This book kept popping up at shops around Myanmar while I was visiting there last month. I had read Orwell in high school (1984 and Animal Farm) but never any more. But I picked up this paperback and decided to check it out.
First of all it was clearly a pirated book. Although the cover looked like a Penguin Classic Book, the inside was printed poorly on cheap paper and within the first few chapters it began to fall apart. Oh well, I just kept trying to hold the book together.
Written in 1934 the book is a fictional tale of the waning days of the British Colonial period in Burma (now Myanmar). This is a time when Burma was ruled by Britian from Delhi as part of British India.
Orwell himself spent time in Burma, so the book (his first) is based on his first hand experience there.
The book uses serious racist language that today is completely frowned upon, and reflects the true superior British societal approach to the people of Burma. The debasing effect the empire had on the native people of the time is frankly, disgusting.
But I’m glad I read it. Even though Britian eventually revoked it’s colonial rights through out the region as well as in other regions, the deep scar Britian left is still today part of life in Myanmar and in other countries like India. Colonialism was and is a blight on people of the world and Burmese Days spells it out in a sad and honest tale of the people who were there.
You might not immediately understand the comparison, but Myanmar, and Inle Lake specifically, reminds me very much of Guatemala. Beautiful Guatemala – one of my favorite countries in the world because of its simple, shy but welcoming people. A people often living a subsistence lifestyle, happily and faithfully like their ancestors before them. This is how I see the remarkable people of Inle Lake Myanmar.
We are blessed with two full weeks in Inle, about eleven days longer than most people stay. Our slow travel style has us enjoying the peace and quiet here, from our stilt house over Inle at the Myanmar Treasure Resort – a splurge hotel from our normally simple Airbnbs. From this vantage point we are swept away by the lovely people of the region, the remarkable people of Inle Lake Myanmar, whose lives are intricately connected to the lake.
Of course the lake provides so much to the people – it is highway, bathtub, garden and washing machine. But mostly it is a food source. Watching the unique fishing style of the fishermen, it’s a bit like a ballet. The men have developed this system of standing at the stern of their boat, using one leg to maneuver the paddle while using both hands to manipulate their nets or baskets. This system came about because the water is clear, and it’s easier for the men to see the fish in the shallow lake if they are standing.
Lake Fact – Inle Lake is the second largest lake in Myanmar (45 square miles) but only 12 feet at its deepest point most of the year. During the rainy season the lake can rise about 5 feet.
Many people still living in the old ways have little need for cash money. They live a subsistence life, with fishing, farming and gathering providing their daily needs. Gatherers can be seen collecting betel leaves, foraging for wild plants such as pennywort and morning glory, and pulling lotus stems from the lake to create thread for weaving (more on this below). In the forests, teak and bamboo are taken for many uses.
Lake Fact – Inle Lake was designated a UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserve – a protected area that demonstrates a balanced relationship between people and nature and encourages sustainable development.
The remarkable people of Inle Lake Myanmar have created an ingenious farming method. Using weeds gathered from the bottom of the lake and bamboo poles for support, the people have built floating gardens. The gardens are tended from a dugout canoe, and due to the rich and abundant mineral lake water, the crops flourish.
Additionally, farming of fruit, beans and nuts, rice, corn and sugar cane is abundant in the region. Yellow tofu made from chickpeas is a regional specialty and exported to other regions.
Lake Fact – daily markets take place around the lake, moving daily to five different locations. Here the people sell homegrown produce, fresh caught fish, eels and snails, as well as baskets, weavings and tofu.
As people will do everywhere in the world, the remarkable people of Inle Lake Myanmar have created income from their ability to create beautiful things from local resources.
The mountains that circle the lake are a source of silver, and silver making of jewelry and other ornamental items is big business particularly for the tourist trade.
Weaving is traditional and several styles of weaving are important to the region. Silk, cotton and lotus thread weaving occupies many women.
