Our introduction to Inle Lake could have been more positive. As our group’s bus wound down the hillsides of Nyaungshwe Township, we spotted a blackened mass of charred metal lying in an upturned field. A plane? We wondered. Then a turnoff to “Heho Airport” confirmed our suspicions. If you believe the government’s story, the plane had crashed two days earlier when its pilot mistook the road for the airport’s runway. Burma wouldn’t want to go scaring tourists away from its state-owned airlines, would it?

Once in town, we began spiritedly looking for a place to sleep. The sun was already low, and as I mentioned last time, Burma hasn’t permitted enough hotels to accommodate all its high season tourists. We’d heard of unlucky travelers being forced to sleep outside. On dirty sidewalks. In the cold. Because they <tongue click> hadn’t had the common sense to book their accommodations two weeks ahead of time. However, the five of us being intelligent Americans,  we had a plan. Split up, beg if necessary, and get it done.

About two hours and twentiesh hotels later, we were prepared to reconsider our plan. Our best offers: a gracious innkeeper’s lobby floor or a local monastery’s leftover cells. We decided to keep looking, and alhamdulillah, we found success just as the cold settled in. The place might’ve been a concrete monstrosity. But it had hot showers and a free all-you-can-eat toast breakfast.

We spent the next four days exploring the town, its hills, and the area’s famous lake, Inle.


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Inle stretches lengthwise down a long valley surrounded by hills. In Burma’s dry season, the lake’s depth averages just seven feet. In the country’s wet season, the number jumps to twelve. Locals build their homes on stilts to withstand the changing water levels.

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Main Street.

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Elle and I came across this group of kids playing a game seemingly inspired by an equal mix of Kung Fu and high jumping. Two people held a ribbon between them at about head level. Then, a third friend would leap and try to knock the ribbon out of their hands. Sadly, the action stopped when the camera came out. Photo credit: unknown Burmese child.

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The sort of photo any mother would love to have of her son. Photo credit: unknown Burmese child.

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Someone must’ve gotten boogers on my clothes.

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In the mornings, the minimonks would wake us up while singing on their way to collect alms from the neighborhood. It was a little unsettling both how early they awoke and how unbothered they were by the cold at 3,000 feet. Every once in a while though, they would do something to remind us that they were still human.

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Somewhere on Inle Lake is a monastery where the monks have famously taught cats to jump through hoops for snacks. Naturally, we had to see it.

When we got there, though, the cats weren’t as enthusiastic as we were. A woman said the large influx of high season tourists had wearied the cats, so they’d gone into hiding. Luckily, we found something better instead. A Burmese man dressed in a faded suit came in and started passing around photocopied newspaper articles hailing him as a mystical strong man. We doubted he could really hold his breath underwater for ten hours, but the man didn’t allow us to test that claim. Instead, he invited people to punch him in the stomach and try to strangle him. That helped. A little.

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Burma is home to two European-owned wineries, one German and one French. We stumbled upon the French one while returning from an eight hour hike through the lake’s eastern hills. I can’t comment much on wine, but Elaine and Erin—experienced tasters—gave the rest of us a refresher on the discriminating critic’s key vocab. The night faded into (fun) obnoxiousness from there.

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And last, one final great look at Bagan through my brother’s camera. Photo credit: David.

Back in 2008, John J. Rambo crossed into Burma via Thailand’s northern jungles. I don’t remember what he wanted; however, I do remember explosions and inflammatory confrontations with the military.

It turns out if Rambo had only waited a few years, he could’ve saved a load on both jungle gear and bullets by taking advantage of amazing new AirAsia connections that run between Yangon and Bangkok six times daily.

I traveled to Burma over the holidays with Elle, both of our older siblings, and a friend. Collectively, we didn’t have much of a plan. Then again we didn’t one. Burma’s military government has more or less softened its harsh rule in recent years. And in 2010, the National League for Democracy headed by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi lifted its recommended tourism boycott. For us, the chance to be among the first wave of new travelers was enough to put the country at the top of our vacation wish-lists even though we had no idea what to expect.

Southeast Asia being a tangle of strange names on the other side of the world, you may be wondering which of those vague shapes actually is Burma/Myanmar (I certainly didn’t know before living in SE Asia). Feel free to quiz yourself using the map below. You can check your answer here.

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On to the photos. Here is part one of two:

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Urban Living in Burma’s largest city, Yangon.

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Burmese children wearing thanaka. The paste comes from ground bark which is worn by both women and children  for cosmetic reasons and sun protection. Burmese often apply the paste with functional disinterest; however, more often than not, thanaka is  applied in the shapes of leaves or neat, circular designs.

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Yangon train station in the late afternoon.

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Early morning at Bagan. Local kings commissioned the building of over 10,000 temples here up until 1287. Now, the Buddhist remnants sit scattered across Burma’s dry, central plain. Burma’s largest river, the Irrawaddy, rolls gently southward in the background.

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Bagan has far more temples than tourists, meaning there’s plenty of chances to find yourself at a stupa quietly alone.

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Sellin’ that produce

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Inspired by regional trends in pop culture, these five friends appear to be in a boy band. However, they are having trouble getting that proper “v” shape necessary for their promo photos. Cat in the back—re: “the mysterious one”—is on the chopping block for replacement.

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Farming with a view.

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The gilded stupa at Tan kyi Paya. We crossed the Irrawaddy in the late afternoon and climbed up to the hilltop paya in order to catch views of Bagan at sunset. Countless cooking fires meant we couldn’t see much of the plain below; however, the temple itself was serenely beautiful.

Burma Photos, Part II: getting villagey is coming next week.

Old Testament enthusiasts should already get the Christianized gist of Idul Adha’s background story, but just in case you don’t, the abridged, Qur’an version goes like this:  God tells Ibrahim to climb mountain. Ib climbs mountain.  God tells Ib to sacrifice son Ishamel on altar. Ib thinks “that sounds harsh, but okay.”  Ib raises knife. Ishmael cringes.  Knife glints in sun.  Ishmael cries out. Knife prepares to descend.  God intervenes, “Just testing you, Ib. Go sacrifice the ram caught in yonder thorn bush instead.”  Father and son sigh in relief.

Once a year, Muslims worldwide commemorate this example of Ibrahim’s faith and Allah’s exceptional mercy by offering Allah a contemporary sacrifice of assorted animals on Idul Adha.

Observing last year’s events was both incredible and unsettling, so much so that I wasn’t the least put out when my village couldn’t get it’s act together on time. As a result, our neighborhood slaughter was scheduled for 6.00 AM on a school day and… Alhamdulilah! I had children that needed educatin’.

Still, I wasn’t totally in the clear. My madrasah had bought two cows and scheduled it’s own event. So, as soon as my teaching ended, i went to document that action.

Butchering was already well underway when I arrived at my students’ shoddy meatpacking operation.

Kids were busy dicing up meat into smaller cuts. Later, these cuts were divided into fifty plastic bags for distribution among the village poor.

Yula (far right) might be a pro with a knife; however, she’s also a pro at chatting up bules. Whenever I bring other Americans to school — be they parents or PCVs, Yula is the bravest, most curious student I have. She has definitely earned her starting spot on my class eleven all-star team.

Charring a cowhide. Do I know why? No.

New friends from the elementary school. We learned how to properly high five a “mas bro” and impress your girl’s father with a manly handshake. Then, we listened to Cherrybelle on one of their hand phones.

Scrapin’ that hide. Do I know why? Again, no.

The kids were celebrating because they finally got to wash the mess off their hands and eat lunch. Come seven months from now, I’m gonna miss these guys.