Our second stop on our tour of Burma was Inle Lake, located a short flight from Bagan, more or less in the centre of the country. When Abdo and I were communicating by email to plan this holiday, he could not find anything online about “the wonders of Inle Lake”, despite our friend Hnin Hnin recommending it as a top destination in the country, and my conviction that the place, as one of the few places open to tourists back in the bad old days of Slorc, should warrant a few days’ visit. As a result, I was persuaded to limit our time in the area to just one full day, together with the afternoon of our arrival. This was a mistake, I think we would all agree, since Inle Lake is a lovely area, well worth exploring in more depth than a 42 hour visit would allow.
Arriving at Inle Lake
To get to Inle you have to fly to the town of Heho, and then drive about an hour or so to the jetty town of Nyaungshwe, and then catch a boat to wherever it is you are staying. Our travel agent arranged all the transfers for us, and they worked like a charm. The first thing we noticed on arrival in Heho was that the weather was noticeably cooler here than in Bagan, since we were a bit higher up in the mountains. Also, the scenery was completely different from Bagan–much greener, hillier and considerably richer looking in terms of the productivity of the land. This was clearly a more agricultural area, and we passed through loads of farming areas on our drive to the lake. This is also one of the semi-autonomous states that make up a lot of the periphery of the country. This one is Shan State, and if Lonely Planet is to be believed, the term “Shan” is a corruption of the word “Siam”, since the people of Shan state are close to the Thais, and indeed the state borders on Thailand. Not that Shan cuisine is all that similar to Thai cuisine; while the Shan dishes we had were distinct from Burmese cuisine, they were nothing like the sour, spicy, and rich dishes of Thailand.
House in Inle Lake
When we got to the jetty in Nyaungshwe we had no time to explore the town at all before boarding our little boat to make our way to the hotel. I don’t know quite what I was expecting from the boats on the lake, but what we got was a lot simpler and more open to the elements than Abdo was probably hoping for. In fact, all the boat appeared to be was a long canoe sort of thing with a couple of wooden chairs lined up along the middle of the thing, and with no cover whatsoever. Since we were no longer in the “dry zone”, and it was still very much the rainy season, as we boarded the boat I began to wonder what they would have done if it were raining. Well, the answer came soon enough, since before long after we set off the rain set in, and a few pink plastic ponchos were sent down the line for us to put on. Between the wind, the rain and my concern not to somehow fall into the water, I decided not to try to figure out how to wear the actual poncho, and instead just used it to keep my legs and camera dry, and to minimise some of the wind, which was actually making the temperature a bit cooler than comfortable.
Inle Lake town
Before long we got to our hotel, the Inle Paramount Resort. Calling it a resort was a bit of a stretch, since the accommodations were a bit basic, though certainly comfortable. There should have been WiFi available, but there was a problem with the modem, so it had to be sent to Yangon for repair, a situation for which the owner/manager could not stop apologising. Once we put our stuff away, J2 and I decided to maximise our time in the area by exploring a bit, since our boat was at our disposal and Abdo and Barbara opted to relax at the “resort”. The thing that was really interesting about the lake to me is that when I had heard that a lot of people live “on the lake”, I had understood that to mean that they lived on the shores of the lake, but in fact they really do live “on the lake”, in houses that are built on stilts over shallow (and perhaps not so shallow) sections of the lake. More than that, they even plant crops on floating islands that are sort of skewered to the lake bottom by lengths of bamboo, with acres of tomatoes, beans and squashes, along with plenty of other things, growing on bobbing islets all over the lake. So instead of having to water their plants, we actually saw people adding more soil to their plants to replace soil that got washed away by rain, wakes, or whatever else.
“Soiling” the plants
During our little cruise around the lake, we stopped for a lovely lunch of Shan-style noodles at one of many restaurants that dot the area, and we paid a visit to some of the artists’ and craftsmen’s shops nearby, including one Shan silversmith. While in Yangon we had seen a beautiful little curio that I was interested in buying, a pair of miniature covered baskets made of woven silver that could be connected by a little silver “yoke”. The vendor told us it was a Shan specialty to make such woven silverworks, so we figured we’d wait and see if we could find something similar while in Shan state itself. Sure enough, we found that every silversmith in the Inle Lake area made the exact same, or very similar, item, but here the price was no less than double what it was in Yangon! Happily for us, we would have time back in Yangon to return to that same store and pick it up (assuming it would still be there, which it was). This was to be a recurrent theme of our visits to shops in the Inle Lake area–pricing was a lot higher here than elsewhere, and way out of kilter with what we saw as the value of what was being sold. A prime example of this came up during our full-day tour of the area with Abdo and Barbara the next day. We visited a workshop where they make lotus silk, something we had never heard of. The work begins when one of the staff scores the long stems of a lotus flower, breaking the stem in such a way as to leave the fibres running the length of the stem intact; she then twists the fibres together, forming long strands that then get dried, spun, and then used to make garments. The fibres are not particularly soft, and the resulting fabrics are not that attractive, but because of the labour involved in producing them they cost 40 times the price of silk. Why bother then??
