‘Drink, drink!’ encouraged my guide Clement, gesturing vigorously towards the clay pot with a bamboo straw sticking out the top. The liquid in question: a warm, potent millet wine, proffered by our hosts in a remote hill village of Kayah State, Myanmar. Clement, in his characteristic half-laugh, half-command, explained that we had no choice —it would be offensive to refuse the gesture of hospitality. It was 10am and our fourth such pot of the morning, each of the houses we visited having offered one within minutes of entering. Both my (already mostly feigned) enthusiasm for the drink and any fear of offending our hosts began to falter.
He nudged me: ‘You know, it’s the only thing they drink —no water even, no tea!’ His pride in the purity of this tribe’s liquid consumption was related to the similar customs of his own nearby village —but before I could profess my inability to take yet another sip, our conversation was cut short. The matriarch of the house noticed the millet wine pot was running low.
Amidst much protest (mine), and encouragement (Clement’s), the ritual began again: the brass rings around her lower legs chiming, the woman stepped into the adjoining room, dumped out the used millet and filled the the pot anew with fermented grains. She gave it a dose of boiling water, nestled the communal bamboo straw down into the yeasty brew, and set the pot right in front of me. I made a great show of gestures indicating fullness, and was granted a pass —only to have Clement reassure me that we had another dozen houses to visit that day. On the way to the next hut, dodging errant piglets and a group of teenagers huddled around a single mobile phone, he declared, smiling, ‘You know, I am the only guide in the region to drink in front of clients!’
Somehow this didn’t surprise me. While it would have been a potentially embarrassing admission for the average American guide, with Clement it was a proud proclamation. His uncharacteristic style was already clear on our first day together, when he described the fierce fighting that happened in this region between the local army and the Tatmadaw (state military) — the main reason this area was off-limits to tourists up till only a few years ago. After decades of military dictatorship and repression of free speech, politics is still a taboo subject in Myanmar, and I had been warned against initiating this kind of discussion.
But Clement spoke out vigorously about the conflict and explained the complicated politics of place names in the country. Since ‘Burma’ and ‘Yangon’ are the names associated with colonial British rule, my instinct since arriving in Mandalay had been to avoid those in favor of the newer designations, Myanmar and Rangoon. My political correctness was turned on its head when Clement explained that since it was the military government that changed the names in 1989, he (and many others from minority ethnic groups) continue to use ‘Rangoon’ and ‘Burma’ — a subtle snub against the military.
That evening on our ride back to town — Clement nodding off in the front seat, the millet wine finally having taken its toll —I mulled over the odd turn of this trip. Obsessed with getting off the tourist path, my original intent for these days had been to ‘discover’ the most remote Kayah tribes. I had imagined some modern-day Margaret Mead moment, trekking through perilous jungle, followed by illuminating exchange with brightly-dressed locals. Instead, it became obvious that it was Clement himself who provided the greatest insight into a culture that is teetering on the edge between tradition and modernity. He is both an intermediary — someone who has lived outside —and still very much of his people, unafraid to teach his guests about Myanmar’s darker past and, of course, the importance of drinking that wine.