It’s no secret that I have a (not-so-secret) long-distance crush on the city of Istanbul. Recently, I ran across the passenger list for my grandmother’s passage to the US on the SS Themistokles on 27 Jan 1915.
My World History is splotchy at best, so my best assumption is that they fled the wrong part of the world at the right time… Gallipoli was mere months away, WWI was still raging in Europe. The US was opening its arms to immigrants who brought innovators and craftsmen and laborers to its shores. They travelled from Jaffa, through Piraeus (and through Cleveland apparently), to eventually settle in Brooklyn. Country of origin at the time (though technically Palestine): Turkey.
So maybe it’s in my blood.
Fast-forward 100+ years and I’m making a hodge-podge breakfast sandwich with what I’ve found in my fridge and pantry shelves: Persian cucumbers, pita bread, some red pepper spread from a jar I picked up in a market somewhere, avocado, smoked herring… I have a momentary and wistful flashback to a fish sandwich under a pop-up tent by the banks of the Golden Horn, in the Eminönü neighbourhood, across from the spice market, this side of the Galata Bridge.
More than New York City, more than Boston, this place calls me.
Balık Ekmek is common street food here, it’s fresh grilled fish served on a hunk of fresh bread with lettuce and onions and lemon juice if you want it as a sauce. It’s not fancy, but it is a simple kind of wonderful. The vendors walk around touting cups of pickles with fermented cabbage and pickle juice that’s meant for drinking. Even for one who likes pickles, it’s an acquired taste.
As much as the taste and freshness of the mackerel is the destination, what completes the experience and makes one’s senses come alive are the contrasts and interminglings here: the sounds and the bustle of the waterfront, the smells of the roasting corn and chestnuts mixed with the salty-ish city air, the colours and textures of the fabrics, the redness of the Turkish flag.
I’m daydreaming this morning: an ode to a mackerel sandwich, perhaps. The spring is trying to bust through here. And as a fairly dull and dreary winter comes to a close, I feel that familiar tug to the east, a restlessness in my legs to go adventuring, a void in my spirit where spice markets and lutes and zithers and magic carpets seep into my dreams.
I posted this on my Medium page, not knowing if it falls under “Travel Writing” or plain essays. In any case, I’ll cross-post here and hope for the best!
There’s something of an art to balancing over-planning a trip and have it be so much I’ll just wing it that the trip becomes a logistical nightmare once you arrive. And as I didn’t do a wrap-up post for my Southeast Asia Adventure, I’ll let this one stand in its place.
It goes like this…
I had just returned from 3 weeks in Southeast Asia. It had been a rough few months at work, with an overload of “on”: meetings and projects and deadlines, and too little of the quiet, nature-filled and people-free moments that enable me to adequately recharge my batteries. So when the opportunity to visit my uncle in Bangkok over the holidays presented itself, I seized the day, as it were, to carve an itinerary around that visit.
I’m also the textbook definition of an introvert: I avoid parties and am exhausted by small talk and crowds; I’m very careful about who I share my thoughts and feelings with, and I need my “alone time” to recharge and feel human again. I plan and read and write and consider…and I often find destination inspiration from mythology or historical fiction or travel writing. And it seems strange, but I tend to bump into my kind of people when I’m travelling. Once away, there is little time for small talk, and there are usually mutual reasons for being in that place; so conversation, even with complete strangers, doesn’t feel like a burden or a chore. I don’t feel judged or awkward or out of place because, well, I am out of place…so that thing is an immediate known, and it is therefore immediately off the table as a source of anxiety. This is the contradictory and backwards logic which rules an introvert’s life (yet confounds many an extrovert), but also that which makes so many other things accessible in far-flung places.
Truth be told, I didn’t fall in love with Bangkok the first time I was there — the congestion and the crowds and the plastic-wrapped everything turned me off. But my uncle is amazing and I wanted to see him and his partner in their 2nd home, knowing that locals always have better insight of a place than tourists with a map. I’m happy to report that my subsequent experience in that wild and weird city gave me a newfound appreciation for the neighbourhoods, the markets, the food, and of course the home-away-from-home-hospitality, all in a few short days.
