Published: February 1st 2007February 1st 2007
Before I started my journey to Southeast Asia I had read some comments about Myanmar from other travellers and one or two of them wrote that the highlight of their trip was Inle Lake. In addition I have watched so many TV documentaries etc. about the Inle Lake and the fishermen that I couldn’t miss this spot while finally travelling in Myanmar myself.
I wanted to see the beautiful lake and the famous fishermen with their unique 1-leg rowling technique and take some beautiful pictures of them, but then when I finally get there things turned out to be different than I expected… - Nyaung Shwe -
I headed from Yangon towards Nyaung Shwe and the Shan Plateau in central Myanmar with big expectations, especially because one of the reasons why I wanted to travel to Myanmar in first place was the Inle Lake - the country’s most celebrated natural attraction.
Idyllic Nyaung Shwe rests in a fertile plain between twin ranges of rolling hills that continue south to Inle Lake. The mixture of Intha, Pa-O, Shan and Burmese traditions combine to create a multifaceted culture unlike any other in Myanmar. Nyaung Shwe is not only the springboard
Fisherman? Hmmm... no
to Inle Lake, it’s a destination in itself. With scenic treks to hill-tribe villages, motorboat forays on the lake, leisure canoe paddles around the canals, and invigorating bike rides, plenty exists to occupy visitors, though for many the greatest appeal is the town’s relaxed atmosphere.
I’ve heard much about the bad condition of the roads, which suppose to be some of the worst in Southeast Asia, so that many travellers chose to fly within Myanmar instead of travelling overland, what additonally saves a lot of time when you’re on a tight schedule.
It took me about 18hours by bus to get from Yangon to Nyaung Shwe (approx. 600km distance, 12 USD), the town next to the Inle Lake. Bus travel is the cheapest way of transportation. The recent proliferation of private bus lines has led to improvements in comfort and convenience, though no luxury can compensate for the condition of the roads, but having bad roads and bad buses would double the discomfort.
The buses between major cities were much better than I thought and overland transportation in Myanmar is not as bad as expected, I have experienced much worser conditions, but it’s not really comfortable either.
What a cute girl
There are very few buses running per day and people don't have money for gas or cars so the buses also double as freight-trucks. Many Burmese, especially on the countryside and in remoted areas in the north rarely leave the place they live in their whole life what is not easy to imagine for us.
The bus dropped me off at the Shwenyaung Junction, about an half hour away from Nyaung Shwe town. It was 5:00AM in the morning and I was still half asleep and glad to see that I wasn’t standing alone there, but with a couple of other travellers so that we decided to share two taxis to get into town. I ended up staying in a hostel with three of them, Tylo, a french guy, and Tamsin & Steve, a British couple.
When we arrived at the guesthouse, the owner welcomed us but Tylo and me couldn’t help but were looking or maybe even staring at a woman at the reception for an undefined time before Tylo finally broke the spell and said something to her like: „May I tell you something? You are really pretty!“ and I just nodded and seconded that. No,
With 5-6kg heavy neckrings
not what you are thinking now… there was not a sexy girl with big boobs, long legs in a short miniskirt on highheels or so. No, there was actually the very opposite, a 20something woman dressed in a thick jacket and a red woolen hat on her head, a simple face with redish cheeks, but a face that portraits so much, let me call it: „humanity“, you know, something very innocent and simply beautiful, something very difficult to put in words. It’s maybe like if you see a very cute kid with a bright and shining face and a beautiful, innocent smile - that’s something that paints a smile on your own face and makes you feel happy. So, looking at that woman’s face made us feel like that, and I think that’s something magical, a very rare kind of natural beauty that some people are gifted with.
The guesthouse got pretty rooms so that I spoiled myself with a double room again (7 USD), I love kingsize beds, and I prefer to have my own bathroom. They serve free breakfast on a roof terrace so that you can sit there, sipping at your cup of tea and just
on the Lake
watch the monks walking around in the morning in lines to collect their food for the day.
