Myanmar: a series of stories and images
A girl from the Padaung ethnic group © Gemima Harvey 2012
“Lonely one! Together is better.”
A girl takes a break at Ubein Bridge (the longest teak bridge in the world) © Gemima Harvey 2012
In Myanmar, everywhere I went, the first thing that many people would ask me is ‘only one?’ They seemed surprised that I was travelling alone and almost sad that I did not have someone to share my experiences with. Often the ‘only one?’ question would be followed by an invitation to eat or drink or talk or sit or walk. I will never forgot Aung Moris who I rented a bicycle from in Mandalay. His seriousness and sense of duty were offset by a light-hearted humour and vibrant enthusiasm. After developing an addiction to sweet tea, ‘laphet’ (pronounced ‘lapay’) and tea leaf salad, ‘laphet tote’ ─ which is made from fermented tea leaves, fried yellow beans, chopped cabbage, tomato and toasted peanuts and sesame seeds for crunch ─ I asked him to show me where to find these local delicacies and later I would run into him again and again on the bustling streets. On each encounter I invited him to join me for tea or food and he would always reply ‘Yes, yes. Together is better, together is better’.
In Myanmar, like Cambodia (and all South-east Asain countries that I have visited) I noticed a strong sense of family – the collective rather than the individual. This perhaps explains why ‘Aung’ is used as a sign of respect for people older than yourself in Myanmar and why family name is put before given name in Cambodia. When someone asks what I like most about these two countries, the answer is always the same ─ the people!
Warm-hearted and welcoming. It fascinated me see how Cambodian people interacted on buses, strangers at the start but sharing a connection that you could mistake for familial by the journey’s end. Piling back onto the bus after a break, packets of peanuts and sections of sour mango are passed around to countless hands. In this way the collective circle is continuously and rapidly expanding. On a couple of different occasions, my young neighbours fell asleep on my shoulder, like it was completely natural to use my body as a pillow. And I guess it is natural in an environment where everyone is embraced as family…these were my younger sisters.
I found people in Myanmar to be open and curious in nature, meaning that immediate connections could be formed with those who were just moments earlier considered ‘strangers’. Travelling alone means you are more open to the many chances at conversation extended and more free to accept invitations – like drinking ‘laphet’ at favourite local spots, meeting families and seeing homes or piling into over-crowded buses and being surrounded by betel-nut-chewing smiling faces for a joy ride around town.
Most people that I met wanted to practice their English, have a cultural exchange, or ask a few questions of a foreigner but I will admit that a couple of times my trusting nature and willingness to accept invitations got me into strange and awkward situations. That said, I would not wish to change any of these experiences, not my nature nor my naivety. If I was guarded I would miss out on meeting and spending time with many amazing local people.
Novice monks and my trekking guide Mousa in Kalaw © Gemima Harvey 2012
Horse and cart driver Lad in Bagan © Gemima Harvey 2012
From the teahouses of Yangon, to the flat plains freckled with ancient temples in Bagan, the maze of streets that is Mandalay, or the glistening Inle Lake that forms the fluid heart between two mountain ranges ─ there are friends to be made and surrogate families to be created.
Lonely one…impossible because in Myanmar ‘together is better’.
Thousands of temples dot the plains of Bagan © Gemima Harvey 2012
Fishermen at Inle Lake use one leg to wield their oar leaving the other free to work the net © Gemima Harvey 2012
***IN MY LIVING ROOM: ON THE STREET***
A group of rickshaw drivers hang around on a street corner © Gemima Harvey 2012
The noises of the street swirl together, an eclectic cocktail: oil spluttering in huge woks of pakora, taxi drivers making jokes as they hang about on corners, merchants yelling out the names of what they are selling, tea cups clanging, a child laughing as they momentarily escape a parent’s clasp, men straining and groaning as they load sacks of rice onto a truck, the clack of bricks being stacked, the loud chatter of a group of guys squatting together to play ‘numbers’, a teenager calling to a friend.
A group of taxi and rickshaw drivers play ‘numbers’ © Gemima Harvey 2012
A mother washes clothes while her son hangs close by © Gemima Harvey 2012
It seems like the entire population of cities in Myanmar are out on the street during the day. Visiting people’s places and seeing the tiny spaces that they call home, with one shared room used for sitting, sleeping, cooking and eating, I can understand the appeal of spending time on the streets or tucked into one of the many teahouses, watching the hum of humanity from a stool, clasping a cup of sweet tea and chatting to the people who are sharing the space.
Men drink ‘lapay’ at a teahouse in Kalaw © Gemima Harvey 2012
People watching on the streets of Yangon © Gemima Harvey 2012
A street scene in Yangon © Gemima Harvey 2012
A monk enjoys a cigarette and cup of green tea in Bagan © Gemima Harvey 2012
In the west we have a special room for ‘living’ in, so why live on the street during the day? Maybe we did once upon a time…like those scenes in old movies that show children outside playing marbles or riding bicycles while their mothers watch from the lawn, sipping home-made lemonade from the shade of umbrellas.