Making lotus silk
On our full day in Inle we ventured out in the morning to the morning market in one of the nearby towns on the lake. The markets in the area work on a five-day rotation, so you have to know which town the market will be at on any given day to find it. We were lucky that on our day it was at one of the larger venues, so there was a lot of stuff on offer, and loads of photo-worthy things and people to look at. The people of the lake include not just Shan and Bamar people, but also Inntha people who wear distinctive outfits (chiefly distinguished by what looks like a towel that they wear on top of their heads), in addition to the famed Kayan, whose women elongate their necks with brass rings. [We didn’t see any Kayan women at the market (I think they would find all the movement involved rather straining), but we did see them in some of the lakeside shops, clearly there to lure tourists to photograph them and then charge them for the privilege. We had read that the reason for the rings was to make the women unappealing for neighbouring tribes to abduct, and that nowadays it is imposed on them solely to earn money from tourists, so we followed the advice of the guidebook and avoided the temptation.] At the market there were a number of people selling prepared food that I was really interested in trying, but I felt that some of my fellow travellers were opposed to the idea from a hygiene perspective so I also withstood this temptation, though not without some grumbling. Instead we focused our attention on gifts and photographs, coming away with a good number of both.
Inntha Women at Market
I’d have eaten here
Temple near the market
Not all our visits on the lake were to shops, though. We also made a stop with Abdo and Barbara at an important temple about which we knew absolutely nothing as we entered. However, the objects of veneration in the centre of the temple were so bizarre that I had to break out my Lonely Planet to see if it would shed any light on them. They looked to us like nothing more than golden blobs, reminding us of something that you might have seen in a Star Trek episode when an away team landed on an obscure planet where the locals worshipped formless entities of pure energy or something. What these things turned out to be was in fact five Buddha statues that have been venerated for so long by people who would add little sheets of gold to their surfaces, that their forms had been completely obliterated, turning them into what the guidebook calls “amorphous blobs”. Once a year these statuettes are paraded around the lake on a special barge (which can be seen next door), but some years ago the boat tipped over, causing the Buddhas to tumble into the water. Divers were able to retrieve all but one of them, but when they returned them to their spot in the temple they found that the fifth one was already back! A miracle!! As a result, that one is no longer taken out of the temple on the barge, apparently. It is still the custom for people to affix gold leaf to the statues, so we figured I would join in and have Barbara take my photo doing so, as you can see here.
Adding my 50 cents (-worth of gold)
On the day we left Inle, we set off from the hotel at the crack of dawn for the boat ride back to Nyaungshwe, from where we drove to that day’s market town, Pindaya. As it turns out, Pindaya is famous for its tea, and it’s one of the top sources for laphet, the fermented green tea leaves that I mentioned before. So of course I had to buy some to go with the laphet dish that I bought in Bagan. Here I also managed to persuade Barbara and J2 to join me for a bite to eat at one of the market stalls, and we wound up having what was easily the best dish of the trip thus far, just a simple dish of noodles with a great mixture of aromatic spices and dressings. Like all meals in Burma, this one came with a bowl of soup, as you can see below.
Eating our Shan noodles
Pindaya is also home to a massive cave that has been turned into a shrine of sorts (for reasons that are a bit mysterious, but one argument is that some maidens were imprisoned here by a giant spider that was vanquished by Rama or something, or at least that’s why we think there’s a huge spider statue at the entrance being shot at by a bow-and-arrow-bearing Rama).
Entrance to Pindaya Cave
Inside the cave are something like 8700 Buddha statues, which is certainly enough Buddhas for anyone, or at least I could have done with seeing only the first thousand or so, since once again we were barefoot in this hallowed space, and the walkways were damp and sticky with a combination of humidity, cave drippings, and the detritus of countless pious feet. Yuck.
A bevy of Buddhas
I think our driver was surprised at how little time we had spent in the cave, and he scrambled a bit to find something else to do before we had to go to the airport to catch our flight to Yangon. So we just sort of meandered a bit, stopping at a little stall to buy some tea (we had seen that he had bought quite a few packs, at the request of a friend of his back in his hometown) and then walking through a field of baobab trees. Then we had a bit of a highlight by stopping at a traditional paper-making workshop where we got to see how they make beautiful rustic paper and then turn the paper into umbrellas. The techniques they employ to make these things were very impressive, and we could hardly leave without buying something, even if it meant having to come up with a way to schlep a rather bulky and fragile item all over the place.
With that our time upcountry was over, and we returned to Yangon for a few final days in this great country.