Monday, March 10, 2014
Nyaungshwe, Kakku and Inle Lake in Photos
This is one thing that really bugged me about Burma, and which bugs me about religion in general. There's this idea that men are closer to Nirvana than women in Burmese-style Buddhism (which I believe is of the Theravada school? But don't ask me) and so there are temples and shrines that men may enter but women may not, or that men may get closer to, and women have to stay back from.
I know, I should be openminded and whatever, but no. I call BS. I don't really care if someone's religion says that women are somehow less than men, it doesn't mean that belief is any less sexist. It just means that religion's creed includes teachings that are sexist. The veneer of religion doesn't make it any more acceptable, or any less bigoted/misogynist.
Plus, hey man. Pretty sure Buddha himself never said anything about women being lower on the rung of reincarnated beings than men, and plenty of Buddhist deities are either androgynous and sometimes depicted as women - like Guanyin - or, and I'm pretty sure I'm right about this - are all-out female.
Kind of like, in the USA, when people use "Christianity" to claim that women shouldn't do whatever thing, or they should act a certain way, or they should submit themselves to men, or that they can't be leaders, or that they can't have control of their own bodies and healthcare. Uh huh, no. First, just because you claim your religion says as much doesn't make it not sexist - it's just that your religion has sexist teachings and so your belief in those teachings is also sexist. And second, the Bible says all sorts of things, but Jesus himself never said any such thing, so I call bullshit on that idea anyway.
So I guess we can mark Burmese Buddhism as yet another religion I am not interested in participating in, because I won't participate in religions with sexist teachings or rules. That and the whole not believing there is a higher power thing, too.
At Inle Lake, the cost of accommodation on the lake is currently stratospheric - and being the high season, isn't negotiable. So we stayed in the pretty little tourist ghetto of Nyaungshwe. It wasn't bad - lots of amenities and tourist infrastructure, had its own interesting things to see, lots of food choices which was great given the state of my digestive system - but don't think for a second that Nyaungshwe is indicative of what Burma, generally, is like. Far from it. And after a couple of days I was sick of it and really couldn't wait to get out.
On our first day there, we arrived via the dreaded night bus. I got sick on the night bus - not motion sickness, although the winding mountain roads certainly didn't help. It was something else, that had me puking for half the night - yes, into bags, which I then had to deal with until the bus stopped and I could throw them away - and left me with a mild fever the next morning. Unfortunately, we had another 4am arrival which involved another overpriced taxi ride into town (I think they do this on purpose) but I was sick and not in a position to argue.
You pay your admission into the Inle Lake tourism zone here - $10 US dollars which goes straight to the military junta (YAY.) and they collect it from you in the most annoying way possible - kids with tickets accost you when you get off the bus at 4am insisting you hand them $10 or the equivalent in Burmese kyat, at 4am when you're disoriented, cold, also accosted by taxi drivers and have barely slept or just been shaken awake (take your pick). You might almost be convinced the whole thing is a scam and no such fee exists, because it's collected in the shadiest, least reputable way possible, but it is, in fact, a real thing.
Our hotel had no beds for that "night" - they seemed surprised that we didn't want to walk around a deserted, freezing, unfamiliar town at 4am while I had a mild fever (huh! ya think?) and that we'd rather find another hotel for a few hours or curl up in the lobby somewhere. The owner finally kindly pointed us to a nearby hotel that did have a quick room we could check into for a few hours. I slept off my fever, choked down the free breakfast - not that it was bad, I was just sick - and slept again until it was check out time, at which point we trudged back to the hotel we'd reserved. We met a friendly couple named Dick and Florence and arranged to share a boat with them for a lake tour the next day.
At about 3pm I finally felt like I was able to walk - slowly - around town, so we checked out a few temples, stupas, a local soccer game between kids' teams, walked past some souvenir shops and travel agencies, and then I managed to very slowly eat a plate of gnocchi in tomato sauce and a can of soda water.
That stayed down (yay!) so we walked some more until sunset, when I took photos of the temples and stupas in silhouette (above).
After another rest - lots of resting that day - we walked down to Green Chili, a touristy Thai restaurant which was breezy, with large open windows and verandahs, and beautifully decorated in marble, shell, rattan and teak. It was very Southeast Asian Contemporary Chic. I got a nice bland plate of pad thai and something fizzy to settle my stomach.
