Friday 3 February 2017

Myanmar Journey Part Four - North to Lake Inle

Lake Inle covers about 45 square miles in the Southern Shan State in Northern Myanmar. It was the final stop of my trip before returning to Yangon for the journey home. I took a short flight from Bagan to Heho and from there was driven to the small town of Nyaungshwe which has several hotels, hostels, restaurants and cafes and is a great base from which to explore the Lake.

Early morning fishing on the lake.
Many people still live on the water in houses supported on stilts. Belonging to the Intha (sons of the lake) ethnic group, they are thought to be descendants of the Mon people from the south-east. I was lucky enough to be able to eat lunch in two private homes and was shown around the cosy interiors which included very modern facilities and of course access to satellite television which judging from the number of dishes on roofs and balconies is widespread here. As well as private homes there are also schools, temples, shops, a post office and even a library on the lake - all built on stilts and all accessed by boat. Some of the more enterprising residents run "mobile shops" - selling food, flowers and other items from small canoes. 

One of the absolute highlights of my time at Lake Inle was getting the unexpected opportunity to see inside a heritage house. And not just any heritage house - the oldest one on the lake at over 100 years old. Spotting it from the water, I asked the boatman to stop for a moment so I could admire and photograph this teak building which has beautiful decorative trellis work on the balconies and upper facade. It turned out that my guide was related to the owners and she kindly invited me to look inside. The interior has many rooms over two levels and I was able to look at old photographs of the family and surrounding area. It was a real privilege to see inside and to receive a warm welcome.

Heritage house, Lake Inle
Library on stilts, Lake Inle
A street on the water.
With mum and grandma.
Unfortunately the Lake is suffering from modern problems, decreasing in size and becoming more polluted with more litter, more motorised vessels and chemicals from the huge "floating gardens" where tomatoes and other plants are grown on the water but anchored to prevent them floating away. Despite this, the Lake was perhaps my favourite stop in Myanmar. I won't forget the early morning on the boat, seeing the silvery waters and the sun fighting its way through the mist casting just enough light to see the fisherman with their conical hats. These are no ordinary fishermen as they propel and steer their boats using their unique leg rowing technique, performing an amazing act of skill and grace. Used to the tourists, some of them will approach your boat and pose for photographs if you are lucky.  It is important to note that it can be very very cold on the lake early in the morning and also in the evening. A jacket and hat are essential and for the colder mornings most boats transporting visitors will have blankets.

Fishing on the lake.
As well as fishing, the locals make their living in a variety of ways. Some of them are involved in the traditional crafts practiced on the lake such as boat building, textile production and design (including items made from lotus), lacquer making, making items made from gold and bronze, jewelry and even cheroots made for the local market. Most visitors to the Lake will find themselves taken to several workshops to see the production of these items and where there will be an opportunity to make purchases. Unlike in some of the neighboring countries, there was absolutely no pressure to buy. Long may that continue.

On my second day at the Lake I got up early - very early - and left the hotel by small boat on a journey of just over one hour, to reach the market at Nan Pan. I had already enjoyed several markets in Myanmar with their spectacular colours and lively atmospheres but nothing had quite prepared me for this. Organised in different places on a five day rota and therefore known as the Five Day Market, huge numbers of traders arrive very early in the morning coming from far and wide to sell their goods. 

Pa-O women selling fruit and vegetables ate the Five Day Market
Pa-O woman at the Five Day Market
Traders and visitors come to the market by boat.
You really can buy just about anything here. There are the usual vegetables, fruit, herbs and spices, fish, meat and dried foodstuffs but this is only a small part of what the market has to offer. You can buy a new boat. You can get measured up for new false teeth and collect them the next time you come to the market. You can buy clothes for all ages and in all sizes. You can buy craft items, antiques real and fake, religious paraphernalia, electrical goods, books, magazines and stock up on betel. You can even get the latest pop tunes downloaded onto your telephone if you aren't able to do this yourself. And you can take time out from shopping and bargaining in one of the many (many) tea shops and cafes. I enjoyed two "Chinese donuts" - the non-sweet slightly oily ones that you can get in most Chinatowns around the world.

Fresh fish at the market
Alternative medicine at the market
Like Myanmar's other markets, everywhere you look there is colour.  It comes from the goods such as the bright yellow turmeric,  dazzlingly orange fruit and vegetables and deep green leaves of vegetables that you have never seen before. It also comes from the people with representatives from many of Myanmar's 135 ethnic groups attending the market either as traders or shoppers, most of them dressed in the clothes of their cultural group often including brightly coloured headscarves. The traders are friendly people and most will happily explain their goods to you without expecting a purchase. I couldn't resist some tiny ceramic figures representing some of the different ethnic groups - the Shan and Pa-O in particular. 

Our young stall holder!
Dyeing lotus cloth
At one of the many betel stalls, a very small girl was cutting up leaves in which to wrap the areca nuts, tobacco and lime before selling them to the many keen shoppers. She saw us approaching, waved at us and when my guide, May, asked her how old she was, not only did she tell us that she was three years old, but also what her name was and that she was in charge of the stall! Such ambition for one so young. At another stall run by an elderly Pa-O woman whilst looking at the herbs, spices and vegetables, I noticed that she also sold peanuts. I must have said "peanuts" out loud because she said "yes peanuts, you are doing well!" and laughed and waved as I moved on.

I also visited a number of sites in the vicinity of the Lake. The Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery and Temple lies between Heho airport and the lake. The teak monastery was built in the nineteenth century and today provides education both Buddhist and secular for boys from poor families. The interior is beautiful with its teak floors and coloured glass decorative features. The adjoining temple has a red painted interior and again makes use of coloured glass in freezes depicting scenes form the life of Buddha and from traditional beliefs. The interior walls include many small Buddha statues, displayed in niches and named for people from around the world who have made donations to the monastery and temple. 

Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery
Buddha niches at the Shwe Yan Pyay Temple
The village of Inthein is a busy stop along a canal leading off from the main body of the lake. There are many ruined and partially overgrown stupas just behind the village, some dating from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and many with carvings of Buddha, elephants, peacocks and figures from Buddhist beliefs. Most of the stupas are in very poor shape and visitors must note and comply with signs provided for their safety. Some of the structures are in the process of being reclaimed by nature as trees and plants wind their way around them and in some cases even grow from inside. 

Crumbling stupas at Inthein
Carvings at Inthein
Two days at the Lake passed very quickly as did my two weeks in Myanmar. I am already planning to return next year to see more of this most beautiful and welcoming of countries.

You can see more pictures of Myanmar here.

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