From Bangkok, I took off to do and see things that have been on a list of sorts for ages… I dove in the Myeik Archipelago in the Indian Ocean, went on a hot air balloon flight over the ancient ruins at Bagan, and took a (really) long boat ride up the Irrawaddy River. Upon suggestion, I visited the floating villages and mind-boggling temples of Inle Lake, experienced sunrise at the Shwedagon Pagoda (where legend asserts that 8 hairs of the Buddha reside), and ate my way through an assortment of Asian cuisines in Yangon.
While I’ve travelled solo before, this was the longest and farthest I’ve gone without a co-conspirator to share at least part of the journey. In looking at what worked on this trip and others I’ve taken, I’ve come up with some rules (aside from the obvious ones around personal safety and general hygiene) for a successful adventure, more-so if you’re of an introverted constitution…
Start and end with a base.
If you’re flying in and out of the same airport, it’s nice to begin and end in the same place. An Airbnb, apartment or guest house is a cosier starting and ending point than a sterile hotel. I stayed in an apartment in their building in Bangkok, and it was nice having a place to myself in a place I sort-of knew (I stayed here last time as well), and a safe base with which to bookend the trip. I’ve stayed at the same B&B in Istanbul 3 times because it’s in a great location and a cosy place to call home for a few days. This gives a sense of clarity and belonging to the perhaps otherwise daunting trip.
Map an itinerary.
I’m not a fan of planning every minute of every day when I travel, but I usually create a map on Google Maps and dot it with places I want to see, places I’ve read about or that people have recommended, or with things to do or see that just look cool. That way, whether I want to relax for a day or go out and do it all, I’ve got a list of sites to see and things to do instead of just winging it and hoping for the best. These pinpoints can help fill in those lulls or can help you feel less stressed-out about what to see or do when you get there if you don’t have a tour or a guide lined up.
In Bagan, I knew I wanted to see the only Hindu temple there, so I made sure to plot it on my map. In Istanbul, I wanted to climb to the top of the Galata Tower. In Iceland, I wanted to see Kirkjufellsfoss… A little pre-planning also helps you be a bit more confident about the unfamiliar — you’ve done some research and mapped the basics. Even if you get lost (which I’m known to do pretty much everywhere new I go), exploring on your own is a little less scary if you’ve already seen it on a map.
Learn a few words and respect customs.
I’m not a fan of small talk, but a few words can go a long way. Even just hello (mingalaba in Burma, Sawasdee ka in Thailand) and thank you (khab-kun-ka in Thailand, jezu-beh in Burma) help immensely in eliciting massive smiles from complete strangers, even if you butcher it at first. At the markets in Burma, negotiating can be done with fingers (3 fingers, for example, for 3000 kyat). Take your shoes off when you enter a temple or someone’s home. Don’t point your feet at someone when you’re talking or touch someone’s head…(there are so many more, especially when monks are concerned). I tend to travel quietly and spend a lot of time observing and absorbing my surroundings, with the keen awareness that I’m the visitor in someone else’s homeland. You don’t have to have full conversations with everyone you meet or launch into a protracted apology for your country’s (erm) political situation, but a smile, a mingalaba and a small bow or head nod can certainly improve your day.
Make friends with the guest house staff.
Wherever possible, I stay at guest houses or B&B’s vs. hotels. I’ve found that the hosts are usually lovely humans who deal with solo travellers from all over the world all the time. These people can help point you in the direction of off-the-beaten-track things to do, they usually have great suggestions for where to eat, and can help make your stay feel a little less sterile. In Dubrovnik, I spent a night in a guest house near the port to avoid the hell-crowds of the Old City. The guest house owner not only took me to a food festival with him and his family (he even drove me there on his scooter and showed me around!), but held a suitcase until I returned, arranged my next guest house for me, and made sure I had everything squared away for a stress-free few days. When I arrived in Split, it was late and I had a brutal head cold. The host at the guest house (that he had arranged) made me tea and welcomed me with open arms even though it was 10pm and I could see she was tired. In Mandalay, I talked pollution and politics with the guest house owner, and only wished I had more time there to take one of her cooking classes.
