The full story of a brief entanglement with a vine snake

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(I've put pics of our New Year snake on Facebook, but not written anything in a blog. So given my wish to remember the best bits of our trip when I am even older - and the possibility that if I don't write about it, I'll forget, here's a blog for posterity.)

On New Year's Eve, Geoff and I were out at the market in Yangon when out of the blue a photo and video of a thin green snake wrapped around a hotel towel rail appeared on my phone, with this message from Emma: “We found a new team mascot.”

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Closer inquiry revealed Emma hadn't come home to find a snake in her room, but had bought it from a man who was carrying it around in a small jar, looking for a buyer. It wasn't clear if the potential purchaser was likely to be preparing her/him for the cooking pot, for a personal zoo, or a Buddhist “releasing wild animals” mission. Some sinister satanic ritual perhaps? We will never know.

Anyway, the man had two snakes, but Emma only had enough money ($8) for one, so bought the larger (and therefore more cramped in the jar) one. She said the man was “very adamant” it wasn't poisonous, although a quick "I-wonder-if-my-daughter-is-about-to-die" internet search in the middle of the street revealed it was probably an Ahaetulla, or vine snake, considered to be “mildly venomous”. Wikipedia revealed some additional, not-very-reassuring information that: “the genus name Ahaetulla comes from the Sinhalese name 'ehetulla' for Ahaetulla nasuta, which means 'eye plucker' or 'eye striker'”. This was because the vine snake was believed to go for the eyes of attackers, blinding them. Great.

Waiting for his chance to get those eyes...

Waiting for his chance to get those eyes...

What did the hotel guys think? I asked Emma via WhatsApp. “We didn't tell them," she said. "I doubt they would be very impressed.” Another layer of complexity.

Actually Emma's snake, named 'Slithery Boy' by some and 'Oswald' by others, was glorious. He/she/it appeared friendly, happily posing as broach,

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charming bracelet,

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or towel rail accessory.

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Normally an amazing green colour, it sometimes expanded its body in a menacing fashion and black and white markings appeared from under its scales. It felt cool and smooth – rather like I would expect a snakeskin handbag to feel, funnily enough. And it drank water by flicking its green forked tongue tongue in a cute fashion.

Slithery Boy seemed content living in Emma's room. And although we worried about the lack of lizards and frogs in its environs, we reckoned it could probably survive a couple of days between meals.

Lots of lovely jungle off there in the haze

Lots of lovely jungle off there in the haze

The afternoon of January 1 was earmarked for our departure for the Mount Kyaiktiyo pagoda (a huge gold-plated Buddhist rock perched on the top of a holy mountain), and the deep green jungle which we hoped was to be Slithery Boy's new home. The first problem was that check-out at the hotel was 12, but our minibus ride wasn't coming until after 2. We could hardly sit around reception with a snake the staff didn't know anything about, and we were reluctant to put him back in his jar, even for a couple of hours. So everyone except Emma (seven of us at that stage) went and sat in reception and hoped no one would notice she hadn't checked out. If they did, they were too polite to mention it.

When the bus arrived, we put the snake in a cardboard box (a box that had once contained spicy Christmas cookies and had come to Myanmar from Germany, via Japan) and smuggled him into the already crowded minivan, where he only occasionally tried to escape and cause havoc.

The final photo: Snake in a box. 

The final photo: Snake in a box. 

It's surprisingly difficult to find the perfect patch of jungle, even in Myanmar. For a few hours we were on the highway, then when we turned off we were mostly going through villages, and we didn't want him captured again and maybe eaten. A passing army camp seemed to provide lots of trees, but we weren't keen to be questioned by the dreaded Tatmadaw about what we were doing lurking about the perimeter fence with a snake. Patches of jungle always seemed to occur in places we couldn't stop the bus and then there was quite a time when we were going through rubber plantations, and we didn't know whether Asian vine snakes liked rubber trees. And then it got dark and we couldn't tell what was jungle and what wasn't. And then we arrived at our destination, which was a town and therefore unsuitable, but we didn't want to keep him another night without food. So we drove outside a way and released him into a large thicket where there seemed to be a variety of trees. He slithered upwards into some branches and disappeared, without a backwards glance.

It was an emotional moment.

Go well snake. We'll miss you. Life and soul of our 2017/18 New Year Party.

