It’s so bloody cold. Dressed to tan, we wrap the blankets around us, as the water splashes back and the air hits us hard. The long narrow boat cuts through the water, through the hazy grey setting, as we lookout to a what seems like a sea of pale blues and whites. The river is wide and on either side is the occasional spouts of the green and muddy brown marsh land. Entering our vision, are what seems like flamencos; gracefully stood dancing on the water surface, long silhouetted lines of their extended legs, forming balletic postures. In our sight were the famous long boat men. Each with a foot wrapped around long sticks, as they guide their boats and fish. We had arrived at Inle Lake, a cluster of villages living on the nearl water, home to over 70,000 people!
Unlike in Kerala, where man made banks had been made around the houses, these villages sat wholly on the water. house raised on stilts and boats parked underneath. As you go through you can find temples, monasteries, markets, silversmiths, silk makers, blacksmith. Rowing through the villages, past the small raised spaces you can start to feel claustrophobic, the idea of being prohibited to this defined space. Yet on the other hand you are in awe at the way they have utilised the space, wondering how different it would be to live in this way moving from boat to station, to pavements or large spaces to run free.
The most innovative use of the water is the floating gardens. You see men hauling green gloopy weeds out of the river into their boats, as it engulfs all around them, sure to soon sink the boat, yet they keep on loading. Later they will use bamboo poles to create an initial structure buried into the ground, where they will then weave the greenery around them creating a layer which they can then add compose to grow above. Lanes of fruit and veg will start to grow, a women on very narrow boats can then weave through piking up the produce as they reach out on the very edge of the boat. Watching this happen makes you think what the world could be like if we continue to flood all around us, the way we may have to life- on the edge of a boat!
Cycling through the dirt tracks, you can hear the giggles of children ahead. Entering the village, they wave, big grins eagerly awaiting our arrival. Some shy, they grasp at the leg of their mothers, poking their head around to see what all the excitement is about. Today, we would visit four villages and be given the same warm welcome throughout. They would embrace us into their homes and show us the up most hospitality.
As part of the tour we would learn about the way of life, how each village was governed by their elder, their elected leader. If someone did wring they would discuss it as a village, Whilst the Burmese laws did of course apply, they very much run in isolation, only elevating matters to authorities if required. They explained the struggle they face and their collective objectives- security, electricity, more resources for education and medical security. They would receive help from the government, but still looking for ways to see how they can improve their quality of life. Each village working the farms or local trades to earn a living and now welcoming in tourists, to show them around and feed them. Collectively they would take it in turns to cook dinner, distributing the wealth angst the four villages. Despite, having little, working hard and facing some fundamentally living challenges these people seemed genuinely happy. They were sat around laughing together. To an extend they are living hand to mouth, not driven by the same competitive nature that drives the west. Of course not all is as it seems on the surface, but to see so many with what seemed like genuine happiness in their faces, perhaps there is something to be said for less is more.
Sun creeps through the blinds and the chants of prayers, which have become our new alarm, ring loud around us. Throwing my tierd heavy body out of bed, into the shower and out the door, I would stand absorbed by the morning routine that awaited my eyes. A stream of red robes, hung off the shoulders of young boys, shaved heads, bare foots as they stood patiently in line each holding out their bowl to collect food from the village. These were young men in training, a right of passage for all boys to enter a life devoted to Buddhism. Once they have learnt the teachings of Buddha and spent several weeks living on the monasteries they may choose if they wish to return to their families and lives or continue to the path of enlightenment.
Buddhism for these people is more than a religion, a way of life. It is integral to their being. It distinguishes their values, their beliefs, behaviours. Like a Holy Communion or Bar Mitzvah, they will grow up to learn the teachings, celebrating their entrance into the monasteries, spending weeks away from their families. Monks wondering the streets is a common site, as people continue to dedicate themselves to the teachings of Buddha. A country adorned by temples. When Looking out to Old Bagan, to the earthy washed landscape of dry baron land, ancient temples take to the horizon. Walking across the land, amongst the temples, there is a sense of calm, stillness across these quite grounds. Grounds that have been respected, worshipped for centuries. It is these pagoda’s and temples where the people spend their time. When travelling you see limited places fro entertainment, cinemas, sports, clubs all limited, if at all. it is the festivals at the temples that people part take in. As a result you notice, how gentle, kind the Burmese are, they are modest and respectful. Despite, all they are subjected to by the rulings of the country, they have faith, they stay true to what they belief in.
Just 8 years after Mayamar has opened its gates to tourist, how unscathed will it’s lands be? How much influence of the west already have seeped through the South Asian culture? Well it was day two and I was sat in a resteraunt that despite the Burmese chatter surely could have been some hipster New York/ London hang out! What I later to came to understand that though the people and way of life is still very much unaffected. Businesses, restaurants, cafes are quickly emerging, and when they do they are modern, clean, trendy, most only having been built in the last three years; creating a juxtaposition between what is a very poor Asian country, with very western over designed spots geared to western middle class wealthy tourists.
As we walk around the city, and hear the tales of its streets unravelled, we come to appreciate the corruption that the country has been subject to. We were told the stories of it’s leaders. how this somewhat developed city was once the hub of East Asia, the main port to access the rest of the world. With rich natural resources from teak wood to rubies it positioned itself as a leader. However, once in the hands of it’s military leaders they used the countries economic development for personal gain leading the country into a deep depression. The country was locked down, no exports, no tourists should enter all communications would be prohibited and censored. The papers controlled. Only in the last few years do locals have access to sim cards. Prior to this the military insisted, that to own a sim would cost you thousands. they did this to limit communications. When people started to realise the way of lives of their Asian neighbours and the true cost of things, they pushed back. Today, they are still fighting for democracy, but while they wait you can see the evidence of their history around you. Run down backstreets, with locals living with very little, close to the beautifully ornate temple and statues, in part a sign of their religion, in part a mark of the military ego who commissions it. Signs of guerrilla activist groups encouraging change. Grand buildings of English architecture from when they once reigned. Shops selling basic white goods, where they are starting to catch back up with their developed neighbours.
My favourite thing I came to learn though was of the hanging plastic bags from the streets. it turn out that the cheapest floor I a building to buy is the top, as the bottom can be used for commercial use. As a result the locals live several floors u p and to save them from walking down to collect their morning paper they leave a plastic bag out on a piece of string to pull it up once it has arrived!