Do the thing.
Climb the mountain. Seek out the ruin. Visit that hidden cave. Find the weirdest Atlas Obscura post and go find it: the Jumping Cat monastery (real…in Inle Lake), or that 1000-year-old ball of monkey dung (Not real. I hope.). If there’s a thing you have an inkling to do or see, Go. Do. It. When’s the next time you’ll be here? Will you regret not indulging your curiosity or seeing that thing you’ve read about? Solo travel is a perfect way for an introvert to practice the art of saying yes to things outside the norm (hint: nobody is watching, and if they are, you’ll probably never see them again!).
The bottom line is this: travelling solo does not in any way mean you must spend your entire holiday alone. In fact, it means that you can write your own itinerary, seek quiet open spaces or crowded markets where you can get lost amongst the masses. Or both. You can see that place that’s always been on your bucket list, or you can take 2 hours strolling down an interesting beach. You aren’t beholden to a tour group’s agenda, nor do you have to negotiate what to do or see with a co-traveller during a limited holiday. It’s harder, for sure, since you are 100% responsible for whether or not you actually see the place you’re visiting. But it’s liberating and empowering much more than it is scary or (yes, sometimes) lonely.
I’ve bonded instantly with other solo women travellers from all corners of the planet, and I’ve had fantastic conversations with strangers I’ll never see again on a plane, bus, park bench or restaurant. For the introvert in me, these types of small talk are somehow easier than the ones back home. Going out to dinner on my own when I’m home doesn’t happen, yet while I’m travelling it’s usually the only option… In Bagan, I watched a traditional puppet show whilst eating local curry. In Inle Lake, I broke my own rules about drinking alone and had a Myanmar beer while eating a bowl of Tom Yam soup at a table in my own gazebo. For lunch one day, I had the best Indian food I’ve had outside of Rajasthan because I asked the hostess for her mother’s specialty.
No trip is flawless, whether you’re on a National Geographic excursion or a shoestring budget backpacking trip. I know this going in, and I plan what I can, improvise what’s left, and take interesting paths in the process. Also, loads of photos!
Try it, I say:you’re bound to come home with a treasure trove of stories to tell…to those lucky enough to be invited in to listen!
I’d seen photos of this place for years: its ancient temple-tops peering out over the jungle canopy, fog burning off across the landscape, a sea of relics strewn across a massive plain, a centuries-old board game interrupted by the future. Like something out of an adventure movie, Bagan called to me.
And so it was that I travelled from Inle Lake to Bagan to start this leg of the journey.
I arrive in the evening (a far less traumatic taxi ride than the last), my taxi depositing me at the hotel, a gardened temple replica tucked behind a tour bus-filled street thronging with supping masses. A pit of dread lodges in my stomach as I hope my experience here wouldn’t be this, erm, crowded. The staff: doting; the room: miniscule. Luckily, I wasn’t planning on spending much time inside anyway.
Bagan is an ancient sacred Burmese city, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the summer of 2018. That means protection and restoration (and the climbing of temples now prohibited), but it also means it’s not an under-the-radar destination anymore. I’m glad I’m seeing it now.
Essentially, the Bagan Archaeological Zone is a minefield of temples and stupas and pagodas and monasteries strewn across a 100 sq km area, encompassing over 3500 complexes built between the 11th and 13th centuries. In its day, there were over 4000, and by some estimates there are/were over 10,000 individual structures here.
My first day’s mission was to see some of the larger sites. I hired an e-bike and set off. You pay the equivalent of about $5 for a day’s rental of a silent scooter to shuttle you about Bagan. It’s necessary, I soon learn, as the place is enormous, and the air is hot and dry. If nothing else, the breeze is refreshing as the red dust nestles, well, everywhere!
I make it to the Shwezigon Paya early-ish, and the market is not yet in full swing. A pushy but not unfriendly woman points out a good place to park my scooter, and duly notes a good place to leave my shoes while I wander the site. She comments that I should come visit her shop in the market on my way out. Similar to Shwedagon in Yangon, this paya is thronged with tourists even at this early hour, so once I’m done, I bee-line it out of there to get to some of the other sites before the mobs do. The experience walking through the gallery on the way out of the pagoda made me feel not unlike a piece of meat: vendors, like dogs, drooling and nipping at me to get me to buy something; some more rabid than others.
