The journey, as I mentioned, was horrible—over five hours of constant pain as we traversed boulders, got stuck in small lakes of mud, slid down muddy hillsides and forded numerous rivers—all features of the “road”. At one point a bridge literally collapsed beneath us. Planks were dislodged and fell into the river below, leaving a gaping hole in the bridge in our wake. We got to sit around for almost an hour as our driver helped repair the bridge by basically just laying the same planks in the same spot and not even bothering to fasten them in any way. I’m guessing the bridge fell apart every twenty cars or so.
The whole drive, we were forced to pull over about once every two minutes to let a logging truck pass. That’s no exaggeration—for five hours a steady stream of trucks piled high with humongous tree trunks were heading out of the area. When we got to the lake, we didn’t see a single tree in an area that used to be a jungle. The surrounding hills were bare too, not a tree in sight.
As I mentioned earlier, the part of Myanmar around Indawgyi Lake is in the midst of an active conflict between the Kachin people and the government and in logging the area and selling off the trees, the government is depriving the rebels of not only a valuable resource, but also valuable hiding places. And apparently, they sell the trees to China for weapons to use against the rebels who also get their weapons from China. In this way, China profits twice and ensures continued instability—and with it continued profitability—south of their border. I say apparently because I have no idea if this is true. The Burmese guy I was talking to while we waited for the jeep had told me all of this. It sounds perfectly believable, but there’s really no way to verify it as neither the Chinese nor the Burmese government are big proponents of a free press–or a free anything, really.
When we got to the lake, we learned there are two guest houses that are allowed to accept foreign guests. One was run by an officer in the Burmese army and was located right next to an army base and the other was threatened into avoiding us by that same officer. At least that’s the only logical conclusion I can draw. When we headed to the other guest house to talk to the owner, the army officer quickly joined us and almost immediately, the owner of the second guest house sprinted inside and locked the door, refusing to answer when we knocked.
This left us with no choice but to pay the officer ten US dollars for a dorm bed. Obviously we were not happy about this. One thing that unites almost all foreign tourists in Myanmar is an unspoken agreement to attempt to limit the amount of your money that goes into the government’s pocket and to instead give it directly to the people. For this reason, we left the lake after only two nights, despite all the hassle we had gone through to get there (and had to go through again to get back). Well, this reason and a few others.
Mainly, there was simply nothing to do at the lake. Most of the surrounding area was off limits to foreigners as were most possible activities at the lake. You couldn’t swim because the guest house was located in an area of the lake that was completely overgrown with underwater plants. You are allowed to take a boat out on the lake assuming you don’t mind paying the driver five times his annual salary and you don’t mind staying within a small pre-approved area. Add to that the fact that you only have two hours of electricity per day and you’re left with nothing.
We had one full day at the lake and we spent it walking ten kilometers further along the road, which is quite a feat given the conditions of the road—it’s as much fun to walk on as it is to ride on. Also, we weren’t supposed to walk any further. A military checkpoint was located just down the road from our guest house and they clearly didn’t want us heading that way (or doing anything but overpaying for a rock-hard dorm bed). We just walked through the checkpoint without a word, figuring the rank and file soldiers wouldn’t stop us if we looked like we were supposed to be there.
And we were right; they let us pass without a word, although they did send guys on motorbikes after us occasionally to keep an eye on us. Most of the locals didn’t seem to want to have anything to do with us, probably because we were staying in the army compound and they didn’t realize we didn’t have a choice and instead took it to mean that we supported their oppressors.
We did eventually get invited into the home of a Shan family (another ethnic group that until recently had also been in conflict with the government) in large part because my friend could speak some of their language. They couldn’t speak much English, but were happy for the opportunity to try and cooked us a meal of fish and rice as we attempted to talk, but mostly gestured, for a few hours. This was the only enjoyable part of our journey to the lake.
Actually, there might have been one more good thing to come out of our journey. Supposedly every foreign visitor to Myanmar is assigned a spy who follows them around on their journey through the country. If this is true, we could take comfort in the fact that we put our spies through hell. I can just imagine all the spies talking in their office and ours having to listen to other tourists’ spies recount tales of the family they followed on a quick plane ride to a beautiful beach in the south of the country.
At this point I’d say I’ll make a long story short and not recount the return trip, but that ship has sailed a few thousand words ago. This thing turned out about ten times longer than expected. In the future I’ll try to limit the stories to one blog post, which is what I had originally intended anyway. For anyone who is interested in the return trip, just go back and read everything again in reverse.