We crossed through small hilly roads out of Naypyidaw towards Inle Lake. The road was beautiful- clear of traffic and with only the occasional ox cart trundling past. We went through flooded plains being ploughed by oxen, the vibrant green screamed alongside us as we rode along the concrete road. It was like entering a new reality- no other vehicles existed and only farmers, oxen and children witnessed our ride past. This idyll continued a while longer until the road climbed through the mountains and then we found an occasional village hiding behind a turn. We stopped for a snack and found someone selling fresh mango with chilli. The mango was just slightly unripe so was tart and fresh on the tongue and the chilli opened the taste buds.
After a few bags of mango and some coffee with lemon, we were ready for the last part of the ride. The road plunged through some switchbacks down into the valley and suddenly we were riding through tree lined roads with a river on our right. The dappled light was a nice break from the sun but the traffic built up hugely. We couldn’t figure out where these cars had appeared from and we were stuck behind a pick up truck full of smiling kids, they were delighted when we waved at them from the motorbikes and they waved and yelled hello as we passed them. Finally we reached the source of the traffic – a Lama was being carried on a palanquin through the village and this required a host of police escorts and slow cars to protect him.
We reached the town of Nyaungshwe which was a really lovely village by the water and was filled with hotels and small restaurants. We were staying near the town square which, every night, was filled with small food traders and pop up bars with music. It was the perfect setting for a two day chill. We ate crispy tofu, chicken skewers and whole grilled lake fish, washing it down with excellent Burmese beer. Myanmar is full of dogs but unlike in Thailand and Cambodia etc.. where they look mistreated, sick and unhappy, all the strays are pretty happy and healthy here and mostly friendly!
The next morning we set off Inle lake. We took a boat, powered by a diesel engine, long and flat hulled, which skipped across the surface of the shallow lake. We began to see plenty of houses built into the lake, perched on stilts above the water and made mostly of bamboo and wood. Each house had a boat parking area below it with small flights of steps leading to the water level. Waterways and houses lined the river, they were separated by high mud walls made of algae and planted with bamboo supporting rods to anchor the walls in place. We occasionally passed under rickety bridges made from planks of wood and we were quite glad to be in the boat rather than travelling on foot! We reached a marketplace and wandered around to admire the wares on sale. A lot of lake fish, vegetables and tofu were on offer as well as souvenirs, Tanaka and cheroot bundles. Tanaka is made from Tanaka wood bark and is ground into a paste with a little water and a pestle. The paste is then applied to the skin, particularly the face, to protect from the sun and for healthy skin. Some apply more than others and usually it is applied along the nose and across the cheeks.
The lake is truly beautiful, serene and vast. The boat sped through still water, at the prow you could see through the clear water algae just centimetres from the surface clearly thriving underwater, its wide green leaves swaying slightly from our passage. The lake is a biosphere protected habitat and has, amongst many other bird species, gulls who chase the boats and dip beside you hoping for a morsel to be thrown out. With practised ease, they caught every crumb of cracker thrown by our guide.
The lake is renowned for its fishermen. They fish in a particular manner, using hand made baskets but more unusual still is their method of rowing. They row using a leg wrapped around the oar, allowing them to stand up and keep an eye on the algae and not get their oar caught in it. Some have taken it to another level and performed complex acrobatics on the boat as we sliced past.
Other boats were collecting the algae, piling it high on their small boats almost to the point where the waterline was submerged! Some boats had a huge pile already collected whereas others were in the process, fishing out the algae with bamboo rods. They use it to build the banks alongside their houses and to form the waterways. Even with the hundred algae fishers we saw, it is an endless job as the lake is full of vegetation.
The lake is known for its specialist crafts and everything is handmade. We began with a tour of a silversmith which explained that silver ore was one of the main resources of Myanmar and who then explained the silversmithing process and showed us the smelting tools and then the workshop where a few smiths were currently working on making chains and particularly unique pendants- articulated fish, where each scale moved allowing the tail of the fish to move side to side (a male fish) and others for it to move up and down (designed for ladies).
Another popular design was the Burmese infinity which looked like a radiating disc with concentric circles radiating outwards from a central ball of silver.
Alex resisted the urge to buy everything in the workshop and simply admired the workmanship particularly of the articulated pieces. They also displayed many precious and semi precious stones which are found in Myanmar.
Next we met some ladies from the striking Kayan tribe, known for their practice of ‘neck-lengthening’ with gold rings. In fact, it is the collar bone which is being pushed downwards rather than the neck being lengthened but the visual effect is remarkable. They worked in a shop selling local wares, mostly handmade, in particular beautifully woven scarves and bags.
