Myanmar is a mysterious and enigmatic country. Its people are shy, friendly, superstitious, generous, and extremely resilient. Getting to know them is a privilege that I am lucky to experience.
December 2020, the region of Yangon is locked. Travelling to other places is practically impossible. No holidays by the beach. No trekking in the mountains. No boat rides on Inle Lake. No climbing on ancient temples for sunrise… At first, this is hard to take. My thirst for discovery is going to have to wait and that’s not what I had in mind. Haha, did you really think I was going to sit there and wait? Fortunately, the region is vast and there are plenty of things to discover if you’re ready to change your plans and let your instincts guide you! That’s what Claire and I have been doing once in a while lately. Look at the map, choose a destination, ask Ako (older brother in Burmese, a mark of respect to our elders! – our neighbor who happens to be a taxi driver and to speak English, just what we need! -) to drive us there, tell him to wait for us, then walk around and discover a whole different world each time! Here is an extract of experiences we’ve been having in the past couple of months.
It’s 6am, it’s still dark, you’d think the city calm and empty before sunrise. But, the Yangonites have another way to look at things. It’s 6am, it’s the break of dawn, the temperature is just perfect for a morning stroll, a run, a bike ride, a walk in the park, or a photoshoot session before another hot day. On our way to the ferry terminal, we witness the waking of the city for the first time, it’s lively, it’s colorful, it’s buzzing with a totally different vibe than during the day. Street vendors are setting their fruits stands, businessmen are doing their morning sports, children are still sleeping, cars are not yet jammed in a dense traffic, it’s peacefully active.
On the ferry to Dala (right across the Yangon river, a stone-throw away from Downtown), life takes another turn. The sun is just spreading its first rays, the river is already busy with water-taxis, fishing boats, barges, and any floating means of transportation! The crossing only takes a few minutes, but it’s enough to feel transported to another world.
Dala is a village made of few concrete buildings, many wooden houses, and even more bamboo huts. No skyscrapers on this side of the river. People live simply and they seem pretty ok with that! Walking around the village, I notice that the road is wet, and right the next second a splash of water sprays my feet and an old man profusely apologizes as he unloads two buckets balanced on his bike. He fills the large clay jars in front of his house and goes out for a second (or god knows how many) round. At the end of the road is a water reservoir, beautifully covered in lotus / waterlilies, where many villagers come to fill jugs with their daily water consumption. We take it for granted that water should come out of the tap in the different rooms of our houses, but for these people, the routine is to go and fetch water at the lake. It is a difficult task. You can tell that it’s super heavy, and yet, it builds the community spirit. People meet at the edge of the water, they chat, exchange news and gossips, they laugh, they help each other, they smile and although it is difficult, they make it enjoyable. The colors are incredible, the sun is still low in the sky, spreading light right between the tree trunks and at the surface of the lake, the purple and white flowers are still open, and the setting is just magical. Everyone greets us and it’s a great start for a day of discoveries!
The village is waking up. The workers are drinking “Caw Phee” – a local version of coffee and cream- in the tea shops, together with Naan Biaw, a delicious sort of flat bread with lentils. The perfect breakfast before a long day of work! The activities of the day are taking off! Children are waking up, mothers and grand-parents are preparing the fish for the morning MonHinGa, the local breakfast of fish soup and noodles (it grows on you really! after a few months I even start to manage to eat some for breakfast myself!). The kids start their games of the day, jumping rope, making complex figures with an elastic band (remember this? one at each end of the large elastic and the person in the middle jumping around and twisting…), drawing in the sand, pushing a tire around with a stick, playing dolls, taking care of little brothers and sisters, laughing, being kids, and of course following us, and pretending not to be following us…
Street shops are opening up, many houses also host a little shop that sells pretty much everything in single use packets. From candy, to potato chips, to noodles, to chili powder, and of course shampoo and all kinds of beauty products in single dose… This is such a concept. This is what living day to day really means. Not being able to buy a large bottle of shampoo rather that 50 single doses and therefore saving a lot of money. And this is for everything. All is more expensive in the long term because they are not able to purchase in larger quantities from the start. This is really one very visible aspect of the vicious circle of poverty. It is easy for us to see, but a complicated concept to teach.
During one of our excursions, we got to meet a basket manufacturing family. What an experience. The whole family is involved. The men go to the bamboo farm and cut large bamboo. The women stay at home and make the baskets. In one day, with two women can cut one large bamboo in super thin slices and make 50 baskets out of it. That’s a skill! And these baskets you meet all over the streets of Myanmar. On the Markets, they are used to transport all fruits and vegetables (unfortunately starting to be replaced by plastic boxes), in the parks, they are recycled as trash bins, you see them everywhere!
This story is a condensed version of a few excursions taken between November and December 2020. There are many more stories, anecdotes, nice encounters, incomprehensible Burmese conversations, beautiful smiles, delicious food, incredibly humbling moments, and just a lot of pure joy, that I didn’t put in this one, just to be able to write more later and to keep you wanting more! I hope that you enjoyed this little Burmese episode and that it has made you travel a bit with me ! Finally, I just want to acknowledge how grateful I am for the great comfort of my home(s) and for being reminded everyday of how wonderful life is! I might be frustrated not to be able to do everything I want especially travel-wise, but I really have to look at the positive side and appreciate all the amazing people I’ve met, the thousands of smiles I’ve collected, the millions of laughter I’ve engendered with my shaky Burmese and all the beautiful landscape I’ve seen, the wonderful memories that I get to carry with me and the gazillion pictures I’ve taken! Let the adventure continue!!