I came back to the hotel after my trek on Friday, and there were a dozen people from the local village gathered around an open doorway in the main hall. A older man was lying on a pallet and someone was using some kind of portable medical apparatus on him, injecting something into his arm. An old woman hovered near, worried. Porousness between the hotel and the village, a permeability I really like.
This is the hotel I’d ended up staying in on impulse at the boat jetty, after the (wrong) information from my driver that the hotel I’d been booked in was government owned. Landing here was kind of emblematic of this trip — trying to find simple ways of connecting to the people, fumbling in the dark.
In strict tourist terms, the hotel wasn’t the best choice. I was the only guest, and it felt sometimes like I was perched on the edge of a community that was polite and smiley to me but a bit arm’s length. The people working here had the least English of any hotels I stayed in, and I realized I had to be more self-reliant than I’d expected. The hotel was in the lake, nearly an hour by motorized wooden boat from the town Nyuang Shwe, and I’d been handed this boatman sort of magically (I think arranged by my travel agent). Like every driver or moto taxi person I acquired by accident on this trip, this boatman fastened himself to me like a sticker, “mine” for the duration. I had to plan ahead of time when I wanted him to be there, and then somehow convey this in my limited myanmar. Very difficult to communicate “the day after tomorrow.” A land where everyone operates in the present tense. Spontaneity takes on a different meaning.
The lake is a wetland bird sanctuary, and I asked the woman at the desk when I checked in if she could arrange for a birding guide. She smiled and said “watch birds behind hotel!” It wasn’t until the manager showed up on my third (and last) day that I was able to explain what I wanted, and again, magically, two guys showed up from town with a shared pair of binoculars and a bag full of asian birding guides. It was completely the wrong time of day, but we had a lovely two hours identifying purple herons, breeding pond herons and cattle, intermediate and little egrets, white-breasted waterhens, red-whiskered bulbuls and glossy ibis.
All of the limits aside, Golden Island Cottages (II) was my favourite place I stayed. It’s owned by a cooperative of the local Pa’O people, and it has a mission of providing jobs and building capacity in the local area. So rare in a country where ownership of almost everything is somehow linked to the rulers. It’s completely integrated with the local village — the labour for the new bungalows under construction comes from the village, and the shelter on the wide dock is shared by guests and by locals waiting for their own motorized boats. (Of course, I had a boat to myself; they would put 8 or 10 people in the equivalent).
More than anything, the place was stunning.
At night, I slept in my comfortable little treehouse, on stilts over the water, breeze blowing through the windows on all sides, falling asleep to the sounds of chanting from the monastery across the lake. When I asked ahead, they cooked me special traditional Shan meals for breakfast and dinner, and they were endlessly patient with my requests for lime juice and soda water and relentless poking at the thin thread of wifi that worked only in the lobby, trying to will it to be faster.
At sunset my first evening, one of the staff took me out in a little shallow canoe to look more closely at the bird roosting sites, and then to float around as the sun set around me.
My last night, I sat on my perfect deck and watched the sun flow down over the mountains of Shan state.
On my last morning, my boatman showed up nearly an hour early, to make sure he was there. We rode across the glass of the misty lake as fisherman in their tiny flat boats began their days in the same way they have for centuries. Boats passed me filled with people baskets full of the tomatoes, onions and fruits grown in the floating gardens. I sat, breathing, perfect, full life.