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Published: August 25th 2012
Inle Lake Fisherman
Unique leg-paddling action
Greetings once more from Burma. I am writing this one in the lobby of my Rangoon hotel whilst waiting for my taxi to whisk me away to the airport for a midnight flight to Singapore, and then on to London from there. By the time you read this, I will already have arrived safely back in Hammersmith (where I will be uploading this onto the internet), after what has turned out to be one fantastic, fantastic trip indeed – it’s been just great! And these last few days have finished off this amazing trip with style, enjoyment, and thanks be to God, a huge lift in my spiritual life which I definitely needed and am so very grateful for. I will relate all below.
So last I wrote I was in the wonderful, but very hot, city of Mandalay up in the central “dry” zone of the country, so-called due to its comparatively less rainfall, but when I was there, mostly on my last night after I’d decided to walk the 3km back to my hotel from the Green Elephant restaurant at the opposite end of the Palace Wall and Moat, got soaked to the skin by
a sudden outpouring of H2O. Not to worry, as the air conditioning dried off all my clothes and shoes overnight, in time for my onward journey which flew me again by the gracious Air Mandalay to my fourth stop in the country: the stunning Inle Lake, probably my favourite of the “Big Four” here, but only by a whisker I must admit.
Inle Lake, a beautiful body of still blue water around 40 sq km in size nestling in the heart of Shan state, the Shan minority people forming around 6% of the total population and being closely related to the Thais (the name Shan is derived from the old word for Thailand, Siam). Incidentally, the majority ethnic group, the Bamar, after whom the country took its original name Burma, make up around 70% of the population. And whilst on the point I still call the country Burma, rather than its “official” name Myanmar, meaning “Golden Land”, which was commissioned by the military government in 1989. Whilst I understand the logic behind using a name which unites the various ethnic groups of the country by avoiding the name derived by the majority ethnic group, I go with what the
Me and Thein Thein
My heart nearly broke saying goodbye to this sweet little orphan with HIV...
Lady (Aung San Suu Kyi) states, that she prefers Burma as its name was changed without any popular referendum on the subject. It’s also a lot easier for English people to say Burma than Myanmar, as well as Rangoon than Yangon. And to go along with my less than favourable sentiments towards political correctness and anti-colonial apologetics who prefer to use city names such as Yangon, as well as Kolkata and Mumbai, I prefer to use the names which come more naturally to my tongue: Rangoon, Calcutta and Bombay. After all, how many English people refer to Munich, Moscow or Warsaw by their native-language names Munchen, Moskva or Warszawa? And I don't mind at all that other Europeans similarly refer to London according to their own language, including Londres, Londra and Londyn. It's just language differences, and I don't see why the same logic should not also be applied to countries and cities outside Europe. And finally, I have also noted a popular opinion here that the British did much more for the country than have the “native” generals in the last 50 years. So again, I refrain from the often-held opinion in the UK that the British empire was
“greedy and selfish”, that apologies should be made for this part of our history, and am on the other hand very proud of my country and history, and as such continue to use the names Burma and Rangoon here.
Anyway, what a digression…! Inle Lake. At just over 1000 metres above sea level, stepping off the airplane at Heho Airport was a complete breath of fresh air. The temperature rarely rises above 30 degrees, was cloudy for much of my time there (so no fierce sun to look out for), and much less humid than other parts of the country. Indeed, most hotels don’t have air-conditioning there because it simply isn’t needed, and I think the pleasant climate greatly added to my enjoyment of the place – you can walk without sweating, what a luxury!
