Lisa Pagotto is the founder of Crooked Compass, a boutique tour operator focused on the more unique, remote, lesser known and untouched destinations as well as looking for fresh ways to explore old haunts. Adventure and experiential travel is close to Lisa’s heart as she believes to truly experience a destination, you must be completely immersed in it and live like the locals do. Here is just some moments from her ‘Road to Mandalay’.
I sit there bobbing in the boat. Breath drawn in. Not moving. Simply watching. Focussed – like her. Her coat glimmered through the tangle of uprooted mangrove branches as she crept silently. Camouflaged in stripes and shadows. Like an assassin, her movements were swift and executed with precision. Her prey had no chance. I sit there captivated. In awe of her beauty as she slinks into the dense jungle. There was no sign she was here moments ago apart from the span of her paw prints on the mud flats.
The water laps gently against our cruiser. The frenzied flap of exotic birds fracture the stillness. An odd looking porpoise glides past the boat. The Sundarbans – the largest mangrove forest in the world, and home to the highest concertation of Bengal tigers. This place exudes an aura of curiosity.
Far from the tranquillity of the web of mangroves, my journey is punctuated with bustling cities, crowded bazaars and pulsating markets where the sweet smells battle with the assaulting aromas of street life. Locals jostle each other to fight for space on swarming footpaths. Deafening haggling over blaring horns pierces my ears. Crumbling temples and hidden sanctuaries are a welcome relief.
The rolling hills of northern Bangladesh are blanketed in lush tea plantations dotted with tribal villages. The locals are shy and unsure as we pass. Many have never encountered foreign travellers. The coyness of the children fascinates me. They glare with their round, chocolate eyes before darting behind simple huts and peer out with inquisitiveness. A broad smile spreads across their faces as I flap my arms waving madly at them. I hear them squeal excitedly as they begin to chase after one another.
The food has been a fascinating part of this journey. The more remote we have ventured, the more I truly get to eat like a local – one of my favourite pastimes when travelling. Dried fish and sticky rice cakes squeezed inside bamboo shoots seem to be popular. Somehow this infusion of flavours works and I find myself sitting on the side of a dusty village road with a local lady wrapped in an electric red saree. Bangles clink and gold chains connect her ear to a vast hoop through her nose. She offers me some fresh tea as we communicate with everything but the same language.
Ancient towns and historic palaces continue to dot the landscape. Weaving off the beaten track, ceremonial houses and temples hide beneath tall jackfruit and pine trees. Local fishermen welcome us into their house where they proudly showcase their catch of the day. At the Women’s markets, I am pushed and pulled from one lady to another as they boastfully show off their exquisite heirlooms and old worldly house hold items.
Edging further into North East India, the Tangkhul Nagas, a colourful warrior tribe captivate me. Their faces look different to the other people we have encountered. Almost Neanderthal. So primitive. So untouched by the western world. Their culture is still preserved from the nomadic ages. Their rich traditional heritage and steep mythology highlight how deeply etched their taboos and religious beliefs still are today.
The border crossing into Myanmar from India, although uneventful, is a major highlight. Less than 100 foreign travellers have crossed this post and I am one of them! I feel I have accomplished something significant achievement like summiting Everest! We are shuffled through the old buildings and ushered into a small room to finalise our paper work before entering the last country on our journey – Myanmar.
I am in the extremely remote and rustic part of Sagaing. This area has not been explored thoroughly by western travellers and my excitement heightens. So much of this region has been closed off to the rest of the world, I feel like I am wandering through fabled lands.
Rickety bamboo houses cling to steep cliffs. Half naked children giggle as they fetch firewood in these weird clunky trolley like contraptions that look similar to the first go cart you ever attempted to build. Slabs of stones are carved with intricate indigenous drawings and foreign characters.
Travelling deeper into the Chin state, I am privy to witness a village elder perform an age old ritual of reading the future. He heats up his bamboo sticks over glowing coals and then gently holds them against the fragile shells of an emptied egg. Eyes deep in concentration, face serious and solemn, he reads the future through the cracks in the shells. His voice is raspy and harsh. His eyes pierce mine as he chants something I don’t understand before he breaks into a toothless grin and cups my hands in his leathery palms. He squeezes them before gently tapping my forehead. I am not sure what just happened, but I feel moved by the experience.
The moment I was most looking forward to was the encounter with the tattooed ladies, hidden away in the remote mountainous reaches of the Chin State. In a region that was locked away from the rest of the world until recently, many of the older women in this remote community of Mindat adorn elaborate patterns on their faces. Each face is inked differently. From intricate spider web designs to faces almost black with ink. I encounter three of these ladies. Two are very shy and linger guardedly behind brightly coloured silk cloths. The oldest of the three is as curious about me as I am about her. We sit silently and stare at each other’s faces. Her face is hard and worn. Her eyes crinkle deeply in the corners. Her lips are sunken and grooved with lines of a harsh mountain life. She reaches up and touches my cheek. I am not sure what she is thinking as her eyes search my face for answers I cannot give. She is beautiful in a way I cannot describe. And despite her age, her eyes still have a youthful glow to them. I show her my cherry blossom tattoo on my hip. She laughs a husky but hearty laugh, revealing a gummy mouth and several discoloured teeth. We smile at each other as if we have a mutual connection through our ‘ink’. My heart melts with warmth for her.
Floating in a balloon above the never ending spread of temples illuminated by the sun rising above Bagan, I reflect on my journey. The blanket of clouds begins to lift and break up as the sun leisurely emerges.
I gaze up at the balloon which stands proudly above me, fire being blasted into its belly. I feel honoured as I reflect on those I have met on this journey – the connections I have made and the fire in my belly as I seek to continue to explore the lesser known gems of our planet.
The soft light showcases the unparalleled beauty of Myanmar and it is truly magical.
No-one speaks. A peaceful muteness fills the basket only interrupted by the psshhhhh sounds of the jets keeping the balloon filled with hot air and the occasional whirs and clicks of cameras. I glance around and look at everyone else in the basket. Each person is looking at something different in silence. Appreciating and taking in the magnificent land below. Their faces illuminated with joy and amazement at this wonderful experience we have all shared together.
We begin to descend. I hear the words ‘wow’ escape every person’s lips and I know they are not talking solely about the balloon ride.
Lisa’s latest tour ‘Road to Mandalay’ encompasses India, Bangladesh and Myanmar over a 25 or 30 day itinerary available in March and October 2017. Crooked Compass is the first company in the Southern Hemisphere to secure permits for the recently opened border between East India and Myanmar: http://www.crooked-compass.com/tours/road-to-mandalay/