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Published: March 4th 2007
Pulling up his longyi, Naung Naung proudly shows us the tattoo of a rabbit on his right thigh, surrounded by a faded swirl of Pali inscriptions. "This one makes me jump higher", he explains, his face deadly serious, before pulling open his tattered shirt to reveal a tiger on his chest. "And this one gives me courage!" This goes on for a few minutes, as he shows us a succession of significant tattoos - each located on a specific part of the body - and tells us the blessing each one bestows. I'd read a little about this custom before, (sometimes precious stones and amulets were inserted just beneath the skin to complement the inks and enhance the mystical significance), but hadn't realised it was still practised. I'd read that in times of war, many Burmese soldiers asked for tattoos over their hearts, as this was believed to render the wearer impervious to bullets. Another man told me that some monks are allowed even more powerful tattoos, such as one which can make them invisible when they wish it.
We're in Nyaungshwe now, the largest town on the shore of Inle Lake. True to form, our bus here had suffered
a blow-out and broken down - we all waited under a shady tree while our driver crawled under the bus with a grin & an ice-cream container full of greasy nuts & bolts. It had been a relatively uncomfortable ride, at least at first. The seat I'd been directed to had so little leg room I had to sit with my knees drawn up almost to my chest. Luckily, just when I was starting to cramp badly, someone got off and I scrambled gratefully across into the more spacious seat they'd vacated. =)
Bus rides in Burma can be uncomfortable, or at least occasionally unnerving, for another reason. In 1970, the military leader Ne Win was advised by his soothsayer to "move to the right". It's not clear exactly what he meant by this, but Ne Win decided to follow it very literally with regards to traffic; he ruled that all vehicles had to drive on the right-hand side of the road, (despite the fact that almost all of them were - and still are - right-hand drive). As far as I know, Burma's the only country in which this highly impractical arrangement exists. Many buses - including the
one we caught to Inle Lake that day - employ a young boy to hang out the passenger door, constantly advising the driver on his position relative to oncoming traffic. It's a strange & dangerous system.
We only had one full day in Nyaungshwe, so signed up for a boat tour around the fascinating water-world of Inle Lake. Roughly 22km long, and 11km wide, Inle appeared to be a shallow lake for the most part, its bed lurking only a foot or two below the surface in many places. As we motored gingerly around these areas, hoping not to hear the scratching shriek of propellor against silt, our boat left swirling, muddy-orange eddies in our wake. In other places, the bed rises up out of the lake, forming hilly green islands often crowned with ancient pagodas.
We passed fishermen, trawling across the colder depths with their distinctive cone-shaped nets and rowing style, (they stand at the back of their small canoes, and use one leg to work the single oar). Others were using long hooks to pull thick mats of weed from the lake bed, which are then used as the foundation & fertiliser of the floating gardens
of Kela. We were taken to temples, such as Nga Phe Kyaung
, otherwise known as the Jumping Cat Monastery. Motivated by a dry cat pellet, groups of cats jump repeatedly through an iron hoop, to the fresh delight of tourists tired of Buddha images and the 'normal' temple sights. =P We were also taken to a few of the lake's seventeen Intha stilt-villages, many of which are specialised into specific arts - weaving, black-smithing, silverwork, and so on. It was a long day but well worth it, and we collapsed contentedly back onto the boat late that afternoon, to race a looming thunderstorm back across the lake to our guesthouse.
We didn't do much else during our time in Nyaungshwe, except for a bike-ride out to the nearby hot spring at Kaungdaing
, (nothing special in itself but the ride out there is great, if very bumpy in parts). The rest of the time we just sat around, talking with Naung Naung, (pronounced something like "know-know"), and the rest of the gang at Remember Inn and the neighbouring Thanaka Cafe. (The cafe is named after the cream-coloured sandalwood paste that almost all Burmese women & children wear. Applied in varying
shades & patterns, it is used as both sun-block & a cosmetic - Brian & I both came to consider it very beautiful. On the ladies that is, not ourselves! =P)
In the couple of days we were there, we got to know a few of the other staff as well, staying up late each night to discuss life & love and smoking cheap Burmese cigars, (usually favoured only by toothless old ladies; those still blessed with teeth generally preferring to chew the little leaf-wrapped betel-nut packages instead). On our last morning, one of the Thanaka Cafe cooks - one of the gentlest and most lovely women I've ever met - invited us to her family's home for breakfast. Our last hour in Nyaungshwe was spent there, sitting cross-legged on bamboo mats with the entire family, slurping down big bowls of delicious, peanut-flavoured Shan soup. It was with a lot of regret that we had to say our goodbyes to everyone and catch the bus to Yangon - our longest yet at 22 hours. The trip passed uneventfully, although as we got off in Yangon, Brian nudged me and pointed to the driver. He'd driven the whole way himself
Not old enough just yet...