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Myanmar Independence Day - oh the excitement. Not.

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January 4 2018 is the 70th anniversary of Burma's independence from Britain and, like every Jan 4, a public holiday.

I thought it might be a rather splendid occasion. Seventy years since the much-hated British invaders finally made good their promise to grant independence, in exchange for help fighting the Japanese in WWII. Surely cause for celebration.

But it seems Independence Day 2018 is not to be an Exciting Occasion*. An admittedly-not-very-extensive Google search brings up surprisingly few matches for Independence Day – in English at least. The Vietnamese government sends congratulations. There's a link to a tweet from the Tourism Ministry about “our auspicious day”; the post has been retweeted a grand total of once. There are also general details about Independence Day on an international site about public holidays, with promises of “many celebratory events and activities that the Burmese people participate in”. However these activities are listed as: presidential and vice presidential addresses, military parades, speeches, military demonstrations and flag raising – none of which sound either particularly enjoyable or remotely encouraging of audience participation.

I did come across one new thing. This year, the government has splashed out with a healthy baby competition organised by the Myanmar Maternal and Child Welfare Association. Eighty lucky mums got to flaunt their bonny babies and their knowledge of vaccinations and physical and mental development. There's no mention of prizes. However, with almost two million under-twos in Myanmar, this also doesn't seem especially inclusive. Anyway the whole thing was over before January 4.

(As an aside, awarding prizes on the basis of health is one thing that seriously riles me. Western Springs College in Auckland (my children's school) has an annual award for the student with the best attendance record. Maybe it discourages shirkers, but it mostly appears to reward healthy students. Which doesn't seem a fair way to judge worth. Oh, you've got cancer – bad luck, that rules you out of the attendance award. Depression? Pull your socks up and get back to school, otherwise you'll never get the attendance prize.)

But I digress. Back to the excitements of Independence Day. Another available option was watching sports – street football and greasy pole climbing were the two mentioned. The latter would definitely be something different, though perhaps not for the whole day.

Kids on a greasy pole outside Mahabandoola Park, Yangon. The top photo is of crowds watching a rather discordant (to our ears) Independence day performance. At first we thought it was some kids fooling about on instruments, but actually it was a sort of Chinese opera, Myanmar style

Kids on a greasy pole outside Mahabandoola Park, Yangon. The top photo is of crowds watching a rather discordant (to our ears) Independence day performance. At first we thought it was some kids fooling about on instruments, but actually it was a sort of Chinese opera, Myanmar style

But my favourite bit of information about the 2018 celebrations came from a Myanmar government press release from November 11 2017. The release details decisions made at the Second Coordination Meeting of the 70th Independence Day Committee, no less.

According to the document, the day will be celebrated in “a politically meaningful way” with five objectives including “eternal peace” and “cooperation among all nation races”. Given ethnic cleansing almost certainly being carried out by the military against the Rohingya people, this may be an ambitious goal for a single day.

But if the report of the meeting is anything to go by, the government is definitely giving it their best shot. Having laid out these worthy objectives, the press release goes on to list the nitty gritty of the discussions at the meeting, mostly the Chairmen and officials of various sub-committees reporting back on their work. To whit: “the sub-committee for holding the State flag hoisting and saluting ceremony, the sub-committee for holding and preparing invitations to the State flag saluting ceremony, the sub-committee for holding the reception and dinner, the sub-committee for the President's message on Independence Day...” You probably get the idea. World peace can't be far off.

And as for my plans for the day? I might just climb a greasy pole and then head to the poshest hotel in town - the Strand - for a celebratory colonial-style cocktail.

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* This blog was written on January 4, but I haven't had the time or the internet since to load it. So apologies if you need to suspend your disbelief - and your time schedule.

Being a tourist on Inle Lake

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A few years ago my lovely English friend Kate took us to Clovelly, an exceptionally picturesque former fishing village on the Devon coast. Clinging to a cliff, its main street is cobbled and so steep that everything goes down on sledges and up on donkeys. Most buildings are wattle and daub and have heritage status, there's a Norman church, very pretty English gardens - and lots and lots of tourists, who pay a fairly hefty entrance fee to enter the village. I remember wondering what it was like to live in a village where people bought a ticket which (perhaps only by extension) gave them the right to watch and photograph your every move. Hanging out your washing, pruning your roses, rummaging foolishly through your bag for your front door key.  

