Where is the road calling you?
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The time had come for us to embark on our first overnight bus in Myanmar after carefully choosing which company seemed most suitable for the journey. Our past experiences dealing with ticket vendors urged us to exercise caution and be hesitant in believing we could actually be dropped off in the town of Nyaung Shwe having heard nothing but the exact opposite from various other travelers. Following similar trips, more often than not, we were dropped at a small hut ten kilometers from town at the mercy of salivating songthaew drivers nearly beside themselves with the promise of heavily inflated fares lining their pockets. Then again, we were in Myanmar, a country where we hadn’t been lied to yet, even by the local travel mafia. Not surprisingly, the ride began with a blaringly loud local soap opera on the TV, screeching through ancient speakers and echoing through the bus; loud enough even our own ear buds couldn’t quite drown out the sound of what I can only describe as two pigs humping wildly as if they were having one last go before being sent to slaughter. Memories of similar previous overnight trips in neighboring countries were quickly remembered, forcing us to simply smile and shake our heads.
Yet, there was a noticeable difference. We weren’t scared for our lives at the hands of a borderline psychotic high on God knows what driver jerking the wheel from side to side while attempting to set a new land speed record as we had experienced on several occasions. On the contrary, never once did either of our heads connect with the window, nor were we nearly thrown from our seat into the aisle. Instead the TV at the front of the bus was silenced at a reasonable time and only the usual swaying and occasional breaking to avoid hazards in the street could be felt, allowing us a painless ride and the ability to catch even just a couple hours of sleep before arriving in town well before sunrise. Fortunately we had chosen to book a room in advance with the perfect guesthouse where the owner would greet us with open arms and allow us to check in hours before the usual time, providing us with a proper bed to recuperate from a typical fairly sleepless night on the bus.
Having spent the majority of our time in small towns and rural areas, I have to admit we were a bit worried about what we might find in a town well known for large amounts of tourists. We weren’t as ignorant as to believe we might find ourselves thrown into a town of full moon partygoers, though the idea of anything similar made us cringe having left a small world of incredibly rewarding experiences. It came as no surprise we hadn’t woken from our post bus ride nap to the sight of body painted nipples or opportunistic prostitutes eager to cash in on a drunken horny tourist. If fact, our time in Nyaung Shwe began in the same was as every other destination, welcomed by a small group of sincerely hospitable staff members always ready to help with any request and consistently greeting us with large smiles, innocent giggles and cheerful waves at every opportunity. Of course, having breakfast and coffee included with our room wasn’t exactly the most difficult way to begin our mornings either!
With open minds we set off to explore the small town serving as the jumping off destination for touring Inle Lake. Large, fancy hotels sat directly across the street from simple shacks lacking any sort of modern conveniences. A plethora of restaurants catered towards tourism lined various streets while local life continued as it had for years. A variety of tour operators dotted the main road not far from the river leading to the lake before reaching an outdoor roller skating rink. I couldn’t help remembering my own time as a child wobbling around with four wheels beneath each of my feet while watching teenagers pumping their legs to the beat of local club music, at times American music re-mixed with Burmese lyrics. On more than one occasion we found ourselves singing along only to realize we were singing in the wrong language.
Other than smashing some of the best Nepali food we’d had in quite some time, there was really only one item on our agenda, a boat tour on the lake. We knew well before booking a boat for the day we would be grouped together with all the other tourists in the minds of any locals we might come into contact with along the way, but it was an experience we weren’t willing to forgo. Our driver for the day greeted us early the following morning with his limited English, leading us down the road and eventually to our long tail boat providing our transportation to the day’s events.
No more than twenty minutes into our journey we spotted the famous fisherman drawing closer to us with each crackle of our noisy outboard motor. Each of the men began balancing on one foot, the other controlling an oar on their simple canoes. One hand control the other oar as the other hand held up a fishing basket, though not with the intention of actually casting it into the water to catch the evening’s meal. It was immediately apparent they had become accustomed to the influx of tourism, opting to pose for the perfect photo at the first sight of an eager photographer and ask for tips versus the much more taxing process of fishing. Though it would have made for the perfect addition to our collection of amazing pictures from around the world, Jessie declined the opportunity while opting to enjoy the moment instead.
