A fisherman on Inle Lake.

Inle Lake is nestled into the Shan Hills of Eastern Myanmar.  As a region of fierce warriors and inhospitable terrain, the Shan state is one of great historical significance to Burma.  It’s also an area where life has yet to change much for the majority of its residents.  Those who live on the lake make their living by farming on floating islands (they heap lake mud onto floating thatch beds and grow tomatoes, cucumbers, and other goods that are tended and harvested by boat) or fishing in boats famously powered by leg-rowers.  Rowing with one leg allows a fisherman to both fish and maneuver his boat at the same time.   In the hills, farmers work in much the same way that they have for generations, scraping an existence from the land with little access to electricity.  After a day spent exploring the lake by boat, we hired a young guide, Tak, to take us into the hills.

Tak exemplifies many of the changes taking place in Myanmar today.  Like most of the Shan people living in the dense, malarial hills of eastern Myanmar, Tak’s family farms rice during the wet season and fishes during the dry season.  For generations, this is how it has been: Rice cultivation and fishing if you live by a lake, hill farming if you don’t.  When Tak’s grandfather passed away 5 years ago, the family had to sell half of their farm to pay off past debts to merchants that the grandfather had accumulated during difficult years.  Tak had to look elsewhere to make money.

His uncle runs a trekking business in town and needed some extra guides to help meet the growing demand from tourists.  Tak had taken English in school, was good at it, and could read and write (Tak’s uncle could not).  He started as a trekking apprentice and now, at the age of 17, was taking groups on his own.  Tak said that he loves it, and that he dreams of one day leading tours of all of Myanmar.   But it’s also difficult for him.  Members of older generations feel that he is drifting from tradition and that he is contributing to a larger breakdown in the Shan social fabric.  “I don’t want to grow tomatoes and rice – it is hard work.  I want to speak English and meet people from around the world.  I want to travel the world.”  He showed me his new cell phone.  “I would not have been able to buy this if I was just a farmer.  Being in the tourist industry means you can make money and buy things.  Sometimes, I think people are just jealous of me.”  Myanmar has the lowest rate of cell phone use in the world next to North Korea – 6% – so Tak’s ability to purchase a phone is extraordinary.

We continued hiking through the hills.  It was hard to believe that this is where so many invading armies of the past met their end in Burma as they wasted away in the wet, mosquito- and snake-infested forests.  I was starting to sense that if we didn’t stop for lunch soon, the Norcini’s might be added to that list.

We had lunch in the thatched home of a mountain-top village family that Tak knew.  Per Burmese and Shan tradition, as soon as we entered the home, the entire family left and sat outside.  Traditionally, meals are not about conversation – they are about savoring and appreciating the flavors of the food, and guests, I presume, are left alone to dedicate themselves to savoring.  Those who did not leave the house huddled behind curtains in the next room – giggling and chatting and adding to the general awkwardness of the experience.  The room was decorated with calendars from the last 10 years, each illustrated with a massive picture of a young Shan couple – I’m guessing Mr. and Mrs. Shan 2007? – and a wall-sized poster of a village in the Swiss Alps.   The table was set low to the ground and had a roll of toilet paper on top.   There is toilet paper on every table in Burma, but nay a single bathroom.  At lunches, we frequently found ourselves sneaking away parts of the napkin roll for the next trip to the toilet.  You never knew where you would be when you had to go – but you knew that there wouldn’t be toilet paper.  Even worse: rural Burmese use shards of bamboo in place of toilet paper.  Usually, next to the toilet was a small bucket filled with bamboo shards.  Risking impalement while clumsily squatting over a porcelain hole in the ground?  I don’t think so.  We tore off a few pieces of napkin and ate in whispered silence, enjoying being off our feet for the moment.

“Do you want to see the winery?” Tak asked a couple of hours in to the post-lunch trek.  Jess and I looked at each other – a winery?  Here, in the hills of eastern Burma on a miserably hot day after 6 hours of hiking?  “Yeah, let’s go.”

We veered off to the left and onto another path.  After about 10 minutes, we came to a slat fence that had been repaired several times in a clear attempt to keep people out.   Apparently, that was not working, and the winery workers had recently placed sharpened, jagged sticks near other entry points.  Without missing  a beat, Tak moved a couple of the slats aside and ushered us onto the property.

I wasn’t sure at this point if Burma was a place where trespassers got shot, but I figured that Tak knew what he was doing in leading us through the backdoor to a Shan hills winery.  We walked through rolling hills covered with new-growth vines.  Workers stopped what they were doing to give us an awkward glance or say something in Burmese to Tak, but he didn’t hesitate and confidently led us towards the winery atop the area’s highest hill.  We walked into the crushing room and by some workers repairing wiring and others playing cards at a table.  When was it that the dogs were going to get us?  When we would be forced into years of labor on the winery for this unwelcomed trek?  Would my wine-stained letters pleading for rescue ever make it home to my parents?

And then, we found it: the tasting room.  Our sweaty, stinking group rolled into a sharply decorated tasting room with signs written in French.  Puzzled, awkward stares greeted our group, especially because Tak and his assistant sat down at the tasting table with us (in a society where most people can’t afford a soda, wine, no matter how bad, is a luxury item).  But then, as they always are, tourists were attended to.  We sampled some (pretty awful) wines while Tak and his assistant sipped Cokes (Myanmar’s drinking age is 18, and Jess, always the smarter of the two of us, thought it best that the Burmese winery not be the place where we test the generals’ resolve).  We paid our bill, bought a bottle of wine to drink that evening, and headed back to the trail.  It was a bizarre but welcomed stop on this day-long trek, and like many things Myanmar, was a awkward juxtaposition of the old and new.

