A hectic day at Inle Lake

During my trip to Myanmar, I had managed to squeeze a single day at the infamous Inle Lake into my tight schedule. The lake is famous because of its unique fishermen who has perfected the art of using one leg to row steer their canoes, freeing up both hands for fishing. They also use traditional fishing equipment, big woven nets etc. Pictures of these fishermen in their traditional garments, standing at the front of their canoes, balancing on one leg while steering and rowing with the other leg, is just as iconic of Myanmar as the temples of Bagan.

Inle Lake is located in the Shan state of Myanmar, which is generally the wild untamed state, where there isn’t much development, but also the state where the most wild nature can be found. There are however parts of the state, on the western side, that are more developed and inviting to tourists. Inle Lake is at the forefront of this.

This of course also means that the flow of tourists into Inle lake is steadily going up, and the tradition is now slowly dying out as the local people don’t want to be tourist objects. Some still do it, but with an expectation of receiving a payment for posing for pictures. It is a unfortunate side-effect of tourism, that these amazing traditions slowly die out. I fully recognize that I am part of the problem.

The main hub granting access to the lake itself is the city  of Nyuang Shwe, which is located not too far from the shores of Lake Inle. From here you can easily hitch a boat ride out unto the lake. I would also stay the night in Nyuang Shwe.

My journey towards Inle began early in the morning, in Bagan. I made my way to the Bagan airport, which, as it turns out, is very small. Checkin is done manually from 2 counters, and luggage is also taken away by staff. It is fine little airport, but it was a little unnecessary to arrive 1,5 hours prior to take off.

After I had checked in and made it to the waiting hall (no gates!), a rumor spread that Aung Sang Suu Kyi was going to arrive at the airport momentarily, a rumor that seemed to hold true, as the perimeter of the airport and runway was swarming with police. Sadly my flight departed before the Burmese leader arrived. The flight went through Mandalay, and was rather uneventful. Even thought the distances were small, there was still time for a drink. From Mandalay we continued on to Heho airport, serving Inle lake.

As we arrived in Inle, it became clear that the weather would become a problem for the day, as it was completely cloudy, and soon pouring down. All of this after having left an entirely sunny and clear Bagan sky just 1,5 hours earlier. But that is the thing – Inle is located at a much higher altitude, and is surrounded by mountains, so the weather is bound to be worse than in other places such as Mandalay and Bagan that are both located at a lower altitude and at entirely flat areas.

The drive from the Heho airport down to Nyuang Shwe city took about 45 minutes. It was around 11am as I checked into my guest house, with the rain pouring down. To make matters worse, the guest house had a power outage, which would happen multiple times throughout the 24 hours I had in  Nyuang Shwe.

Undeterred by the bad weather, and also with the awareness that my time in this place was limited with no time to wait for better skies, I went down to the piers where the local boatmen were still at work, awaiting people to bring out on the lake. It was a rather omnious sight to witness the boat I was going to cruise the lake inside get emptied of water by use of pots bowls. It was raining a lot.

The boatsman I found told me that it would cost 18000 kyats (around 10 euros) to go around to the 4 sights I had requested, which would require me to go all around the lake – and it isn’t exactly a small lake. That seemed more than fair, especially considering how bad the weather was. I readily agreed, without actually knowing how many hours this tour would take – but I had the whole day available. So still in high moods we set out for the lake, heading towards the first sight of the silver-smiths at the other end of the lake.

I was equipped with an umbrella while our motor-boat speeded along the waterway leading out into the lake itself – it actually took about 15-20 minutes to reach the lake itself from Nyuang Shwe. The umbrella was impossible to control in the strong winds resulting from the motor boat speeding us across the lake, but it did provide some cover for my bag.

On the lake we saw some of the famous fishermen, none of them actually doing the pose or anything, but just working without caring about the tourists. It was still raining, so their willingness to act was of course not high either. We would have an actual hunt for posing fishermen on the way back, when the weather had also turned better. Incredibly, even with this weather, I did observe multiple other tourist boats on the lake, with groups of people being transported across the lake. I was pretty much the only boat with just 1 passenger in it however.

As we arrived at the silversmith, located in a floating village at the other end of the lake, the rain had already halted, and the skies slowly but steadily starting to clear out. Even while wearing a life-west at all times, it was a little scary to depart (and later re-enter) the longboat at these make-shift piers. But during the day I would get more familiar with this. At the silver workshop I was given a short introduction to the history of mining and processing silver in the area, which is very rich in silver ore. I saw how the craftsmen made jewelry and other items in silver, and got shown the silver-shop. It was interesting to see, but given that it is pure silver, the prices were also high, so I respectfully declined to buy anything.

It should be said that at each stop, my sailor would wait for me outside whatever stop we  were at, just entertaining himself, singing songs or just resting. Some of the stops  were extra long. He had a lot of downtime, and this coupled with him barely speaking any english, and it being impossible to  have a conversation most of the time anyways due to the noise of the engine of the boat. He was still very nice and patient, and it felt insane that the price of this whole tour would just be 10 euros.

