In the Burmese language, the word mingalaba is the salutation people use to greet one another. The direct translation for the phrase is ‘auspiciousness to you.’ The greeting mingalaba became the default word for saying hello in the 1960s (source).
Everywhere in Myanmar, and especially in smaller towns, I exchanged this singsong greeting with people I passed on the street. It was safe and normal to make eye contact, smile and say mingalaba to others. Moving about as a solo woman it was refreshing to feel that acknowledging people in our shared environment was routine and my behavior was understood for what it was – friendliness.
In Myanmar, not only are local people friendly and welcoming but common tourist traps typical in other countries are not a part of the experience. For instance, taxi drivers automatically used the meter instead of proposing a higher-than-normal rate for a ride; shopkeepers who did not post prices charged fair rates for their goods; and petty crime is not a concern.
Prior to 2011, there was a tourism boycott on Myanmar to avoid providing financial support to the ruling military government. With the return of democracy, the tourism boycott ended and the number of visitors arriving each year is growing rapidly. I think for many people in Myanmar tourists are a novelty and this newness contributes to the positive relations between visitors and locals. As more visitors arrive, my hope is that the mutual respect, genuine kindness, and interest I experienced between tourists and locals continues.
I took a few night busses in Myanmar, a country known for poor road quality. Regarding the roads, the US State Department website states, “Most roads outside of Rangoon have one to two lanes and are potholed, often unpaved, and unlit at night.” Busses rarely traveled faster than 45 miles per hour because of the road conditions.
I rented a bicycle for one day of touring in Inle Lake. My first stop was at the Shwe Yaunghwe Kyaung monastery, a building made completely from teak wood.
Exploring solo on a bicycle great. I biked through agricultural communities, past schools, and on paved and unpaved roads. The loop was about 30km or a little over 20 miles. A solo day of biking like this would not have been safe in some of the other countries I visited.
On my bike I visited the Htat Eian cave. The interior of the cave is a sacred place of worship and there were many religious statues. I was the only person there. Being in a place alone is another perk to being in a country where tourism has yet to reach a saturation point.
Continuing on my bike tour I traveled to the vineyard in this region, Red Mountain Estate. The views from the vineyard were outstanding and the chance to sip wine was a treat too.
To end my bike loop I crossed Inle Lake in a boat. These were my first views of the agriculture and homes on the lake.
Through my hostel I booked an 8-hour tour of Inle Lake for the following day. I was joined on the tour by three German woman who had recently completed high school. Our day started before dawn so we could see the sunrise from the lake.
The time to focus on and appreciate a sunrise or a sunset has become one of my biggest pleasures during this year of travel.
Dew from the lake made for a mystical morning. Located at 2,900 meters, Inle Lake is one of the highest in Myanmar.
Our first tour stop was a visit to a local market. It was a tricky task to get out of the boat and climb to the land. Food including locally grown vegetables and already made items like papadum bread were available for sale at the market.
At the market we decided it would be good to use a toilet. I spotted a local man and said the word for toilet. He understood me and found a female community member. She took us to her home where all four of us used the outhouse. Before we left she offered us tea and showed us the pottery she sells. I bought a small teacup.
More than 70,000 people in four main communities call this lake home. On the water are houses made of wood and woven bamboo, schools, petrol stores, convenience stores and restaurants (for the tourists). This freshwater lake lost more than 30% of its water in the last 65 years and conversations about sustainability and environmental impact are commonplace.
The boat tour stopped at Thaung Tho Kyaung Pagoda located at the south end of the lake in the Thaung Tho village. This area is less visited by Inle Lake tour groups because it is about 2 hours by boat from the main town of Nyaung Shwe where we began our trip.
Our boat driver brought us to his childhood home where we met his mother and sister. Our boat driver spoke limited English and we did not speak his language so the time with him and his family involved a lot of smiling, laughing, and pointing. It was a special exchange. After eating a few snacks in their home, the mother and sister paddled us through their village in canoes hollowed out from tree trunks.
Views of the landscape including the Shan mountain range in the background.
Leaving my hostel one evening I ran into Linette and Nick, my friends from Mandalay. Linette had read about a marionette show and invited me along. On our way, a bicycle driver with a side car offered us a ride. It was a lot of work to pedal us two blocks and we thought the whole situation was hilarious. Aung’s Marionette Puppet Show is an opportunity to see a traditional art form that is slowly becoming less common.