Annoyed by the time I get to the door where I left my shoes, I was verging on incensed when I realised they weren’t there. The lady at the shop has them I was informed. My shoes are being held ransom I thought. After gathering my shoes from the woman, at the risk of being hexed for not making a purchase, I hastily make my way out of there.
I was not enjoying Bagan at all as yet.
The thing about Bagan is that there is a temple of some sort pretty much every 20 feet. So I head down the main road towards Old Bagan, joining the melange of motorbikes, horse-drawn buggies, taxis and e-scooters going my way. In the process, I found some pretty amazing sites. I also tracked down the only Hindu temple in Bagan, which is also said to be the oldest here, built in the 10th or 11th century. It is a temple to Vishnu and houses statues and wall paintings not only of Vishnu, but also of Brahma, Shiva and Ganesha.
I spend the rest of the day alternately cursing tour buses (and their occupants) and gaping wide-mouthed at the temples large and small, as I maneuver around the sites on my e-bike. It is really no wonder they’re here (the tourists, that is), but the crowds also make for a less-than wonderful experience. The afternoon wanes, and in trying to escape the throngs and hawkers and sleazy tour mongers (want to see the sunset? … want to buy this [trinket/bauble/blanket/hat/postcard/painting]?…want to go to a secret spot to climb a temple?), I finally find a hilltop from which to watch the sunset (empty when I arrive but full as the sun dips below the horizon).
I end the day not overly impressed with the Bagan experience thus far, while being simultaneously floored by the architectural wonders around me.
My goal for Day 2 is to avoid the swarms and visit only sites that have no parking lots, no tourist buses, no mobs of people milling about. Before I embark on this mission, my morning starts with one of the 2 or 3 splurgiest things I’ve ever done: a hot air balloon ride over Bagan.
It was a surreal hour, beginning as the sun came up, and ending with us landed in a field, drinking a glass of champagne (as one does).
Hedonistic as it was, the flight really helped put the scale of this place into perspective! Each temple, pagoda, stupa, or monastery feels like it ought to be an historic site on its own, so seeing this (collective) wonder from above was just an amazing experience. Highly recommended!
I spend the rest of the day scooting around the city, taking interesting-looking and/or less-travelled dirt roads (one even led me into someone’s yard!!), then wandering down bramble-lined paths among and between the ancient structures… I explored large temples and small, even stumbled upon a spectacular monastic complex hiding in plain sight.
This day ended with me feeling fuller, and more fulfilled, than I did the day before. I even took in a traditional puppet show at dinner.
In a nutshell, I spent two very long but very different days amongst these ruins at Bagan, seeing the well-known and the, well, not-so-much. Some of the sites clearly generated something like magnetism for me, drawing me in through their stone archways and ancient doors. And some made me want to forget that I’d ever been there. There is certainly energy afoot, and it’s not surprising that each of the structures calls to different people differently: what I find fascinating might be a dull pile of old brick to the next wanderer-by; the ghosts of each temple chanting centuries of silence to those who listen carefully.
I said goodbye to Bagan before dawn this morning and boarded a boat to Mandalay, hoping one day to be back.
The thing to do in Inle is get out on the lake. I’ve just arrived and don’t really know what that means yet, but I allow myself the luxury of sleeping in a bit my first day here. But the leisurely morning ends there: within about 6 minutes of finishing brekkie, I find myself on the back of the hotel lady’s motorcycle en route to a boat. I don’t yet know much about the boats here either, but she drops me at a property with a small cottage and a bigger shed and something that looks like an outhouse. There are some people milling about, and there are chickens and dogs wandering in the driveway, some motorbikes scattered around, and some chairs (occupied and not) around an unlit fire. A smiling guy comes out, and my hotel lady leaves me in his hands. He ushers me towards the back of the property, which I realise abuts a canal. It’s like Venice, if only for the gondola-like boats, but not at all otherwise, for all the dust and beeping and stray dogs about, a texture to the air which I can’t place, but breathes of wood smoke and fish sauce. Welcome to Inle Lake. You are not in Kansas anymore.
