Pondering the Padaung

Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
Trip End Apr 22, 2005

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Flag of Myanmar  ,
Monday, February 21, 2005

We didn't have much of an option it seemed. No sooner had we arrived in our guesthouse than one of the sisters of the Four Sisters guesthouse descended on us before we'd even put our bags down to schedule a lake excursion. She explained that there was a special market on the far end of the lake and that we should go the next day. I told her that unless it was exceptionally special we'd prefer to get the lay of the land first and stroll about for the first 24 hours. She insisted playing on our ignorance and we signed up for just a half day. We've later come to call her Freak-Out Sister because unlike the other sisters and their mother who are delightful, Freak-Out Sister is pushy and frantic about getting her guests to sign up for treks and any other way she can get a kick back. It would also come to pass that the market day was no more special than any of the others we could have visited. What she didn't know however was that this market had a special attraction tucked away from the mainstream that would make our day indeed exceptionally special: The long-necked women from the Padaung tribe.

After slowly waking up over a plate of hot banana pancakes and force-sipping a cup of vile "coffee" on the chilly communal terrace it was time for the day's excursion to begin. We followed behind our driver down a dirt path to the canal and boarded our two seat motorized canoe. For over an hour we made our way past the Intha fishermen rowing their boats with their legs wrapped around their oars and past waving families washing themselves by stilted wooden shacks and young boys herding water buffalo on the banks of the lake. We arrived at the market only to find that it featured much of the traditional tourist's fare and that the actual local market was puny by comparison. Nonetheless there were some great buys and some interesting souvenirs that caught our attention en route to the hill top monastery.

In each country I've visited the hawkers and salespeople parrot virtually the same lines. The favourites in Thailand are, "one-hunded puhrcent Thai silk - eeets silk on silk"; "You buy from meee"; "Lady you look at my shop I give you good price" and "Only 40 bahts -you buy!" In Cambodia it's "Hey lady, you want cold drink, lady?" but they're most famous for the snippy comebacks that normally go like this:

You buy from me, madam.
No thank you I already have one.
You buy two - buy for boyfriend buy for mother.
No thank you I don't like red.
I have blue one,
No thank you, I'm fine.
I'm not fine - you buy something.

In Lao they sit up and wipe the sleep from their eyes but normally nod out before you can reach for your wallet. At the night market however they can get aggressive. Their standard is to throw something your way that you glanced at two blocks away and announce "Lucky day! I give you good price! Lucky day!" In Vietnam last year I noticed their unnerving habit of telling you what each object is your looking at, "That skirt!", "That chopstick!", and "That postcard!" Once I had a little girl shadowing me so closely that I ran into her twice and then asked her if she'd mind not standing so close to me when I was thinking about buying something. She looked up and said, "When you not near I sad." I bolted feeling the need to scrub my soul with a scouring pad I felt so sickened. In India they trick you to buy things and are without a doubt the masters of deception and scams throughout all of Asia if not the world. To be fair however it still ranks in my top five favourite countries. The one common line that they say in all of these countries is "What country you from?" which is a prelude to immediately trying to sell you something.

In Myanmar the standards are to flatter you, "Oh, you bew-tee-full!" or the most curious is "LUCKY MONEY! LUCKY MONEY!" It took us a while to figure this one out but I believe it means that the first sell of the day is "lucky money" but I'm pretty certain that the luck is on the side of the seller. When Cameron bought something from a lady she took the money and hit everything on the table with it, which by the way is also an invitation for every seller who witnessed the ritual to pounce. "Sista you see my shop" is also very common but they all say "Come. Just looking - you just looking." The Burmese also have an afterward that follows an actual purchase and that is "You have present for me?" They will often follow up with specific requests for cosmetics.

After a buying a large tin peacock necklace for two dollars and fifty cents the effeminate salesboy asked if I had a present for him and then asked for "Lip-ah-stick" and "Puh-fume". I was a bit taken aback but looked in my bag and found some pretty pale blue silk ribbons and offered those. He curled his upper lip and shook her head, spun on his heel and sauntered off. I was a tad miffed because by God I've worn those ribbons many times.

I was wearing my new necklace when we were walking by a silversmith shop and was beckoned inside to see the ones made in sterling. They were out of our budget and frankly the tin one was more interesting so we thanked him and turned to leave. Then he said, "You want to see long neck Padaung women?" I couldn't even disguise my elation and didn't even bother to ask Cameron and with eyes as wide as a brass neck band I blurted, "Yes!"

He told us that there was a fee of a buck fifty but I'd have paid much more. How many times did you stare at their photos in National Graphic in elementary school amazed by their long necks and colorful costumes? Last year I read a book written by a member of the Padaung tribe and it refreshed my interest and now I was champing at the bit.

He led us out of his shop and up a little hill toward a small thatched house. Through the window we could see them and at first I thought we'd been taken when I saw young girls weaving at looms who may have just been born with long necks. But then by a window I saw a sixty year old woman with the maximum amount of golden bands on her neck - I beamed. We approached her and handed her our admission fees in the respectful Burmese tradition with the right hand while touching our right elbow with the left. She motioned for me to sit next to her while she fidgeted with her white scarf in her lap and I just sat there and smiled dumbfounded. I was speechless, which was fine seeing as how she was only in command of a handful of English words anyway. We posed for photos communicating as best we could. The visit couldn't have been very long but it seemed I'd lost all track of time. When we were leaving she got up and walked toward us and the funniest thing happened. Her wide smile made me see her not as the freakish woman from the National Geographic magazine but I saw her as a regular sweet old lady.

I wanted a souvenir before I left and what better than a copy of the scarf that she was holding. She wrapped it around her neck daintily and with a faint nod she batted her eyes holding my gaze and said "Bew-tee-fuuuull." Sold.

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