Inle Lake, located strategically in the heart of Myanmar’s Shan State, is a shore-less expanse of water and marshes 20km long and 10km wide, sitting like a gigantic puddle on a carpet of greenery with reed and hyacinth beds that get denser as they are nearer the shore.
The bus from Mandalay gets me to my destination quite early on a cool morning. At 2.30 I am left at the intersection to Nyaungshwe, still far from the lake. I reach the village with a moto-rickshaw, sharing the cold 10km ride with a family of locals and a group of monks that only wear the monk’s outfit: flip flop and orange robe; they look not bothered as a cold wind hits their face and their bare feet, while I try to cover my neck and head with jumper, scarf and bonnet. Entering the Inle Lake area costs to tourists a 5$ government fee, which I pay to a sleepy government official at the entrance of Nyaungshwe. The moto-rickshaw drops me in the center of the village; it is pitch-dark, and there is not a single soul around.
Once a sleeping village, home until the 1960s of the last Shan shy lord, Nyaungshwe, located at the north end of the lake and next to the main canal leading to the lake, is now a bustling center for travelers, with guest houses, restaurants and tour agencies. I take a walk along the grid of roads only to find entrances of guest houses with the sign FULL hanging from locked gates. Finally I find an open house where three friends are watching a European football match live. They are so nice and let me park my rucksacks in the house and lend me a bicycle with which I start the search for a place to sleep.
During the exploration ride I cover at least half of the village, but the result does not change: guest houses and hotels closed and showing a FULL sign. It is with a bit of luck that I address a man that watering the plants in the garden of a guest house on the banks of the canal, whom assures me that at 9 am one of the room gets vacated and that he is willing to give it to us. It’s only 5 am, and the kind manager offers us to sleep on an old mattress under the stairs in the reception basement. We drop our rucksacks there, but the desire to see the place is so strong that as soon as I see the first light of the day, I leave for a photographic walk. On the banks of the canal, early-risers boat drivers equip long and colorful boats that will take locals to the villages surrounding the lake, and tourists to panoramic tours and cultural activities.
The sun has not yet appeared from behind the mountains, but its morning light gives a magical atmosphere to the place. I proceed towards the center of the village, where some residents are already on their ways through the semi-paved roads. Sleepy rickshaw drivers, old men who sweep the dusty roads with brooms made of wood and branches, women who light fires to prepare tasty batter for pancakes and stuffed samosas to be distributed to the market and to tearooms, and numerous people going to the market by walking and cycling. By 6 am the place is already swarming, and I start looking for monasteries; I sneak through the open door of a derelict building from which comes a lullaby, and I’m lucky to find about fifty young nun girls in pink robes singing mantras and eating breakfast. They look at me astonished and embarrassed while I shoot some photos discreetly. Across the street there is a canteen where a hundred cross-legged children monks in brown robes eat on the floor and joke.
I eventually reach the market, located in the northern part of the village, and I delve into its chaotic streets where a cacophony of sounds fills the air: people haggle, men unload heavy boxes of fruit and vegetables from horse-drawn carts, women in colored clothes and hats sell various types of flowers, a matron with a cigar in her mouth discusses sales price of freshly caught fish from the lake tied to thick lines, while outside the walls of the immense market, dozens of rickshaws and motorcycle rickshaws wait for customers with carrier bags overflowing with groceries, and numerous dogs and chickens forage the dusty streets waiting for food scraps unsold, in a procession that is repeated day after day. I drink Indian tea and eat coconut samosas in an austere corner tea-house from where I observe the comings and goings of people and I write travel notes.
At 7:30, I return to the canal where, as I observe the local boats loading with goods and with tourists, I make the acquaintance of a group of three Chinese photographers who are looking for passengers to split the cost of a boat ride. I run the guest house, I pay the room and reassure the owner that I shall return in the afternoon; I pick up my camera and day backpack and embark for the trip, tired but full of an energy that comes from the great desire to see new places. I thank often in life this traveler spirit that I have; it is the reason of the greatest satisfaction of my existence.
We leave at 8 am for a long trip that takes us, after 20 minutes of navigation along the canal and then through the lake, to the following stopovers:
– Firstly, we visit a village of houses made of wood and bamboo on stilts where the family of our young boatman lives; some of these houses have two floors and large terraces where people drink tea and spend part of the day. The people of these water villages move around on wooden boats or motor boats. The family of our boatman offer us tea, cigarettes, cheroots, snacks and a good chat, aided by the translations of their kids whose English is acceptable. We try to use the little Burmese learned from the travel guide. The inclination of locals to make friends is strong, we notice, and we spend in their home longer than expected.
– We then stop in a village on the shore where there is a market managed by ethnic Pa-O people in traditional costumes who sell handicrafts and fresh vegetables. The market has a dining area where elderly with carved and intriguing faces drink tea and eat spicy curries that release strong odors in the air; some look at us with curiosity and a smile. Tribal ethnic Intha, Shan, Pa-O, Taung Yo, Danu, Kayah and Danaw people populate the villages around the lake shore, and local markets where they congregate are open in turn five days a week.
– We stop in several locations to watch Intha fishermen get around the waters using a traditional and unique flat-bottom skiff propelled by a single wooden paddle rowed in snake-like motions by a leg wrapped around the paddle. This technique has become the ultimate photo opportunity of the Inle Lake.
– We make several stops in workshops on stilts and surrounded by floating gardens, where handicrafts such as silk and cotton, woven on antique looms, cigarillos cheroots, herbs and spices, silver and semi-precious stones mounted on rings, necklaces and jewelry are produced. As in the houses earlier on, in each of these workshops we are offered tea, cigarillos cheroots and various snacks, and this is part of the hospitality that characterizes the people in these parts.
– We visit the Nga Phe Kyaung, a wooden monastery built on stilts in the middle of the lake, famous for its cats trained by monks to jump through small rings.
The sun is blazing hot and we take shelter wearing hats. All around, an infinite number of motor boats transiting in passageways between water hyacinth and floating gardens, through endless rows of houseboats with floating gardens that form real neighborhoods with closed streets and intersections. Burmese and foreign tourists by the thousands visit the wonders of this way of life on water.
We arrive back at 4 pm sufficiently tired after missing a night’s sleep, but full of information and photos and lasting memories. I lie down to rest, but I fall into a deep sleep…
READ ALSO PART 3 http://asianitinerary.com/inle-lake-hitchhiking-part-3/