One thing that bugged me was that at places like this in other countries - Thailand, India, China, Guatemala even - you'd see upscale or even mid-range tourists (and Brendan and I are solidly mid-range now, our roving backpacker budget days are over) at such places, but you'd also see well-to-do locals there, or young modern couples on dates, too. Cafe Mondegar in Mumbai gets as many local visitors as it does foreign ones. The very nice traditional Malayali homestay we booked in Kerala had young, well-heeled local couples staying there too. Guatemala Antigua's best restaurants have local clients. Some of the nicer places I went to in Bangkok were just as full of well-to-to Thais. Nicer restaurants and shops in Shanghai had wealthy locals sampling their wares. In Burma that simply was not the case. Although there are some very wealthy Burmese (most of them have questionable relationships with higher-ups in the military), generally speaking the upscale touristy places only had foreign patrons, and never had any local ones.
And that says a lot about the local economy and standard of living.
On the other hand, while these nicer places exist solely for tourists - locals clearly just can't afford them - they do provide employment that would not otherwise be available if they did not exist. At Green Chili, for instance, while I am certain none of the staff could actually afford to eat at the place where they worked, they all looked put-together, well-fed and rested. They had incomes. They might not have that if Green Chili didn't exist.
The next day we boarded a boat for Inle Lake. Fishermen with "traditional" nets and boats hang out where the Nyaungshwe canal meets the lake, posing for you and soliciting tips in return. Hardly the rural, idyllic, traditional community you might expect (or that the photos imply) but on the other hand, locals do deserve to gain from the tourists visiting their lands.
We went to Nampan Market, which was great once we ran the gauntlet of souvenir shops - the back end of the market where locals shop was interesting. To get there we had to not only climb out of our boat but also clamor over other people's boats.
And at the souvenir stands, you can see all manner of fake crap. Or maybe this is real, and it doesn't matter that it says "Five Dollars" in Chinese but "One Dollar" in English! :)
Although some of the souvenir stall crap was actually very pretty, I was not in the mood to bargain for its true worth (because you know they'd insist it was real silver and therefore worth tens of dollars, when in fact it's plated nickel and worth maybe $2) and, honestly, can make most of that beaded stuff myself anyway.
We also got taken around to all the local "factories" that showcase traditional industries. I have to wonder how traditional these workshops are, or even how traditional the goods are - I'm sure they're locally traditional to somewhere, but I'm not convinced they're all local to Inle Lake. But the weaving "workshop" was nice enough, and I got a pretty peacock blue silk scarf for a good price (real silk as far as I can tell, but I'm pretty good at telling).
We also went to Inthein, where we saw more stupas (I was getting a little sick of stupas and Buddhas to be honest) and the Jumping Cat Monastery where the cats no longer jump - differing accounts say the monks got sick of the tourists encroaching on their eating and prayer time, or that the original cat trainer died. But it was pretty nonetheless.
Also - "Surprise!" brand men's boxers.
I wonder what the "surprise" is. it is a size large, after all.
We boated through the floating gardens as the sun set, which was lovely...
...and headed back into town.
The next day we hired a taxi to Kakku, an area with yet more stupas, with the idea that we'd go to the Taunggyi wet market and stop at a few Pa'O villages (Pa'O being a local ethnic minority) on the way.
And we did do that, and it was nice, but Kakku is basically more stupas, and the villages are basically more villages.
Honestly speaking, I was starting to tire of villages because, while they're nice to visit when people are welcoming or you have a reason to be there, after awhile I felt like we just didn't have a reason to be there. I felt like an intruder, an encroacher. Like I was wasting people's time. During the day they tend to be empty anyway, as most households are out tending their farmland. Although nobody was ever unfriendly - in fact, most were curious and thought it was a riot that we were there - I did, after awhile, feel like I was just some rando who was all "hey can I check out your living room?" or taking a photo of a guy with a plow and a bull, like "I'm gonna take a picture of you working!"
And I felt like, how would it be if a bunch of tourists from some other country got on a tour bus and stopped in the "village" of my hometown in upstate New York. And some of them hired a taxi to rove around the country roads, and decided my parents' house was picturesque, and knocked on the door and were all "hey we're just visiting, can we walk around your yard and take some photos! It's so lovely and traditional and picturesque!" and then wanted to take a picture of my mom on her computer in the living room doing her job. Maybe they could go to my dad's office and take a picture of him talking to his boss.
So even though we had a Pa'O guide, who was welcome in basically any Pa'O home, and it was totally not a big deal, I did start to feel like exploring local villages was getting a bit...silly. Although Grandma here seemed to enjoy having her photo taken. She posed very seriously.
