The Wonderful world of the Intha - boats, beauty and the Inle Way

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December 25th 2006
Published: January 14th 2007
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Pa-O Girl in MarketPa-O Girl in MarketPa-O Girl in Market

She drove a hard bargain for the tea that she was selling
Our trip to Inle Lake, home of the Intha people started off in high spirits as we shared our taxi with fellow travellers, Ven and Anita from England, Laura and Sarah from the US via Laos and Therese from Switzerland via Singapore. The topography was vastly different from the dry plains of Bagan and so were the people. The trees and the rolling hills seemed greener than ever after the browns and greys of the east and the people reflected the landscape, dressed in warmer clothes for the cooler climes.

After settling into our guesthouse we were off to explore the town of Nyaungshwe, the gateway to Inle Lake. Nyaungshwe also known as Yaungshwe means Golden Banyan tree and according to our guidebook would be over run with tourists in the high season and we were smack in the middle of it. As a result we expected the usual tourist infrastructure of guesthouses followed by souvenir shops sandwiched between banana pancake restaurants who doubled as bars with mojitos at night, however, a quick stroll down the dusty streets turned that vision on its head. Not only were there few tourists roaming around, but the restaurants faded into the background as the locals went about their business and souvenir shops were non existent. Even the market was really just a local event, especially in the wee hours of the morning where you would find the streets an explosion of colour as the flower sellers did a brisk trade. The few stalls selling tourist trinkets were relegated to the back and rarely busy. Wandering the quiet streets where there there were more barbers than tourists was a pleasure, just to watch and ponder the life of the people here in this region. It was in the town that we quickly began to fall under the spell of the area and this would only intensify the more time that we spent here.

But the real star attraction was the lake, at 22km length and 11km wide, its glassy surface was a world onto itself. This world could only be accessed by one of the many boats with their long noses and noisy engines. Modified for tourists, the boats were equipped with chairs so you could peer with open eyes at your surroundings while the locals went by sitting on the floor of theirs. And of course you didn't have to worry about finding a boat because the boat operators would find you - in droves - all you had to do was wander down to the boat jetty - and for about $15 day you would have a boat, boatman and guide to hit all the tourist hotspots.

It all seemed fairly regular as we headed down the 3.5km canal before hitting the open waters of Inle, but there the magic began to work its wonders. The infamous Inle foot rowing fishermen were out in full force to capitalize on posing for the tourists, but later we did see that this practise was still highly in vogue, used by the Intha who rowed with one foot and worked the fishing nets with both hands - very impressive to see the skill and balance required to pull this off. In fact, boats were a way of life for all from the smallest of children to the oldest of women, all who have grown up on the water. Wooden canoes were used by all to row to the store, collect seaweed from the lake, fish, visit your neighbours, pray at the temple, and to go to school.

The lake hid the delights of the 17 Intha villages where small canals clogged with water hyacinths led to the real highlights of life in Inle. Without a guide there was absolutely no way that you could ever hope to find your way out of the villages since at every twist and turn there were tiny passageways, mainly made for one boat, but somehow our boatmen with their incredible skills managed to squeeze us through in the company of others going in the opposite direction. The villages showed a prosperous and proud people who were highly industrious and resourceful, having build wooden and bamboo houses on stilts with little bridges across the village to connect the houses and complete with a slip for a boat or two at each house!

Moving out from each village there were the highly covetted floating gardens. Now imagine rows of ripe cherry tomatoes staked up and shining in the sunlight, followed by lettuce, flowers, and all other crops. Nothing unique about that you might think, but it was, the entire garden was suspended and floating on the water, tiny passageways left between the rows so the Inthe could row their boats along and tend to their gardens. No wonder the produce in the markets in town looked so good!

Leaving the villages with their smiling people who worked at weaving of silk and lotus flowers to produce stunning cloth along with crafting of gold and silver we moved to the outlying areas. As we drifted along we had to watch out for our favourite hazards, the water buffalo! Now talk about a speed bump! Everywhere they were tied in the rivers, soaking to keep cool in the days heat. In nearby fields, men sang while they worked tending to rice in the fierce sun. Bamboo groves lazily hung over the water to shade us while we floated by.

Arrived in Indein and we braced ourselves for the endless hoards of salespeople, but they never came. Instead we walked to the top of the hill to see the view over Inle with all of its small houses and canals when all of a sudden we noticed a bunch of locals in the temple eating lunch and the next thing we know our guide is telling us that they are inviting us in to eat with them! Slipping off our shoes, we head in to sit on the floor with them, men on one side of the room, and women on the other. They begin to pour us tea, give us rice cakes and other unknown foods. It is so kind that we can not refuse. They can not speak English so we spend the hour or so in pantomine exchanging laughter and smiles as they look at our pictures of Canada, as well as our ditigal cameras, and everyone - boys included! - tried my sunscreen and coloured lip balm! They type of hospitality is typical of the Intha as we are to discover and this is only our first taste of it!

