HCMC Dining Guide

Monday, September 2, 2013

Inle: The problem with tourism

On the rickety bus that took us from Kalaw to Inle Lake, farther east in the Shan Hills, I learned how much respect people in Myanmar have for monks. As we left town we passed several novices walking along the road in their maroon robes, barefoot, with a lunch pail in hand. The driver stopped and waved them on, while even middle-aged women gave up their seats for the young monks-to-be. This happened a few more times, and when we reached the next town, their destination, the driver let the novices off.

The road to Inle was beautiful, with plenty of hairpins and great scenery. Anthony and I were yearning for the bikes we had rented back in Ha Giang, as it would've been an awesome drive. After arriving in town we met up with a couple of Saigon friends who happened to be traveling through the country at the same time. We rented bicycles and rode out to a winery overlooking the verdant valley the lake sits in. The wine was alright, but the atmosphere was perfect. That night we had dinner at a restaurant covered in pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi. Recall that a few years ago it was illegal to display her image anywhere.
The next day we did what everybody who comes to Inle does: rent a boat and have the captain take you around to a few frequently visited places around the lake. Tourism is still relatively new to Myanmar, but Inle has been a destination for years, meaning a well-worn path has been laid down, and it is expected that everyone will want to do the same thing. All of the boat trips have the same itinerary. We had been assured, however, that if we wanted to deviate from the set route, we could. Leaving from Nyaungshwe, the main town north of the lake, we cruised down a long canal before entering the open waters of the lake, nestled in a cleft between two green lines of hills.

Almost immediately we received a glaring illustration of the problems associated with mass tourism. One of Inle's most famous attractions is the Intha fishermen, who row their boats with one leg, while using the other to make sure they don't fall out. We were approaching one such fisherman, and we started slowing down. I assumed this was so that our wake wouldn't throw off his balance, or perhaps so we could take a picture. I did snap a couple of shots, but then he pulled alongside and began shouting, "Give me money! Give me money!" We all looked at each other, making sure we were hearing him correctly. It was clear that this was just a fake photo op. I deleted my pictures because they left a bad taste, and we carried on. These types of encounters are common when traveling in developing countries, and they are always morally difficult. Obviously giving the fisherman a few thousand kyat wouldn't have hurt our finances at all, but if you give him money then he will expect it from everybody he sees. (As he already does.) It may seem cruel, but in my experience the best thing to do is try and break the cycle by giving nothing. Is that ethical? I have no idea.

The next stop was something billed as a 'floating market', which seemed a strange name because it was actually on land. We were diving further into mainstream tourism, with hawkers shoving 'authentic' t-shirts and scarfs in our faces and offering "good price, for you." Anthony and I were bummed, as Kalaw had been the complete opposite of this. Nothing there had been staged, and our trekking guide let us do as we please. I looked around at all of the overweight, sunburned European tourists around me, sticking DSLR lenses in the face of every local, and I was pissed.
We moved on to Indein, a town that is home to a few thousand ancient temples, something of a 'Little Bagan'. The cruise up to the town was amazing, as it sits above the rest of the lake. A series of ingenious locks made of bamboo took us upstream - seeing these was the highlight of the day thus far. We arrived at Indein and strolled up to one set of temples. They looked...a lot like what we had already seen in Bagan. When these structures have no religious significance to you, it easy to get 'templed out'. After seeing roughly 132,276 temples at this point in the trip, I didn't really need to see any more, no matter how beautiful or significant.

Fortunately the natural landscape around the lake was stunning.

Our captain then said we were going to see the 'long-neck women', and I was worried. In heavily touristed areas in any country, any group of people with a unique trait is turned into the equivalent of a zoo exhibit, put on display so that tourists can take pictures of them and then claim they saw something really unique. In this case, women of one of the lake's tribes begin putting braces around their neck at a young age, gradually lengthening their necks to freakish extremes. The practice began centuries ago, when men forced the women to do so in an attempt to make them less attractive to the raping and pillaging hordes of rival clans. This intentional deformation has no practical purpose in the modern age; it serves nothing but tourism. These women are often carted off to Thailand to entertain tourists, and the UN has said their treatment is no better than that of captive animals.

We docked at the building where a few of these women 'work', and turned around immediately after walking inside. Five women were sitting at a loom, weaving the clothing that was stacked on shelves around us. They might as well have been in a glass case with a sign explaining what they were. A tourism official came up and said we could take pictures, but I wasn't touching my camera. This was pure exploitation, just as I had feared. A fat fuck of a middle-aged tourist was giddily hopping around, snapping away on his smart phone, asking the young women to pose in certain ways. I wanted to punch him in the face. Our captain was surprised by how quickly we had exited, clearly most tourists don't have the same moral dilemma. Even though I didn't take any pictures, am I any better than the morons who do because I was there anyway?

We then visited a monastery, which was inarguably beautiful, but once again it meant nothing to me. As a non-religious person I can only take so much religion.
This post is pretty negative at this point, but it's reflective of our mood by that stage of the boat trip. We sat down with the captain and asked if we could just cruise around the lake, or go see a real village that didn't serve as a front for tourism. "But...you don't want to go to the jumping cats monastery? Or destination X?" he asked incredulously. "No, we don't. We just want to see the lake." So we did. Tourism issues aside, it is a beautiful place, with plenty of real life going on in between the paths trampled down by thousands of visitors.

We saved the best for last, a slow cruise through a village built on stilts. We wondered what kids did when they wanted to go over to a friend's house, as the only way to get from home to home was by boat. I was happy to see that tourism hadn't ruined everything, that you could get away from it all.

You're probably thinking I hated Inle, but in all honesty I didn't. If you're in Myanmar I'd recommend checking it out, but tell your captain not to stop at the long-neck house. At the end of the two days there I was happy I'd gone, ethical issues and all. This was our last stop before the long journey back to Yangon for our flight out of the country. Central Myanmar had been amazing, particularly Kalaw, and we were going to miss it. One more post, then it's back to Vietnam.


  1. Jesus. Had no idea Myanmar was so stunning. Great colours! Moral dilemmas you faced were pretty interesting. In the first case I have to disagree with you. It may shatter your illusion of being the first traveller to pass there to hear the guy shout "gimme money" but i still think those guys may need the cash. It doesn't sound great to hear such a harsh unsubtle demand coming from the mouth of a native but at the end of the day it's chickenfeed to us and may help that guy out for the day. I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiments at wanting to knock out the guy taking shots of the long-necked girls. I see these people in Vietnam taking shots of 80yo lottery ticket selling women on their thousand dollar dslrs and laughing about it cos it's such a great spectacle they can't see in the west.
    All without bothering to tip even one red cent.

  2. Yea it's a beautiful country. Thanks for your thoughts on the travel issues, interesting points! I do wonder how those lottery ticket sellers feel about all that...