Early Thursday morning I met my betel-chewing boat driver, BD, in the pre-dawn dark. We walked to the docks that line the narrow channel running south from Nyangshwe to Inle Lake. Our boat had already been prepared by a grim-faced boy who would play Gilligan to BD’s Skipper, and within minutes we were on our way.
I loved how it felt to glide along the channel towards the lake, humid air breezing by, just enough light to see the dim outlines of people beginning to stir in their riverside houses. Women in colorful longyi washed clothes on wooden platforms, fisherman worked their nets along the edges of water hyacinth, and other motorboats roared by, pushed low in the water by a full load of passengers commuting to Nyaungshwe. Some of the smaller boats we passed were being leg-rowed, an unusual technique used on Inle Lake. Standing on their boats, the paddlers wrap one leg around an oar and then twist their body sideways as their leg pulls the oar backwards through the water.
Leaving Nyaungshwe for Inle Lake (Video)
BD wouldn’t usually begin a tour of the lake at 5:30am, but we started early so we could see the opening of the Phaung Daw U festival events happening that day. Five venerated Buddha images are housed in the area’s primary monastery, and once a year four of the Buddhas are paraded over the water to spend a night in other monasteries around the lake. The Buddha images ride over the water in a golden, bird-shaped boat that is escorted by a fleet of multi-colored longboats, each rowed by about 90 men. BD positioned us to watch this elaborate procession begin the day’s journey.
Phaung Daw U Boat Procession on Inle Lake (Video)
After the Buddha boats passed BD took us around the lake. We explored floating villages, passed men smoking cheroots as they paddled small boats, visited weavers who work with lotus and silk, and ate lunch at a restaurant that sat on stilts over the water. In the afternoon we stopped at a monastery where the monks have trained their cats to jump through hoops. The monk on duty was dozing when we arrived, but he woke up long enough to ring a bell that summoned a woman who put the cats through their paces.
Weaver on Inle Lake (Video)
At one point BD asked me to take his photo and then he pointed to the image on the camera’s LCD screen and said, “Movie star!”
Up to that point, none of the people I’d talked with in Myanmar had ever mentioned the government. When I made a reference to the upcoming election, the response was usually a smile or a polite change of topic. People are scared to talk, and with good reason. The government has a long history of torturing, imprisoning, and sometimes killing the people who speak out against it. And their intelligence-gathering division apparently has long tentacles. According to the 2004 book Finding George Orwell in Myanmar, “A vast network of Military Intelligence spies and their informers ensures that no one can do or say anything that might threaten the regime… If there has been an anti-government remark made by a drunkard, a basket of mangoes stolen from the local market, or a simple quarrel between husband and wife, the MI will most probably know about it.”
So it surprised me when a store owner on the lake began to speak openly. BD had dropped me off at the store while he ran an errand, and I asked the owner what I thought was an innocuous question: “How many people live in the Inle Lake area?”
“Less now than before,” the owner said, shaking his head. “Because the government is bad. Very bad. Drive people away.” He went on to vent his disgust for the way the government handled Cyclone Nargis, which, he believed, killed about 1.5 million people, far higher than the government’s estimate of 138,000. The government wouldn’t let international aid groups help and it refused assistance from the United States. “But worst is that the government made a profit,” he said, running inside his store and returning with a can labeled “Powdered Milk.” When the government finally decided to accept some international help, one of the aid organizations donated a big supply of powdered milk and mosquito nets. The store owner heard that instead of distributing those supplies to the victims, the government was selling them in Yangon. He couldn’t believe that even the government’s Generals would stoop so low, so he went to Yangon himself. Sure enough, they were selling the powdered milk and mosquito nets. He bought a can of the milk as a reminder.
His next target was China. “China buys our teak, our rice, our resources, and the money? It goes to the government. The people get nothing.” He told me about a United Nations resolution, that, to my embarrassment, I knew nothing about. Apparently in 2007 the United States proposed a U.N. resolution condemning the oppression in Myanmar and calling for change, but China (and Russia) vetoed it. “Now India, too, buys from the government,” the man said.
I asked if he thought it was good for foreigners to visit Myanmar. “It is good and it is bad,” he answered. “It is bad because it gives money to the government. But it is good because it also gives money to the people. And the people need the money.”
We discussed ways tourists can limit the amount of their money that goes to the government. I showed him my guidebook, which only recommends privately-owned hotels and restaurants. “But I understand,” I said to the owner, “that all businesses have to pay 10% of their revenue to the government.”
He laughed. “No! Much less. The government does not know what I make. I tell them I make much less. They do not get 10%.” The man shook his head again. “Myanmar has great people. Great nature. Many natural resources. Only one problem!” He shouted the last sentence and everyone laughed. “All the people feel this way.” He paused before saying, “One of our leaders is in jail.”
“Aung San Suu Kyi?” I volunteered, happy to have a chance to demonstrate that I wasn’t completely ignorant of the country’s situation. He nodded. “You talk so openly,” I told him. “Most people are afraid to talk about the government.”
“It is only because I know all these people,” he said, waving his arm towards the others in the room. “On the lake we know who is listening. In the city I would never talk.” He said the government can always find a seemingly legitimate pretext for arresting someone who speaks against the regime. It’s technically illegal for Burmese to own foreign currency, for example, but almost every business owner has U.S. dollars. So if the government wants to punish someone for political agitation, it can just arrest them for a currency violation.
I asked if he had any hope for change. He thought for a moment before shaking his head. “No. No hope. How will things change? The government does not use, what do you call it, when it makes people cry?”
“Yes. They do not use tear gas. They just shoot.” There was another silence before the man said, “We are hopeless and helpless. We all feel this way.”
(The owner I spoke with is not shown in any of my photos. I did not take a single photograph of him or his family, and I have not written his name anywhere.)
BD returned and we motored out to catch up with the Buddha statues as they arrived at the monastery where they would spend the night. Floating next to a small flotilla of other longboats, we watched the parade paddle up to the monastery and unload its sacred cargo.
Buddha Boat Arriving at Monastery (Video)
There was a carnival atmosphere in the area surrounding the monastery. The inside of the monastery quickly filled with worshipers who bowed and prayed to the Buddha images, which – in a formal ceremony led by the monks – had been installed on the central dais. Women were not allowed to approach the Buddhas, but a seemingly endless swarm of men purchased small adhesive bits of gold leaf that they pressed onto the images, a practice that over time has turned the Buddhas into rounded gold blobs with little discernable shape. The locals were remarkably tolerant when I jostled my way into the scrum for a photo.
Buddhas Being Brought into the Monastery (Video)
Chanting Prayers in the Monastery (Video)
Back in Nyangshwe later that afternoon, BD and I were walking from the boat to the Smiling Moon when I heard someone yell, “Rob!” There was Elizabeth (the Competitive Traveler I met in Yangon), fresh off the bus from Kalaw. She tagged along to the Smiling Moon, where Thandar told us that the Buddha parade would be passing through Nyuangshwe the next morning. It was, apparently, the city’s biggest festival of the year, and villagers from all around Inle Lake pour into town. Thandar invited us to watch the parade from the Smiling Moon with her family, and Elizabeth hired BD to take her out on the water in the morning so she could see the boats arrive.
Elizabeth gushed about Kalaw. She’d met the most incredible people and done the most incredible things. “It was so beautiful I almost became a Camera Tourist,” she said, flashing a look of disdain for travelers who constantly take photos.
“Whoa, close call!” I said, laughing that she had unknowingly just categorized me as easily as I had categorized her when we first met in Yangon. “There’s nothing worse.” I was glad to be able to give Elizabeth some advice about Inle Lake and introduce her to Thandar, but an hour was the most I could handle. I called it an early night.
Thandar told me to be at the Smiling Moon around 10am. I left my hotel at 9:00 the next morning but quickly got distracted taking photos of all the people in the streets. Overnight the city’s population had exploded, and everywhere I turned there were villagers wearing tribal clothes I’d never seen.
By 10am I was just down the street from the Smiling Moon but I didn’t make it there until 10:30. Thandar rushed out. “You too late!” she scolded. Elizabeth, sitting at a table, told me I’d missed an amazing, incredible experience. The Buddha images had paraded by at about 9:30, while I was still far away. I kicked myself for being so slow, but – given that I’d seen so much of the Buddhas the day before – I didn’t feel too bad. Elizabeth, however, gleefully piled up more Competitive Traveler points. I turned around to hunt through the streets for the parade but didn’t find it until the Buddha images had already been installed in the Nyaungshwe monastery.
My bus for Mandalay left that afternoon, so I checked out of my hotel and went to the Smiling Moon to say goodbye. BD wasn’t around (neither was Elizabeth), but I thanked Thandar and Nge Lay for all their help, and we swapped e-mail addresses. On my way to catch a ride to the bus junction I ran into BD on the street. He said, in one of the few sentences of his I ever understood, “We go drink Myanmar beer!” So the two of us downed one more beer before I took off. After having so much fun and meeting such nice people I felt sad to leave.
I rode to the Shwenyaung junction in the bed of a regular sized pick-up truck that carried, based on my count, 31 people, not including infants. I couldn’t see how many people were on the roof of the truck, so my count may have been low. I was the only tourist and the locals seemed entertained at the sight of me absorbed by the mass of elbows, legs, plastic bags, and sleeping babies.
Pick-up Truck Ride to Shwenyaung Junction (Video)
There is no bus station at the Shwenyaung junction. Buses just stop in the middle of the road. Given that the signs on the buses are almost exclusively written in Burmese, I had to rely on a local to alert me when my bus arrived. The bus ticket said 6pm so when 7pm rolled around I began to get nervous, but the bus showed up soon after. I hopped on, mentally preparing myself for a bumpy, sleepless night.