Monday, June 24, 2013

An Incredible Day on Inle Lake

Most travelers to Myanmar have two sights on their list to visit. Bagan and Inle Lake. I loved  Bagan and was anxious to explore the lake. Inle Lake is a freshwater lake that is the second largest lake in Myanmar. It is in the Shan state surrounded by mountains. I had done my research and knew what I wanted to see on my visit to the lake. It was relatively simple:

1. The five day market in a remote village
2. The floating vegetable gardens
3. Indein Village
4. Fisherman of Inle Lake

I had negotiated a boat price when I first arrived. The trip included the things I wanted to see in addition to the typical tourist stops. I chose to go on Tuesday so, the 5 day market was in Tuang To. The village of Thuang Tho is on the southern end of the lake, off the tourist track. I was going to have to be at the dock at 7:00 AM for the trip which would take an hour and a half to the village. I had told my guesthouse that I had gotten a boat for morning and she packed a breakfast to go for me. I had my bottle of water and some yummy foods to take on my trip. As I stepped outside of my guesthouse, I was hit by the cool air. I was almost cold in the early morning and decided to put my sarong around my shoulders. It felt good after weeks of sweating in the SE Asian heat.

The docks were full of activity as the boats arrived with fresh produce and people going to work in Nyaungshwe. I boarded my boat and my guide handed me an umbrella to shade the early morning sun. We left the dock and were traveling down the canal at full speed towards the lake. We passed boats full of Shan and they would smile and wave to the tourist sitting on a chair in the boat. I felt odd as the locals all sit on the floor of the boat. You can tell a tourist boat from the distance since they have chairs and the tourists sit high. I felt like I was in one of the old movies where the westerner arrives in a country with fair skin and an umbrella while the locals are working to the bone. I immediately put the umbrella away as it just felt weird and the sun was not hot at this hour.

As the boat entered the calm lake, it was like glass surrounding with hills. I smiled as I realized I was actually on Inle Lake and going to see the fabled fishermen rowing their boats! This is the only place in the world that the fishermen row the boats with one leg. They balance on the end of the boat, row with one leg and keep their hands free to fish. I could see the fisherman in the distance and I let out a small "yes!" I pointed to the group of fisherman and asked the driver if he could get a little closer for a photo. He agreed but did not get too close. I watched in amazement as they rowed. Their legs are almost like a snake as it twists around the oar and turns in the lake. I don't know how they do it! Throughout the day, I saw young boys practicing with their fathers instructing them. It appeared they learned when they were young.

Other fishermen stand on the bow of their boats and slam the oar on the waters surface to bring the fish closer. It was a different technique and interesting to watch as we sped across the lake.

At the southern end of the lake, I saw farmers gathering seaweed from the bottom of the deeper parts of the lake. I asked my guide what they did with the seaweed. He told me it was used to make the floating garden beds. Inle Lake's availability of nutrient loaded water makes these floating gardens very fertile for cultivation.  He told me there are 20 species of snails and 9 species of fish, found nowhere else in the world. Most of the people are self-sufficient farmers.

The people live on the banks of the lake in simple wooden and woven bamboo houses standing on stilts. In the early morning, many people were bathing, washing clothes or brushing their teeth in the river.
My guide turned down a small canal lined with lotus flowers. He stopped and told me to get out. I was confused and asked if this was the floating market. He told me that I was going to see Lotus silk weaving first. I asked him if the market was next and he said yes. I wanted to get to the market before all the locals left for the day.

The Inle Lake area is renowned for its silk weaving which produces high-quality hand-woven silk fabrics of distinctive design called Inle longyi. It is the only place where this unique fabric from the lotus plant fibers is produced. Originally, it wasa special weaving for the robes for Buddha images and monks. I walked up the stairs to the weaving area. Two young girls demonstrated how the silk strands were removed from the lotus flower stems. It was simple but time consuming work. They broke the stem in 1 inch increments and removed the fine silk then broke another inch and did the same. I was amazed at their patience. This was not something I could do! Afterwards, the silk was spun, died and weaved. The factory was in a beautiful area surrounded by lotus flowers and rice paddies. The woman worked the looms and made beautiful fabrics. Before I left, the woman insisted on putting some thanaka on my face. Throughout Myanmar women and children are seen with a gold paste covering their faces. Thanaka is a traditional skin conditioner which has been used in for centuries and is a cherished part of the national identity. It is made from the bark of a tree. They grind the tree bark with a little water on a flat, circular stone. The grinding motion produces a milky yellow liquid that dries quickly when applied to the skin. The woman explained that the Burmese people believe the bark protects their skin from the harsh sun, tightens their pores and controls oil. She applied it to my skin and I felt a cooling sensation. She laughed as my skin was very light and the thanaka blended well. She looked at me and said "We same same now." She told me I had beautiful coloring and gave me a small thanaka bar to use each day.
I returned to my boat and asked if we were going to the market. My guide said yes. As we left the canal he headed back towards the main lake. I had looked at the map at the south end of the lake and we were headed north. I realized he was going in the wrong direction. He was headed to the floating market for tourists. I turned to him and said "no, wrong market."  I know he was trying to trick me and did not want to go all the way to Thuang Tho. I insisted and he reluctantly turned the boat around. As we arrived at the market I was happy I had insisted he made the trip. My boat entered the canal and I could see several boats at the end. On land there were oxen carts with piles of wood and the Shan women in the distance.

