Dueling Smiles in Muzzled Myanmar — Page 2
Story and photos by Bruce Northam

Myanmar travel

This jaunt is also an accidental detox. Myanmar's primarily and inevitably organic food supply is the polar opposite of what has become much of the U.S. food source. You don't see overweight people here. Farm-to-table cuisine rules, as you often see every item you consume while strolling, or even from your window while dining. When Aung randomly selects a homestay in another thatched, unheated home, our always smiling chef, Ming, rides up on his motorbike. We sleep in the same room as the family. Our spaces are divided only by a coin-thin wall that doesn't reach the ceiling. Morning marks the first time in a year that I can see my breath while still in an indoor bed, a rather narrow floor mat. It's also been some time since I've been woken by roosters.

There is always more than greets the eye. The trek scratches the surface of the complex patchwork of tribes that is Myanmar. These are earnest, incredibly hard-working people. While in college, Aung was in a motorbike accident resulting from saving his best friend's life. A cable on his friend's bike snapped, causing it to accelerate out of control as it neared a cliff-side hairpin turn. At the last second, quick-thinking Aung, now riding beside his about-to-be-doomed friend, knocked him off his bike by sacrificing his own motorbike. Aung saved his friend's life but they were still both severely injured. His friend was able to receive long-term care in Singapore, thanks to his wealthy father. Aung fractured his skull and was in a coma for weeks. Fortunately, after realizing that Aung had saved his son's life, that same father also paid Aung's medical bills and bought him a new motorcycle, clothes, and a pair of eye-catching sneakers. Aung explained that his newfound appearance "made locals think I was getting rich by guiding." Guiding full time, Aung logs thousands of miles per year, happily connecting visitors to his country.



Dusty Roads or Paths to Quiet Tribal Villages

Even though it's an increasingly hot destination in the mainstream travel press, Myanmar isn't quite ready for what's coming. After 300,000 visitors in 2007, it will welcome five million tourists in 2015. And with that comes the evolving routine of tourists being hustled, in some cases justly. Aung explains that ultra-cheap backpackers are now trying to whittle guides down to a ridiculous $10 a day for a trek, including meals. The result is that desperate guides cave in but give lame abbreviated treks on beaten paths and alongside dusty main roads. The routes of choice for these mediocre, sun-beaten slogs are newly churned, earthen-raped, Chinese-built gravel and limestone powder roads. Parallel to this issue are scam vendors peddling cheap Chinese-made handicrafts to unknowing tourists. A can't-be-bought guide like Aung won't bring clients to such vendors.


In the three Paoh tribe villages we trekked through, the women's traditional outfit included a colorful turban (classic Aunt Jemima-style head-wrap) and a longyi (sarong). I took incognito pictures from the hip, as the surging picture-taking affront can offend some. Vegetarians who eat fish, the animist Paoh are now mostly Buddhist, as local monasteries also fly the Paoh flag high as a centerpiece. One such village, Pinnawe, is known for its basket weaving. A few miles away, the next village on our trek, Kone Hla, is realm for growing and exporting red chili peppers. I was there for the early February harvest, which meant immense mountains of chilies being sorted by wide-brim hat-wearing women, usually with their babies nearby. The sturdy Paoh work ethic made me ponder its inverted contrast to the American way of life, where any day without entertainment is labeled as a boring one.


Back in the forest, we pass more mid-forest Buddhist meditation stupas—reminders we're a long way from home—and appetizers to our final campout. This night we find ourselves in a monastery. There, Aung bemoans his two obligatory residences in a monastery, where everyone submits to the 227 sacred rules in "Buddha's boot camp." Our guesthouse, a stark cinderblock room with a corrugated steel roof, has two bed mats and another low table for customary dining, which takes place seated on the ground. Chef Ming gets hip for our final meal, ending it with a flaming banana flambé ignited by a combination of rice wine and rum. This is also a culinary journey, as our roving chef sources local food in every village. The next morning, we sit with the chief monk and discuss navigating contentedness via Aung's translations. It always seems to boil down to this: To love someone is to suffer; to hate someone is to suffer.

Our final trekking day meanders downhill into the valley surrounding Inle Lake and includes a return to electricity. The mountain-encircled watershed teems with life, mostly families hovering in homes stilted over the lake. Most tourists are introduced to the lake at its north end and later board longboats to tour its more interesting southern stretch. But our trek ends by boarding a boat in the south and then slowly motoring north into dusty but lively Nyaungshwe. En route, the over-water wooden-home villages reveal a seismic lifestyle shift compared to the hill tribes met in previous days. It's a fitting close to a ramble that showcased Myanmar's diversity and the bliss of familial simplicity.

I pondered Ye again, the recently freed political prisoner and his take on happiness, then flashed the airport bus driver a smile—my real one.

If you go:

For information about experiencing the back paths of Burma, contact PEAK Myanmar.

Bruce Northam's THE DIRECTIONS TO HAPPINESS: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons shares the infinite goodwill of strangers through enlightening tales from his travels to 135 countries. He has spent decades navigating the globe in a continuing search for words to live by—and live for—in local mode. Visit AmericanDetour.com.

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Related Features:
Enduring Burmese Tea by James Michael Dorsey
Rites of Passage in Myanmar's Tribal Highlands by Michael Shapiro
On a Slow Boat down the Irrawaddy River by Jim Johnston
Rent a Real Man in Borneo by Bruce Northam

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