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Published: November 19th 2005
Magical sunrise at Lake Inle
A place where water meets sky, but you don't know where, so seamless and fluid is the color - that is Lake Inle
Again we were on the road for a full day to get from Mandalay to Lake Inle
, but the taxi was pretty comfortable, the roads not too bad and the scenery really beautiful. We soon left the main road linking Mandalay with the capital Yangon, and after passing a checkpoint we kept driving uphill for a considerable time. The resulting cooler climate was a welcome change after the heat and dust of Mandalay. Jean-Marc had an altimeter with him and entertained us with the announcement of the changing altitude. Especially our taxi driver was fascinated and kept asking for new information. He was a nice guy speaking excellent English and told us that he had studied economics but was barred from studying after participating in student protests, which had rendered him very frustrated and filled with bitterness. Anyway, his family originally came from the region, that's why he was chosen as our driver, he also stayed some time with his mother. At Lake Inle we stopped in Nyaungshwe
, which practically all the tourists do, unless they stay on a luxury resort on the lake. We chose the guesthouse Remember Inn, that our driver had recommended, situated not directly by the canal,
Although the roads were really bumpy and the bridges less than comfortable, we had a lot of fun
which had the advantage that it was relatively cheap and quiet.
The huge lake was practically spread out before us, waiting for us to explore it. Or so we thought… Thus the four of us rented bikes at our guesthouse and energetically started pedalling toward the water surface. Our fervour did not last very long, though, it was soon retarded by numerous potholes and huge stones barring our way. This definitely made our ride less pleasant than we had hoped, and largely distracted our attention from the surrounding natural beauty. We were so concentrated on finding our way, avoiding other - hopefully rare - vehicles and doing our best not to abuse our behinds that we hardly spotted the lake. By and large we found out that this was not primarily our fault but resulted from Lake Inle’s position and substance. Although it covers a large surface, it does not have clearly outlined banks as is the case with Alpine lakes, Lake Inle more resembles a steppe lake like the Austrian Neusiedlersee or the Hungarian Balaton. Its banks mainly consist of a broad reed belt, so access to the water is mostly guaranteed by man-made canals, one of which
Pagoda on a hilltop
Cycling was not enough exercise, we also had to climb a hill...
links Nyaungshwe to Lake Inle. Despite this discouraging discovery we continued on bumpy paths, accompanied by the frequent quacking of ubiquitous ducks, and Jean-Marc could not help wondering where we could eat delicious canard a l’orange
tonight tormenting us with mouth-watering recipes he had recently tried out successfully. Once we stopped to climb a low hill, finding a nice small monastery on top endowed with beautiful views on rice fields below. By cycling around we got the chance to get some insight into Burmese everyday life, how people worked and interacted. Although the ride was tough on our behinds, we enjoyed it a lot but were disappointed not to find duck anywhere on the menu for dinner. What do they do with all the ducks?
Since we had not seen much of the lake, we behaved like all the other tourists, and rented a boat. The manager of the guesthouse, a very kind and helpful lady, had recommended us to start early in order to experience the sun rise over Lake Inle, which is deemed magic. As nightlife is inexistent and we had gone to bed early, we consented. Equipped with packed breakfast and jackets against the cool morning
View from the small pagoda
Wonderful view on the rice fields below and the hills in the background
air, we first walked to the canal, and boarded a boat to start our discovery of Lake Inle. Tourists are pampered, they put a maximum of 6 in one boat and provide them with nice chairs and life jackets. The local population travels in groups of 20 to 30 people, sitting on the ground on mats, but very probably they pay only a fraction of what tourists do. The typical long tail boats can go incredibly fast in the open water and only slow down when encountering other long tail boats or rowing boats of the local population. After 30 minutes on an extremely long canal we finally reached the lake where we could see some of the famous fishermen who offered an especially romantic sight at dawn. After moving on the open water for considerable time, we reached the first villages which are characterised by a network of canals densely populated on both sides, with private houses, shops, pagodas, restaurants and handicraft workshops. We tried hard but could not avoid visiting two of such workshops, one for paper umbrellas and one for cigars, but once again got the impression that nobody really works there, it’s all just a show
Living at Lake Inle
After some trouble we found a path leading to the lake and watched the local people living there
The lake is about 50 km long and 7 km wide but nevertheless it is not only an open body of water. On the contrary, it is densely populated (roughly 100,000 people), not unlike the surrounding landmasses. Due to this fact there is heavy traffic on the water, long tail boats mainly carrying the tourists around, smaller motor boats or numerous rowing boats for the local population, the tribe of the Inthas (=sons of the lake). Many centuries ago these people were on the run and found refuge in the Lake Inle region. But they could not settle on the banks as these were already populated by the Shan people, so they migrated onto the lake, by now they inhabit more than 70 villages. There they built their houses on stilts, which is not overly difficult because the lake is rather shallow, maximum 5 metres deep. As faithful Buddhists, they could not imagine life without monasteries or pagodas and so Lake Inle is dotted with beautiful, often wooden, sacral buildings. They largely live on fishing and developed special nets and the unique technique of rowing with their feet (because they need both hands for the nets) in
Like in many countries in Southeast Asia, the Burmese women have a shower fully dressed
a standing position while at the same time handling the nets. And everything without losing their balance or toppling over the boat! This fact makes them an extremely popular sight for tourists. When we asked local people in Nyaungshwe about this rowing technique, they answered that only the Inthas were able to master it and learn it from early childhood on. Of course the Inthas do not only live on fish. The villages on the lake function like any other settlement, requiring all kinds of professions: blacksmiths, weavers, goldsmiths and merchants, the Inthas being actually very skilled at this. But they also had a very smart idea and set up floating gardens on the lake, since they could not cultivate the soil of the banks. These special gardens quickly developed into a major tourists attraction, also we were amazed about the sight of the masses of algae, water hyacinths and aquatic herbs that were closely intertwined, having formed over the years on the banks. The Inthas cut these vegetable masses into stripes around 15 m long and 2 m wide and drag them into the middle of the lake. Then they cover them with soil and mud and put all
A highly striking aspect of almost all Burmese pagodas is the long gallery which is used by souvenir sellers
kinds of seeds in there. These small islands are attached to poles which are anchored into the ground of the water, an easy feat considering the water’s shallowness. All kinds of fresh produce grow there, salad, potatoes, string beans, but moist of all tomatoes. The region of Lake Inle is the biggest producer of tomatoes in Myanmar and you can find them all over the country.
