A Keyhole into Burma – When the tourist becomes the sight

Take Venice, rebuild it in wood and bamboo, remove most of the dry footpaths and the double-wide butted tourists, then add waist-deep wet farms and that’s Inle Lake’s 17 water villages. The waterway “streets” were lined with surprisingly large, two and three story, longhouse-like dwellings, with kids hanging out windows shouting ‘hello’ at me and a few people climbing into the family canoe to run errands.

After a perfunctory tour of one of the larger villages, my captain/guide motored down a narrow canal, finally stopping where the canal became choked with parked boats. He indicated that I was to get out and walk to the market, “25 minutes” away. This development sparked a confused, five minute Q&A. Yes, I was to go tour the market. No, he would not be accompanying me. Yes, it was really a 25 minute walk in that (vaguely pointing) direction and – despite having a wide open view of the landscape and seeing nothing resembling a market all the way to the distant mountains – no I shouldn’t have any trouble finding it.

I tentatively set out.

The road was bordered by wet and dry fields with the intermittent, far-flung house dotting the landscape. Once in a while I’d encounter a wobbly old man or a house-sized wooden cart being pulled by two water buffalo, piloted by a couple kids under the age of 10. There were no signs confirming that I was heading in the right direction, but as my captain had promised, neither were there serious forks or turns to deliberate on, so I could only assume I was still on the right track.


After twenty minutes I came to a wooden canal bridge solid enough to support a car and on the other side the market was going full bore. My worries of it being a thinly veiled tourist trinket bazaar were completely squashed. The place was about as touristy as East St. Louis at 2am. Even if I had wanted to buy something at this market, I had few choices as nearly everything on sale was some kind of basic staple: raw meat, vegetables, spices and produce, with only a few stalls selling manufactured goods like flip flops, clothes, basic home necessities and cigarettes. There were some permanent stalls set up on raised wooden platforms, under open thatched-roofed shelters, but there was an equal number of people who just staked off a spot for themselves on the open ground and laid their goods out in baskets or spread out on woven bamboo mats.

I stuck out like a 200 foot Reclining Buddha in the Christian Science World Headquarters parking lot. Adults were split between openly gawking at me or ignoring me, while kids and girls went ape-shit, yelling, giggling and trying to stealthily spy on me, until I would swing around and catch them in the act and they’d scream and scatter. At one point I had an entourage of about eight teenaged boys following me around, asking me basic questions, pondering my digital camera and transforming me from tourist to the main attraction.

The walk back to the boat was enriched by the stream of people heading home in the same direction. I talked and laughed with many people, taking a few pictures and playing the oddity for small children which I embellished, making faces and ape noises as they squealed and ran for their mothers.

Leif Pettersen, originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, contributed three stories to the upcoming anthology “To Myanmar (Burma) With Love: A Connoisseur’s Guide” published by Things Asian Press. His personal blog, Killing Batteries, and his staggeringly vast travelogue could fill a lifetime of unauthorized work breaks, if one were so inclined.