First day, and different to my heated cycle around Bagan, I hired another bicycle and cycled through some splendid countryside 10km to the south-west of the main town of Nyaungshwe where I was based, past farmers gathering in their crops of what looked like wheat, along dirt tracks shared by wagons and tractors, to an amazing hot springs spa located to the north-west
of the lake for a lovely afternoon of a thoroughly needed hot soaking of the travel-weary limbs – bliss! Second day, joined a family of French (most tourists here are either French, Spanish or Italian) for a hike through the Shan hills and villages on the east side of the lake. We set off at 9.30am and returned at 5.30pm, walking through some amazing scenery. Had tea stops at various villages, visited monasteries and schools, and finished off the day at one of the country’s two vineyards for a unique wine-tasting session overlooking the valley and lake below. Whilst the French family did the whole trip, I cheated the last 5km by hitching a ride on the back of a tractor, which was met by surprise and amusement by every single local we passed (it must have been very funny seeing a westerner, who normally travels by air-conditioned minibus, on the back of a tractor…!). And finally, the third day, a splendid day indeed, probably my best in the country. Joined three nice Hungarian girls for a boat trip on the lake, taking in the most amazing sight of the country’s unique leg-paddling fishermen. Check the photos for this if
Yes it's true - a motorbike carrying live chickens upside down...
the explanation doesn’t make too much sense, but these guys have tiny boats which they paddle with one leg wrapped around an oar. The other leg amazingly keeps balance on the back of the boat, whilst the hands are engaged with holding a fishing rod or nets. Some of them slap the water heavily with their paddle, presumably to scare the fish into swimming into their conical nets which they place under water. It really was a most unique and impressive sight to behold. Along with this, we took in a number of “floating” villages, which were in actual fact groups of houses built upon stilts above the water, roads and streets being the bodies of water which run between these dwellings. Each village was dedicated to a different trade, and we visited a cloth weaving workshop, a pottery village and a silversmith village which produced some amazing pieces of jewellery and ornaments. We also took in a number of temples, one of which being the splendid Phaung Daw Oo Paya, the number one Buddhist site in the south of Shan state. The attraction here was 5 Buddha statues, which men add gold leaf to (women are not allowed…!). The
statues have had so much gold leaf applied to them that they are no longer discernible as Buddha statues but rather 5 golden blobs, but still venerated, and I even added my own leaf of gold to (costing only 25p!). It was a splendid day, which rounded up an excellent time in my penultimate stop on this amazing journey.
And finally, my last domestic flight back to Rangoon. This time I was due to fly on Air KBZ, which had a codeshare with Air Mandalay who don’t fly on Wednesdays. However, they were full up, so I was subsequently transferred to Asian Wings. So instead of “flying beyond my expectations”, I ended up “flying beyond my dreams”, and indeed had a great flight with again another meal, drink and refreshing tissue offered on the hour-long flight – very impressive service again!
Landing back in Rangoon airport, I got a taxi to take me to my last hotel, but hit a huge, and I mean mega, rainstorm on the way here. A black cloud hovered above the city and didn’t seem to move (which I had actually seen from the airplane as it landed), and sent sheets of rain
down upon the unprepared streets and seemingly non-existent drainage system, turning the roads literally into flowing rivers. I can see how the recent floods in Manila happened if days of this rain happened, as after only one hour the city just became a muddy paddling pool, with people wading through in their flip-flops, cars creating surfing waves as they drove, and naturally the city seemingly descending into one big gridlock. The half-hour journey to my hotel ended up taking one and a half hours.