We love nature a lot and the lake was a very fascinating piece of it, with the reeds, water hyacinths, floating gardens and huge pools of red and white lotus covering wide areas. But whenever there is a chance of visiting a cultural site, we never leave that out. This way we visited three monasteries and pagodas, starting with the Phaung Daw U Pagoda
, the holiest of all religious buildings on and around Lake Inle due to five little Buddha statues that are kept inside. Our boat did not moor directly, they let us disembark on the opposite side and to get there we had to cross a bridge. The bridges, the canals and the pagoda that is erected in the middle of a square made us think of Venice and the St.
Cleaning the stupa
Without the use of machines a small stupa is liberated from year-old weed
Marc Square. The pagoda actually dates from the 12th century, but due to numerous modifications and extensions it leaves a modern impression. Hordes of believers visit the highly venerated pagoda every day and many vendors sell gold leaves that only men are allowed to apply onto the sacred statues. Every year in the month of October four of these statues are transported across the lake in a fascinating procession on the occasion of an important Intha festival. This festival was the reason why we had changed our whole itinerary, and the following blog will be completely dedicated to it with wonderful pictures.
After lunch break on the market by the Phaung Daw U Pagoda we continued our visit to the In Dein
village with its pagodas, which is actually not situated on the lake but can be best reached by boat by following a river upstream for about half an hour. The pagodas themselves are actually not by the river but as usually situated on a hilltop. All the way to the top consists of a 600m long covered gallery, where numerous souvenir stalls court for tourists in order to sell their handicraft. We wanted to proceed to the
Naturally there is no other way to move on the lake than by boat
top, but inevitably made a lot of stops to look at the diverse handicraft as they were appealingly spread out before our eyes. So we took the first chance to leave the gallery, and all of a sudden stood in the middle of old stupas from the 17th century that were slowly but beautifully deteriorating. This was a forsaken place, there was not even a proper path, but we managed to walk around carefully and discovered wonderful stone carvings. The monastery on top was quite disappointing as everything had been rebuilt thereby losing most of its charm but we discovered further ruins on the other side of the gallery on our way back.
Our last stop was at the Nga Phe Chaung Monastery
(jumping cat monastery) on our way back to Nyaungshwe. This one is beautiful edifice in an isolated position, supported by 650 solid teak pillars for more than 250 years and contains some beautiful Buddha statues. Still none of these architectural details account for its fame, but a special breed of monastic cats that also gave the monastery its name. In the 1960s a single monk used top live there with his cat, which slept on the
House on Lake Inle
Incredible to see how people manage to live on the lake
monk’s knees while he was meditating. As soon as the monk stood up, he would shout to the cat “jump!”, and the feline jumped over his arms, each time higher than before. These days hordes of people come to admire the cats jumping through a plastic ring when a monk tells them to. In theory this sounds easy but the cats do not always do as the monk or the visitors want them to and we had to wait a considerable time to see the first jump, maybe the incentive of food, which was rattled in a metal box, also helped. Anyway, it is interesting to note that only those cats descending from the original ‘jumping cats’ are capable of the famous jumps. Several cats from outside have been initiated to the jumping skills, but all in vain. As if this playful activity was in the genes! At least this is what the guides said, we had no chance to confirm it. The jumping cats were not very interesting and we were happy to be in the boat again and start the long way back to Nyaungshwe, where we arrived quite exhausted but full of unforgettable memories.
Hopefully he will catch a lot of fish
the landscape around Nyaungshwe very much, so we set out for a long walk another day. First we thought that we would not stay long, but found the flora and fauna on the way so fascinating that we did not get back before several hours. There were so many different flowers, and Klaudia used the camera's macro function a lot. Apart from that we discovered a lot of huge spiders that fascinated us so much that Stephan got very close with the camera and he even touched one specimen on the legs, whereupon it started moving and Klaudia started screaming. Later we learnt that they were not very dangerous and a bite would not hurt very much. Good to know… Lake Inle is a very nice place and almost a must for every Myanmar visitor. We liked it a lot, especially the villages on the lake with the ingenious Inthas.
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