Nyaungshwe: The Motions

I did the obligatory Inle Lake boat tour. Everyone raved how beautiful it was. Beautiful? Probably not. But the sight of the houses on stilts standing above the water, definitely like a painting scene. Unlike many villages in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand built and maintained for tourists to see, this is the real deal here. Tourists poke their camera lens our here and there, amongst villagers and fishermen going about  doing their business. While not necessarily beautiful, it was certainly scenic and remarkable.

Despite the relative low number of tourists visiting Myanmar as a whole, the area is creating sites set up for tourists. There are small restaurants catering to tourists, and for some reason they all tout serving pizza. There are guesthouses of all variations of development available. Small in scale compared to the other Southeast Asian countries, these backpacker scene is probably one of the larger ones in Myanmar.

Nyaungshwe is still a working town. Hill tribes, farmers, fishers come together to sell their various wares. Four monasteries are within a block from me. Roads are not paved and, in the rainy weather that blew in with me, everyone was splattered with mud. I got in late afternoon. There was a sense of quiet drudgery as everyone dragged on their feet to where they need to go.

I took the day ride around Inle Lake. The dark clouds provided what they threatened: rain. On and off, all day long. The long motor boat provided no cover. My translater and I huddling under a huge umbrella rather futilely. For the first time in years of living in Southeast Asia, I actually wished I had packed my rain jacket. I was used to quick heavy downpours, not day-long constant rain. My clothing will not be drying anytime soon. 

What perhaps started as a private hire boat row around the lake to see the fascinating stilted houses and towns for an intrepid curious wanderer now is a bussing of tourists from one pit stop to another. Perhaps back in the day, the travellers paddled up along fishermen’s houses, accepted a cup of tea, and met families and saw their homes. Today, I went from one “workshop” to another, where a flurry of activity ensued the sight of my boat approaching as the people took their positions on demonstration how a craft or product is made, be it cotton weaving, cheroot rolling, silversmithing. I was greeted with a cup of tea, which I welcomed in my damp state, an escorted tour, and an enthusiastic invitation to shop at the gift store.

Despite the well-versed tourist script, I found moments of wonder as I interacted with the locals. Apparently I resemble a famous Burmese singer. I must find her picture. I learnt that the Myanmar love Korean soap operas. They learnt that I don’t watch tv, despite being an American. Everyone thrust their children on me, believing my wealth and good luck would rub onto them upon touch. Children giggled infectiously when shown the playback of a photo of them.

I soon forgot my sodden state as I found many people, especially the women,  wave as I smile at them. The women were especially fascinated by me, a lone female traveller. Many wanted to touch my hair, my clothes. All were very blunt in asking about my life. How can I not be married at my age? Does my family still love me? How do they let me work by myself? How come I’m not afraid to be alone? Do I provide for my parents? What kind of a car do I drive? Why don’t I wear make up? Do I have a boyfriend? Am I allowed to live with him alone? How much money do I earn? What kind of nice clothes do I buy? Which movie stars are my friends?

Twenty minutes into the day tour, there was no doubt in my mind that I was following a very touristy script. By the end of the day, despite all the controversy of whether one should visit Myanmar and its mythical travel ban, I realised that not only had the encounters enriched me but delighted the locals just as much.

Don’t do it: Karen Hill tribes

Many of you probably remember the National Geographic featuring the long-necked tribe in Sortheast Asia. Once I correlated the tribe with the region I am in, I was so excited to be able to go see them. The concept that we have tribes still practicing such exotic traditions in the world of global market and influence was so fascinating.

A bit of background: The Karen tribe is originally from within Myanmar borders. The women wear brass rings around their neck.. and add rings throughout their adolescence. It like the neck has been elongated, but in reality the collarbone and the ribs are being pushed down to a point that they need to keep the rings on to live.

As soon as we went to Chiang Rai, I booked a tour to see the hilltribes the next day. We then walked to the Hilltribe Museum (Which is a do, by the way) to get some background perspective. The museum was like a home-run shop. The exhibits were laid out in corked bulletin boards, laid out along the wall, like someone’s packrat attic room. No glass enclosures. Descriptions were printed in regular home printers and glued onto construction paper backing, taped into the wall. Yet, the museum was one of the best I’ve been to in Southeast Asia. Informative, factual, and narrative. Including a lot of warnings about the tours offered to see the hilltribes. None of the proceeds in the typical tours go towards the villages that the people ask to go gawk at. And more often than not, the villages were notified that they would become the subject of that gawking.

The Karen tribes were worse. The notion that the Karens migrated to Thailand to flee the Burmese.. If it ever was true, it was a long enough time ago. The current “tribes” people see are imported. Businessmen bring in the women, not the men since they look normal, into Thailand, knowing that they are subjects of great tourist curiosity. The “villages” aren’t real. They are just artificial sites of tourist traps. In reality the neck ring tradition has been dying out.

We walked out of the museum highly enlightened but feeling like scum encouraging the black human market. The actual visit the next day validated that and clarified what articles meant by calling it a “human zoo”. The women were placed in a windy path of huts. The huts were three-walled bamboo structures with a loom on one side for the women to weave, in full view of visitors. The other half had the woven scarves hung up  and a area for the women to sit prettily to be seen. Supposedly the only means the women earn are from the scarves they sell, so we bought them up by the bunch. They were different from the usual mass produced “handmade Thai silk” in the markets, and truly interesting, but admittedly we did it out of our guilt as well.

My curiosity got the worst of me. To future visitors, I warn: don’t do it. Not only does is encourage the human trade and cruel marketing of women, it wasn’t even a good visit. A strong sense of artificiality, fakeness permeated the whole place.