Mingalabar from Burma! This new adventure has been particularly special for me. Bear with me while I explain some back story. Exactly one year ago I took my first solo trip and stayed at a hostel for the first time in San Francisco. Only a small collection of travelers were present, many of whom were not celebrating Christmas—among them tourists from various countries of the Far East, a Hindu originally from India, and me. So I invited Nitin from India to partake in a traditional Jewish Christmas. (When everything else is closed on Christmas Day, you can always count on a Chinese restaurant being open.) We hopped aboard a crowded cable car, chugging up the hills and hurdling down in a free fall like a roller coaster until we stepped off in Chinatown. (I can only assume that the Chinese tourists spent Christmas eating corned beef sandwiches at a Jewish deli.) Having decided months prior that I’d be moving to Thailand, I became obsessed with going to a popular Burmese restaurant in anticipation of making a visit to Burma itself. A day or two later, Nitin accompanied me at the restaurant and ordered nothing but read through the entire menu just to point out which items were actually Indian dishes with the spelling altered by one or two letters. When we parted ways, he told me he’d like to travel to Thailand but would skip Burma.
Which brings me to my latest solo trip one year later. Burma is the seventh country I’ve visited in Southeast Asia and the one I’ve probably had the strongest desire to experience. Long closed off from the outside world by a brutal military dictatorship, Burma has only recently become more accessible to foreigners as of three years ago. Mention you’re thinking of traveling to Burma in casual conversation, and no matter who you’re talking to and whether or not they’ve actually been there, they’ll persuade you that now is the time to go “before things start changing too much.” Democratic elections in 2015 led to a landslide victory for Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). However, the political landscape remains complicated. Questions persist about the military’s real agenda and how much power they still retain. You may be wondering why I’m calling it Burma rather than by its official name, Myanmar. The military government changed the name in 1989 in reaction to the 8-8-88 popular uprising during which thousands were killed, as if attempting to erase the memory of it. A year later, the regime announced: “Truth is true only within a certain period of time. What was truth once may no longer be truth after many months or years.” The statement bears a strange resemblance to a Party motto from the George Orwell novel 1984 about a dystopian society under totalitarian rule, enforced by the Thought Police: “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” In the world of 1984, objective reality does not exist. Reality is constructed by the mind, and the mind can be controlled.
On Christmas Eve, I landed in Yangon (formerly Rangoon when Burma was part of British India). When I arrived at my hostel, a festive dinner was already in progress. A single unmemorable Christmas song played over and over on a loop. The cook snipped the crusts off my fried egg sandwich while the owner passed out cans of Myanmar brand beers. The guests included several teachers—Robert, a history teacher from Dublin, used to live in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood near Clark and Belmont. Small world. There was much to talk about late into the night. Early in the morning, I headed back to the airport, bound for Inle Lake. A Home Alone 2 moment of panic struck when we touched down in Mandalay, convinced I had boarded the wrong plane until a flight attendant alerted me that Heho would be the next stop.
I settled in at Song of Travel Hostel, which I must give a rave review. I’ve been accustomed to staying at affordable guest houses throughout Southeast Asia, but in Burma accommodation is about twice the price as in Thailand. I was nervous that hostels would cramp my style, but the atmosphere at Song of Travel was relaxed, social without being rowdy. Evenings were quiet. They provide free bikes, free breakfast at the rooftop bar (the Shan noodles were my favorite), and organized activities. The staff is especially friendly and helpful, in particular Anastasia who offers a Burmese language class. Lap phet tod yah ma la—may I have a pickled tea leaf salad? Yum. Burmese cuisine is an eclectic, delectable mix of local dishes and influences from bordering countries India and China. As the sun began to set, I strolled along a dusty road of Nyaung Shwe, circumnavigating a kids’ pickup soccer game to a nearby dim sum restaurant. It didn’t dawn on me until I’d swallowed my last bite of dumpling that once again I’d kept the Jewish Christmas tradition of Chinese food for dinner.
When you tuck yourself in at night (which in Burma tends to be early so you can catch the sunrise), privacy curtains over the door to your own cozy cubby make it almost like having your own room.
The next morning at 5:15, a group gathered in the hostel lobby and packed into a songtaew headed for the docks in the pitch dark. Two longboats set out on the canal, their passengers cocooned in fleece blankets to brace against the early morning chill. I’d snagged the prime camera vantage point at the bow’s frontmost seat.
I didn’t photograph the two models posing as Intha fisherman at the entrance to the lake, each balancing on one foot and grasping a large conical net with the other. Though the image is iconic, I was disappointed that this “authentic” cultural practice is now merely a staged performance for tips.
The boats careened towards the golden light…
…and the sun emerged from behind the mountains.
After a small breakfast of buttered bread and sweet Burmese tea, we briefly disembarked for a soggy trek across a floating garden. I stood first in line and had to lead the charge over the wobbly “terrain,” with Kate from London behind me.
In Burma, a longyi or long cloth around the waist down to the feet is commonly worn by both men and women. A boy employs the traditional one-legged rowing technique through the waterways of this village on stilts.
A boat trip on Inle Lake is inevitably going to be peppered with stops at handicraft workshops. Here women are hand rolling cheroots, Burmese cigars, which are glued together with a paste made from sticky rice.
The famous five-day market rotates among five different villages around Inle Lake. This is Thaung To.
