As the plane approaches Yangon, the knot in my belly tightens. A trip that began as a flight of fancy is about to become reality, and I’m not sure if I’m ready for it. Burma is my last Southeast Asian frontier, the grand old dame of independent travel. I had put off visiting this part of the world for years for fear it was exactly the sort of place popular opinion portrays it to be: dour, ugly and sad. I knew a bit of the history, and I’d listened to plenty of tales of woe from other travellers, some built on a sandy foundation of truth and others conjured from the mist.
My mental picture is bleak. I picture protests at the Shwedagon Paya; monks setting themselves on fire in protest at the actions of the military junta; the shifty eyes of tourist-talking soldiers. I’d always imagined Burma was the saddest place on earth, and now I have two weeks to find out.
My luggage hasn’t followed me through to Yangon. It’s in Saigon, Singapore or Seoul. The airline has no idea how long it might take to track down my stuff – if it can be found at all. I’m welcome to conduct a thorough search myself, though, says the deliriously cheerful customer service agent who meets me in the arrivals hall. In the meantime, she encourages me to enjoy a complimentary Star Cola. Suddenly I’m very unhappy.
Burma is not the sort of place you want to lose your luggage. Not that you can’t easily replace everything in your kit – Yangon is home to a few shopping malls, some excellent street bazaars and an avenue peppered with camera shops. The problem is that the entire country runs on cash; there are no ATM machines and nobody accepts credit cards. If I blow what cash I came with on new knickers, I could wind up starving in the jungle. To compound matters, I have to exchange my dollars for Burmese kyat – a currency that may or may not even exist – on Yangon’s infamous black market.
A man named Zin Min leads me from the Sakura Tower to his makeshift shop in a dusty parking lot, where two of his comrades are waiting to trade. I don’t want any funny business, I declare. I know the going rate of exchange, and I want a fair deal. Zin Min takes my money and arranges it on the counter in front of his boss.
“I want 700 kyat on the dollar,” I demand. The boss behind the counter shakes his head. “I’m sorry sir, this will be impossible,” Zin Min says. “That is the rate from last month, and it is too low. We must give you much more.” To seal the deal, Zin Min offers me a Star Cola.
Perhaps the night will bring on something more sinister. I make my way down to the Botataung Paya where, under the glow of generator-powered fluorescent tubes, willowy wisps drift from one street vendor to the next, filling baskets with gold leaf bananas, wooden puppets and thanaka, a cream used by Burmese women as a cosmetic and sunblock. The chit-chit-chit of the bamboo juicer sets the soundtrack for this ethereal dance party, as children release balloons into the air and street peddlers drape fragrant garlands around the necks of female visitors. Though I’ve lost my luggage, I’m still wearing my dancing shoes. I join the ghostly apparitions as they dance along the Yangon River promenade under the cover of darkness. Everyone is smiling. I’m having a brilliant time.
I’m clearly not finding unhappiness in Yangon, so I need to look someplace else. The photographer in me is drawn to the great set pieces of middle Myanmar: Bagan’s ancient pagodas, Amarapura’s legendary teak bridge, Inle Lake’s mythic floating markets. I decide to look for a revelation in the heart of Burma’s tourist country.
I arrive at Nyaung Shwe, Inle Lake’s main development, in the dead of night. Booking myself onto a boat tour, I wonder aloud if the notorious Nayar, a mythical dragon with four legs, still stalks the waters. An old man sat next to me on the bus ride from Yangon to Inle fills our 13-hour odyssey with tales of Nayar and the Magan, a man-eating crocodile that patrols the murky depths of the lake when the sun goes down. I don’t consider myself superstitious, but in Burma I’ll believe just about anything. I tell my boatman as much.
“Now you’re starting to understand our country,” he says, winking at me as he captains us through the dark. I assume we are in the middle of the lake because I can no longer see the glint of moonlight off the tin roofs of the stilt houses that line the lakeshore. The engine dies and we sit for a moment. My boatman hands me a small package wrapped in banana leaf; he tells me it’s a mix of fermented rice and kneaded fish. I imagine eating it would make me unhappy, so I do it with gusto.
Out of the mist, with the first rays of dawn pouring over the eastern hills, a fisherman appears. He’s trawling across what appears to be a thin sheet of glass, one strong leg propelling his slender canoe while he hefts a massive cone-shaped net above his head. The Intha fishermen, members of the Tibeto-Burman ethnic minority group that make their homes in stilt houses on the lake, are self-sufficient fisherfolk and farmers known for their unique one-legged rowing style. With the sun up, Inle’s water world slowly reveals itself, from pagoda-spiked coves to the green islands of vegetation that float atop the water.
