Inle Lake in the early dawn is magical. A gentle mist rises, the sky goes from indigo to mauve to blue, and as a backdrop there lie the mountains that cover so much of Shan State. In the far distance is China.
And occasionally into view comes a fisherman setting up for the day. No sign of any other tourist activity meant that we had an unforgettably peaceful experience.
The biggest events around Inle Lake – for locals and tourists alike – are the five day markets, so named because they rotate around a set of locations every 5 days (excepting full moon and moonless days). A good calendar of the locations of these markets in 2013 is here. I can vouch that it was correct – at least on 4th January when we were heading for the market at Inn Thain, a town at the far southern end of the lake. It is said to be one of the largest, and Lonely Planet at least suggests it is beset by hoards of tourists. Most mid-range accommodation is in Nyaung Shwe, some 90 minutes away, but there are about a dozen fancier hotels dotted down both sides of the lake. It seems that no travel agent organised boats set out before about 8:30. So renting a private boat and a departure at 6am was a seriously good move (if you have just $25 to spare for the full day boat hire, take this option!).
As we motored gently across the lake, it was clearly pretty shallow, but to our amazement, we set out up a feeder river where the current was flowing quite quickly and we had to gun the boat over small weirs. On our arrival we found a boat depot, but nobody besides local people just setting up their market stalls.
As you can see, there are the ubiquitous stupas, but in this area, they are more incidental and woven into the scenery in a seriously religious but charming way. The market comes armed with a few tourist stalls – vegetables in the foreground above but wooden statuettes in the background. The abiding impression though is one of an important local event.
We were still pretty cold not long after sunrise and so we (and many locals) wolfed down freshly cooked beignets.
Plenty of other produce including boxes of pharmaceuticals, and alarmingly, this filling station for the jerry cans taken to refill the boats.
It must be a real pain for the produce-sellers to have tourists around. After all I’m not going to buy a kilo of onions. But they are almost universally friendly – curious even – and it’s not at all difficult to break the ice. Buy a beignet or a bag of palm sugar fudge and go around munching. Stop in the cafes and get a hot sweet milky coffee. Try the snacks that come with any meal. Then you become a participant rather than an observer, and your unwitting stupidities will kill any air of superiority.
As we leave, heading downstream at speed, literally dozens of tourist boats are arriving with up to 20 in each boat. Now I understand the Lonely Planet warning about a tourist zoo. Plan and avoid!!
I’m always somewhat cautious about going to workshops of any kind. In my experience, they are increasingly constructed for tourists with minor evidence of activity and a large store with mass-produced wares at the end. Fortunately the weaving workshop was no such thing. Of course if the product is made from distinctly local ingredients – in this case fibres from lotus flower stems – then there is less chance the items were made in large factories in China. And if you get to see the processes, it can be fascinating.
Any day in Myanmar wouldn’t be complete without a visit to a temple. Phaung Daw Oo Paya is accessible only by boat and has plenty of visitors, many of whom (male only) can apply gold leaf to one of three statues of Buddha. The leaf is so fine it needs to have paper backing to stop it floating away but so much has been applied that the statues are now just blobs of gold.
And now it’s time for lunch. Myanmar food is curry-based and that is perhaps the only similarity with Indian food. Only two of the dishes below were chosen (the ones with the big spoons). The rest in the form of dips, rice, and soup come as standard. Burma has so many ethnic populations that it’s hard to say how a meal will be in detail but it is almost bound to include dried fish or fish paste, and in many cases a thick salty black paste made from fermented soy beans. The aim throughout is to balance sweet and sour, spicy and salt.
The leg rowers of Inle Lake are about as famous as the reed boats of Lake Titicaca. It’s a style that has evolved as the most practical to allow navigation and placement of fishing baskets in one smooth action. How they don’t fall overboard on such small boats is a mystery. And their homes are of course over the water – now with modern amenities like electricity, threaded on rickety poles over water (probably not too many health and safety regulations to comply with), and satellite dishes.
I can firmly recommend contacting Ngelay at Villager Travel Agency to enquire about tour options and to arrange a private boat.
Another day found us peddling down country lanes to a winery which was not an expected feature, but was certainly popular with European visitors!
Our final visit was to the Shwe Yaunghwe Kyaung Monastery where we found a number of young monks studying – and some being distracted…
For many more images of Inle Lake and surroundings, please see the image gallery here.
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