The Ladies of the Lake by Bonnie Jean Warren
The unpaved path from Kalaw to Inle Lake in the hills of Northern Myanmar offers great adventure to those seeking to be swept into another realm. An overnight trek, passing rice fields and peripatetic deer is a feast for the eyes, distracting from the head-splitting heat of rural Myanmar.
Powering through our water bottles, our nomadic tour group, consisting only of four and a tour guide, take rest in a wooden house propped precariously on the edge of a jagged rock formation. We are greeted at the door by May, a stout woman with a smile warmer than the sun, who prepares for us platters of unusual fruit that we fail to pronounce and, of course, tea.
Once we are fully rested, May sees us out of her home to sojourn across the hills passing clay villages where elderly seamstresses spindle thread. We are now entering Paoh territory, signified by the women wearing hand-woven red scarves on their heads. Pausing in one of the huts of a village, two children dash past.
“How old are the children?” I ask the guide who translates in local dialect to the seamstress.
“She guesses about 4 and 7 years old,” he replies.
Here, time is irrelevant. Coming from bustling New York City, I struggle to fathom what it would be like to not live for time. Beside the seamstress lies a basket full of red scarves. She hands them to us and we offer her our change as gratitude before bidding her adieu. She glances at the currency without a care before diligently returning to work.
“The Paoh people believe that a female and male dragon flew across Myanmar during a storm. The male dragon got lost and when the female stopped at Inle Lake, she turned into a lady incapable of falling asleep,” the guide continues as the four of us fight the oppressive heat across the fields, watching the Dragon ladies tend to their crops.
This was their daily routine. The Paoh people rarely stray far from their homes, having built their own communities from the resources available at their fingertips. Captivated by their religious beliefs, I hung on the guide’s every word as he continued.
“The lady then met a frog who lead her to a cave where she met a meditating shaman. She pretended to be human because she loved the shaman and thought he wouldn't accept her for the dragon she was. Four years later, the shaman and dragon lady married. The dragon lady fell pregnant with twins. One day, while the shaman was in town, the dragon lady was exhausted and fell asleep. She turned back into a dragon. When the shaman came back he was furious that she lied about who she was. He ran away and never came back.”
The guide led us down a rocky terrain, passing by a shallow creek cascading down the hill to the lake. A cave to the right prompted my imagination of the dragon and the shaman.
“Heartbroken, the lady begged the frog to be human, to take her to the shaman again, but the frog said she couldn't have a second chance. After laying her eggs, she flew back to the dragon world. Paoh monks found these eggs and they tell this story to their tribe. The women wear the red scarves on their heads to symbolize the dragon's breath.”
On the outskirts of another nearby village, we pass three of the women wandering up a steep hill effortlessly with their bamboo baskets of crops for dinner.
Suddenly, a snake jutted out from the bushes to my left and all three women hiss in unison.
“Careful! This snake is very poisonous!” The guide urged.
One of the women races past me and spears her stick instantly at the snake, piercing its skull into the dirt. The women cheer as our tour group observes mortified.
We help the ladies carry their baskets back to our residence for the evening, a large wooden room with a thin mat on the ground and four pillows and blankets laid out for us. The room is sparse, the village lacking in facilities. Rain is collected for water and there is no flush in the outhouse.
Once the sun sets over the meadows, we are cast into complete darkness. A silence sweeps over the landscape as the town goes to bed.
I’m left to comprehend living without a definitive schedule or the distractions of social media to while away the hours. I am lulled to sleep by the percussion of the wooden window against the frame in the breeze, a change from the tapping of my phone as I scroll through Instagram. A series of stars are my nightlight for the evening, a welcome change from Netflix.
In a realm far, far away, I was uncovering the magic of simplicity and awakening my inner Dragon lady.