As the sun climbs to its zenith, we motor through thick hyacinth beds to the floating market at the Alodaw Pauk Pagoda. Local villagers are out in force – Intha, Shan, Danu, Kayah and other tribal people are busy trading fruits, vegetables, spices, fish and tall tales. A vendor talks me into chewing paan for the first – and only – time in my life; the areca nuts nearly shatter my teeth, and I don’t know what to do with the red goo oozing from my mouth. Another young lady talks me out of my tattered shorts and into a longyi, and I begin to feel like I’m fitting in.
A longyi is a long tube of cloth worn like a skirt by people throughout Burma. The Burmese are so comfortable in them they can ride a bike, kick a football or run up and down a flight of stairs without skipping a step. I can barely walk without stepping on the fabric and exposing myself to the world. I feel like a mighty Scot in my bold tartan, nigh-on invincible as I crash through the jungle west of the lake. I think I look pretty cool until I meet a guy on a buffalo. The buffalo rider encourages me to try and climb on, so I try – and fail, much to the delight of the band of merry villagers that has joined me on my trek.
I realise then I have made a tactical error – this is one of the most beautiful places I have been in all my life. I’m as likely to find unhappiness here as I am to find the Nayar playing water polo with Moby Dick. I have to eschew my photographic designs and get deeper under Burma’s skin. I bid the scorched central plains goodbye and head back down south.
Stowing away aboard a passenger ferry I depart Mawlamyine and land on Ogre Island, a place where I assume nasty characters will abound.
However, exploring the island’s ethnic Mon settlements reveals a kinder, gentler side of Burma. Horses clop along dusty roads as children build castles out of sand, and the sweet smell of coconut wafts from inside stilt houses built over unending pitches of cereal grains. A stout old lady waves me into her hut, where she proudly displays her collection of handmade coconut teapots.
I roll deeper into the countryside, where farmers in straw hats herd lazy cattle, and messenger boys ramble past on ramshackle bicycles. It’s all very happy. Suspecting the heat may be playing tricks on my mind, I seek solace at the top of a tree with a local palm harvester. As I sit, some hundred feet above the ground, I look out over the past and fall in love with the strangeness surrounding me. My climbing partner, Htay, has been scaling these towering trees since he was a boy, harvesting the fruit that is then sold in Mawlamyine’s Myine Yadanar market. He hasn’t fallen out of a tree yet, and that makes him happy.
On the return ferry I meet a monk who welcomes me to Burma and asks after my trip. If anyone is going to show me unhappiness, this is the man. Monks have driven the engine of dissent in Burma for generations, speaking out against everything from government corruption and social malaise to the price of betel nut. I ask the monk how people remain so optimistic in the face of such tremendous government oppression. The monk smiles as he unfurls a laminated poster. “Because we have hope,” he says, revealing the visage of a young Aung San Suu Kyi. “But I do know someone who is sad,” he continues. “I think you would like to meet the saddest monk in Myanmar.”
I have one last crack at unhappiness, and I’m giddy with anticipation. Returning to Mawlamyine, I immediately chart a course for Shampoo Island, the home of the unhappy monk. During the brief life of the Ava Kingdom, a royal hair-washing ceremony was conducted using water from a well on the island. This is Shampoo Island’s singular claim to fame – for this reason, it has been called the most boring place in Burma.
But Shampoo isn’t bland, nor is it boring. It is a quaint, quiet place, where nuns in pink robes tend to beautiful gardens and giant tree snakes lay in repose in the canopies overhead. I enter the Buddhist meditation centre, where I come upon a three-tiered fish tank filled with happy-go-lucky goldfish. Standing nearby, staring at the tank, is a tangerine-robed monk. He holds a small net in one hand and a dead goldfish in the other. But he doesn’t seem sad at all.
I’m not naive enough to think that Burma is all sunshine and lollipops. This is, after all, a country still ruled by one of the most brutal dictatorships the world has ever known. Yet the Burmese have inspired me with their wanton refusal to accept the realities of their socio-political situation, and the way they embrace hope for the future. I’ve been struck by the natural beauty of the countryside, and mesmerised by the plethora of ancient wonders, but it’s the people I met on my travels that changed me.
Fly from Melbourne and other Australian cities to Yangon via Kuala Lumpur with AirAsia.