And to go to Kakku, you have to have a Pa'O guide. You don't actually need one to get the point of the place - a bunch of ancient stupas in the countryside - but you won't be allowed to go without one, because the stupas are on Pa'O land. I don't mind that at all - if you've got a popular cultural relic on your land, your people deserve to benefit from that and from those who'd like to see it (only foreigners need the guide: it's free for Pa'O and non-Pa'O Burmese alike). And while I suppose you could choose not to eat lunch, if you do eat at Kakku your only choice really is a Pa'O restaurant (run by Pa'O - it's not Pa'O food. In fact most of it is "Chinese style" food) that, while good, is a bit overpriced. Otherwise there's nothing for miles around and only a string of teahouses that don't appear to serve food nearby.
But our Pa'O guide was a nice kid who had a locally-bound "copy" of Headway Upper Intermediate in his bag and was excited to practice his English, and we enjoyed hanging out with him.
Finally, we hired the driver who took us out there to take us to the two local vineyards - yes, Myanmar has at least two vineyards: Aythaya and Red Mountain.
All but one of the whites from these two vineyards were excellent (Red Mountain's blanc was far too sweet). I didn't really the red that Red Mountain served in their wine tasting, but Aythaya's red, though not earth-shattering, was good. We brought back a bottle of Aythaya red and Red Mountain white.
In the end, Nyaungshwe was nice. Inle Lake was nice. Kakku was nice. I'm happy I went. But after a few days the touristiness was really starting to annoy me, and I wanted out. I needed out. Like a cat behind any closed door, I was desperate to get out.
Not because I think I'm "better" than other tourists. Not because I think my presence in a place is better than some other tourist's presence there, or that if I'm there it's "authentic" but if a tour group is there it's not.
More that lots of tourists in one place would be fine, if that place retained its own local culture. And some places do. New York manages to continue to be New York despite the tourists. Bangkok is the same way if you avoid Khao San Road (and I do!). Large cities can absorb large numbers of visitors, I guess.
But often, what you get instead is this international, homogenized, detached-from-local-reality "traveler's culture" that is basically the same in most of these spots. Nyaungshwe really wasn't any different from, say, Ayuthaya (Thailand), or Bukittinggi (Indonesia), or Yangshuo or Dali (China), or El Nido (the Philippines), or Hikkaduwa (Sri Lanka) or the various towns along the coast in Goa (India)...or how I imagine places like Manali, Rishikesh, Bali Island, Angkor Wat etc. are, although I haven't been to those places.
They're really not much different from each other, these places, although they once were quite unique indeed. Now it's all the same stuff - souvenir stands (sometimes selling the same souvenirs! I once saw a batik on the wall of a friend of a friend's house, which she bought in Thailand - exact same batik as the one I bought in Dali. As a joke I once bought Brendan a preposterously fierce-looking carved wooden mask at some shop near Lake Taal, and saw the same one for sale in Sri Lanka), "Italian" food (banana pancakes are passe, now it's all about Italian food for travelers in Asian countries), well-appointed Thai restaurants, travel agencies.
And if you've seen one traveler's ghetto, you've seen 'em all, so I was ready to move on. Not because I think I'm better than other travelers - my presence contributes to these places and their atmosphere after all - but because I didn't feel like I was getting anything new out of the experience at that point.
One major reason why I kind of hope tourism to Taiwan never fully takes off. Sure, I'd like to see something kickstart the economy, but I'm not sure it's worth the cost of homogenizing Taiwan. I'd hate to see this country dotted with these same-same-not-even-different traveler's ghettoes.
Then we booked bus tickets to Bago, where we'd stop for a rest before continuing on to Kinpun, the "base camp" for the Golden Rock up on Mt. Kyaiktiyo. We were happy that the bus would leave at 2pm and arrive around midnight - that's more like our regular sleeping schedule and it suited us just fine to get in late and then sleep through the night before heading on to Kinpun, three hours south.
And then, the guy booking the tickets called up the bus company, talked to them about the schedule, put down the phone and said "today is your lucky day!"
I thought - great! The bus is a day bus, it leaves earlier and we don't have to take another freakin' night bus!
"The bus schedule has changed."
"Now the bus leaves at 7pm and gets in at 5am, instead of leaving at 2pm. Isn't that great?"
The poor cherub looked embarrassed when he saw my crestfallen face. I tried to be polite - "actually I hate night buses. I can't sleep on them at all."
Sadly, it was the only bus available and we had to take it. I wasn't sick anymore, so at least I could count on my buddy Dramamine to get me through it. So I girded my guts and got on the bus, and once again got no sleep at all until we arrived.
But this time we were smart and pre-booked a hotel for the night we were going to be on the bus, so when we got in at 5am we could immediately collapse into bed and wake up whenever we darn well felt like it (before noon, anyway).