But wow, Rangoon, I really like this city. As mentioned, it hardly seems to have developed since British colonial times, the buildings being unrestored and covered in tropical moss and rot, making the whole place appear ramshackle and fascinating. The most amazing thing on my trip so far happened in my hotel though, the Queens Park Hotel, and this was meeting a group of Canadian Christian missionaries who are here for a couple of weeks visiting and helping out at a number of orphanages here. Two weeks ago, when I was first here and deciding which hotel to stay at upon my return, I had found two pretty decent other places, but something inside called
me to come here, so I booked and paid in advance, finding out in these Canadians why I was being called here. On Wednesday, after arriving, they kindly invited me along on one of their orphanage visits, to a place about one and a half hour’s drive deep in the rural area outside Rangoon, the Divine Hope Orphanage. What an experience. 50 orphans, made so mainly by Cyclone Nargis in 2008 (the worst natural disaster in recorded Burmese history, killing anywhere between 100,000 and 300,000 people – the bureaucracy of the government not having allowed any accurate documentation of the disaster to have taken place), and the ethnic fighting and resistance movements in the border states of the country. What love and joy existed in this remote and very basic place. The kids were so full of life, and so happy to receive a visit from these Canadian guys. I was most touched by the games they played with them, the singing, praying and story-telling. Such an experience has certainly given me a boost (or more accurately a kick-up-the-backside!) in my own spiritual life. One little girl, whose photo I have attached, touched me very deeply indeed. This small, 4-year
old girl called Thein Thein (pronounced “Tin-Tin”) was just so happy at everything, talking to herself and others around her, taking a very active and excited part in everything, I was so moved to watch her. I very sadly found out she’s an AIDS orphan, and has HIV. What a lovely, lovely little girl, and thinking of her now moves me still. I will continue to pray for her, and if anyone reading this could do so too I’m sure it would help her poor, poor situation… It was an experience that I can’t really put into words, but feel so deeply in my heart and am so very glad to have had the honour to see. I donated some money, and will try to set up a system by which I can send a small amount to the place on a monthly basis when I get home. As you can imagine, due to the present government, lack of external communication and ability to gain support from the international community and the outside world, Burma has a huge, huge need for relief and humanitarian assistance which the present government fails greatly in addressing themselves. Goodness knows how much the country’s
Near Inle Lake
White Elephants, such as its new capital city Nay Pyi Taw, mentioned in my previous entry, cost… I have subsequently found out that the president who commissioned the city was told by a fortune teller that it would bring him luck if he built seven new cities during his presidential term, which is what he has done – mad! The main guy who drove us to the orphanage runs an orphanage himself and heads an orphanage charity in the country (being an orphan himself), but explained to me the difficulties of operating in such political conditions. The government is not unknown to have closed down such orphanages, on the basis that they are spreading Christianity in a predominantly Buddhist country, sending the poor kids back to where they came from for nothing else but a life on the street. It moved me to tears seeing these kids being loved by the community, the family and the volunteers who run the place, and I was most choked on the journey back. They were lovely, and I sincerely hope that I have been and will be able to support them as much if not more than the experience itself has touched me.
The Canadians have also been great, and I have shared meals and prayer time with them, and feel it a real blessing from God to have finished off my journey like this. Thank you.
But before I close, my last full day on this trip yesterday I spent just polishing off a few last minute details. A visit to Aung San Suu Kyi’s house, or at least the gate outside made famous by her internationally publicised house arrest and subsequent release – I can’t say how much I admire the lady and feel a sense of warmth every time I think of her and what she has done for Burma. Naturally, every person I have met here who has brought her up just loves her. Previously it was apparently very dangerous to be involved with her, speak about her or anything, but now people are not shy to display her picture and talk about her – things are certainly a-changing in this country. After this, an interesting visit to the resting place of the Last Mughal Emperor of India, the Dargah of Bahadur Shah Zafar, who was exiled here by the British in 1858, and whose story has
been written about by one of my favourite travel writers, William Dalrymple, in “The Last Mughal”, which I will be sure to read once back in the UK. And finally a trip to the Bogyoke Aung San Market (Bogyoke (General) Aung San was the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, and the leader of the country’s independence movement from the UK in 1947 before his subsequent assassination only months after), the city’s main market for souvenirs, and stocked up on a fair few!
So it is with immense enjoyment, pleasure and blessings that I have reached the end of my journey, awaiting my final ride to the airport and back to Britain. I am looking forward now to a week of rest back in London, and a time for reflection on the many experiences I have encountered on my six-week journey through South-East Asia: including, amongst many other amazing adventures, temple- and island-hopping in Vietnam, jungle trekking and elephant riding in Laos, and experiencing first-hand the complex political and emotional current affairs in Burma. And of course thanksgiving for such an amazing time and end to this trip.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy the
Village in the Shan Highlands
photos. Until the next time, a potential plan coming together for Canada and the USA again this Christmas.
Big hug, and God Bless
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