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I was reminded of Clovelly when we went to Inle Lake. Inle is one of Myanmar's top tourist attractions - and deservedly so. A large and beautiful lake, it is surrounded by mountains and bordered with stilt-house villages, pagodas and floating gardens. (The latter are bits of land formed in the shallow lake waters from water hyacinth and silt, and then towed - yes, towed! - to the villages. They are tethered to the lake bottom with bamboo stakes and used to grow tomatoes, beans and other vegetables.)

Pottering in the garden, Inle-style

Pottering in the garden, Inle-style

The pace and mode of life on and around the lake seems little changed from how it must have been a century or two ago - apart from the odd satellite dish and leaning electricity pylon maybe. People paddle around their floating gardens in shallow canoes, take their produce to lakeside markets which rotate around the various settlements on a five-day-cycle, and fish using a unique leg-rowing technique which leaves their hands free to handle their nets.

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The difference is that these days, people going about their everyday activities are watched constantly by tourists who shoot around the late in long wooden boats with a large, loud diesel motor on the back. (You can tell whether a boat is transporting locals or visitors because locals sit on mats in the bottom of the boat, protected by umbrellas from wind and spray, but tourists get blankets, life jackets and sturdy wooden chairs from which they survey their surroundings.) 

Luxury for the tourists

Luxury for the tourists

Tourist boats circle the fishermen as they cast their nets, motor slowly past women washing their hair (or their clothes) in the lake from small platforms below their houses, and drop foreigners at the produce markets where they peer and block the aisles, but buy little. And of course tourists aren't content just to watch - they must point their cameras/smartphones and photograph everything. 

Watching (and photographing) women doing the washing up. Oh, and look at those pretty washing lines!

Watching (and photographing) women doing the washing up. Oh, and look at those pretty washing lines!

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I admit it, I am as guilty of it as anyone else - everything is so fascinating, so different from our lives. From the children paddling themselves to school, to the kilometre-long pieces of garden being towed across the lake, to fishermen slapping the water with long bamboo poles to drive fish into their nets, to the bamboo houses on stilts, the washing drying outside. 

The morning school run

The morning school run

The petrol station

The petrol station

It's truly a wonderful place and as a tourist you don't want to forget anything. 

To be fair, I suspect many local people's lives are easier because of the tourist trade - the women who sell their beautiful hand-woven clothing and traditional silverware to the visitors, for example. Or the men who act as guides or boat drivers. Or the people working in the restaurants and hotels.

Traditionally, women spin and weave cloth from lotus stems - the material they make is used for robes for senior monks or for religious ceremonies. It's a laborious process involving snapping lotus stems and pulling out the tiny fibres inside, twisting them into thread and then spinning them into thicker threat. It takes one woman a day to make 10-15 metres of lotus thread, and you need 4000 lotus stems and 20 days of work for one scarf two metres long and 25cm wide. If you wanted to donate a full set of lotus robes to a favoured monk, it will set you back US$3000. (A scarf is a snip at $45, given the work involved.) These days the "factories" supplement their lotus production by importing raw silk, cotton and polyester from Mandalay.

Traditionally, women spin and weave cloth from lotus stems - the material they make is used for robes for senior monks or for religious ceremonies. It's a laborious process involving snapping lotus stems and pulling out the tiny fibres inside, twisting them into thread and then spinning them into thicker threat. It takes one woman a day to make 10-15 metres of lotus thread, and you need 4000 lotus stems and 20 days of work for one scarf two metres long and 25cm wide. If you wanted to donate a full set of lotus robes to a favoured monk, it will set you back US$3000. (A scarf is a snip at $45, given the work involved.) These days the "factories" supplement their lotus production by importing raw silk, cotton and polyester from Mandalay.

After 50 years of serious economic mismanagement, Myanmar is a still a pretty poor country, and tourist kyats are very welcome. 

Putting money into the local economy. Lunch at a family-owned restaurant at Nan Pan village

Putting money into the local economy. Lunch at a family-owned restaurant at Nan Pan village

Moreover, like their counterparts in Clovelly, Inle Lake residents appear (from the outside at least) to have grown accustomed to the camera-in-your-face aspect of life. They look blankly through you, not malevolently at you.

