All Over Myanmar

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The small temple in Kalaw

Myanmar, nicknamed “The Golden Land,” is overwhelmingly beautiful. It is difficult and probably ineffective to retrace our trip. The genuine impressions would be lost in a retelling, but I would like to share the highlights. We stayed one night in Yangon before heading north to Kalaw in the Shan Province. The hills surrounding Kalaw, dotted with the bright golden pagodas in the region’s small agricultural communities, make the military town a popular destination for hikers or “trekkers.” ((Pagoda is a term used to describe any tiered tower. Stupa and temple are more specific. You can walk inside of a temple but a stupa is solid and cannot be entered. Both stupas and temples can be described as pagodas. This was a little confusing initially.)) The landscape, minus the gold of course, brought back memories of the tea-covered hills of Manow. My favorite pagoda was near the market in Kalaw, a fact that would probably make our guide, Palai, laugh. Palai travelled with us as our guide from Yangon to Mandalay. With just the three of us we were one of her smallest tours, which, I like to think, allowed us to have a closer and definitely more humorous relationship with her. Palai lives in Yangon with her husband and two sons but as a tour guide, travels with groups around the country, visiting the same temples and historic sites. In all the places we visited Palai always saw a friend, another guide on the tourism loop.

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Boys playing in the temple in Kalaw

We saw hundreds of pagodas, new ones, gold ones, ancient ones, stone ones, but the small temple in Kalaw was covered in a mosaic of tiny pieces of mirror, giving it a more humble glitter than its more majestic relatives. Inside there were four brightly colored statues of the Buddha surrounded by equally beautiful offerings of fresh flowers, fruit, and glasses of water. Four boys were playing a loud game of tag inside the temples, using the four pillars as safeties.

IMG_5346Our next destination was the famous Inle Lake, also known as “Tomato Lake” because of the enormous amount of tomatoes grown in the lake’s floating gardens. At local markets, Palai always noted the difference between the deep red, ripe tomatoes of Inle Lake and the harder, yellowish tomatoes that were grown on land around the country. Unfortunately, I spent our first day at the lake sick in bed. While Grandma read George Orwell’s Burmese Days, I dozed in and out, my dreams turning the motorized boats outside my gently swaying room into helicopters flying to different villages around the massive lake. Palai also continuously came to check on me. She brought medicine that she had from the local pharmacy and water, which she poured into my mouth while sitting next to me in bed. Her closeness and lack of concern to the gross state I was in was such a comfort. I’m sure she’s an incredible mom.

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Extracting lotus fibers that will be spun and woven into fabric

The next day, determined to make up for lost time, Palai brought us to see silversmiths, blacksmiths, traditional silk and lotus weaving, and boat building using versatile teak wood. In between these quick visits we floated by the placid floating gardens of vegetables and flowers. I was struck by the abilities of the people living at Inle to live entirely on the water. The varieties of ways humans have adapted to live in the most unaccommodating landscapes are really unbelievable. It reminded me of days spent puttering up the steep hills of Seattle in my sad, dying Volvo.

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Monkeys at Phowintaung

In Mandalay, Palai pushed our limits on the pagoda-visiting front. Throughout the long days of sightseeing, we visited what seemed like an endless number of pagodas, each with its own story about the monk or king who had earned merits through its construction. “One more, I think you’ll really like this one,” Palai would say each time we climbed back into the van, an undecipherable combination of sarcasm and honesty in her voice. When we arrived at Kuthodaw Pagoda, which to the uneducated eye appears to be another large, elaborate place of worship, Palai exclaimed, “NO! It’s a book, not a pagoda.” The 729 stupas, each housing a marble slab inscribed with Buddhist scriptures, make up the world’s largest book.

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Kuthodaw Pagoda: The World’s Largest Book

My favorites from Mandalay were the free school in Sagaing and caves outside of Monywa where there are 12th century Buddhist frescos and monkeys that will pull off your skirt for a watermelon snack.

Next we left for Bagan, where Palai warned us we would see thousands more pagodas. We traveled to Bagan on a boat full of proper Europeans. The civilized feel of the boat was shattered after dinner when we ran back to our rooms through the thickest cloud of insects I have ever witnessed. Small, long winged grey flies created a moving blanket over everything on the boat. They were quick to cover everything in your room if you made the easy mistake of opening your door without first switching off the lights.

IMG_1889We arrived the next morning in Bagan, the romantic, yet somewhat eerie ancient city. Eager to explore the thousands of 12th century pagodas of Bagan, we turned down the tour and rented bikes. Although the ride ended rather quickly when Grandma’s tire popped, it was fun trying to find a place to get it fixed and, when it couldn’t be fixed, a replacement bike was delivered on the back of a motorbike. The problem-solving of travel without a guide so often leads to the most memorable experiences within a different culture. On our last day in Bagan we decided to get up early and revisit some of the temples we’d seen earlier in the trip. When the light was soft and the majority of tourists were still asleep, we walked through the now quiet temples. We also encountered the bats that live in the temples’ tall ceilings, and whose waste is still wet early in the morning. The discovery of wet bat waste as we walked barefoot around the empty temples also solved the mystery of the terrible smell in our clothes after our visits the day before.

