MYANMAR, OF PEOPLE & THREADS
Images & Text by Melissa Kruse
Anytime someone mentions the idea of planning their next adventure, I quickly suggest moving Myanmar to the top of their destination list - and fast! When a friend proposed it as a possible place to visit during a planned Southeast Asia trip, I instantly recalled Myanmar circa summer 2005. Just 6 months after the infamous Indian Ocean tsunami disaster of Christmas 2004, I stood along the simple line dividing coastal Thailand from Burma and looked across at the desolate painted faces of Burmese mothers and their children staring back at me, haunted. I was eager to return, 11 years later, and learn their stories.
What I discovered was a country made up of regions reflecting an incredibly unique blend of neighboring Indian, Chinese and Thai cultures. A handful of its charms were universal: steamed peanuts, traditional thanaka face painting, golden everything, betel chewing leaves, delicately beautiful script, and most distinguishing of all - their gentle spirits and heart-warming smiles.
First stop, Bagan: an ancient city of horse drawn carriages, prayer bells, hot air balloons over a red sunrise, and 2,000+ 11th-13th century Buddhist temples and monuments; a fascinating and magical place on so many levels. Amidst motorbiking along desert trails that wind between timeworn ruins and climbing stairs up and up and up in search of temples’ peaks for glimpses of the crimson sunset (regularly getting lost along the way) there is one encounter that particularly stands out. As I rounded a corner inside yet another pagoda, never ceasing to be amazed, my eyes were drawn to a man tucked just outside a barred window. Huddled over his craft in a cleverly shaded spot, strategically nestled beside a smooth surface inside, this mini oasis was protected from the elements - a perfect place to spread his drying art as he moved from piece to piece. He was creating colourful and intricate sand paintings, the process of which can take anywhere from three days to ten weeks, made of sand collected from nearby riverbeds. Each painting told a story, whether it be a variation on one of Buddha’s teachings, a mapping of Myanmar’s weekly Zodiac calendar, or murals of the ancient landscape they’re so actively trying to preserve.
From Bagan I journeyed Southeast to Inle Lake, where I was greeted by floating villages scattered sporadically across its waters, each specializing in a unique skill. There were silversmiths, markets where just about anything you can imagine—and more—was for sale, traditional leg-rowing fishermen of Intha, women laughing and swapping stories while hand rolling sweet cheroot cigars (a concoction of tobacco leaf, dried banana and pineapple, star anise, brown sugar, tamarind, honey, rice wine and other ingredients depending on the maker, season and region).
My personal favourite, modest two story stilt-dwelling wooden structures hosting the creation of exquisite textiles. Men and women of all ages perched on benches and floors as they patiently extracted, dyed, spun and wove a variety of natural cottons, silks and lotus fibers by hand - a tedious process each step of the way. The low hum and clamouring click of hand and foot powered wooden looms filled the second floor, indicative of Shan locals busily weaving the high quality fibers into beautifully patterned scarves, blankets, and traditional longyi wear.
Hiring a private driver for the day, next I ventured Northwest to Pindaya, famously known for its pilgrimage site tucked high on a limestone ridge: a cave filled with 8,000+ images of Buddha, some dating back to the late 18th century. During my couple hours spent exploring the majestic caves, a friendship developed between myself and a kind Burmese American man called Patric who didn’t look a day over 50 but had a lifetime of experience that ranged from escaping Burma all alone as a refugee at age18 to building a new life in New York. When it became clear that our conversation required more time, we quickly agreed to a lunch date where he regaled me with stories of midcentury Burmese life while ordering a buffet of local treats as curated by a local at the town’s most celebrated eatery, Green Tea Restaurant. Next stop, a family-run umbrella workshop, where young girls hand crafted papers, soaking them in water and filling the raw fiber with fresh flower petals and leaves. Just around the corner, a young man with a bright, open face whittled small pieces of bamboo as he shaved and set each intricate piece to form the skeleton of the umbrellas. After striking up a conversation with the matriarch of the shop, I was showered with stories of her children's many accolades and promising futures with an invitation to join her family in their home upstairs for dinner. With the sun quickly setting and a 2 hour drive back to my Inle Lake accommodations still ahead, I regretfully felt the need to decline her generous offer.
As my time in Myanmar came to a close, two thoughts filled my mind: 1) I wish I would have sought ways to engage with the locals even more than I already did and 2) When might I be able to return to deepen my connection with this vibrant culture? I often remember that dinner I didn’t experience, and take joy colouring in the lines of a picture I’ve created in my own mind of the stories I might have heard, the laughter we surely would have shared, and the rare opportunity to enjoy delicious Burmese cuisine from the perspective of those who know it best. In the end, I left with a heartfelt smile on my face and a deep conviction that it was the natives and their craftsmanship in this golden country that had truly captivated my heart.
Melissa Kruse's background in fine art and psychology fuels her passion to document the unique beauty she sees in cultures across the globe. With an affinity for exploring off the beaten track, she's quick to befriend locals and immerse herself in daily life wherever her adventures take her. Her documentary-meets-editorial aesthetic is defined by a penchant for details while telling stories in an intimate and natural way.