed to that.

We eventually booked our tickets two weeks before the wedding, having decided to leave everything up to spontaneity.

Writing this two months after the trip, five main things stand out in my memory:

1. Seeing white elephants in Yangon

After two hours of driving around Yangon and conversing in stilted English with the tour guide, he turned around in his seat and asked, “Where do you want to go now?”

We looked down at the tourist map unfolded across our laps – there were check marks against all the major temples; we already had lunch at the largest market in town; and Aung San Suu Kyi’s gated house stood just beside us. Now the rain was just starting to come down. The rest of the day looked discouraging.

“White elephant?” the guide ventured.

Images of travelling across Yangon and alighting at the foot of a plaster elephant statue went through my mind. “Um,” I replied.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, from the perspective of the elephant who was born white and captured for good luck), it wasn’t actually a statue. Lo and behold, the white elephant of Yangon:

2. Riding a hot air balloon over the UNESCO Heritage site of Bagan at sunrise

Right off the bat, let me say that Bagan is amazing. It was by far my favourite destination in Myanmar, not least because it is easy to lose yourself in the overgrown beauty of the place.

Long-enduring temple ruins dot the landscape and stand sentry along dirt tracks that wind through the dry brush. A young boy wanders by, swishing at the long grass with his stick, as a herd of white cows with swollen bellies walk leisurely at his side. Far away in the shimmering heat, a clip-clop-clip-clop of a horse carriage reaches your ears on a faint wisp of wind – was that real or a ghost of age-old memories?

In this place (Bagan Archaeological Zone, admission fee $10, payable by cash only), the passage of time ceases to have meaning.

Exploring the land on foot allows you to physically be in tune with your surroundings, but it’s only from a bird’s eye view that you can truly appreciate the grandeur and scale of things. Beauty takes on a new dimension.

Emerald paddy fields stitched together around the ruins slowly come into view in all four directions as the morning mist lifts. The air is quiet up here.

Afterwards, we sit in the shade of the balloon with glasses of champagne and slices of banana cake, and you wonder what the kings who live on as dust under the farmers’ feet would say if they could see us now.

3. Taking a cruise around Inle Lake

Inle Lake is another place I loved. At first sight it is unassuming – and dirty, even. The water is a murky brown and the smell of the wet market and stagnant drains permeate the area around it. You will be disappointed when you first lay eyes on it.

But within ten minutes on the boat, the channel widens and the water gradually becomes clearer. Soon there are sparkles of sunlight dancing amidst the blooms of water hyacinths. Fishermen tend to their nets, looking up only briefly as you go by – as curious as you are about them, they are clearly unconcerned about you and your presence.

The Floating Gardens was particularly picturesque, and it was amazing to see how adept the locals are at farming from boats. We also stopped by a cute little village called Myaing Thauk to take pictures on a wooden bridge on stilts.

4. Having the most delicious dinner at unassuming family-run restaurants

Well, one restaurant really. This one was situated right outside our hotel at Inle, and for $10 we could get Burmese curry chicken, stir-fried French beans, and an entire fish fried in soybean paste. Hands down the best food of the entire trip. I tried to get the recipe from the cook, but communication stood between me and an eternally happy belly.

5. Seeing the long-necked women

This one is a bit of a struggle. While the long-necked women were, to me, the characterizing symbol of Myanmar and the part of the trip I was most anticipating, I didn’t imagine it would be this uncomfortable to finally see them.

We interacted with them twice on this trip – once unexpectedly at Bagan, and the second at Inle Lake. Both times they were working at craft shops, hand-weaving long swaths of cloth that could be used as pasoes, longyis, and table runners.

At Bagan we followed a sign placed at the entrance to a village. “Long neck woman,” it read in stark black, alongside a sketch of a woman’s head (and neck).

Navigating the back roads took a while, but we eventually arrived at the door of a house purported to be their shop. The pair of villagers who had shown us the way pushed us gently over the threshold and called out to someone inside. In seconds, a man appeared and took stock of us, then yelled upstairs in Burmese.

“They are changing now,” he said in English. “Wait.”

The next five minutes consisted of a lot of awkward feet shuffling and sideward glances at Jared.

When the ladies emerged from the dark of the house, they were carrying balls of string and a small wooden loom. “You take pictures,” the man said, gesturing at them. “As many as you want. Weaving.”

“Ah, no no no,” I hastened to reply. “No need to start weaving.” I wasn’t sure what I expected them to be doing, nor what I wanted to do once I had seen them – at no point before the trip had I imagined what we would actually say to each other after the first introduction – but it surely wasn't a performance put on for my sole benefit.

The second encounter was at Inle. As the boat sputtered to a stop at a crafts shop, I saw a familiar glint of gold at the second storey. A girl was standing at the window, daydreaming, her chin cupped in her hands.

As I climbed the stairs to their workspace, she smiled at me and ducked into a doorway, where I found her sitting in a chair, swinging her legs back and forth as she watched us. She must have been about twelve.

At the back of the room two older women worked in silence. One of them looked up and smiled. "Hello," she said.

I watched the clacking of their looms for a while before asking if I could take photos. "The cloth is beautiful," I said, and I meant it from the bottom of my heart.

At the end of the day, I couldn't help but wonder if my discomfort was a result of the situation, or of my own prejudices. While I had no qualms watching the fishermen, the silversmiths, the paper umbrella makers, or even the other weavers, I couldn't meet the eyes of the long-necked women, whom it must be noted were always friendly, game to interact, and comfortable in their own skins. Perhaps I was prescribing a sense of shame to them that they didn't even feel. The encounter told me more about the oversensitivities of prejudice, not so much about what was really present.

Now, for the important question: is there anyone who can teach me how to make some kickass chicken curry and fish in soy bean paste?

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