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Fishing beach outside of Ngapali

Our last destination was Ngapali Beach, where we ate the freshest seafood and traveled on motorbikes through the jungle to meet a couple of incredible elephants. We also got a tour of the local fishing villages from a Costa Rican man who is starting a culinary school to teach locals who can work in the tourist restaurants. After moving to Myanmar about 10 years ago, he bought land under someone else’s name and has been working in the restaurants ever since. He showed us the beach where all of the fish and seafood comes in. It was a busy beach, littered with trash and parts of fresh and dried fish. The stench of fish was thick and unavoidable. People were everywhere: pulling in a fresh catch with the help of some water buffalo, spreading fish out to dry, or sorting a catch for the best fish. One girl, who was sorting through a massive pile of small silver fish found a little squid and quickly tried to hide it before anyone saw, but a woman next to her saw the treasure and threw it into another pile. Stray dogs also wandered around the business deals, looking for scraps of food and getting caught in the fish netting. It was a place that overwhelmed all of my senses and yet we went relatively unnoticed in all of the bustle.

Our very last day was spent in Yangon. We visited the famous Strand hotel, where many famous guests have stayed, Rudyard Kipling and Sir Mick Jagger among them. It was unbelievably hot in Yangon and I spent most of our day there speaking nonsense in the heat and taking photos of the street food.

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A New Timezone

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A woman at the market in Nyaung Shwe, Myanmar (northern part of Inle Lake)

It has been over a year since my last post, sharing images from Manow, Tanzania. Since then I have graduated from The Evergreen State College and have been navigating the world of post-graduation life. While the damp, gray backdrop of Olympia may give me a somewhat gloomy outlook; the truth is that I have just returned from a visit to beautiful country, a country operating in an offset timezone. Instead of the familiar one-hour increments between timezones, Myanmar time is half an hour ahead of its neighbor, Bangladesh, and half an hour behind Thailand.

For three weeks in between January and February, I had the opportunity to visit the previously very isolated country of Myanmar, previously known as Burma. Since slowly opening up to visitors and investors in the last couple of years, Myanmar has seen a huge increase in tourism and trade. The rapid change Myanmar is experiencing has made it one of the most exciting places I have visited. In Yangon, the roads, not built to accommodate a high volume of vehicles, are jammed with new imported cars from neighboring countries. Cars are being imported so rapidly that the steering differs from vehicle to vehicle. That lack of uniformity was one of the strongest indicators that changes are happening at an incredible pace.

Tourism has also more than doubled in the last year. As my first trip abroad since Tanzania, I struggled to play the role of a tourist. While I recognize that my three months in Tanzania give me no authority to make claims about the country or even the community I was living in, there is a certain intimacy that comes from living and working within a single community. Getting to know and participating in the rhythms of a group requires a more persistent and patient energy than the fast-paced voyeurism of traveling as a tourist. I remind myself that tourism can be a very positive market, especially in a developing country such as Myanmar. Myanmar people are excited to receive visitors and share their country – it is a very literal symbol of the end of their country’s isolation. Having thought about this dilemma throughout the trip, I’ve traced some of my conflict to thoughts on modernization and its competition with traditional culture.

So many people we met in Myanmar were full of excitement and pride about the changes their country is experiencing, changes that appear to be ending their isolation and slowly shifting the country towards a more democratic government. Amidst the positive political changes, there are foreign investors and builders coming into the new, inexpensive market. Maybe my frustration comes from participating in a market that caters to pleasure and excess when so much of the country could benefit from changes in education and healthcare services. It’s too easy to argue that the tourism industry is creating jobs and is therefore a positive development. Too often I think tourism is focused on building and altering places in order to accommodate the desires of visitors.

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Mahamuni Pagoda, Mandalay, Myanmar (woman are not allowed to go up to the image of the Buddha, which is distorted by layers of gold leaf offerings from men)

The other aspect of my conflict has to do with the evolution of culture that comes from increased access to the global community. Living in a country with such immense diversity has sometimes made me feel there is a lack of strong traditions that unite us all. There are communities and groups making efforts to use our diversity of experience to create a stronger culture of storytelling and a tradition of acceptance, but there is something different about a group of people that shares traditions based on common experiences of family and place. Through travel, I have discovered my appreciation for communities that are tied together through longstanding cultural traditions. I would hate to see these traditions changed or destroyed, especially for the benefit of tourism that can often trivialize and exoticize differences. On the other hand, there is an unavoidable and perhaps harmless evolution of culture that is caused by increased contact between communities. There is no reason to preserve Myanmar as it is, or was, because it has experienced extreme need, oppression, and unfortunate isolation. As visitors I think it is critical that we find ways to participate in and give attention to authentic Myanmar (whether it is through conversation, food, or activities).

A recent presentation by Jodi Cobb, a well-known photographer who has done a lot of work for National Geographic, helped clarify my thoughts on some of these issues. As someone who as traveled extensively into places of need and has documented the lives of very vulnerable communities, Jodi Cobb had valuable things to say about the role of a photographer in foreign countries. She uses images to spread awareness and take someone to a new place. She also said something important that relates to my dilemma concerning the evolution of cultures. While it is sad to see some traditions change, she said, “some traditions deserve to die.” In her travels she encountered horrific practices that have become the norm. These are the “traditions” that deserve to die; practices that, although experienced across generations, are not the traditions that celebrate and empower the people of a specific community. The role of a photographer can be to document and share these practices in an effort to bring them to an end. Jodi Cobb’s work is an example of how expanding the global community can have a positive influence on the evolution of culture.

Whew, ok this is a subject that I’m really struggling to articulate. I think it is hugely important but also very complicated. In my current environment of hyperawareness I feel the need to find the perfect words that will not offend or diminish the rights of any party. Writing this has only been an effort to flesh out and explore my feelings about culture and confront some of the discomfort I felt as a tourist in Myanmar.

**See more photographs below in “Golden Hills of Myanmar”**