We then went to see handmade paper in production. Wood pulp was washed over a fine grille before being prodded into place to ensure an even cover, the grille frame then being carefully lifted from the water leaving a thin layer of mulch over it to dry in the sun. Sometimes flowers or petals are added to give an added texture and colour to the paper. Once dry, the paper is often used to make parasols. We also watched a husband and wife team making bamboo parasols from scratch- the mechanism and jointing all made from bamboo with the handmade paper then stretched across the structure to form the shade. These were then painted in vibrant jades or pinks lending a festive atmosphere to the workshop.
There is an important temple within the shores of the lake. This contains five Buddha images, again gilded with layers of gold leaf. They are so heavily covered with gold leaf that the original forms are almost impossible to decipher. Once a year they are taken out onto the lake by boat for veneration by all who see the boat. One year, however, one of the images fell into the water so ever since, despite all five being reunited, only four are taken out for the festival. Again, as is the theme in Myanmar, only male worshippers can apply gold leaf to the images or even stand on the dais surrounding them. Buddhism is not known for its segregation but apparently cultural norms supersede religious identity at times. Buddhism is also not known for its cruelty or lack of compassion but this is apparent in the behaviour of some of the more vocal and nationalist monks in the country. A notion which strikes many as an impossible paradox- monks of a peaceful religion being aggressively vocal about their beliefs of patriotism makes no sense. People who’ve sworn themselves to a way of life focussed on, amongst other things, compassion to all beings and the destruction of ignorance, can still be swayed and impressed by feelings of misplaced national pride. Perhaps they are not spending enough time on their personal development to waste it blocking food aid boats and encouraging hatred towards others.
One beautiful craft we witnessed was the weaving done on the lake. We saw all stages of the process from spinning silk, to preparing bobbins to dyeing to weaving. Most impressive of all was the preparation of lotus flower thread. The stem can be broken and the sap rolled on a board, as it hardens it becomes a tough thread. By repeating the break, place and roll process a whole metre of thread appeared from a lotus stem! In its raw form it is quite a rough and hard thread but after treating and drying it became soft and supple. The weaving house contained about nine looms, each weaving slightly different cloth. One was pure silk, another a mix of silk and cotton, one a mix of silk and lotus and one pure lotus. The textiles coming out had complex colour pattern and texture arrangements and it was so interesting to see the weavers at work. Their hands and feet moved in a dance, each tap and dip revealing a new colour or pattern blooming across the loom.
They offered us a chance to buy a lotus scarf but at a pricetag of $350 each it was a little outside our souvenir budget. Instead, Alex tried some of the Tanaka they offered as a complimentary experience to visitors. It was cold and transparent when applied but it soon dried to a pale yellow and actually cooled the skin down considerably. It wasn’t uncomfortable to wear apart from two hours later when it had dried to the point of flaking off slightly and then became itchy.
Sporting new skin protection, we went to satisfy a more accessible vice. We visited a Cheroot making house where four ladies were sat on comfortable mats in a circle, each with a large flat bowl in her lap. The bowl contained tobacco, flat cheroot leaves, filter paper (yesterday’s newspaper) and flavourings. Cupping a leaf in a hand, they lay tobacco and flavour on it, lay a stick across the hand and rolled the leaf against it thus rolling in the tobacco. One end was twisted with a gum to seal it and the other end was finished with a piece of filter, then chopped neatly across the leaf to give a sharp butt. The leaf was glued down with the same gum and so the process continued. The flavours were aniseed (the best), banana, plain and a mystery fourth flavour which remains untested. These make very light alternatives to cigars although the “filter” just serves as protection from second degree burns to the lips rather than from particulates.
Inle lake was really unique and beautiful and definitely worth the visit. It was eye opening to learn of all the skills and crafts done by inhabitants to survive and had we not been travelling on motorcycles with hugely limited storage, perhaps we would have gotten some souvenirs (not a $350 scarf). Most arresting was the completely different living climate and how tied trade, food cultivation and farming is to the landscape. Apparently the lake is in crisis from farming techniques on the shores (slash and burn introduces too many nitrates into the lake from run off) and the lake has already decreased in volume significantly. Hopefully its promotion as a biosphere reserve will go some way into protecting the habitat and lifestyle of the locals and preserve what is undoubtedly a serene and gorgeous landscape.
After a day of rest, it was time to move on. We had to retrace our steps back through the mountains to find the road to Mandalay!