Nyuangshwe: A deeper look

I spent a total of five days in Nyaungshwe, the longest I stayed in any part of Myanmar. It was the best segment of my entire trip.

I didn’t realise the boat tour was so short.. that in one day I would have “seen” all of Inle Lake. The Lonely Planet guide book didn’t have much suggestions but I decided to do them all. One each day.

One afternoon, wandering around town, I decided to check out the monasteries. I walked in on one when the novices were chanting their prayers. Startled and awed, I stood for a while just watching. I have heard the Chinese transcription of the Buddhist scripture from its ancient Pali language, when they were read out in their entirety for my grandfather’s funeral. The Burmese transcription sounded similar enough without being the same. I must have stood still for a good ten minutes before I started to take pictures. By that time, some unfocused novices in the back and side were giving me furtive glances and snuck a wave here and there. I smiled in acknowledgement and snapped a few more shots. I crept down before chants were over, in fear of getting the inattentive novices in trouble, only to descend and find myself face-to-face with an amused attentive abbot.

The highlight was my guide hike up the hills. My guide was a no-show. Family emergency. By this point, I’ve lived in Asia long enough to roll with these punches. The agent scrambled to find a substitute guide. And what a substitute he was.

The new guide didn’t speak much. He however knew everyone, even up in the hilltribes. He was moonlighting, his regular day job was as a teacher. He wasn’t even a local, being a Mandalay native. But he knew everyone. Monks, elders, kids all waved to him. We were invited into houses for tea while the hosts gossiped with my guide, discussing land sales, children’s school plans, weather, health problems. He was kind enough to give me the gist of the conversations but, for the most part, I sat silently with a smile, sipped my tea, and people-watched.

No matter how basic their living, they had something to offer me. A biscuit? Some tea? Without fail, every time I complimented a host or hostess on the tea or food (all of which truly were delicious), they immediately shuffled around for a plastic bag to contain all they had of that item to give me. There is some truth in the statement: the less people have, the more generous they tend to be.

Children followed us like pied piper. I think they were following me more than him. I learnt on this entire trip that if I showed them playbacks of photos I took of them, they will fall into infectious giggling. As much as I want to capture the reactions, I often catch their infectious laughing and enjoy playing with then more than I want to photograph the moment.

By my last day, the market vendors all recognised me from my daily stroll through the stalls. The hat vendor scolds me for not wearing the straw hat I bought from her. The tea vendor waves a fistful of her freshest product for me to sniff. The vegetable lady’s toddler waddles up to hold my hand. The butcher humourously tries again to sell me a raw chicken drumstick.

In truth, I probably can’t live in a place like this for long. I am too spoilt, too modernised, too independent, and too potty-mouthed for a society like this. Yet, coming to a culture so ancient, a lifestyle so simple, and a country so isolated has made me appreciate the simple things in life, and given me an awareness of the ubiquitous nature of joy, curiosity, and kindness.