It was all set up to be one more of those peaceful Burmese sunsets. People stood around the north west end of the Pagoda as they awaited the final moment. It offered the best view. The river was right in front, and the sun would duck behind mountains before setting fire to the sky and disappearing for the night. If a boat could come along it would make a great photo.
Everyone awaited patiently.
The pagoda was perched about 20 meters high. Beneath there was a boat that had finished its daily duties, docked for the night.
Sitting on one of the stones, with water to her waste, a lady washed laundry hastily in an attempt to finish before dusk.
There was also a man bolting a motor to his canoe for it to thrust it forward. It was either new or had been on repair for the day, I couldn't tell. He seemed happy about it. But mainly, there was a group of men, all in their thirties.
They were having fun all while bathing. A steady stream of shampoo flowed into the river. The idea amused me: an after work bath at the riverside with friends. This was how they've been showering since they were kids, and if they were to build a home just for themselves it probably wouldn't even include a shower.
At some point one hurled a rice bag full of something into the water, what ever it contained was light enough for it to float. It made a loud sound, enough for all the tourists posted with their last gen' cameras to peak down. No one really knew what to think at why a bag had been thrown into the water. Perhaps at one of them and it was a game, as several were in the water. Soon we'd know.
The sinner quickly picked up a second bag and repeated his action. This time the bag didn't stay closed, and as he threw it, a trail of garbage -mainly plastic bags- came flying out of the lower end.
The whole crowd made a "Ooohhh" sound as the river was now scattered with garbage. The man looked up surprised, then let out a nonchalant laugher. His friends giggled with him. Everyone started to chat and it would take one no further knowledge than knowing how to add two and two to tell the man had gained a sudden hate from everyone.
The posh people who walked around with a guide in a pathetic attempt to feel important asked for explanations in a nearly accusing manner. The guides flushed in shame and would've rather not to have to justify for the acts of someone else, but associations had been made, and as if it had anything cultural, these guides had to give answers for what had happened. As they tried to give answers, something hit the water, and now everyone was familiar with that sound. One more bag had been thrown into the river, and this time the few men were looking up impatiently, anticipating everyone's reaction. They got exactly what they wanted, so they threw even another in. Then another, and another. This time the guides had nothing left to say and looked around, a bit wary. The debris floated to the middle of the river just as the sun became photography material, so ruined it all together.
A mix of surprise and disappointed covered people's faces as they walked away from the scene.
That's exactly when I connected dots.
In Hsipaw I went on a trek with a guide who must have been just under 40. As we walked through the jungle he'd point out at trees, bushes, flowers or dig up roots and tell stories about them.
At some point we reached a teak tree and as he showed it he explained with lots of nostalgia how everyone used to wrap their market produce, buys or sales, food and much more in these oversized leafes. Bark was used as rope to tie it all together. This bundle was 100% biodegradable. It could be thrown into the river, burnt or left in the backyard for compost. This was all happening 20 years ago, "then plastic bags arrived" he muttered.
Myanmar, although being a beautiful country, has it's lot of problems, and it's a big lot, a truck load. Garbage collection and treatment must be among the biggest. But before picking it up and doing something with it, you need to provide people with places to discard their wastes and educate them to actually put it there. Well that's not happening.
Bins are hard to find and I have yet to see a proper garbage truck, therefore it's burnt, often right where it had pilled up the most, in the middle of town.
About the joyful bathers. They are simply pursuing what they've been doing for the past 35 years, regardless of everything. It seems obvious to you and me that plastic has nothing to do in the nature, but that actually came through education. These guys simply continued to do what they have always done, and will continue to do so for a long, long time.