“So, do you get paid for bringing us to the winery?”  I felt that after our day together, I could be direct with Tak.

“No. They don’t pay me anything.”

Was I really about to do this?  My mind ran through the countless unwelcomed sidetrips to stores selling silk, silver, pottery, tobacco, places asking for money or that you help to save the children.  Whenever you hire a guide as a tourist, you know these sidetrips are part of the deal – it’s how they make a little extra money by getting you to spend yours.  Most of the time we tolerated them – heck, sometimes we even requested them – and we had learned to be firm even if saying “no” meant being abandoned by our guide in the middle of nowhere (New Delhi, Jojakarta), forced to recalibrate the remainder of the day and find our way home before nightfall.  So, I surprised even myself by what I then told Tak.

“Here’s what you have to do, Tak.  You just brought a couple of tourists to this winery.  We spent money, bought a bottle of wine, and we wouldn’t have gone there with you.  I mean, I wouldn’t have known which slats to pull from fence in order to get onto the property – but you did.  So you see, the winery made money because you brought it customers, so you should get a little piece of the profit, right?  When you take people to restaurants and hotels, do you get a kickback from the owner?”

“No, I am too shy to ask.”

“Do you want me to ask for you?  Wait, that’s probably a bad idea.  But maybe your uncle can help you.  See, this is what goes on all over the world, Tak.  Guides take people to shops, restaurants, hotels, and they get a little money for making it happen.  Now, you can’t be too pushy or people will get mad at you.  A pushy guide led me to bark at people in India, but that’s a story for another time.  But if you want to make a little extra money as a guide, that’s what you should do.”

Tak smiled, and I could see his mind spinning with possibility.  My soul darkened a little bit (more) that day.  I had contributed to an innocence lost.

*  *  *

Walking the streets of Yangon takes focus and dexterity.  Isolation from the world, the constant, grinding weather of the tropics, and a 2005 move of the capital to Nay Pyi Daw in central Myanmar (the junta built an entirely new city and announced to a stunned population and world that, as of that moment, Nay Pyi Daw, was the capital of the country) means that Yangon has suffered from decades of neglect.  And it shows.  Beautiful colonial-era buildings are covered with pollution and grime, crumbling, and, until the government recently removed them, were home to squatters.  The sidewalks are a jagged patchwork of concrete slabs, many of them broken, missing, or somewhere in between.  Without slabs, the sewers lay open and cat-sized rats run freely.   Shirtless workers waist-deep in the sewage struggle to remove clogs at points where pipes intersect.  Wires hang dangerously low and in crazy clusters as hundreds of people have tapped a single electrical line.  Like many major cities, the sidewalks are crowded with informal tea stands and restaurants, fruit and vegetable stalls, and people selling anything from t-shirts to ducks in a bowl.  Books in English can be found at any number of sidewalk stands, but the selection is limited (among the books we found were the 2006 IKEA Catalog and ‘Who’s Who in Burma 1991’), and everyone thinks you want to read a photocopied work by George Orwell.   Even though crosswalks exist in many parts of the city, right-of-way does not, so it’s best to hustle along.  At night, streets are dimly lit, if at all, so tackling the terrain in the dark is incredibly difficult.  And if you visit in monsoon season (like we did), roads flood quickly and without warning.   I tried to get Jess to wear water wings, but she thought it would make her stand out as a tourist.

A Yangon sidewalk.
A Yangon sidewalk.
Ducks in a bowl.
Ducks in a bowl.

But there is tremendous change sweeping across Yangon and Myanmar.  Despite our sense of an absence of tourists, the number of people visiting Myanmar is rapidly increasing (they just don’t come in very large numbers during the monsoon season).  In addition to opening the doors to tourism, the removal of United States, European, and Australian sanctions over the past two years has brought a wave of investment capital into the country.  All across Yangon, small armies of men and women, armed with sledgehammers, bricks, and woks of cement are painstakingly – there is no power equipment – replacing the treacherous sidewalks with new, standardized ones.  Bamboo scaffolding covers many of the old, colonial-era buildings in the city as they are getting rehabs many decades in the making.  Many of the people we spoke with over tea, in cabs, or on the streets expressed an optimism about the future and a pride in the changes taking place around them.  Some people tried desperately to get us to join them on this journey, expressing the need for more teachers of English language and the desire of parents to get that form education for their children.   In a few short years, Myanmar will be a dramatically different place (maybe they’ll call it Burma again?), and I’m glad we had the opportunity to see it at this incredible moment in its history.

In addition to whatever (Rabies? Malaria? Dengue?) is growing in my system at the moment, a few crisp, mint-conditioned post-2006 hundred dollar bills that do not have serial numbers starting with “CB” are still in my possession.  Having protected them in the safe and warm confines of my armpit for the last 10 days, I am reluctant to part with them.

One, however, went to the Philadelphia taxi driver who took us home after a long and grueling sequence of delays and return flights.  For the last time, we put on our backpacks.  I handed him a hundred dollar bill.  “Where did you travel?” he asked, as he dug for change.

“Myanmar, I said.  We’ve been in Myanmar for the last 10 days.”

“What is that?” he asked, puzzled.


“Oh, Burma!  That is a crazy place.  It is next to my home, Thailand.   Sawatdee!”  And with that, he jumped back into his car and headed off into the night.