A cheap bicycle rental bought us instant freedom into a world of hill-tribe villages, endless green ricefields, fat waterbuffalos and the most friendly people in the region. Everyone we met on our bicycle ride were greeting us or given us a smile, so we felt warmly welcomed and enjoyed the trip tremendously. We passed some monasteries and decided to get inside of one of them to have a look. As soon we stepped inside a huge hall where several groups of elder people were gathering and having a chat and picnic a man stood up and came to us, introduced himself and explained that he, as the only one who could speak English, was sent to us for inviting us to join them for tea and some food. So we gladly did and had a funny conversation with them while they were feeding us with selfmade food, plenty of fresh fruits, cookies and sweets. Some old women wanted to know how old I am and whether or not I am married, when I answered that I wasn’t married they shook their heads
with "French" haircut :-)
and asked me why and pointed at my skin and said that I am fairly pale and that I should get a beautiful wife easily and that they have plenty of daughters. I laughted my head off, especially when they added with a smile that "their daughters are something like 50+ years old", before all of them bursted out into a hearty laught as well.
Anyway, we ended up leaving the place with a filled stomach and in addition a bunch of fruits, cakes and sweets which the old people gave us, saying that young people like us need a lot energy for our bicycle ride. So at the end of the day all of us had several bags with fruits and biscuits and whatever given to us by some locals along our road.
Food in Myanmar is rather plain, especially in rural places. Nyaung Shwe got a number of western style restaurants, but Steve and I found out that all of them served the same food and all of them actually have the same menu with same prices. You can usually have a dish for about 1-2 USD what is fairly cheap - at least for us.
So I mostly ended up ordering several dishes just that I can say that I tried all of them - you know I am a glutton!
Days are short in Myanmar, after sunset streets empty quickly as many places have no or just limited electricity. There is not much to do in a small town like Nyaung Shwe in the evening except having dinner. There is one internet café in the whole city which got an stable connection, so that I could check my e-mails after dinner. For unknown reason electricity breaks down daily around 9-10PM until the next morning, but then… who needs light at night, we all suppose to sleep anyway. - Inle Lake -
The Inle Lake is the second largest natural lake in Myanmar located in the middle of the greatest depression in Nyaung Shwe valley between the two parallel mountain ranges running north to south in the southern Shan State. Inle Lake is shallow, 14 miles long and 7 miles wide, 1320m above the sea level among the hazy blue mountains.
The lake lays 2km down the canal from Nyaung Shwe and is the showpiece of the Shan Plateau. The Intha,
as the lake area's residents are known, build homes on stilts over the water and succeed admirably in "living off the lake". There is little space on this lake that isn't harvested, fished or lived on. Intha farmers tend to floating gardens that yield flowers, vegetables and fruit from their narrow teak canoes. Infamous leg rowers suppose to patrol the open spaces, especially early and late in the day, when they appear silhouetted against the mountainous horizon.
Inle's most unusual feature is its extraordinary „1-leg-rowing fishermen“ who have developed an original, eccentric method of rowing their small boats with one leg. The fishermen use a long conical trap to fish from their narrow teakwood canoes. They propel the boats by balancing on the helm and paddling in a highly original circular motion with one leg.
If visitors only do one thing when they come to Inle Lake, it should be to take a motorboat trip on the lake. There are numerous pagodas, monasteries, markets and handicraft shops to visit. Therefore, the next morning the four of us rented a motorboat for exploring the Inle Lake (10USD per boat).
When we started in Nyaung Shwe I was saying:
In the Morning
Monks collecting their food for the day
“I don’t know why, but I think it gonna rain the whole day!”… and it really happened to be like that.
It was strange, you know I was somewhere in Southeast Asia but I felt cold. In the night I was freezing in my kingsize bed, not because I was laying alone by myself with only my backpack next to me on the other side of the bed but much more because the temperature dropped to 15 Degree Celsius, so I was covering myself with 2 woolen blankets and was sleeping with a longsleeve on.
The morning was a kind of chilly too, so that Tamsin, Steve and me took a jacket with us to the boattrip. I was quite glad that I brought a jacket with me on this trip, what - lazy me - I usually don’t. Tylo, who simply didn’t have a jacket or a sweater, but only a couple of T-shirts like most travellers in Southeast Asia, decided to crab the red wool blanket from his bed and just swung it over his shoulders what looked pretty funny not only to us but to the locals too. A skinny 188cm tall westerner running around
Monks on the Lake
they are everywhere
with a red blanket the whole day.
On our way down the canal towards the Inle Lake, we passed through some villages with houses built on stilts over the water with floating gardens. As soon we were on the Inle Lake it started to rain. Fortunately our boatman had some “yellow” umbrellas ready so that all of us could find some shelter from the rain. As I was sitting in the front of the boat, I additionally had to deal with the airstream. After a few minutes I was completely wet and freezing, hiding under my yellow umbrella and waiting for some fishermen, but there weren’t any fishermen on the lake at all.
