One of the best things about Nyaungshwe, the town just north of Inle Lake, is the open air market: woman hawking freshly-caught fish, men pounding red hot steel into knives and produce sellers sitting behind their watermelon piles.
But you find it completely shuttered one Sunday morning, a strange oddity given that, as far as you know, Sundays aren’t anything special. A lone produce seller sits across the street from the empty market hawking tired looking wares which are baking in the strong, late morning sun.
It seems most of the Myanmar cuisine is quite lacking in fresh produce, perhaps a good reason why a high proportion of the nation’s children are malnourished. You are craving some fruit and decide to buy a watermelon from the skinny man with yellowed teeth.
The town is less active than normal, yet that is no reason not to wander down random dirt paths, over small bridges and past houses with baby chickens pecking at the ground. After walking a fair bit, and finding no satisfactory places to get a drink or some food—all while carrying the sorry-looking watermelon on this adventure—you decide to head back to the hotel.
As you round a corner, boisterous talking emanates from a concrete shell of a building; one of the first real signs of life today. You enter through the open door to find a room full of men drinking a clear liquid from small glasses. Before you know what has happened, you are seated at a roughly cut table and given a glass, the rowdy fellows quite obviously excited by your presence. A quick swig reveals it to be some sort of rice wine. It goes down much smoother than you would think, but you find it quite the strange choice for a late Sunday morning.
“Market is closed,” you say. “Why?”
“Full moon, no work,” responds the gentleman sitting on your left hand side as your back is to the wall.
After some banter about where you are from, and what they do, it seems you are surrounded by relatively important townspeople, most likely some of which with close connections to the military government.
“How much should this be?” you ask, pointing at the watermelon. You are starting to get a kick out of revealing how the people in the country overcharge visitors.
“500MMK,” he says, which would mean about $0.50, a reasonably substantial sum given the daily wages in the country. Of course, despite trying to negotiate, you have paid 2,500MMK, or $2.50, for the small, beat up watermelon, a nice mark-up of 500%. They really love visitors here.
The rice wine, or moonshine, or whatever it might be, is being ladled out of a big drum. They say it’s made a couple hours out. “How about the avocadoes?” you ask, “where are they from?”. They tell you they are grown up in the hills just nearby. No wonder why the quality is so nice. Of course, they are charging you just about what you would pay back home, while they pay a fraction of that themselves.
They are throwing various snacks your way, asking you to try all kinds of different things. They are quite obviously enjoying your company, a sure oddity here for them. Most of the snacks are good. Then they toss pieces of cheese your way. “It is made here,” they say. It is an interesting variant and quite satisfying given the circumstances, but probably not going to rival the finest of France anytime soon.
“Do you like opium?” the man to your left asks, seemingly out of the blue. You’d love to go photograph opium fields but getting a nice tour of an opium field from some random character in a moonshine bar located in a country ruled by the military is probably not the best methods (and you aren’t sure if that is what is even being offered). Neither a yes nor a no seem to be a great idea here.
“I don’t know,” you respond, acting confused. Happily that line of questioning dies down.
“That is our leader, do you like?” he asks, pointing at a calendar on the wall.
“I don’t know him well,” you respond.
“Like Obama,” he responds.
The mood in the room has gone from jovial and lighthearted to a bit questionable. When in a country known to send spies to watch tourists and locals alike, you must be a little bit more alert of the consequences of your responses. Perhaps they are concerned you are working for a government or a press agency or some type of outfit that will shine an adverse light on them. After all, the country has active warzones within its borders, but these are conveniently shut off to foreigners.
Just then, a man holding a rooster enters the room and places him down on your table.
“Fighter,” he says. The rooster pecks around at some of the left over snacks at your table and prances back and forth. With hand gestures, he informs you that you can pick the rooster up. Having not had many experiences holding a cock fighting rooster in a moonshine bar overseas, you gladly accept the offer. The conversation now switches from drugs and politics to roosters.
Despite the few nebulous questions, the time was quite enjoyable inside, but you thank them for their hospitality and inform them that you must depart. You place the rooster back on the table, settle up your tab (which was certainly priced at the local rate and kept track of based on markings dashed into a messy chalkboard), and head back out into the Sunday sunshine.
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