A toddler squats on his ball, watching the big boys play. =P
- no second driver or stops of more than 45 minutes - and looked more dead than alive by this stage.
Back at the Garden Guesthouse, the manager looked up from gloomily picking his nose, crowed with surprise at seeing us again, and then extended his hand enthusiastically to welcome us back. =P Dropping our bags in the same room as we'd stayed in before, we spent the afternoon wandering around Yangon's markets, (where, I have to admit, we spent most of our left-over kyat
on pirated movie DVD's rather than 'cultural artifacts' of any kind), and then went out to the same places that night. Unfortunately, Jonny couldn't join us this time, but we met plenty of other interesting characters and had a great night.
Sitting on my AirAsia flight early the next morning, wearing my crisp new longyi
with great pride, I grinned back at all the quizzical, sidelong glances I was getting, and reflected on what had been an amazing trip - perhaps the highlight of the past year's. How to describe Burma? Imagine a sort of country-hybrid between Thailand and India, twenty or even thirty years in the past... As in India, life is
lived on the streets in Burma - men sit at little outdoor tea-shops for hours, women gossip & giggle on corners, children kick balls around honking cars and swerving bikes. No need for 'community' halls and events here! But in terms of temperament & personality, the Burmese people reminded me more of Thai's, perhaps those of an earlier age. Imagine how Thailand might have been before the tourist dollar - especially the unsavoury variety paid by hordes of sex tourists - had worked its black magic. Gentle, quick to laugh, considerate to a fault, (I occasionally forgot to take something to eat on the buses; families sitting near me would always insist I share their meagre lunch, further dividing what wasn't enough in the first place)... Of all the countries I've travelled in, I've never enjoyed and respected a people as much as I do the Burmese.
I could certainly begin to understand Percy Fitzgibbons, an Australian retiree we met at a bus-stop in Kalaw, who moved to Burma after retiring, married, and hasn't left since. Incidentally, Percy was quite a character - look out for him if you visit Kalaw any time soon. Waiting for the bus when
we pulled up for a quick toilet-stop, he stumbled amongst the passengers in sandals & socks, waving his walking stick as he loudly sought out English conversation. When a sly French traveller fobbed him off by telling him there was a compatriot of his on the bus, his search became frantic. "Is there another Australian here?!" he cried loudly in a wavering voice, shaking random hands with great enthusiasm and peering myopically at the confused faces flowing by him. He was a good bloke though and I enjoyed chatting with him - if anyone's ever wondered what it'd be like to live in a place you loved as a traveller, look Percy up next time you're in Kalaw, (just ask any local for "the crazy Australian", as Percy suggested).
Of course, part of what makes Burma such a unique place - namely its sense of being a decade or two behind its neighbours, and of being untouched (or at least, more gently handled) by the outside world - has come at a terrible price, and I felt guilty even as I enjoyed it. The State Peace & Development Council (SPDC), an oppressive military regime, took power in 1962, immediately
sealed the country off from the rest of the world and have ruled with an iron fist since then. Many, including Aung San Suu Kyi
, (leader of the National League for Democracy in Burma; she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her non-violent struggle against the military dictatorship), have requested that tourists stay away, thus depriving the military government of both tourism dollars and a form of international legitimacy. However, literally all of the Burmese people I spoke to, (very discreetly!), about this thanked me for coming to see the country for myself, begged me to tell everyone back home how much I had loved it, and finally to encourage all of them to visit as well... For those who do choose to go, you can minimise your financial support of the regime by avoiding (wherever possible) all government modes of transport and accommodation, and trying to support the small local options instead. Needless to say, it is a tough decision and one each traveller has to make for themselves. But maybe by visiting, and really talking (although carefully) to people, travellers can gradually bring an awareness of the outside world, of different forms of government & ways of thinking,
and - perhaps most importantly - an assurance that the Burmese people & their plight haven't yet been totally forgotten. Some Final Words from the SPDC
He that is not open to conviction, is not qualified for discussion.
Learning without thinking is labour lost.
If you bite my cheek, I'll bite your ears.
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