We head down the rickety ladder and my new guardian now hands me off to a smiling boat guy with tanakha’d cheeks, and we set off to see the lake on this long boat with a puttering engine, its long-tailed propeller designed to tackle the lilies and lotus greens that grow like weeds on the lake and its tributaries. I’m seated on a wooden chair that sits atop the wooden slats in the bottom of the boat. I’ve got a cusion, life preserver and umbrella (for sun or rain). We’re ready to go!
I’m still not at all clear on what we’re off to see, but my boat driver shuttles me down a mud-banked river along which he dodges the patches of green which seem to sprout up spontaneously. The river opens to a massive lake (about 50 sq mi), ringed with a low mountain range. It’s beautiful, this first glimpse of Inle, a morning layer of fog-smoke still burning off the lake’s surface.
We motor across the lake and into a neighbourhood of sorts, its houses and shops and restaurants on stilts. Inle Lake boasts a plethora of skilled craftspeople, and part of the tour is to their workshops. Our first stop is a silver-maker. I’m dropped off, given a cup of tea, and guided into the shop, where there’s an area in which a craftsman is showing how they make the silver here. I’m shown the stones they get the silver from, and then the mortar and pestle-type thing they use to stamp and mold the material into the jewelry I’m shown next. Then, I’m guided into a room bigger than the actual workshop, glass cases with rows and rows of jewelry that was clearly not handmade here, interspersed with some that may have been.
Next, we visit the cheroot makers, and I get out and watch as they demonstrate the cigar-making. After this, we navigate the watery streets (the neighbourhood is literally in the lake) and stop at a temple, thronging with boats and bustle. I have to pee.
I walk up into the melee, remove my shoes, and I’m immediately accosted by a woman who insists I buy offering flowers. I politely decline. She shoves the flowers in my face again. I decline again. This goes on for a couple of minutes until I find an opening and make my escape (sans fleurs). The temple is loud and crowded. The toilet is frightening. The tourists are pushy and rude, more into selfie-taking than worshipping. A shrine to what I wonder, as there are no monks anywhere to be seen.
I’m having a weird visceral reaction to this place, like I need to get out of here before it eats my soul. And I do, and then I explain to my boat driver that I need to see nature and culture and no more crowds. So after lunch, he motors us away from the crowds, down a series of green-lined rivulets, and to a market that appears to be bustling, but he points upwards and says go there. There looks to be another temple, this one with a zillion stupas, their gold and white and stone spires pointing to the heavens.
Between me and the temple is a covered stairway, lined with sellers of all manner of stuff – longyis and trinkets and jewelry and woven crafts. I’m relieved that while the waterfront is bustling, the market and the site is not. I am one of only a handful of people there, and I take my time walking up the hundreds of steps to the temple.
We’re at the Shwe Indein Pagoda, and I’m standing in the middle of what I realise is more like a village of centuries-old stupas, in various states of restoration. I spend nearly 2 hours wandering amongst the 1000+ structures here, awestruck at each turn. Some are meticulously restored, while some, gorgeous carvings and all, are tilting and overgrown, the jungle threatening to take them.
When I get up there, I am literally stupa-fied.
As I make my way down the hill again through the near-deserted market, I’m feeling better about this place. The energy here is so much different than that of the earlier pagoda, and it makes me very aware of the subtle cultural idiosyncrasies at play, not merely an east-west thing, but also region-to-region and temple-to-temple. Somewhere in the sub of my consciousness rings there is a place for everyone, and for everyone a place.
We visit a lotus weaving workshop next, where they demonstrate how the fibers from the lotus stem are woven to create a strong material, more precious than silk. And we visit the Jumping Cat Monastery, well-known for its trained cats. There are cats here, but I learn that they don’t jump anymore…it turns out that one of the practices the old monk didn’t pass on before he passed on was the training of the cats.