In Myanmar I found that my concept of personal space and public place were challenged. As I strolled the streets of Yangon snapping away with my camera, it started pouring rain and I slipped into a teahouse to take shelter. Sitting on the outskirts, not knowing any of the language to either order or explain that I did not want to order, the rain was still spitting my way, so the waitress ushered me inside and gestured for me to sit at a table with a good-looking older gent. The teahouse was empty except for the staff and this man. Imagine if you were sitting by yourself in a near empty cafe and a random came and plonked themself at your table. It would be like sitting alone in an empty train carriage and having someone sit right next to you. He could speak some English and bought me a coffee which I drank while we discussed Aung San Suu Kyi.
Another example is how everyone gathers around a betel nut stand, chewing away and speaking through mouthfuls of red saliva, spitting non-chalantly at the feet of passers-by. Curiously, I siddle over and gesture that I would like to try…after cautiously chewing for a while I look around panicked…where could I spit? Surely I could not spit on the street in front of all these people? A teenager seeing my predicament pointed to a pot plant at the entrance to a block of flats. Looking at the red puddles surrounding the plant, I think that if the owner saw me cover her shrub in ochre juice she would shrug unconcerned.
It’s like in Cambodia when someone leaves their tuk-tuk parked on the street unattended and women who often squat at the front of their houses to socialise with their neighbours of a morning or afternoon will climb in and happily chat away…the owner will come back and spark up conversation or explain that he needs to move. Imagine if you returned to your car after doing some grocery shopping to find a couple of ladies sitting on your bonnet having a chin-wag?
Returning home from South-east Asia after 8 months, I was conscious of being open-minded to the differences in societies and to avoid doing two things: firstly, to not be someone who, after spending time in the ‘East’ comes home to point out all the flaws of the ‘West’ as if they were above these failings and secondly after seeing so much poverty not to bash people over the head with ‘you don’t know how lucky you are’ and ‘your problems are not real problems considering how many people live’ even if that means biting my tongue sometimes.
That said, I can’t help but reflect on certain things, like the benefits of minimalism. When you have to carry all your possessions on your back you learn not to be weighed down by unnecessary material things – without make-up I learned to be comfortable with my skin, without a stack of shoes I learned that it does not matter if my footwear match my clothes, without fancy hair products I learned that all you really need is shampoo and separated from these embellishments my confidence soared – I realised that everything I need is within. This is what I think about when I enter the storage room at mum’s house and begin tearing through boxes and boxes utterly overwhelmed by all the crap I have accumulated. Life was so simple when clothes were limited to what I could carry. The process of unpacking and seeing all this ‘stuff’ stirred the reflection that sometimes the more we have the less we understand what is truly important – there is more to lose ourselves in – and the less we have the easier it is to find pleasure, like when a child with few toys finds something interesting in nature, smooth glass in the sand, gumnuts or colourful plastic…treasure!
Like that child finding treasure, I will never forget the feeling of putting on clothes that were not those that had been on rotation for 8 months. When a simple action or lucky find can bring great happiness we are rarely disappointed because so much becomes like a blessing.
The Paradox Of Our Age
“We have bigger houses but smaller families;
more conveniences, but less time.
We have more degrees but less sense;
more knowledge but less judgment;
more experts, but more problems;
more medicines but less healthiness.
We’ve been all the way to the moon and back,
but have trouble in crossing the street to meet our new neighbour.
We built more computers to hold more copies than ever,
But have less real communication;
We have become long on quantity,
but short on quality.
These are times of fast foods but slow digestion;
Tall men but short characters;
Steep profits but shallow relationships.
It’s a time when there is much in the window
But nothing in the room.” — the Dalai Lama.
*** TIMELESS RITUALS ***
Two friends embrace and one is coated in Thanakha paint © Gemima Harvey 2012
Pale-yellow shapes decorate their faces,
Women, girls and boys all sport variations of this organic fashion statement.
Some plaster their cheeks and foreheads in thick layers and others draw delicate patterns,
Not just ‘to make more beautiful’ but to cool the skin and protect from the sun.
A practical and artistic ritual.
Paint from the bark of the Thanakha tree.
A woman waits for her fried snacks at a street vendor © Gemima Harvey 2012
A woman prepares betel nut for her customers © Gemima Harvey 2012
Stalls stocked with small jars, citric acid paste and fresh betel leaves dot every street.
Puddles of ochre fluid mark the pavement; people speak through mouthfuls of liquid.
Rotting, red teeth are flashed with every smile,
Signs of the betel nut buzz.
Various containers hold tobacco and betel nut © Gemima Harvey 2012