Published: December 15th 2005November 15th 2005
The journey from Bagan to Inle was another bus based nightmare, 16 hours on a “mini-bus”. A “mini-bus” in Myanmar is not what the rest of the world would call a “mini-bus” - it's basically a bus where everything has been halved in size, including the space for the passengers, tie that in with 40 years of abuse on Myanmar's terrible roads, and add in a broken seat in front where the entire weight of the passenger is supported by my knee, and this becomes my worst ever bus journey. I emerge from the bus temporarily crippled, some how negotiate a taxi from the bus stop, to the village of Nyaungshwe 11km away. The Remember Inn is our base for the 4 days we stay in and around Inle, it wins the “second best breakfast” in Myanmar award mainly because of generous tea and coffee allowance, and the endless supply of condensed milk. It is otherwise quite nice.
Sleep comes easily after the 16 hour bus journey.
Waking in a new town, exploring. The whole village is water based, rivers, canals, pools, bridges, boats, the shore of famous Lake Inle is never truly visible, it all just merges into
the village. The only way to see the lake truly is from up in the hills or from a boat. What you can see around the village is the traditional way of life that doesn't feel to have changed in centuries. Children play with home made toys, plastic bags on strings become kites, women wash clothes in the streams, people bathe in the same streams, ducks and geese flock and run from us. Everyone is friendly our few words of Burmese a gratefully received, the children are happy to be photographed and excited to see themselves in the 2inch screens on the backs of the digital cameras, Jessica and Katrijn are given flowers picked from bushes moments before by smiling happy children, parents watching proudly on as they interact with the foreigners. Although Lake Inle is a tourist destination it seems that the currently low level of tourism hasn't corrupted the local perception of foreigner into walking wallet.
In the afternoon we take a canoe tour of the canals and local sites. The canoe is reached by walking through the village, through someone's home, and into the swampy rear garden which backs onto a canal. The men of the
household move around some long boats, and two women manoeuvre a very shallow canoe with three mats in the base to a position where we can gingerly board. From fear of capsizing such a precariously balanced vessel, I tread very lightly. Once we board the two women paddle efficiently along the small canal and onto the main water highway. Much larger motorised long boats maybe 6m long with up to 5 tourists on each plough down the highway, leaving high wake behind them. Each wave nearly tips us, I hope the canal is not deep, but I know that it is probably deeper than my standing depth and my precious camera (Nikon D70) would be forfeit should one of the waves be only a few inches higher.
First stop of the tour is a cigar factory, we ineptly attempt to make cigars, drink tea and snack on roasted soya beans. The two canoeing women are in no hurry to leave. We stay for a while. The cigar factory is a wooden house on stilts at the edge of the river, there is only one room, the room is at least 10m by 6m, light comes in through two small
windows and two open doors, the wooden interior is stained dark, and polished to a sheen. Posters of Asian brides in white on pink backgrounds decorate one of the walls, next door to a poster of David Beckham. The furniture is limited to a sideboard, a display cabinet and a few wooden chairs, all the same deep colour almost black, matching the floor ceilings and walls - maybe it is teak. To make the cigars, three women sit cross legged on the floor around a large bowl of tobacco. The implements used a short rod about a foot long with a flap of plastic at one end. A tobacco leaf is place on the flap of plastic, a paper filter is added, the rest of the leaf is packed with dried shredded tobacco and rolled. The cigar is now folded down at the opposite end to the filter, and cut to the right length. It takes about 40 seconds for the professionals to make a cigar, they make around 500 each day. It takes us many more minutes, we get to keep the cigars.
We get back into the canoe, and paddle slowly on through the canals, under bridges,
past rice paddies and eventually on to another village. Just outside the village is a large Buddha statue in a pagoda, maybe 10m high. The reflections on the lake of the Buddha statue are perfect for photography and we explore, then through ankle deep mud to another small village, sandals in hands we trudge barefoot to the village. The village children are excited as ever, calling out "Hello!" waving and smiling, it's some kind of photographers paradise, happy to be photographed, asking nothing in return except a look at the image on the back of any digital cameras. The attraction of the village turns out to be a rice field - the canoe tour ladies try to show us the field - after being in Asia for four months this isn't the first rice field I've seen, the attraction for me was seeing the people living normal lives. We visit a last monastery and talk with the monk who is one of the oldest looking people I've ever met, he explains in great detail about the depth of the water in the adjacent rice paddies over the last four years, feeds us bananas and poses for photos.
day we spend relaxing, exploring the restaurants, cafés, on a never ending search for Coca-Cola Light and the aspertame
fix that keeps Katrijn sweet. We find "Pancake Kingdom - for when you're bored of rice", and the "The Golden Kite - best pasta in Myanmar" two culinary highlights, I had had enough of rice, so it was good to eat something else.