Finally they have to go back to work so we wish them well and head off to see the thousands of whitewashed stupas of Indein, set high up on the hill in the hot sun with a smile on our face and our bellies full! They do not disappoint set in various states of repair, the old worn ones being our favourite, especially with their umbrellas slightly askance on top looking as though they could topple over at any second!

Back in the boat we see a festival in full progress at one of the temples and negotiate with our boatman to stop by giving up another site and it is well worth it. At this time of the year, boys and girls are planning to take their pledge to be monks or nuns and the whole community comes out to celebrate and support the children and their families. At this temple there is a huge paper sculpture including kitchen implements hanging from it, music in full swing and a general atmosphere of small town carnival with children eating ice cream and smiles abounding. But there is more than that as we are ushered upstairs into the temple and told to sit down. Immediately we are honoured guests and are brought tea while we watch traditional dance and singing. The next thing we know we are being pushed to the front so that we have the best seats in the house to witness the little boy being invested into the monkhood. Close by are his parents, and sisters dressed in their finest yellow with white crystal flowers in their hair. The boy shines in his costume of regal yellow silk. The monk comes to bless him while the community watches and we stare wide eyed while being so close. There are prayers as the boy presents his robes and the monk accepts him. Everyone is kneeling and supporting the young boy as he goes on his way in the arms of his proud parents.

Regretfully we leave the party - though we suspect that it is just beginning - because there is a long way to go to get back for the evening and our Xmas dinner. The sunset over the lake is spectacular while we watch everyone rowing home for the night. For us, it is a freezing cold boat ride as the temperature dips dramatically as the nightfall brings coldness to the region. Back in Nyuangshwe we head off for a traditional Xmas dinner of pizza and good old Myanmar wine (who knew?!) complete with good company and our Xmas hats still savouring our amazing day. Thanks for our fellow travellers for a very memorable Xmas Day 2006!

The next day was much of the same, continuing our love in with the Intha and Inle. All together again, we took the boat out to a market where local people come regularly. Once we passed the tourist kitsch of the beginning, we hit the fresh produce and real life bargaining that accompanies any brisk trade. The photo opportunities abounded, but it is changing as the profusion of tourism is beginning to impact the locals who are starting to ask for money. Still, for now, it was a chance to roam around and do like the locals, buy a little food - not always edible from my perspective - and enjoy the social aspect of the market life where you can drink tea and eat sweets and gossip with neighbours.

After that, having hit all the tourist hot spots the day before, we told the boatman that we did not want to go to any factories where it is all about commissions, but rather to just see some of the smaller villages so he said that he would take us to his village which was exactly what we wanted! As we passed through the water lilies and pulled up to his family's place, Kurt and I stepped off onto this footbridge of bamboo, then Ven, Anita and Therese. The family had come down to welcome us and were standing on their steps. As the words, "welcome to our house" were still hanging in the air -- crack -- the bamboo dock began to break, sending us all into the water. Kurt and I stepped up into the house and the rest back into the boat amid gales of laughter into which we all joined. Nice introduction!

That pretty much set the tone of our entire visit as we were welcomed upstairs into their world where there were women rolling cheroots while the grandmother watched their grandchildren. They worked so quickly and effortlessly as we watched in amazement, but the real stars were the little boys who kept us all in stitches as they posed for us and we snapped photos to their delight and also put temporary tatoos on them with the Canadian flags. Tea and papaya appeared out of nowhere and without the help of language we spent 2 hours there, sharing the international language of laughter.

Sadly it was time to go, bamboo dock repaired which we walked across gingerly, we left, small faces pressed up against the glass and waving goodbye to us until we couldn't hear the "bye byes" anymore. Smiles still on our faces we savoured the experience all the way back to the town and thought about the kindness of strangers who have so little and of their grace and hospitality.

Contemplated it all over again during our last pizza dinner and the best mojitos ever as we all toasted Inle Lake. Sarah and Laura had already left and Ven, Anita and Therese would leave the next day so we were on our own again. And we realized that it was a good thing that we had not started off in Inle at the beginning of our trip as we might never have left. The area had bewitched us with its charms, the landscape, the people and our fellow travellers all conspired to make it a highlight of our trip, but we had many more miles to cover so we were to be on our way soon.

Additional photos below
Photos: 22, Displayed: 22


Mystery food in market near Inle LakeMystery food in market near Inle Lake
Mystery food in market near Inle Lake

Looked better than it tasted!
The tourist floating market in InleThe tourist floating market in Inle
The tourist floating market in Inle

Nary a local to be seen!

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