Unique to Inle, gathering of the lotus stems and creating thread from the fine spiderweb-like interior creates a unique and beautiful style of weaving. Most of the robes the monks wear are made from this lotus thread cloth. It is very expensive because of how delicate it is and the time-consuming work. Lotus cloth or silk cloth is usually reserved for special occasions for the average person, who dress daily in cloth skirts known as longhi.
Cigar making is also an important industry. Most women of the older generation smoke handmade cigars while men lean to chewing betel leaves. The cigars are all hand rolled and it’s quite remarkable to watch the process. Several styles of cigars and smaller cigarette-like cigars are made using tobacco, tobacco mixed with spices or honey, and also some filled with cornhusks. Some have filters, others do not.
Lake Fact – their are four cities on the lake, but dozens of smaller villages, many built on stilts out over the water and accessible only by boat. The remarkable people of Inle Lake Myanmar are mostly of the Intha tribe, with a mix of Shan, Taungyo, Pa-O, Danu, Kayak, Danaw and Bamar.
To live effectively and have any kind of a life on this lake, people need to either own or have access to a boat. The boats that ply these waters are all very similar in style, and are usually built from teak.
The boats used for fishing are the smallest, 7m, some have a motor while others do not. A family boat is about 10m and the largest boat used for transportation, similar to a taxi or ferry service on the lake is about 18m.
Boat manufacturing is a specialized craft all done by hand, usually in a family owned business handed down over generations. Even the teak trees are cut by hand and hewn by hand into the beautifully shaped vessel. The boats are designed to maneuver through the narrow passage ways on the lake and are low to the water. A mixture of shredded teak and tar is used to fill the gaps in the boat. Lacquer is used to paint the boat. A boat well cared for will last about 20 years.
Transporting people and goods is a business into itself. People who grow vegetables and other items in the hills around the lake need to transport the items to the people on the lake and vice versa. Of course transporting tourists is big business today as well.
Lake Fact – the teak trees grown around Inle Lake are known as the finest teak in the world.
Nearly all of the population of Myanmar is Buddhist, and temples and pagodas dot the Inle Lake area, just like the rest of Myanmar. Monks are revered and the people make a practice to visit the temples and worship regularly.
Most monks live a simple and quiet life at monasteries scattered around the area. While some children are apprenticed as monks very early, not all remain throughout their life. It’s a difficult life. Monks often walk the street each morning and the people come out to provide food to them (known as alms) and often this is their only meal of the day.
Monks infrequently engage with tourists but occasionally receiving a blessing from a monk will occur. It is important to never touch a monk’s robe.
Lake Fact – there are several monasteries and temples (also called Pyay) accessible by water on the lake and visitors are welcome. You must always remove your shoes, and sometimes women must cover their heads. In addition Pyay and temples are also scattered around the hills and can often be illuminated by the rising sun in the morning. A beautiful sight.
Our time in Myanmar has been memorable, and it isn’t over yet. Looking forward to learning more about the remarkable people of Inle Lake Myanmar over the next week, before we move on to Yangoon.
This is not a blog about everything you should do when visiting Bagan. There are no recommendations on hotels or restaurants or which temples are the most austere. There are plenty of those blogs already written.
There is an old women. She looks 80 but a life of labor probably means she is closer to my age of 59. She rolls cigars for a living…rolled from corn husks and filled with a mixture of tobacco and chunks of palm wood.
This is a blog about the way Bagan Myanmar makes me feel. A feeling I find difficult to describe or explain. Nonetheless this is me reflecting on Bagan.
The more I travel the more I find myself conflicted about travel…all the while also finding myself needing to travel more. It’s an addiction plain and simple. This insatiable desire to get at the nerve of a place and really feel it’s soul.
Hunched over a loom she makes cloth from cotton she has grown, dyed and spun into thread. She spends her days weaving to sell to the tourists and to provide the traditional skirts both men and women wear.
