As tourists start flooding into Myanmar (Burma), Melanie Kramers dives into the deep countryside to live like a local and discovers a beguiling mix of past and present.
Hand-rolled cheroot clamped between her teeth, the elderly woman stares hard at us and issues a guttural grunt. While it sounds like the kind of grumpy growl you’d expect from a monosyllabic adolescent, this is belied by the wide grin her weather-worn face creases into. It’s a noise we’ll hear frequently during our three-day trek through the countryside in Myanmar’s eastern Shan State. As our guide Do’h later explains, low-pitched grunts are how people express agreement in the local Pa'o dialect.
Before arriving in Myanmar I’d wondered what kind of reception we’d get. It was difficult to build up a picture of a country and people largely isolated from the world for the past 50 years. I’d seen pictures of flower-wearing opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi released from house arrest to participate in the first democratic elections in decades and read about foreign investment flooding in. Now I wanted to see what life was like in a nation apparently poised on the cusp of dramatic change.
Here in the fertile farmland between Kalaw and Inle Lake, the peasants manually working the fields appear stuck in a time warp. A group of four labouring women, wearing chequered orange headscarves that stand out vividly against the drab mud, pause to wave before returning to swinging their hoes in unison. It looks like backbreaking work in the fierce sun. Traditional gender roles are clearly defined in these rural communities; women sow seeds and weed while it's down to men to lead docile water buffaloes in heavy wooden ploughs – then take the afternoon off.
But back in the villages there are hints of modern influence, from a flash of neon green nail polish on a teenage girl’s toes to trendy bleached hairstyles you might see in a hipster bar. Although agricultural work seems completely unmechanised, roadside stalls sell pale yellow gasoline in recycled whisky bottles to those lucky enough to own shiny, new imported Korean motorbikes.
Atop a house made of woven bamboo in contrasting shades, Do’h points out a single solar tile gleaming on the corrugated iron roof. He says it generates enough power for an electric bulb or two at night and to watch the occasional DVD. Inside, a calendar bearing Aung San Suu Kyi’s face - until recently illegal - is now proudly pinned up.
Despite these signs, it’s hard to judge the pace of change among rural communities who we’re told have long preferred to keep to themselves to avoid government interference. Officially, March 2nd is a public holiday to celebrate Peasants Day, but the villagers continue working obliviously, taking their rest days according to the lunar calendar. However, we see several roads being built, indicating that modern, urban life may soon be roaring into these remote spots.
In dry season, the walk along dusty red earth paths is straightforward, though the intense midday sun necessitates strategic breaks under the shady canopy of sprawling 100-year old Banyan trees. Beside a rare river, emerald green onion shoots are growing in a seedlings nursery, while neatly ploughed furrows await potatoes on terraces stepped like an amphitheatre. I salivate over tall papaya and banana trees and am disappointed to learn that the blossoming mango trees won’t bear fruit till July. Do’h cracks open a white speckled custard bean. It’s used a laxative, he explains. Not quite what I was looking for.
In the afternoon we arrive at Kyauk Su village, home to about 10 families, and scoop water from the well to scrub off the rust-coloured dust stuck to our legs. Our smiling, grunting hostess indicates this should be performed from a bucket at one side, not where the washing up takes place.
At 6.30pm night arrives promptly and absolutely. Stars flicker brightly in the velvety blackness. Sitting indoors on bamboo mats at low round wooden tables, we’re served coriander-infused fish broth followed by fried noodles with tofu and garlicky watercress. After a sugar fix of sticky peanut brittle, the village’s young men invite us to join them round a crackling campfire, taking it in turns to strum a guitar and earnestly croon soft-rock love songs. We can’t understand the words but the emotion is palpable. Shamefully, the only tune our international trek group of eight all know is Frère Jacques. The boys clap politely then return to their ballads.
Our communal first floor bedroom is over a storage space piled high with fresh ginger, which adds a piquant spice to dreams. We sleep on thin mattresses lined up so the soles of our feet point away from the Buddha icon on a flower-bedecked shelf, to avoid causing grave offence.
I wake up to the soft whoosh of wings and chatter of small birds in the rafters above my head. Outside are the sounds of villagers beginning their day: the put-put of motorbikes as boys head into town, the rattle of coriander seeds being raked out to dry on a plastic sheet, children playing and water buffalo lowing. Our hostess comes in with small dishes of rice and water to place on the shrine, and we are treated to pancakes and a thermos of steaming green ginger tea.
I’m impressed by how welcome we’re made to feel as we pass through people’s intimate lives. Excitable children, cheeks smeared with pale yellow thanaka paste, a natural sun block made from crushed tree root, happily show off dance routines and pose for photos. Hosts are usually the older generation, who seem pleased to have a new, easier source of income now their hard fieldwork days are over.
But how long will foreign tourists be an interesting novelty? Larger Puttu village, where we stay on our second night, is an established base for trek groups, and has a notable difference in atmosphere. We’re told Myanmar received about 300,000 tourists in 2011, which rocketed to 1 million during 2012, with numbers set to shoot up even more this year.
Our experienced guide reflects that the income provided by increased tourism will benefit locals, but unless managed sensitively a jump in numbers could spoil the experience visitors are seeking. How will the Burmese adapt to meet the challenges ahead?
In Myanmar, locals greet each other by asking ‘Where have you been? Where are you going?’ In these changing times, it seems a very apt question.
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