Tazanungdaing is the "festival of lights" occurring on a full moon around the beginning of November every year. At Taung-gyi the nearest city to Inle, a huge street party happens, thousands of locals (20,000?) congregate to watch the fire balloon competition, all the trappings of a good festival come with it; beer tents, gambling, cock fights, overcrowded streets, overflowing foetid toilet pits, enthusiastic drunken young men doing some strange version of the conga down the streets. At times the press and swell of the crowd gets intense. Ferris wheels, gaudily lit, attract the youngsters. The operators of the wheels entertain themselves with monkey acrobatics amongst the spokes of the wheel. Huge fire balloons the size of houses are floated up every half hour, each one representing weeks of work for a local village team competing for some
unknown prize. Once airborne the balloons begin streaming fireworks in all directions, lighting the whole town, glowing from the inside to be lost to the upper reaches of the atmosphere, competing in brightness with the full moon briefly only to be lost from sight, their fate a mystery. At one point a stray firework spins wildly down towards us, I bundle us all out of the way, the firework hits the ground inches from where we standing, local lads pounce on it stamping and dancing around it, glowing pink from the ferocious sparks. Other fireworks catch in trees, or land on the tarpaulin roofs of the beer tents. It is chaos. It is wonderful.
From the safety of the hillside reaching up to the towns main temple, we watch the balloons, from this distance they are beautiful, we try one of our home-made cigars and appreciate the views of the chaotic celebrations.
I've been told that last year five people were killed in the last night of the festivities, the ways in which this could have happened are numerous; crushing, drinking, slipping and drowning in a toilet pit, or struck by rogue firework. This information isn't supplied.
Day four in Nyaungshwe next to Lake Inle, and finally onto the lake. This time we are to be the tourists in the 6m long boat with the outboard motors and treacherous wake. Some days start badly, everything seems to be against you, bad luck really does come in groups. My beloved Nikon D70, refuses to focus, refuses to read the memory card, and finally refuses to function at all. On to the backup camera. Four months of constant use prove too much for my Merrell sandals, midway from the guest house to the dock left sandal breaks, the straps coming away from the base. I walk barefoot to a small market stall selling suddenly overpriced white flip-flops, with lurid green plastic straps. It's better than going bare foot through the mud and horse shit for about 3 minutes, when I begin to develop blisters between my toes, I walk barefoot through the mud and horse shit to the dock. But sometimes days start badly but pick up... fortunately this was one of those days.
The lake is beautiful, the reflections are perfect, every view doubled. Oh how I missed my camera. The small point and shoot Cannon
that I purchased mainly for diving is now my only camera, and I'm not good with it, the LCD screen isn't bright enough in the harsh reflective light of the lake and I don't see what I'm shooting, the delay from press to capturing the shot is unfamiliar to me, I miss the polarising filter in this extreme light.
We stop to visit a market, passing floating fields of tomatoes. We get to dry land, well a muddy trek for 20 minutes to the market village. Jessica searches in vein for batteries for her camera, I'm not the only one with camera trouble on that day. Armed with the little cannon I stroll the market. We are not the only tourists, there is one other group. The market is full of local produce for local people. A monk visits each store collecting alms in a large silver bowl, people buy produce for the day, fabrics, clothes, beans, fried things I can't identify, fruits and vegetables, flowers. Many people wear broad rimmed woven cone hats, all the women wear thanaka paste on their cheeks. I buy some kind of rice and palm cake and some of the roasted soya beans
I enjoyed at the cigar factory.
The lake tour continues, we wade back through knee deep mud to the boat. The boat continues the tour past wooden houses on stilts with children waving, smiling and shouting from windows and doors - I wonder how life would be growing up here, reliant on boats to leave the house. I spent my youth exploring for miles around trespassing through the fields, forests and gardens of North Norfolk by bicycle or foot - another rural upbringing but very alien to me. We move on past thousands of water lilies, pagodas, isolated trees and palms, and more floating tomato farms.
I'd looked forward to our afternoon temple very much since hearing of it's existence, Nge Phe Kyaung temple is famous for it's jumping cats. We watched a monk coax a cat into jumping through a ring, twice. The cat then became bored and refused to co-operate any further, the show ended. The "jumping cat monastery" wins Myanmar's "most pointless tourist attraction" award... glad I went though, don't often see things as strange as that.
Cycling around the lake to hot springs, and picnics by pagodas filled our final day. When cycling
along the road kids have gathered there to ask for money or much more fun to make "high-fives" with the passing cyclists.
Somehow we made the mistake of booking another "mini-bus" to Mandalay for the next day... I haven't learned to not repeat my mistakes yet and I don't think I can start a Myanmar blog without a bus journey from hell story.
There are more photos below