I’m conflicted because I don’t want to contribute to “over-tourism” – one of our current catch words of the decade. Though I practice conscientious travel my nomad life has me often seated in a jet airplane, frequently drinking plastic bottled water when no other options present themselves and participating in a growing global tourism culture in places few people have ever been until recently.
Thus here I am reflecting on Bagan.
Since before puberty she has worn the brass rings around her neck as one of the unique women of the Kayan tribe. Now later in her life, removing the rings could kill her. She has spent 50 years bound this way and even when the tourists stare she is proud.
I stand at a temple (a place where you worship Buddha inside) or a stupa (a usually dome topped monument to worship from the outside) and I find myself thinking much more about human life than about ancient structures. As I have gazed on the pyramids at Giza (Egypt 4500 years), the Mayan Temples of Guatemala (3000 years), the white marble Taj Mahal (India 400 years) and the Roman Road of the Camino de Santiago (Spain 2000 years) I see people more than structures.
In my reflection I’m less inclined to convince more visitors to come here than I am to search for meaning as to why I have been called to be here? Why has my life led me to witness.
I want to remember and honor and understand the remarkable human beings who walked this same ground I’m on, yet thousand of years before. Who were they? Young or old? Did they have families? Were they hungry? Happy? Whole?
I am fascinated at the thought of workers and slaves who by force or by faith built the great structures of our world. The precise stone monument of Machu Picchu (Peru 600 year), the precariously placed mountain top Sri Lankan fort of Sigiriya (1500 year) , the astonishing stone carved temple of Lalibela (Ethiopia 1500 years) or the massive and sprawling city of Angor Wat (Cambodia 900 years).
Beyond this curiosity about these ancient societies I also find myself drawn to more recent history. Meeting a tiny little cigar puffing 80-year old Burmese woman and wondering what she feels about the changes here over her lifetime. Eighty years ago Burma was a British Colony and the native people were suppressed under British rule. They cultivated the fields all around these more than 4000 ancient temples with little knowledge or awareness to understand the history that happened here. Making sure they knew where their next meal was coming from was more important.
Twenty years ago tourists began to come to the newly named country of Myanmar. Seven years ago a new government began to really push Bagan as a tourist destination and four-months ago Bagan became the newest UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A lot of changes in a few years. And though a UNESCO designation will breath new life into conservation and preservation efforts it will also bring a vast number of more tourists and continue to change the ancient way of life.
For me I find people and their cultures more fascinating than structures. The history of life. The culture of 4000 years ago and the culture of 100 years ago hold the same fascination for me. I think about the farmer who for generations planted his fields around the giant stones laying on the ground that we now know as Stonehenge (England 5000 years). Or the farmer in China just out digging a new well less than sixty years ago who discovered the incredible archeological site we now know as the Terracotta Warriors (2000 years). Or a British explorer looking for one thing and stumbling upon the ancient buried city of Ephesus (Turkey 1000 years). Just real everyday people discovering remarkable antiquities in a world fascinated with ancient ruins.
A beautiful young woman wearing the traditional thanaka paste on her face sells fans and postcards outside the temple. She uses her English to engage with visitors and her smile to enchant.
As I am reflecting on Bagan I want to embrace and honor the culture of the place, all while knowing much of it is gone or going with the influx of visitors like myself.
An old woman invites a stranger into her courtyard and serves them tea – expecting no donation or payment. This is her culture and she preserves it. She chats away in a language we don’t know and puffs on her cigar. She cackles loudly showing cigar stained teeth. She firmly grasps my hand as we depart with a well worn paw that has seen decades of labor. Her gesture is genuine, lovely, and will disappear likely in the next generation.
I don’t know where this leaves me, except in a quandary to do my best to show respect and reverence to the remarkable cultures I am so very blessed to touch, if only briefly.
Conflicted in Bagan. Beautiful, precarious, real Bagan. Reflecting on Bagan.