Inle Lake, Myanmar
I met my guide Went and my boatman at 8:00 a.m., walked the short distance to the dock, climbed into the longtail motorboat (diesel) and we were off for a day trip on Inle Lake. The engines are rather loud and gave off a fish tail spray as we pup pup pup pupped along. We passed under the bridge leading down to the canal that would take us to Inle Lake. We passed a number of working longtail boats carrying men and women going to shop at the dally market as well as those carrying boatloads of produce and other products into town. It was an overcast morning, but experience in the Pacific Northwest told me this cloud cover would soon burn off.
Fifteen minutes later we left the canal and entered Inle Lake. First stop was Inthein about an hour and a half away, which was home to hundreds and hundreds of 16th and 17th century stupas as well as Shwe Inn Thein Paya.
Immediately upon entering the lake we encountered the Intha fishermen whose fishing techniques are unique to say the least. The fishermen wrap one of their legs around a paddle (almost like a coiling snake) and use their leg to drive the blade through the water. As they paddle, they look for fish using a conical shaped basket and the blade of the paddle to direct fish into the basket. These days, however, the fishermen are moving away from using the traditional basket and instead use nets, which result in bigger catches.
Now the Intha we encountered seemed a little too staged and as I figured, these guys were paid to put on a show for tourists. The real fishermen we would encounter closer to the center of the lake. So as we zipped along, I was on the lookout for the real fishermen and it wasn’t too long before I spotted groups of fishermen in the distance, but unfortunately, they were too far away for a decent picture. It would have to wait for out return.
We left the lake and motored down a canal just as the sun was starting to make an appearance through the low cloud cover. The canal was narrow making it easy to see little villages, temples and people going about their everyday life. We passed under bridge after bridge connecting one side of the canal to the other. We even saw a guy washing his cow, which I guess is pretty normal in a society where three quarters of Myanmar’s people live on farms and in rural settings.
We also saw lots and lots of house built on stilts over the water. Went told me that the stilts that were used for the homes can last up to 40 years, which I thought was an incredibly long time given that water rots wood.
So just after 9:40 we arrived in the village of Inthein. There were two tourist boats ahead of us, which I soon learned was a group of Italian tourists. Fortunately, we arrived before the masses. (They would come as we were leaving.)
As Went and I got of the boat, Went was quick to make sure we avoided the little herd of tourists and immediately motioned for me to follow her up the path towards a large grouping of crumbling stupas. As we walked, Went was a wealth of knowledge about the stupas telling me the type of material used for the stupas and the dates for many of the stupas were constructed.
What was particularly striking about these stupas is that they had not been restored. The stupas were covered in greens, some were badly damages and leaning, and some even had trees growing up through the top. Nevertheless, the stupas were incredibly striking with many having visible carvings still in tact such as elephant trunks, little spirits and flowering carvings. Unfortunately, most of the Buddhas inside the stupas were either headless or missing entirely. (Thieves would break off the head of the Buddah in hopes that the interior of the statue was hollow and filled with jewels. In most cases, they found nothing.)
After visiting the initial set of stupas, we walked down the dirt road (rather than the paved staircase) through the little farms to reach Shwe Inn Thein Paya, which was home to 1,054 stupas as well as a lovely little temple. Many of the stupas were being restored thanks to UNESCO’s world heritage designation. I wandered amongst the various styles of stupas (Shan were much more narrow and pointy) before Went and I removed our sandals and walked into the temple. Now one thing that was different here from the temples I had seen in Mrauk U and Yangoon … no women allowed inside the Buddah enclave. So instead, Went and I sat down and had a cup of tea and looked at the very large Buddah, which was believed to date to the early 1500s.
There was no one in the temple so it was peaceful and quiet. We just finished our tea when the Italian tourists made their appearance … time to leave. This time we took the staircase down through a phalanx of vendors selling every kind of tourist trinket imaginable. Wow. I liked the road better. However, credit to the Burmese, they were no pushy. They simply sat (or slept) at their tables as we walked past. I soon learned why, I had arrived very early and by the time we reached the dock there were literally dozens of boats arriving. Yuck.
So while we were waiting for the boat to weave its way around the arriving boats to pick us up, we munched on a large rice cracker cooked in heated stone pebbles by a local Pa-O woman. It was crispy, oil free and delicious. My new favourite snack!
So the next stop on our tour around the lake was Ywama, a little village made of teak houses and winding watery channels. It was a bit touristy for my taste, but i had told Went I wanted to see some local silversmiths and this was the only place to come for that. We pulled in to a workshop and i was given a demonstration of how the stones were broken down and the silver extracted from the rocks. I was also shown how the silver was melted down from little pellets into a long roll of silver. The silver was thing pressed over and over again into a longer and longer and thinner and thinner roll. From there, the silver was made into jewelry and decorative pieces.
After the demo, I visited the showroom and found a few pieces to purchase, did a little bargaining and back and forth with the request for “more higher please” from my offer repeatedly rejected by me. I finally gave a bit and they came down a bit and we met in the middle. They seemed happy and so was I, so good bargained achieved.
From Ywama, we headed back south through a wide channel towards to the village of Tha Lay, home to the most important Buddhist site in southern Shan State: the Phang Daw Oo Paya. The Paya is home to the five ancient Buddah statutes. Four of the five statutes are brought out each year during the Paung Daw Oo festival and paraded around the lake to the 18 villages over 18 days. There are boat races, dancing and other ceremonies.