The day ends with a gorgeous sunset on the lake and large pot of Tom Yam soup. And, per the guesthouse’s suggestion, I reserve a boat for the following day to take me out to the lake’s farther reaches, to the town of Samkar.
We leave before dawn so I’m also treated to a sunrise over the lake. The journey takes about 3 hours, across Inle and down a river that is more marshy waterway than actual river. And while Inle lake is known for its oodles of pagodas and temples, it’s also famed for its fishermen. These iconic symbols of Burma’s Shan State go out on the lake every morning, doing their traditional dance: one leg wrapped around the oar, the other maneuvering their wooden skiff (a manual version of what we’re on), while his hands work the basket-like net. I’m already feeling a little hustled and shuttled like a tourist from the prior day (don’t they know I want an authentic experience rather than pay-per-view??), so I skeptically wonder if this, too, is a show for the tourists (and do I exit through the gift shop?).
But I’m drawn in by the nature of this longer journey…lush terrain lines different parts of the lake, and the greenery narrows around our long and narrow boat. I’m in bird-watching mode, spotting egrets and herons and cranes and a variety of other water birds as we navigate through the marshy lotus patches. These wetlands morph into fields and it’s sometimes hard to determine where the wet- ends and the -lands begin. It’s like two enmeshed cultures: land and water. Like a lotus, they need to find stability and nourishment in the solid bits, make peace with the water for equanimity and balance, and look skyward for wisdom and direction.
Because I opted to journey a bit off the beaten path today, I missed the floating market. And also the 5-day market. But we visited a sake-maker (with samples!) and some stunning pagodas along the way; and at most of them, I was the only one there. So the reward for the long, cold ride this day wasn’t that I got to see what everyone else does at Inle Lake, it was that I got to experience the stillness and the serenity of these sites; the only sound at times, the bells atop the crowns of the stupas, tinkling in the light breeze.
I won’t have a physical souvenir of these places, and I don’t know the names of most of them*, but the reflection in the mirror-like water, the bells in the air, and the scent of incense wafting from the altars are all the keepsakes I need.
My days at Inle Lake close with a 3-hour bicycle ride around town. Along the way, I was given a thumbs-up and blessed by a near-toothless monk, and had some of the best Indian food I’ve ever eaten outside of Rajasthan. In Inle, I got rained on. I experienced world-class Burmese smiles and warmth and genuineness. I saw some surreal temples. I (re-)learnt that sometimes the best way to deal with an experience that isn’t for me is just to leave: there are mobs of people enjoying it whether I’m there or not. Once I take myself out of the equation, it just IS.
On the way back to the airport, the taxi passed the spot my other taxi driver crashed only a few days before, and I briefly wondered if I were a jumping cat, how many lives would I have used up thus far?
But for now, it’s onwards to Bagan and to one of the great architectural wonders of this world!
*In Samkar, I saw the Tha Kaung Mway Taw, Taung Tho and Samkar pagodas, plus a little ancient site sitting below a “newer” pagoda (here newer is a relative term; many of the temples here are over 1000 years old).
I begin Part II in a weird little hotel on the other side of the water, having just spent the past 6 days on a boat in the Mergui (Myeik) Archipelago, dodging currents and battling low visibility, diving some of the most lush underwater gardens I’ve seen in years.
I’m in Kawthaung, Myanmar’s southernmost point, and my official point of entry to this country.
First, the undersea world.
Diving is a strange contradiction, as well as an ethical paradox. To get to the places that have not been impacted (as much) by climate change and unchecked tourism and the unsustainable overconsumption to which this world has become addicted, one needs to travel further and further abroad, which requires planes, trains, buses, boats, etc. to get one there.
I’m convinced that the more people who discover diving will have their eyes opened to the pervasive problems the foundation of our ecosystem faces. I’ve diatribed on this before: without healthy oceans, we do not have a healthy planet. And one cannot get the true picture of what a healthy ocean looks like unless one sees the contrast.