Partly traditional and partly tourist-oriented, some of the vendors haven’t yet figured out the difference between overcharging foreigners a little because they can afford to pay more and charging completely outrageous prices. For example, I had my eye out for a meditation bell, and a woman at the market wanted 55,000 kyat for it (over 40 dollars). I later bought a similar one for about 12 dollars. Therefore, I’ve determined the market is a great spot for people watching, but buy your souvenirs elsewhere unless you really want to haggle.
Overlooking the marketplace and lake stand a temple and its many stupas.
We took a break for lunch and applied thanaka to our faces, a paste ground from tree roots which acts as a natural sunscreen. Would you believe that I am at least the third person that Alma, sitting on the far left, has met from Highland Park, including her current roommate? Jewish geography.
In the midday sun, we switched from the motorized longboats to canoes for a paddle around the village.
Next up was a weaving workshop. A woman demonstrates how fibers are extracted from lotus stalks and woven by spindle and foot-pedaled loom into fabric, an art which is unique to Inle Lake. Four thousand lotus plants are needed to make one small scarf. It’ll cost you dearly—a thin strip about four inches wide and maybe two feet long starts at 90 American dollars, with regular-sized scarves in the 200 dollar range. They also produce silk, cotton, and blended fabrics. I am a total sucker for beautiful scarves, a trait likely inherited from my grandmother Sally, but managed to escape with only an inexpensive cotton shawl.
The blacksmith was the shop where I purchased my meditation bell. Don’t forget to pack your scissors, cleavers, hammers, machetes, and other weapon-like objects in your checked luggage, not your carry-on!
That concludes the Song of Travel “no bullshit” sunrise tour, as they advertise it. I highly recommend it, and you can participate whether or not you’re a guest at the hostel for the very reasonable price of 15,000 kyat, or 12 dollars if you pay in US currency.
The following day, Kate and I circled the bike loop. If I were to do it again, I’d pay three dollars to rent a mountain bike rather than borrowing one of the hostel’s free bikes. The roads are in pretty poor condition, making the ride on the strenuous side.
We climbed the stairs to a hilltop pagoda. Probably the only regret I have is that I didn’t do the trek from Kalaw to Inle Lake. Perhaps I could have squeezed it into my itinerary, but because my trip fell over the busy Christmas and New Year’s time, also known as “Silly Season,” I had already booked all my accommodations well in advance. In addition, I’d opted for expensive internal flights rather than overnight buses between cities, which would have given my schedule more flexibility.
But who wants to be in a bad mood their whole vacation because they were awake all night on a bumpy bus ride? Not this puppy.
The turnoff for the boat launch is easy to miss. Look out for guys on the side of the road who’ll ask you if you need a boat. Locals cram onto a longboat ferry.
Foreigners have to pay up for a private ride across the lake, as we should because we can afford it.
It’ll still only set you back 10,000 kyat for two people and two bikes. That’s less than four dollars per person.
My last day at Inle Lake was spent sampling local beverages; first coffee and tea because I was intent on finishing the book I’d started, then in the late afternoon I transitioned to wine tasting at Red Mountain Estate. (The views from the vineyard are spectacular, but the wine is, well, not.) But back to that book, the superb and haunting Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin. Having just re-read 1984, Orwell was on my mind. I knew the author had lived in Burma during his years as an officer of the Indian Imperial Police, on which his first novel Burmese Days (which I am currently reading) is based. However, Orwell and Burma are far more entangled than this one isolated story, as Larkin reveals: “In Burma there is a joke that Orwell wrote not just one novel about the country, but three: a trilogy comprised of Burmese Days, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Quite a joke, indeed—in retracing Orwell’s steps through Burma, Larkin speaks to underground book collectors, former political prisoners, and others who inform her research, on the condition of absolute anonymity. In one of my favorite quotes, she recounts one such conversation: “‘George Orwell,’ I repeated— ‘the author of Nineteen Eighty-Four.’ The old man’s eyes suddenly lit up. He looked at me with a brilliant flash of recognition, slapped his forehead gleefully, and said, ‘You mean the prophet!'”
On this “prophecy” of the Orwellian trilogy, Larkin writes:
It is a particularly uncanny twist of fate that these three novels effectively tell the story of Burma’s recent history. The link begins with Burmese Days, which chronicles the country’s period under British colonialism. Not long after Burma became independent from Britain in 1948, a military dictator sealed off the country from the outside world, launched ‘The Burmese Way to Socialism,’ and turned Burma into one of the poorest countries in Asia. The same story is told in Orwell’s Animal Farm, an allegorical tale about a socialist revolution gone wrong in which a group of pigs overthrow the human farmers and run the farm into ruin. Finally, in Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell’s description of a horrifying and soulless dystopia paints a chillingly accurate picture of Burma today, a country ruled by one of the world’s most brutal and tenacious dictatorships.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. As Orwell would write in Animal Farm: “The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
On the surface, it’s difficult to tell anything is wrong in Burma. Burmese people greet you with a broad smile and a warm, gentle manner. They look poor but happy, and one may be inclined to explain away their circumstances as quaint or harkening back to a time when life was simple. You’ll hardly find any beggars on the streets. If you didn’t know their society has been violently oppressed for fifty years, you would have no idea. But don’t think just because there were elections a year ago that the dictators are long gone and everything is hunky-dory. I’ll leave you with a prophecy from Orwell himself: “We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?”