I promised updates, and all you got was nothing. I was in Burma (that I have now started calling Myanmar because there are just so many other things to worry about than what to call a country). I thought I would write interesting and engaging travelogs daily. My ambitions that were too high and very unrealistic. Last time I wrote a blog, I shared about meeting a prince.
We did meet him. He worked at a restaurant that made the best tea-leaf salad. In between waiting on tables, he told us part of his story. The one about his dad being a prince, but now he runs a guesthouse. The one about the government seizing their land and their power. But he was so busy serving the Western backpackers that he couldn’t keep talking to us.
Instead he introduced us to his pregnant wife who runs a store that sells lady-nicnacs, like hair pins, and pantyhose. We talked to her for a long time while she had a cup of hot water and we shared a bottle of Myanmar beer. She was sweet and smart. The kind of person one can become best friends with.
The next day we put on our nicest outfits, bought some fruit at the market and went to meet the prince at the street corner. But he didn’t show up. When we called him, he said his dad had to go away for business and he himself was really busy at his restaurant since it was New Year and this was the most hectic time of the year for a restaurant owner in N Sh.
It sounds like I am making this up, or that the “prince” was making his story up. The thing is, I think he told us the truth. Except, perhaps, the reason he gave for not wanting to see us.
We were in a part of Myanmar called Shan state. The Shan is the largest ethnic group in the country, and they did, indeed, have their own kingdoms that was ruled by many princes, saophas. After Burma gained their independence in 1948, the Shan with their saophas agreed to turn all the small kingdoms into one—Shan state. The princes still had their positions, but their independent power was more limited. However, when General Ne Win and his military overthrew the government in 1962, he also abolished the Shan saopha system. He took their land and assets, arrested and/or killed the princes and forced the others, with their families, to flee the country. The rest is history.
When the prince didn’t show, we rented bicycles and rode around the largest lake in the country, Inle Lake. The scenery was spectacular, the roads still lonesome, say from an occasional car or tourbus. Along the roads, bamboo houses, patches of vegetable gardens, and fields of sugar cane filled the landscape. I could almost be convinced that this place was paradise. The only struggle facing the inhabitants here may have been mosquitos.
A boat trip on the lake allowed us to see the famous fishermen who row their boats standing at the edge of the vessel, moving the oars with their legs. It was the most impressive way I have ever seen a person manoeuvre a boat of any kind. It was like watching a ballet dancer on water.
Did Myanmar have a problem? And if so, what? A prince who waited tables. Was that so bad? Couldn’t one call that progress? We even happened upon a winery on our bike ride. The wine tasted bad, but still. Nothing at that vineyard reminded us of human rights abuses. In fact, wouldn’t you agree that wineries are symbols of peace?
You could say it was a little bit like when I have guests over at my house and I only want them to stay in the living room. God forbid letting them upstairs to the bedrooms and the master bathroom! Not to mention the laundry room. Keep that door shut! If all the guests see is order and beauty, they may think I actually have my shit together.
You see, we weren’t allowed to leave the place of perfect tranquility. The plan had been to go to the rural areas where Partners support schools and medical clinics. Could it be so hard? We would ride our bicycles if need be. Awkward pauses in the conversation made us realise that it was actually that hard. Our Shan guides explained to us that the government would not only deny us access to the areas we wanted to visit, but the Shan themselves weren’t allowed to enter either. Why? They were dressed in pants and dress shirts and looked educated and wealthy. The government feared that people like them would be able to report too much back to the rest of the world about the dirty laundry rooms in the state. “The only way we can get to the areas you want to visit, is we we dress like villagers and act as if we too live there,”they told us.
It was confirmed that just a couple of mountain tops away, more than ten thousand Shan were living in hiding from the Myanmar Army that just recently attacked and burned villages.
The areas we were allowed to visit were the areas where the poverty was just cute and could be mistaken for the beauty of a simple life.
That was, incidentally, in the same area as the area where 60 new hotels are being built right now. “60 hotels? That is a lot of land and space,” commented we. “From whom did the hotel moguls get all that land?” “They bought it from the government who has forcibly relocated the villagers who originally lived there,” we were told. “They were forced to leave and they weren’t compensated?” “Yes, and no. They got a little bit of money for their land, but only a symbolic sum. In Myanmar the poor people have no land deeds, so they can’t prove that the land they and their forefathers lived on is actually theirs.” “So what do they end up doing when they can’t work the land?” “They become day labourers in Thailand, and sometimes here in Myanmar. They have no rights.” I was reminded of the brothels with Burmese young girls. Wonder if any of them came from the villages that no longer existed. Could they have lived on the property of Novotel?
So, just like that, paradise became a lie, and the scenes surrounding us a theatre. It was still lovely and pleasant, but we knew that it was just make-believe.