Inle Lake: Monday 25th February 2008

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A more relaxed start to the day today, though I was awake long before the beautiful sunrise which I watched from the balcony over the water.

After a huge breakfast of bacon, scrambled eggs, coleslaw, tomato, toast and bagel with excellent coffee(I’d heard a lot about Laos coffee, but if was going to have to be damn good to be better than the Myanmar coffee I got everyday), Phyo met us at 9:00 for day of touring of Inle Lake by Long Boat.

We cruised up the largest creek feeding the lake which was a beautiful soft blue colour, presumably from the limestone in the surrounding mountains. We passed many people making their way to the markets, leading water buffalo, kids walking to school and monks on the riverbanks.

Occasionally there would be a bamboo fence across the water with a narrow gap in the middle just wide enough for the boat to fit through. This was to raise the water level to encourage water through gaps into the bank into the surrounding farmland. Some of them were large enough to lift the boat up in the air as we passed on through.

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We stopped at Indien Village and walked through the local market, timing our visit perfectly by accident as the markets rotate through the various villages.

We could see Bettel Nut being prepared and got to taste some Palm Sugar candy. Michelle bought a shoulder bag, typical of the Shan State for $4. We also bought a wood carving for $12 haggled down from $25, but were still paying way too much given we were offered a similar one later on for $5. We also spent ages watching the locals gathering around in two groups playing games for money. One was far too complicated to understand, even for our guide. The other seemed simple with three dice, a win when all sides of the dice match what you have bet upon. There was also a payout if one or two dice matched your chosen design. Gambling was illegal and we weren’t allowed to take photographs. When I asked was somebody keeping an eye out for the police, I was told “No, no need. They have already been paid…”

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We then walked through a bamboo forest, passing people playing and washing in the creeks. The children playing in the water were yelling “mingalabar” as we walked on past. We left the forest and continued up the hill through a covered stairway, lined with many stalls selling crafts and souvenirs, though no hard sell here. Some young kids were playing with some puppies, struggling to carry them.

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Walking out into the daylight, we were surrounded by hundreds of old ruined stupas. Shwe Inn Thein has mostly avoided restoration, though that seems to be mostly changing. Buddhists don’t like seeing their shrines in ruins, and a number of them had been rebuilt and had a fresh covering of plaster and paint. Hopefully the government enforces protecting this site, retaining the history and ambience of the many crumbling ruins.

All the stupas we looked into had their Buddhas ransacked, the heads removed and the gems and treasures inside stolen. Many had also suffered from various earthquakes, as well as simply the passing of time. The stupas dated from the 18th Century, but you feel like they have stood here for a thousand years.

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Leaving Indien, we cruised to Phaung Daw Oo Paya. This temple houses 5 Buddha statues which have been so heavily guilded over time that they are no longer recognisable as statues, but are rather lumpy globs of gold. Four of the statues do a tour of the lake each year in the festival on the ornate boats which are housed nearby.

Lunch was a short trip away, and we sat on the balcony eating local Shan State food with a welcoming breeze from the lake. I tried an Avocado juice which was nice and not at all how I expected it to taste (i.e. soapy)

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After lunch we sailed in and out of houses on stilts of local villages, spotting boats with weed pulled up from the lake bottom which was used to feed pigs kept in small pens on stilts above the water.

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We visited a silk village where every house had at least one if not several looms. We saw silk being dyed (nasty chemical dyes replacing the more traditional and natural vegetable and mineral dyes), fed onto bobbins and woven on the looms. We saw lotus silk being extracted from lotus stalks and spun into threads. Michelle bought some silk scarves.

Continuing our boat journey we stopped at a blacksmiths. They were making meat cleavers and it was amazing to see four people hammering the glowing metal in fast synchronised unison. I picked up a metal Chinthe, starting to get the hang of bargaining.

The cheroot shop was amazing, with the girls able to very quickly roll up the cheroots. I was offered some to try but politely declined. A short walk from here brought us to a boat building operation.

The long boats take 30 days to construct and are made from teak with joins waterproofed with lacquer. Smaller boats as used by the fisherman on the lake take about a week to make and sell for US$300. We could see some young boys using a saw to cut the teak into planks.

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We then went to a floating plantation, though in reality we had been boating through floating plantations most of our trip. Here where we stopped we could get up close and see the tomatoes staked. The floating islands consist of weed and other plant material, and are staked to the lake bottom with bamboo to prevent them floating away.

Despite education programmes, farmers have taken to using chemical fertilisers which are slowly polluting the lakes waters.

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Last stop was the legendary Jumping Cat Monastery, Nga Hpe Chaung. This monastery houses the most ornately decorated Buddha statue pedestals we had seen.

The cats didn’t want to perform today, the young boy eventually giving up chasing the cat which found respite curled up at the foot of a Buddha. Michelle bought a cotton longyi here, then we returned to the resort about 4:00 in the afternoon.

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The internet was working today, but so typical of Myanmar we were unable to find a working proxy to get onto g-mail so gave up in the end. I wrote some of the journal then watched the sun set before having dinner. Thai style fish, steamed pork in coconut, chicken and pineapple, vegetable tempura, wok fried vegetables, boiled potato salad (very nice) finished off with a pancake for dessert. Phew.

We mustn’t forget the three unique things of Inle Lake: