A new dawn in Burma
In the village of Inn Dein on the lake’s western edge, vendors start arriving for the weekly market before 6am. You reach it on a cigar-shaped wooden boat that putters up a long canal, past dragonflies and beds of water hyacinth. Pa-O and Taungyo villagers, recognisable by their headscarves, have walked down from the mountains in plimsolls, carrying baskets of tea leaves, pinewood kindling, lemons and avocados. The Intha have come by boat. They wear bamboo hats and sell fish and vegetables from the lake’s floating gardens. Intha fishermen are famous for their gymnastic style of rowing – they stand on one leg and paddle with the oar braced against the other. At the market, the different peoples of the lake meet and interact to their mutual benefit. However, life here has not always been this peaceful. The Pa-O were in armed revolt in 1991. They laid down their weapons, made peace with the government and now receive income from two guest lodges on the lake and tours to their villages.
My Pa-O guide – the first from her village to complete a university degree – speaks passionately about the opportunities that tourism gave her people and how she hopes to inspire the next generation to complete their schooling. Various other groups have since struck deals like the Pa-O’s. Elsewhere peace has been elusive: some central parts of Shan State are not under full government control and are closed to outside visitors.
During the months that I had been planning to visit Burma, political activity in the country seemed to accelerate, and much of what I read was out of date or inaccurate by the time I arrived. My laptop wasn’t impounded at the airport and I was able to rent a mobile phone and SIM card – although receiving calls from abroad proved almost impossible. And the official exchange rate and the black market rate appeared to have converged.
I never once saw a soldier or felt unsafe – but, of course, that’s the experience of most foreign visitors to Burma, and perhaps not the most accurate reflection of reality for the majority of people. Yet those whom I met seemed to speak with a new openness and a tentative hope about the future.
The civilian government that took office in the past year has released some political prisoners – although many still remain in jail – and cancelled the construction of a dam that would have disrupted life along the Irrawaddy in order to generate electricity for the Chinese. Aung San Suu Kyi, whose last period of house arrest came to an end in November 2010, was once a taboo figure, who was never mentioned in public. Now, she appears in the pages of the national newspapers. Wherever I went, I sensed a cautious optimism about these changes.
Bagan is the outstanding cultural monument of Burma. The city is only 80 miles from Mandalay, but the road is so bad that most visitors choose to fly or travel by boat – which is a day’s journeying down the Irrawaddy.
In July of 2011, The Lady herself visited Bagan to talk to the people and make a gesture of support for local artisans, whose future is intrinsically linked to continued tourism. While she was there, she dropped in to a local lacquer ware factory.
Lacquered goods have been made in Bagan since the 11th century, and 80 per cent of its population are involved in their manufacture. It’s a painstaking process, involving many stages, through which bamboo and resin are turned into delicate items of great strength and beauty: teapots, trays, cups, bowls and furniture.
‘She said she understood how important visitors are to us,’ says the proprietor of the factory as she shows me photographs of Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit. ‘She said she would encourage people to come.’