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.