Dueling Smiles in Muzzled Myanmar
Story and photos by Bruce Northam

There are various ways to interpret rumors, opinions, and truths about a country. You can tune into the media, listen to firsthand accounts from travelers, or simply walk across the landscape and ask questions. The Myanmar encountered on a traveler's fourth date in 25 years is finally ready to express itself without fear of consequence. Toll the Buddhist bells.

Myanmar travel

My journey started with a dose of reality—a sobering conversation about training yourself to be happy with Ye Min, an incarcerated political prisoner for eight years (2005-2013) because he spoke in favor of Aung San Suu Kyi in the presence of adverse political figures. Ye owns Yangon's Business Alliance Hotel and 17 other companies, including a garment factory, a hospital, a rubber plantation, and a rice mill. Maintaining unflinching, unblinking eye contact I hadn't encountered since being railed on by a junior high school principal, multilingual Ye explained that while imprisoned he only got to see his three growing daughters for 15 minutes each month.

Intense, yet also funny about his trials, Ye maintained his sanity via a still-imprisoned monk who taught him how to control his brain and train himself to be happy. Ye then demonstrated his taught, forced smile, the one he showed his captors every day while incarcerated. He applauds Obama for his two visits, but doubts that the 10,000 generals who run and still drain the country will reform any time soon. Ye is still trying to get his monk friend freed. While first imprisoned in 2005, a surly guard told Ye, "You'll leave here either (mimes being carried away dead over-the-shoulder), or crazy."

"I am happy," Ye told the guard.

"Then you are crazy!" screamed the guard. Ye then flashed me a big smile—his real one.


A Walk in the Wonder

Independent travelers in Myanmar are a new concept. Before, visitors were part of predictable package tours, so the outfitters and the people are still learning how to accommodate adventure travelers. I trekked 50 miles from Kalaw, a former British hill station, to Inle Lake, the rapidly exploding tourist beacon, on a route visiting four different tribes within Myanmar's Shan State. The village-to-village wander started among highland pine trees and was punctuated by farms, many of which were defined by women stooping in rice fields and men driving creaky, wooden carts pulled by cows or water buffalo.

The informal trail meandered along ancient walking footpaths that intermittently wound through dirt road villages. I found that it's possible to experience entire days without touching pavement or the modern world. Often trailing locals, I saw women do most of the farming while the men piloted carts, trucks, and motorbikes; worked construction; or hung out in bare-bones restaurants.

My guide Aung (Danu tribe) was affable, smart, and no stranger to overcoming adversity. Although it took him a day to open up, he eventually began by lamenting the avalanche of "Chinese buffalo," which are ravaging village landscapes. These aircraft-loud Chinese-made tractors on steroids have exposed front engines and cargo beds. Typically, they're used to haul construction rocks and cement or sacks of rice—always a cigarette dangling from the driver's mouth.

We stop for our first lunch on a picnic table in Ywarbu, the village where Aung grew up. It still has no electricity. There, the locals go about their daily business and only engage us if we approach them. This is when we realize that we have a chef one step ahead of us on a motorbike loaded down with essentials for our 10 forthcoming meals. Avocado salad with onion, garlic, and tomato, and other veggie concoctions spearhead the menu, which includes nightly soups, such as the national standard Mohinga, a hearty rice noodle and fish soup that is available throughout the day but commonly eaten as breakfast.

Myanmar people

After lunch, we scale the nearby mountain and ascend into Sharpin, a village defined by growing ornamental flowers for sale in richer parts of Myanmar. Aung went to primary school here and knows the locals, as he once had to make the climb daily. Motorized vehicles can only access Sharpin's dirt path a few dry months a year, thus, the only soundtrack in this floral town is breeze-blown blossoms.

We encounter a gracious elderly man named Moin—his full name—wearing the traditional men's outfit: turban, white shirt, navy jacket, and long black trousers. Moin emerges from his simple home and nods a grin. Luckily for us, he speaks English well, a result of working in Mandalay when the British were still ever-present. He later married a Sharpin gal and moved here, where his headgear tells of adapted tribal leanings to match his wife's heritage. After a brief conversation, Moin surveys his beloved Sharpin, a flowery Shangri-La, and then shares a message: "Putting pesticides on vegetables kills bugs, therefore Buddha's vegetarians are still, unfortunately, killing things."

After we bid Moin farewell, we descend out of Sharpin into another micro-climate as huge banyan and spindly avocado trees dot the landscape. When another water buffalo-drawn cart approaches, Aung warns us that this buffalo is dangerous. Evidently, you can judge troublemakers by their horns. If they're chipped and banged up, they're aptly tagged with a reputation for mischief.


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