I dove in Thailand 3 years ago and nearly cried each day I saw dead reefs, bleached and crushed corals, and a distinct lack of fish, with the exception of one dive site, Richelieu Rock, situated a difficult-enough distance from the mainland to not have the daily touristic pounding that is seen in the rest of the Similan Islands (shortly after we were there, Thailand’s government actually closed Koh Tachai because it had gotten so bad). Same observations last year in The Seychelles, where it’s clear that their reefs have not bounced back from a devastating bleaching event the year prior. The oceans are too warm. The landscape appears normal at the surface (for a given value of normal), yet scratch the idyllic surface and you quickly see there’s trouble lurking.
Enter, Myanmar: I wanted to give this part of the world another shot, and with 3 weeks in Southeast Asia planned and not much of an itinerary, I decided to add some diving days to see how the ocean is doing.
First off, it is difficult to get to the Mergui Archipelago. Situated quite a ways offshore from nearly anywhere, there is virtually no diving industry here, as one must get on a liveaboard to hit most of the charted sites. This bodes well for the reef, because the lack of frequent day-tripping snorkel and dive boats means that hordes of tourists won’t be tromping on the corals, nor should their fuel or trash. I’ll get back to the trash later.
Optimistic indication #2: the distance from any coastal building boom (if there were one here) means that toxins from industry and development running into the reefs isn’t yet being exacerbated by the depletion of mangroves and natural boundaries. Yet being the operative word.
Massively strong currents and wild thermocline are natural in this region (5-10° fluctuations in ocean temperature weren’t at all uncommon), as is the less-than-optimal visibility. These factors, too, make this a “not for everyone” diving destination. And these wild waters help nature do its thing: creating sea-creature superhighways to move critters and nutrients and food sources, cleansing the habitats in the process.
So we begin with a habitat that is less intruded-upon than most. Yet, our first night, anchored off an island some 6 hours northwest of Kawthaung, we’re shocked to see a horizon ablaze with fishing boats. These local commercial fishermen are trolling with massive nets that drag along the bottom of the ocean, collecting squid plus whatever bycatch happens into the fray. It’s a disconcerting sight to say the least.
By day, dive after dive, we visit reefs are teeming with schools of fish and soft corals, creating dream-like undersea forests in pinks and yellows I’ve never before experienced.
And dive after dive, I’m also wondering where the bigger stuff is. The reef sharks and mantas and dolphins and turtles and rays and whale sharks that should be flourishing in these waters, amongst these healthy reefs, given all the lower little stuff on offer for them…
So one afternoon, we take the zodiac out to one of the little islands; an idyllic uninhabited gem plonked in the middle of the ocean. As we land, a siren of sorts is sounding… turns out it’s some sort of beach insect that emits a wail akin to a fire signal, so loud, that as we walk to the jungle at the edge of the beach, it hurts the ears. And I get a lump in my throat realising that it is an alarm…the natural world is in a massive amount of trouble. Here, in the middle of the sea, where nobody lives, is a carpet of plastic trash.
Back on the dive boat, as we get to islands closer to civilisation again, we begin to see the impacts of the fishermen, a warming climate and more people: damaged, bleached and dead corals, dive sites strewn with “ghost nets” and stray lines and hooks, increasingly fewer, and noticeably smaller, schools of fish… the plastic-littered beach nearly broke my heart, yet an hour or a day or a month of cleanup won’t help the endemic worldwide consumption at its root.
I’m running this all over in my mind and I’m wondering when the breaking point will be for this place as well. Nature needs the balance of top predators and small; the plastic will choke the beaches and eventually the sea birds, then the small fish that feed the medium that feed the bigger ones…and the food chain needs its balance to remain intact.
Lest we forget: we, too, are of the animal kingdom and simultaneously the worst perpetrators of the misdeeds to it.
On this dive boat, we were all given water bottles instead of plastic; they used real plates and cutlery; we cut fishing lines and hooks from the reef; they reported our findings to the authorities… it’s a small dent in a massive problem to which I don’t have a solution. But I think conscious consumption and responsible travel and deliberate choices and intelligent conversations are all imperative places to start.
With these thoughts mulling in my head, we head back to dry land. For me, it’s another 10 days of new experiences in a land I know very little about. The boat drops me where I started this piece, in the town of Kauthaung (pronounced something like cow-tongue), and from here I will travel northwards.