I exited the boat and walked along the path. The farmers were ploughing the fields, sunflowers were blooming and the market was the center of the activity. A farmer saw me with my camera and pointed at it. He wanted his photo taken. He laughed and called all of the people around to see his handsome photo. I must admit, it is a favorite of mine. I have fallen in love with the warmth of the Burmese people.
The market had foods, crafts, wood and souvenirs all for sell. As soon as I stepped foot in the area, woman were approaching me and asking me to come visit their shop. I was pulled from one shop to another. I thanked them and went on my way exploring the area market. This was real life. Farmers buying and selling produce. I was amazed at the amount of wood for sale. One of the women explained that all cooking is still done by wood. The Shan women walk the forests and collect wood to sell at the markets. This was a young Shan girl that also asked if I would take her picture. She laughed when she saw it and I told her she was beautiful. She yelled out to her mother to come see the photo and they both giggled and thanked me for sharing it with them.

I returned to my boat and we were headed back to the Inle Lake region. I toured the silversmith, the blacksmith, and the boatmakers. They were  touristy and an attempt to sell souvenirs.

After lunch we went to a pagoda and then up the river to Indein Village. The boat trip was fun. The boat was guided through mini rapids that controlled the water levels.

As we traveled up the river, we passed a man bathing his water buffalo after a long hot day in the feilds. The water buffalo loved the river and raomed along the edge. I loved watching the water buffalo and had been trying to get a good photo of them as I have traveled throughout SE Asia.

We arrived in Indein Village and I hiked to the pagoda. I actually found the little pagodas on the sides to be more beautiful and interesting. As I walked up the hill to the pagoda, I started feeling really sick. Oh no! My lunch was not sitting well. Luckily I had a supply of medications with me and took a few to ease my stomach. I still had a few hours before I would be back to the boat dock. This is not the day I wanted to feel bad. I continued my journey up to the top of the pagoda. Slowly....and drinking lots of water. At the top I enjoyed the view and relaxed a while near a bathroom. I was having severe stomach issues. Ugh!

After an half an hour I started to feel better and made my way down the hill. A man was selling souvenirs and tried to get me to buy this hat made of water buffalo teeth. I didn't know what I would do with it or if I had an outfit to match. I declined but I love the hat! It takes a real man to pull off this look!

The next stop was the Kayan Lahwi (giraffe woman) or Padaung woman. The women in this tribe wear brass coil rings around their necks which give the appearance of lengthening their necks. The weight of the brass coils push the collar bone down which compresses the rib cage. Since I had no intent on buying anything and a few tourists had said the woman and child were treated like zoo animals, I decided to skip that stop. I was not feeling well and wanted to go back to the hotel. I also asked to skip the Jumping Cat Monastery but my driver insisted I go. I don't know why. The monks use to train cats to jump through hoops. Now, the monastery has cats lying on the floor but no tricks. As I walked the grounds I saw a Burmese movie being filmed. It was fun to watch. It seemed very overdramatic, similar to a telenovela.

My last stop was the floating gardens. They are magnificent. I was amazed at the acres and acres of tomato, cucumber, gourds and flowers I saw growing on the lake. The Shan people had beautiful produce due to their ability to make the floating gardens. As we floated through the gardens, a storm blew in followed by heavy rains. The guide handed me a poncho and I grabbed the umbrella. It had been a beautiful day on the lake and I was ready to go back to my guesthouse to reflect on an incredible day. Inle Lake was everything I had hoped it would be and so much more.

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