A departure from my normal prose, this is about a deeply rural country set far from a highly urbanised UK. As we face tough choices over trade, wellbeing, climate, economics, environment while fearing uncertainty – which in Myanmar, is an everyday feeling. Oh, and think again on ‘wet markets.’
A journey by truck, or third-class train, is an essential element to visiting a developing country. Otherwise it’s far too easy to forget the experiences as part of bum-aching trips through clouds of dust as oxen pulled carts cross in front of air-conditioned cars.
It’s 2013 and we are in Burma – or as I should now call it Myanmar – especially within earshot of the sunglass-wearing officials as we hand over the cash. Tourists pay to enter the ‘protected area’ of Inle Lake, and stay on a hotel which have sprung up in response to the growth of tourism. We wondered who would eventually pocket our permit fee to enter the ‘wildlife area’.
Our arranged official guide, strangely unavailable, was nowhere to be seen. We soon became aware that the replacement, his brother, was the local eco-activist. He keenly informed us that here, in this green oasis in the heart of Myanmar, the ‘black dollar’ ruled as king. Cronyism was rife. Perhaps it goes with the territory of an emerging economy as it rushes to cash in on new found wealth prior to the implementation of rules and regs. Still, to hear this on a boat driven by an activist in a country controlled by a military government instructing tourists not to engage in authority-undermining conversations, made the spray as we bombed past a sign declaring ‘Let’s conserve our diodiversity’ [sic], feel somewhat chilly.
There’s a stooge fisherman at the head of the lake, as seen on the front of the Lonely Planet guide. He’s certainly alone. Standing forlorn on his boat with outdated net in his spotless culottes; ignored by sniggering locals, ‘snapped’ by American and Asian tourists in this 70% rural dwelling country. (UK is 84% urban)
The open water beckons us. Roar of guttural 2 stroke lawn-mower powered engineer thrashing the propeller at the end of a 2m long pole, sounded distinctly alien within the 116km2 natural lake. Home to settlements on stilts amongst rows of floating ‘gardens’ used to grow tomatoes supply both domestic and export markets. Boats barely afloat, laden with rotting methane-pungent weed heaved up from the shallow bottom, ferry this natural fertiliser to the acres of bamboo-skewered anchored aquaponic veg beds.
In the distance we could see inroads made, literally, from mainly Chinese investment interests. Great chunks of forest cut away for hotel developments – I doubt environmental planning assessments or EIAs ever got in the way of the ‘black dollar’. Elsewhere on the lake, aquatic living conditions were the norm as chickens, pigs, hotels, factories, restaurants all perched on over the weedy waters of this busy lake.
We asked our eco-guerrilla-fighter to take us to non-touristy stuff. He didn’t disappoint. A six o’clock trip in the morning to the local market repaid our wish in spades. No sign of any other tourists. Early deliveries of bamboo construction poles deposited for builders, cocky lads with strutting cockerels and a shopper slipping on the mud breaking her newly-bought eggs. Smell of fish pervades the air. Dried, fresh, baked, salted, going-off, sautéed – size was definitely not of importance. Whether sliced into slabs, hung morning-fresh on string or bagged up barely the size of shrimps, sellers laid out their trophies to eager critical-eyed buyers coming in from upland villages in their polyester traditional costumes.
Meanwhile, on the lake, the fishermen got on with their primary industry of supplying raw materials to the market. It looked distinctly to be a young person’s game. Burmese style, on ultra-narrow boats, demanding a sense of balance to its highest state. Stand on the wooden platform at either end of the boat, hold the single oar with a leg wrapped around it and then create a specific motion to propel, steer the boat in any direction required.
That’s before you get to the fishing. This takes multi-tasking to another level. With one hand and a leg around the oar, the other hand holding a fine meshed net carefully threaded onto a stick, which is then unrolled while paddling, one-legged in a wide ‘U’ shape. Once the net is set, the fisher then commences to slap the water with his (or her) oar to drive fish into the net. For all that work, not every ‘fish drive’ was a success but, like any angler – optimist or forever hungry – on they go to fish again.
This newly opened up country is a nexus between two worlds. Money from richer neighbouring Asian countries pours in to ‘net’ rich pickings of underdeveloped natural resources. Tourists snap up bucket-list bucolic dream holidays with boutique beer while contemplating banning of wet markets in face of Covid-19, as foreign agri-consultants advise tomato farmers on pesticide applications and hotels dispose of sewage.
All key matters as to how many fish will be available to precariously balanced generations of fisherfolk in the future.