Now why, you ask, do they only parade four of the five statutes. Well in 1965 the boat carrying the five statutes overturned and only four were recovered. Later, the fifth was recovered, but that boat collapsed during recovery so ever since then, the fifth statute is left behind because it is believed to be bad luck to bring it out from its holy site.
So we pulled up to the Paya, removed our shoes, walked in and … what the heck. The “statutes” were nothing more than gold blobs. So many people had applied gold leaf over the years, the five statutes had been transformed into round mounds of gold. In fact, while i was there, a parade of men walked up applying gold leaf to the statutes. OK then. (Oh and no women were permitted to enter the innner sanctum where the blobs sat so you can blame the guys for morphing the statutes into what you now see.
So after visiting the holy gold blobs, we took the boat across the channel and sat and had some lunch. I had a superb Shan fish dish along with some greens and rice. While we sat there and had lunch, we saw some decorated boats pass by with blaring music. Apparently, there were two or three ordination ceremonies taking place in the area for sangha (being admitted as a movie Buddhist monk). Every young boy has to spend at least one week as a Buddhist monk so it is an incredibly important and proud time for the family. It was fascinating to watch the boats pass.
During lunch, Went and I chatted about her work as a guide. She recounted a particularly funny story how she had been at the restaurant with a tourist and had gone back down to the boat dock and had the dock slats gave way sending her into the water. The bad part … she can’t swim. So after bobbing up once, the boatman pulled her out of the water. She was laughing as she told the story, but I can only imagine the terror of falling into water when you cannot swim. Moral of the story, she is now learning to swim.
After a delicious lunch and lovely company of my guide, Went and I climbed back in the boat traveled further south down a channel off the lake to In Phaw Khone, home to lotus and silk weavers.
As we traveled towards the village and through the lily pads, the skies began to darken. It looked like a thunder storm was on its way and with no covering for the boat, we were bound to get wet. Fortunately for us, we managed to get to the village of floating teak houses just as the rains came.
As we pulled up, I could hear the clackety clack of the looms as weavers did their thing. Once inside one of the workshops, I saw the fascinating process of splitting the lotus flower stems, pulling the stems apart to reveal a fiberous strands, twisting and rolling the fibers into a strand of string and then repeat. The string was then woven into thread, the thread was dyed and then woven into material. The interesting part for me was that most of the weavers were elderly women and men. When I say elderly, these folks had to be in their mid to late 69s or early 70s. No retirement in this country.
So while we waited for the rain to stop, I wandered around the showroom and found a beautiful gray silk and lotus cloth swath, which I purchased. Perfect for new work dress.
The rain finally stopped and the sun immediately came back out again. These tropical showers don’t take long and the air is always so fresh afterwards. I was actually enjoying the cooler air here in Inle Lake. Much cooler than Yangon or Mrauk U and no humidity.
With the rain gone, we moved on to the fishing village of Nampan. These houses were only accessible by boat, all on stilts and all inhabited by Intha fishermen. In fact, as we wound our way around the houses, we ran into a couple of the fishermen who were propelling their boats with their leg using that strange sweeping motion. It was fascinating to watch.
From Nampan, we began trip north to the floating gardens. The floating gardens had been built up using clumps of seaweed of decades to create fertile, hydroponic gardens where farmers grew tiny tomatoes, squash, and rows and rows of flowers. The garden borders were determined based upon the little shack that was built on each garden. The farmers would spend the day in the shack, but during early morning and later afternoon, they would climb into their boats and paddle around to tend to the gardens.
We pulled up to one floating garden and our driver climbed out to demonstrate for me our stable the gardens were. He challenged me to join him, but I declined. I had no doubt that I could stand on the garden, I was more concerned that I would take a header if I tried to stand up and take a step off the boat without someone holding on to the boat. So thanks, but no. I’ll stay safe and dry in the boat thank you very much.
We spent the next half hour weaving in and out of the floating gardens even running into a number of farmers who were beginning their late afternoon work. As we moved out of the floating gardens we made our last stop of the day to the Nga Hpe Kyaung Monastary or as it was commonly known, the Jumping Cat Monastary. At some point, the resident cats in the Monastery were taught to jump through hoops by the monks. Unfortunately, someone put a stop to the cat tricks and so while the name sticks, the jumping cats are no more.
Nevertheless, the trip to the Monastery turned out to be incredibly interesting because as we entered the building we could here a young boy chanting, then a pause, followed by an older voice and then the young boy chanting again. It turned out that we had arrived right in the middle of the ordination ceremony for a young novice monk. The little guy was probably ten years old, head shaved and seated in front of six monks and surrounded by family and friends.
The ceremony went on for the duration of our time there. We wandered around and looked at the lovely teak Buddhas all the while listening to the little guy recite what amounted to his oath. Near the end, the poor little kid’s voice was getting tired and stumbled a couple times, but bless his heart he made it through. At the end, his parents took a seat on either side of him and proudly sat for pictures. It was a pretty cool way to end the day.
So once back in the boat, we headed north while a myriad of working boats headed in the opposite direction to the Inle Lake villages. As we reach the middle of the lake, there were the wacky Intha fishermen using their legs and nets to fish. This time around, we came much closer to the fishermen and I managed to capture a couple nice pictures. It is beyond me how someone came up with the idea to wind your leg around a paddle to move the boat, but it makes sense because it frees up a fishermen’s hands to actually do the fishing.
It took just about an hour to get back to Nyaung Shwe and by then, the sun was starting to set. It had been a long, but really enjoyable day. Went proved to be a very knowledgable, funny guide and our boatman was superb. All in all, an A+ day.