With a list of places we had chosen to visit we continued to motor across the lake, first stopping at a cigar making shop where we not only learned about the simple manual process of rolling them, we decided to partake in one of the sweeter, milder options before continuing on. Not long after we arrived at a large wooden building stilted over the water where tourists could see women weaving fine threads from inside of lotus flower stems into scarves as other clothing. Though we had seen each of these processes in the past, it did present us with a pleasant reminder and the ability to enjoy the reactions of not only Jessie’s cousin traveling through the country with us, but others witnessing them for the first time. The local market on the other hand offered a more realistic view into the average lives of the people living on the lake, as did our navigation through the canal systems.
Authentic village life continued despite the amount of tourists flocking to the lake. Locals could still be seen washing clothing and bathing on the edge of the water or digging small trenches to help irrigate crops. Children waived with excitement from rickety half rotten docks outside of their rundown shack homes at nearly every opportunity as we slowly passed by. Just beneath the surface of an ever-changing pocket of the country quite obviously seizing the chance to capitalize on tourism, poverty lurked around every bend in the canal system. We’d seen it before, not only in Myanmar but through other countries no more than a few hour flight away. Yet no matter how many times we’ve seen people living in homes most of us would deem condemned or Hollywood film producers might utilize in the next hit horror movie, our hearts seem to sink as if they were boulders falling from a cliff into the ocean.
Though the local market may not have been geared especially towards tourists as some may have enjoyed more thoroughly, we preferred the sights of what we were given. Locals scoured the aisles to find basic everyday necessities while vendors sat perched behind the goods they were selling. In true Asian fashion we ventured through a wet market, filled with an abundance of fish harvested from the lake. Nearly everyone we passed during our brief exploration returned welcoming smiles with one of their own. My only moment of apprehension and awkwardness would come when passing by someone bathing outside of their home. I thought about how we could easily be perceived as intrusive peeping Toms or perverts hoping for a flash of skin from the land down under, though I knew full well it was simply part of life for most of the country.
Perhaps the most impressive destination of the day however was our visit to In Dein, a holy temple saturated with golden stupas decorated with small bells at their peaks. Every glance in a different direction held the potential for an iconic photograph, but the ones responsible for creating an even more memorable experience once again, were the locals we encountered while exploring the temple grounds. We concluded even the coldest of people must be able to feel the hospitality of the people in Myanmar. It was impossible to imagine anyone becoming bored or tired of finding smiling people offering greetings or young children staring with astonishment at the sight of us until finding the courage to say, “Hello,” often followed by a shy mouth covered giggle.
One of my favorite memories from the lake however was the sight of the fields of floating gardens. Rows and rows of tomatoes floated on the surface of the water, anchored to the bottom of the lake by long pieces of bamboo to prevent them from drifting away. Seaweed was harvested and cleverly used as a natural fertilizer, and we were presented with an entirely new way of seeing organic vegetables. We jumped at the opportunity to sample a handful of freshly picked tomatoes courtesy of our guide for the day, savoring every mouth-watering bite. I thought about how simple yet incredibly genius and inventive this way of farming was. Never did any of the people have to worry about watering their crops with the lake consistently providing the perfect nutrition to the roots dangling beneath the bobbing bog-like vegetation.
Before heading back for the day, our driver stopped against one of the larger green patches, stepping from the boat onto the mixture of plants and bouncing repeatedly to display its strength and stability. Though he offered numerous times for us to join him, I still couldn’t suppress my apparently eternal fear of drowning. Visions of breaking through the root system beneath me only to never find the hole I’d fallen from sent chills of my spine. With every hair on my body standing at full alert and my hands gripping the sides of the boat tighter than ever, there was no denying I was far too much of a chicken shit to brave such an endeavor.
Having enjoyed our day of touristic sightseeing on the lake, we concluded it was time to move on. With little else to see or do in the surrounding areas and the time on our Visas clicking away, we were ready to make our way to historic Bagan.