After the stop at the silversmith, we continued on to the next stop. It was the slightly in-land complex of Inndein, which contains hundreds of small pagodas in all different sizes and colors (primarily earthen red, gold and white). Since Inndein is located in-lands, we first navigated through long narrow waterways straying off from the lake itself, and finally I got transported by motorbike the 10 minutes up to the complex itself (not orchestrated by my sailor – he would be expecting me to walk the 30-40 minutes each way, and yet still gladly waited for me to return – what a guy!). At Inndein, I had a great time walking around photographing the clusters of colorful pagodas. If the clouds would have lifted a little more there would’ve been a splendid view of both the lake and the mountains surrounding Inndein. At the temple, there was also several dogs, as an added bonus. The motorbike driver having given me 20 minutes before he would drive me back, had kinda limited my time a little, but while the place is indeed impressive, it is also much the same, and not too dissimilar to other such complexes throughout Myanmar.

When I returned to the pier, my sailor quickly came running out from a small cafe, ready to go again right away. Never missed a beat that guy. After navigating our way back to the lake and the same village where the silversmith was located, we made our way to the next stop. The house of Kayan women. These women are widely known as the giraffe-neck women. The women from this tribe add coils to their necks from a young age, increasingly pushing their upper bodies downwards, giving the impression that their necks are extraordinarily long. The older the woman, the longer the neck.

This tribe is not native to lake Inle at all, but rather live in the border area with Thailand. But 3 of these women were transported to this one workshop by the government in an effort to attract more tourists. It is a sad story, and you can’t help to have moral qualms about supporting this enslavement of these women, and turning human beings into a tourist freak show. But as so many times before, my curiosity won out over my morale. And so, I found myself in the workshop of the Kayan women, where they sit all day and weave products, mostly neckscarves, that are being sold as souvenirs. The women are overseen by a local man, and as soon as he saw the camera around my neck he was very eager to take some pictures of me next to the women. I had felt incredibly uncomfortable with taking pictures of these women, and actually felt very embarrased by this guy being so eager to take pictures of me.

The oldest woman, whom he wanted to photograph me alongside did take it in strides and actually laughed a hearty laughter when i sat down next to her, as if she had been a little blushed herself. While their outer attitude seemed very friendly and accomodating, it is hard to not believe that they’re forced to behave this way rather than it being real emotions. With the damage already done, I asked the ladies if i could take pictures of them, and they all agreed. I talked a bit with the women, who were all surprisingly frank about their situation and how they weren’t there by their own will, even while their overseer was in attendance, and being perfectly capable to understand our talk.

In the end I bought one of their scarfs, and gave a big donation hoping to redeem myself somewhat. Truly one of the most horrible, yet intriguing experiences I’ve ever participated in.

At this point, our next destination, the last one I had requested myself, would be the floating gardens on the lake. Since the lake isn’t very deep, it has been possible for the locals to create gardens where they grow certain vegetables and tobacco among other things. They are supported by a web and banks of tight roots and grass enabling you to walk around on a very rickety temporary pathways floating on the lake, with the “ground” sinking slightly with each step. Extremely unnerving to walk around on. But sailing around in between these small gardens, passing locals that were all using the traditional method of leg-paddling while balancing on the other leg, was very interesting.

My sailor asked me if I wanted to go the Jumping Cat Monastery, which is a floating monastery that is overrun with cats. I had originally put off going to this location, as I didn’t expect to have enough time, and it was the least interesting sounding place – at least in theory. The cats does not jump, and while I like cats, the other locations sounded my unusual. But alas, we had plenty of time, so we went. It was all worth it. Sitting inside a temple floating on the lake, staring at a buddah statue while having a plethora of very tame and friendly cats climb all over you, and cuddle up to you, was a good experience.

At this point, the fog had lifted entirely, and the skies almost entirely cleared out, providing great views of the surrounding mountains, and a great lake view. This made the return trip to Nyuang Shwe even more pleasant. As a final act, we cruised around looking for a traditional fisherman, and after a bit of searching we found a tourist-pleaser – a guy dressed up in the full traditional garment, with the big traditional fishing net. He was purely there for the tourists – only posing for photos and not actually fishing. But it is of course not possible to tell this just from the pictures, so maybe I should’ve just kept quiet about that! He did a bunch of poses for me as I took a bunch of photos. In the end we sailed up next to him, and I handed him a few thousand kyats as a tip. My sailor apparently not satisfied yet, took us out to other people working on the lake, using the traditional rowing technique, but all the other people we found were actually working on the lake, and not dressed up for the tourists.

Eventually after about 5 hours on the go, we returned to Nyuang Shwe. I paid my lovely sailor all the remaining kyats I had left in my possession, equating about 15 euros, rather than the 10 euro price that was agreed upon. I still wish that I had had more money to give him, because 15 euros still felt like an incredible scam from my side.

After struggling to find a functioning ATM, I set out to get some dinner and a supermarket to get some snacks for the evening back at the guesthouse. I found a little restaurant with a roof-top area, offering a good view of this little town. After a traditional dinner, with a Myanmar brand beer, I headed out into the town. The town is rather small, but still hosts a market, a few temples, restaurants and shops – and a wide variety of hotels and guesthouses. But the majority of the town can be encompassed on foot in little time. I passed through the night market. Having found drinks and snacks for the night, I returned back to my guest house and camped down for the night, since I would have to get up early the next day to take the 45 minute car drive back to Heho airport to fly to Yangon for my final 2 days of the trip.

The next morning, right before my taxi to the airport arrived, a big group of young novice monks arrived at the guest house asking for alms. They were all wearing their monk robes, and it was a very cute sight. It was the first and only time I saw alms-giving ceremonies in all of Myanmar. It was good farewell to Nyuang Shwe.


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