Still, it must be odd knowing tourists are paying to watch you live your life. And I suspect I'm not the only foreigner to feel the same slightly uncomfortable intrusive feeling I remember from Clovelly. 

These guys are definitely posing for tourist photos, but further down the lake, fishermen are using the traditional fishing techniques for real (see photos above).

These guys are definitely posing for tourist photos, but further down the lake, fishermen are using the traditional fishing techniques for real (see photos above).

Meanwhile, as an aside, I am intrigued to calculate that tourists pay almost exactly the same to visit Clovelly and Inle Lake - the equivalent of $US9.80 for the former and $US9.90 for the latter. Could there be collusion?

A relatively guilt-free attraction: The Inle Heritage at In Phaw Khone, where a local business woman is attempting to reintroduce full-bred Burmese cats into their native land. I mention this also as an excuse to put pictures of cats and my older children into this blog.

A relatively guilt-free attraction: The Inle Heritage at In Phaw Khone, where a local business woman is attempting to reintroduce full-bred Burmese cats into their native land. I mention this also as an excuse to put pictures of cats and my older children into this blog.

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Also intrusion-free: the golden stupas at the pagoda at In Thein

Also intrusion-free: the golden stupas at the pagoda at In Thein

Up a Myanmar mountain: Christmas with a difference

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

Myanmar is blissfully free of Christmas hype. The week before, a few decorations went up in the posher tourist hotels, we saw one random "pre-Christmas sale" notice in a store selling washing machines, and there were piped carols in the toilets at Yangon airport. Otherwise the Christmas build-up didn't exist. No endless ads on TV, no rush to buy presents, no crowded shopping malls, no office parties.

By December 22, we had arrived in one of Myanmar's top tourist attractions - Inle Lake - and our select three-person world tour ranks were swollen to 13 - Emma and Ben from NZ and Japan respectively, and the Han family, minus my wonderful friend San San, but plus a Yangon cousin on holiday.

Our Christmas trek. Note my new handwoven hat, bought no expense spared ($2) in a village store outside Pathein

Our Christmas trek. Note my new handwoven hat, bought no expense spared ($2) in a village store outside Pathein

Christmas Eve found us in Koung Soung, a 650-inhabitant village, 17km up a mountain, 1500m above sea after a full-day, mostly uphill trek. It was a hot, but beautiful walk, on small dusty tracks through patches of forest, scrubby cleared areas, and cultivated sections, past little houses lifted off the ground on stilts and with woven bamboo walls. We even visited a cave full of Buddhas.

Team shot (with obligatory scruffy dog) outside the Buddha cave

Team shot (with obligatory scruffy dog) outside the Buddha cave

Stopping for water outside a fairly typical rural house

Stopping for water outside a fairly typical rural house

Everyone was wonderfully stoical about the walking experience, though it has to be said, some of us were more enthusiastic than others.

Being enthusiastic about walking. Note Sam's slingshot, acquired from some local teenagers, who use it to supplement food supplies. Below, slingshot bullets made from dried mud are surprisingly effective

Being enthusiastic about walking. Note Sam's slingshot, acquired from some local teenagers, who use it to supplement food supplies. Below, slingshot bullets made from dried mud are surprisingly effective

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Our overnight accommodation was a village hut, although ours had a tin roof, not thatch. As soon as we arrived smartphones came out and Sam produced a travel Monopoly set he'd carried up the mountain. The more adventurous among us showered in "refreshing" (read friggin' freezing) water at the open air village tank, showing our immense ineptitude at using a washing longyi - a wrapper which allows women to wash modestly in public but requiring dexterity to avoid revealing all - a skill I was lacking in. Two scruffy small boys found themselves ringside seats in a car tyre and watched the show. 

Not looking at my best, despite an oh so refreshing shower...

Not looking at my best, despite an oh so refreshing shower...

Our December 24 dinner was a rather delicious curry, rice and veges, cooked by our fabulous guide Shan Hea (named after a grandfather from Shanghai) on a single iron tripod and a couple of clay burners over an open fire.

Taung Yo family members in the kitchen at the house where we stayed. The fire is in the middle of the room, so during the winter you can sleep round it. Afterwards we wished we'd had that option - it gets really cold at night!

Taung Yo family members in the kitchen at the house where we stayed. The fire is in the middle of the room, so during the winter you can sleep round it. Afterwards we wished we'd had that option - it gets really cold at night!

We slept on mats on the floor, wrapped in blankets. It was, if truth be told, uncomfortable and bitterly cold; the wintery mountain air seeping through all the cracks in the woven floor and walls. Going to the toilet in the night involved a treacherous bamboo ladder into the yard and then a basic but clean squat in a hut behind the house.  Again, some were more enthusiastic than others. One member of the group got sick, poor guy, requiring frequent visits to the outside dunny. A strategically-placed-to-deter-robbers cowbell on the door jingled cheerily whenever he crept through. Only the youngest, hardiest members of the party slept much that night, which is perhaps why Santa Claus didn't have a chance to deliver presents.

No Christmas is the same without a family game of Monopoly

No Christmas is the same without a family game of Monopoly

Anyone who did happen to be asleep was woken at 5am, when the Christmas morning chanting started up from the Buddhist monastery on the hill above the village. Lest anyone miss it, it is broadcast through the village on loudspeakers. It went on for an hour, discordant and repetitive - or was that just the lack of sleep? But the view from the village over the lake was spectacular, and the local children excessively excited by the distraction caused by the tourists. (Most treks from Inle Lake go to the west, rather than the east, where we were, so the children in our village weren't as used to foreigners as some.)

Michelle leads Christmas morning zumba classes in Koung Soung village

Michelle leads Christmas morning zumba classes in Koung Soung village

PIed Piper or Santa Claus?

PIed Piper or Santa Claus?

We gathered quite a following as we wandered between the houses; the calls to breakfast from frustrated mothers went quite unheeded. Michelle bought cookies from the village shop and handed them out to the kids, who repeated her "Happy Christmas" greeting totally oblivious to the meaning. I suspect a few children got the bamboo massage treatment for being late for school that morning.

Daniel is medevacked out of Koung Soung. He survived.

Daniel is medevacked out of Koung Soung. He survived.

By this stage Daniel was too sick to walk far, but fortuitously we came across an unmade-up road heading precipitously into the town below, and Shan Hea flagged down a motorbike driver to take Daniel back to the hotel. It looked a pretty dodgy drive, but the monk's early morning prayers came through and he arrived safely. 

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The rest of us headed down on foot. It really is a spectacular walk through jungle-like scenery, made even more enjoyable by the lack of tourists - just locals going about their business cutting firewood and working in the fields around the villages. It being the cold, dry season, rice isn't being cultivated at the moment, just a variety of different vegetables, plus tea, garlic, cane, and corn (the latter dried and destined for animal feed). We also saw dragon fruit, which grow on a spiky cactus plant originally from Mexico, and a spectacularly-laden avocado tree.

Sam's slingshot and clay pellets came into their own as we practised our village kid marksmanship with trees and power poles. (Strangely, the village we stayed in has very smart power poles running right to it and beyond, but all their electricity comes from mini household solar panels connected to car batteries. Nowhere even to charge your phone, shock horror!)

Not just in museums...

Not just in museums...

Getting a ride back into town from the winery. Actually, after this photo was taken, Ben was told he couldn't ride on the roof. It's fine for Burmese New Zealanders to be killed falling off van roofs, but not European New Zealanders.

Getting a ride back into town from the winery. Actually, after this photo was taken, Ben was told he couldn't ride on the roof. It's fine for Burmese New Zealanders to be killed falling off van roofs, but not European New Zealanders.

The two-day trek finished at one of Myanmar's few wineries, where we purchased some expensive and not-very-delicious wine (there is a reason Myanmar isn't famous for its viticulture) for Christmas dinner back in the hotel. Before leaving we had decorated the reception/breakfast area with tinsel (normally sold for Buddhist temple decorations), balloons and paper chains. The meal was (you've guessed it) curry, veges and rice from the restaurant across the road, plus "pudding" (Myanmar's answer to creme caramel) and some German spiced Christmas biscuits sent somewhat incongruously by Ben's Japanese family. We made mojitos, opened some very fine presents bought in the market over the previous few days, and a good time was had by all.

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WISHING YOU A VERY MERRY CHRISTMAS AND HAPPY NEW YEAR!