Mandalay

Burma is a poor country.

That was evident everywhere we went. A half century of totalitarian rule by a military junta had left the Burmese economy lagging far behind its regional neighbors. And while the country is embracing democracy and opening its borders, its economy remains stifled by a network of cronies who control most of the nation’s wealth. It’s hard to grow your way to prosperity when you exclude most of your countrymen.

As we cycled through the countryside, we saw rudimentary homes (huts, really) with few of the modern conveniences that are becoming commonplace in other parts of southeast Asia. Setting foot in much of Burma is like stepping back in time: many people still live largely as the generations before them once did. Yet whereas rural poverty carries with it certain romantic notions of a simpler pastoral era, there is no beauty in urban poverty. And so we rode into Mandalay…

On my first morning in Burma’s second largest city and former capital, I left our comfortable riverside hotel early in the morning and decided to walk down the banks of the fabled Irrawaddy River. What I saw shocked the senses. The narrow patch of dirt separating the river from the road was teeming with people living in rudimentary shacks, with no electricity or running water, and no sign of a toilet. (I watched two kids defecate under a truck.) Tiny rooms housed large families, occasionally with pigs living underneath. And everywhere there were children, always smiling, completely oblivious to their surroundings.

If there was any consolation to what we saw — an ironic silver lining — it’s that Mother Nature will see to it that these living conditions are only temporary. When the rainy season comes, the rising Irrawaddy will flood the ghetto and wash everything away, scattering the people and leaving no sign anyone had ever lived there. Of course next year the dry season will arrive, bringing with it new people, new problems, and the cycle will repeat.

IMG_9481

IMG_9586  P1030053 P1030044

I loved Inle Lake. You should hate it.

Nearly a week since returning from Burma, I’m still sifting through the trip — the photos and memories of the people we met, the places we saw. We’ll get to the overall trip another time — today I want to tell you about my favorite place in Burma… one I hope I can convince you to never visit.

20140111-121944.jpg

Inle Lake is a freshwater lake nestled in the mountains of Shan State east of Mandalay. Despite its size, at first glance, it’s easy to miss. So much of it is covered — by homes, people, farmland — the only way to see much of it is by being on it. And so we set out on our long boats…

20140111-121911.jpg

There are nearly 100,000 people living in approximately 50 villages not just surrounding the lake, but on it as well. The result is a kind of Burmese Venice. Waterways make streets, with intersections and even speed bumps in the form of bamboo rods laid across the water (the rods force boats to lift their propellers out of the water — clever!).

Cruising the lake is pure pleasure and I could easily have devoted another day or two to seeking out its remote pockets. Like so much else about this country, Inle Lake offered a glimpse into a way of life largely unaltered over generations. Thatch huts stood on stilts, villagers transported goods via canoes, and farmers tended to crops growing on floating islands of soil. Women weaved lotus and silk, while men pounded silver and other metals.

And then there was the lake’s most iconic imagine — that of the loan fisherman balancing himself on the back of a canoe, a single oar held by a foot, rowing with a graceful, twisting motion.

P1020898

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long to realize life on Inle is rapidly changing as the country modernizes and the lake becomes one of Burma’s premier tourist attractions. Tourism, while still relatively light, is nevertheless growing, with new hotels cropping up along the shoreline and even on the lake itself. As you leave a pagoda, a canoe pulls up alongside you and a villager tries to sell you a necklace or a postcard. Can you blame them? Why spend a grueling day farming and fishing when you can earn more selling trinkets?

The lake is also suffering from a myriad of environmental woes, only some of which can be attributed to tourism. The challenges are well described in this article that points the finger at just about everyone: logging, pesticide, coal mining, tourism, you name it. The result is a shrinking lake and changes to life as its floating inhabitants know it.

Go see Inle Lake before it disappears. Or maybe don’t.

P1020855

P1020864

P1020818

P1020885