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Published: November 25th 2017
Animal, vegetable and human sustenance apart, I’ve come to the conclusion that water in Myanmar has three key roles.
With fishing and tourism, it is a way of life, of making money, surviving.
In a country that has what I’ve seen politely described as “erratic” roads, it is a vital conduit for transport.
And here, where over 65% of the population is still rural, it can be a welcome place to relax and have fun.
My watery travels managed to reflect all three roles, but, for the sake of your digestion, I’ll post these as separate blogs.
After scampering round the capital-fest that is the Mandalay region and to fortify myself before the temple-a-thon that is Bagan, I opted few days of luxury on the shores of Inle Lake. There’s the option of staying in the nearby town, Ngaungshwe, which straddles a canal system filled with boatmen keen to takes you to the lake, but I decided to push the boat out (no pun intended) and stay on the lake itself. The Inle Resort & Spa kindly provides (slightly) cheaper accommodation in somewhat less aesthetically-appealing but nevertheless very comfortable two-storey whitewashed blocks at the far end
of its beautifully landscaped lakeside property, out of sight of the luxurious detached cottages. I had to keep reminding myself where I was. The similarity of the resort to medium-to-high end African safari camps was striking, although here there was no requirement to wait for a member of staff to escort you back to your room given that the primary nocturnal wildlife – judging by the night-time noises – was ranine, interspersed with cicadas.
THE thing to do here is to get a boat out onto the lake and go see the sights. So I did, relishing the early start to get ahead of my fellow tourists. To my delight, I had the boat to myself; well, me and a guide and a guy to yank the engine into life. Longtail boats are ubiquitous here, each with an inboard motor which operates a propeller at the end of a long shaft trailing out behind. Getting the engine going seemed to require at least as much technique as I remember my father exercising on his old Seagull outboard in the West Highlands of Scotland; not one for the fainthearted. Sadly these engines are very noisy and polluting, but they are
the mode of transport of preference for the majority of lake residents. The boats come different sizes, mine being at the smaller end of the spectrum, with space for perhaps four chairs to be set out, one behind the other, along the boat’s length, but we passed heavily laden “bus” variants that were much bigger and infinitely heavier laden. There wasn’t a safety briefing, but, in wriggling around to get comfortable a few minutes in to the trip, I found the lifejacket, a useful cushion in the interim.
It was a bit of an Alice-in-Wonderland experience. The hotel had advertised where we were supposed to go, but visiting the five-day rotating market depended on where it was that day, and the list that the hotel had provided didn’t entirely line up with the Book’s recommendations (though some of the gaps turned out to be the result of spelling and/or description discrepancies). I came back feeling as if I’d seen a lot of manufacturing and commerce in evidence: silversmiths, blacksmiths, weavers, spinners, cheroot-rollers, boat-makers (“ship-builder” sounds a bit metallic for these patient teak workers), fishermen and gardeners of the impressive floating vegetable gardens, to name but a few. In addition,
there were several temples and monasteries, and a place that combined the breeding of Burmese cats with a high-end lodge, a cookery school, and the development and promotion of eco-friendly agricultural and waste-disposal practices. I had the pleasure of exploring Inthein, the extraordinary forest of (so the Book tells me) 1,054 zedis (stupas) staggering up the hill, some choked in vegetation and crumbling in an Angkor Wat-like fashion, others glittering, fresh-scrubbed, in the sunlight, before the other tourists arrived – indeed, before most of the stallholders along its long entranceway had set up shop. But the crowds got their revenge on me when I arrived at Tha Lay. There the press of people, after a couple of hours’ tranquillity on the lake, was disorienting. I’m not wildly thrilled by crowds at the best of times, but usually I have been able to anticipate them. The cause of the stramash was the glittering Phaung Daw Oo Paya, the holiest site in southern Shan State. Here there are five Buddha relics or images – accounts vary – but they are now so covered in gold leaf (which only men are allowed to apply) that, whatever they were originally, they are now formless
blobs. And, for those who can’t or won’t brave the crowds to get close to them, there’s the option of buying a photograph of the blobs. But they’re still blobs. I extracted myself from the mélée and went in search of a cold coffee.
“Hotel?” asked my guide as we left the last “sight” for the day, Nga Hpe Kyaung, also known as the Jumping Cat Monastery, where sadly there were no cats in evidence, whether jumping through hoops (for tourists’ and bored monks’ entertainment) or otherwise. I’m not a lunch person, but today it was a case of doing anything to lengthen my time out on the lake. Quarter of an hour later I was happily sitting at one of the stilt-raised platforms that comprise the Shwe Yamin Restaurant. We’d passed it earlier and, albeit a tourist-magnet, I was entertained by this little spider’s web of platforms, each containing one table and benches around three sides, attached to its neighbours and the restaurant’s kitchen by similarly elevated walkways.
I eked out my Shan noodle dish and decadent lunchtime beer as long as I could, before re-joining the boat to be buzzed back to the hotel and another
24 hours of watching lake-life go by.
Tragically but not surprisingly, there’s another side to life around Inle Lake. One headline proclaims “An environmental catastrophe with government nowhere to be found”. The lake itself has shrunk dramatically over the years, some estimates putting the reduction as high as 50%, the product of reduced rainfall, land being cleared and reclaimed for the multiplying hotels, and the cultivation of the “floating gardens” that become permanent. Fish stocks and biodiversity have been affected by increasing pollution, including the run-off of toxic waste from nearby industry and chemicals from farming, and the introduction of alien species. The local Intha way of life is being preserved to please the tourist’s camera, but the people themselves are struggling to get by. Hardly the first time where the appeal of the tourist dollar has blinded the government and business to medium- and long-term environmental and human impact. But in 2015, the lake was added to the UNESCO’s World Network of Biosphere Reserves, the first to be so designated in Myanmar. Let’s hope that the resulting investment and conservation assistance is not too late to save this fabulous place.
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