I felt a kind of uncomfortable and started to get a bit anxious, especially when our boatman told us after a while that there might be no fishermen on the lake this day due to the rain. I was saying to myself: „What the f..k, every dumbass who comes to Inle Lake manages to return with some great photos of fishermen on the sea… and I will end up with some crappy pics of nothing, after a 18hours busride and I probably gonna freeze to
Well, later we came across a few fishermen, 2-3 on the whole 6 hour trip, but I didn’t manage to take the pics which I had in my mind, what was a huge disappointment for me.
We were taken to a craft shop and when we entered the wooden teak house, I heard Tamsin whispering: „Look, look…there, there!!!“ and when I looked up there were 4 longneck women in the house. Two elder and 2 young women. I wasn’t really sure how to react as it felt like one of the tourist traps, where they hire longnecks women as attractions for tourists so that they buy something, and all what is given to the longneck women is a very very little.
The long-neck women are so-called because of the multiple rings that elongate their necks by deforming their collarbones and pushing their shoulders down, so that it actually just looks like that the neck is longer. Girls start adding rings around their necks each year when they are seven or eight years old.
I have seen longneck women of the infamous Karen hilltribe in Northern Thailand when I was trekking there, they were in a
Need a ride?
kind of artifical mountain village and hords of tourists were coming by buses, running around and snapping pics while the longneck-women weren’t looking very happy about the circus around them at all. I felt uncomfortable back then and didn’t take a single pic as I didn’t like the idea of being part or even a reason for such kind of human-zoo. Especially when you know that the Karen within sight of the Thai-Burma border have little choice between making some little money by wearing their neck rings in the camp, or going back to the refugee camps as they don’t have a right to stay in Thailand. But that’s another story.
Anyway, this time the longneck women looked pretty fine to me, they were laughing and smiling and making their jokes. They told us that it’s their own shop and they prefer to live at the Inle Lake instead of having a life in the mountains. Well, I am not sure if all that was true, but ok, they didn’t look to unhappy to me and they were friendly and not pushy at all. We had a tea and chat with them and of course they offered us to
at the lake
have a look at some products but that was all.
Afterwards we visited a boring, very touristic market and 2-3 monasteries, for getting there we had get off the boat and to walk through knee high mud, what didn’t feel too comfortable. But the rain was bad and we all felt cold, so that we decided to end the trip after an half day and to head back to Nyaung Shwe before we all catch a cold. The lake is huge so that it would take us an hour or two to get back into town anyway. But we missed some of the most popular sights and the sunset on Inle Lake.
On the way back we quickly stopped at Nga Phe Kyaung, the oldest monastery among the 268 that dot the lake’s shore. The teak structure houses several Buddha images. But the monastery is actually famous for something else. For generations, the monks have trained cats to jump through hoops, so that the monastery is nowadays only known as „Monastery of the jumping cats“. But when we were there, no monk was playing with the cats - I think they rarely do anyway. As Tamsin wanted to
at the lake
see the cats jump through the hoops, she approached one of the monks and asked him if he could show us some tricks. He wasn’t really in the mood but asked a man to do a little entertainment for us. So we had our own „jumping cats show“ and Tamsin was a happy girl!
When I think back, I would say that Inle Lake is a destination to skip if you're on a tight schedule.
Or maybe my expectations were just too high, even though some travellers had told me in Yangon already that Inle Lake was a big disappointment for them, I was nevertheless expecting more from Inle Lake. The lake wasn't very impressive... and the landscape neither. Or maybe I have to blame it on the weather, rain always affect your travel in a way, especially when you are on a lake or on the sea.
But then I have met the friendliest people at the villages along Inle Lake, so that it was not a total waste of time.
Anyway, everyone's opinion is bound to be subjective, everyone will tell you something different... as every journey is different, every traveller is different, and
at the Inle Lake
at the end of the day… everyone has to go by himself in person and see with his own eyes how a destination is like, otherwise we all could just stay at home, switch on the TV, drink our chilly beer and watch all the TV travel documentaries and say: "Heey, Myanmar is like this or like that....!" ...but life and reality is not always like what they show us on TV.
But I guess that you have known that already... don't you?! :-) To be continued… next: Myanmar - The City of four Million Pagodas...
There are more photos below