Day 50: The Floating Villages of Inle Lake

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December 3rd 2009
Published: December 21st 2009
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Shan women in the food and craft market.
Sometimes it is hard to believe that this isn't all a dream. This morning we had breakfast at dawn, under our large acacia tree. The full moon was low on the horizon and we had a perfect view of its reflection in the Ayeyarwady River.

Our flight today to Inle Lake was at 8:15am. Our phenomenal guide and driver, Aung Shwe and Minmin, picked us up at the hotel at 6:45am for the ten minute drive to the airport.

Bagan has been one of our favorite parts of our entire trip, in no small part because of Aung Shwe and Minmin. We were sad to say goodbye.

Ever the teacher, Aung Shwe presented us with a detailed map of the Bagan area and a list of all of the temples that we had seen, along with a cheat sheet to help us remember specific features at each temple (easy to confuse the temples after seeing so many). He also gave us a copy of his "evolution of the zedi" chart which is shown on the previous blog entry. The chart shows pictorially how zedis (stupas) have evolved over time. With the chart in hand we should be able

Teaching school for monks we visited enroute to Inle Lake.
to guesstimate the date of construction for any zedi/stupa in Bagan. We may need to study a bit more.

Aung Shwe's last bit of advice to us was to make sure we sat on the left side of the plane for a great view of the temples during takeoff. Yangon Airways has open seating, similar to Southwest Airlines in the U.S. We thanked them both and said goodbye at the departure lounge.

In the departure lounge we ran into our Spanish friends once again. They were flying on a different airlines and were headed to Mandalay for a few days, so this is probably the last time that we'll see them. It was almost like saying goodbye to old friends; it is surprising how easily friendships form when you travel. We wished our friends a wonderful trip and then bolted across the airfield to secure good seats on our plane (an ATR72 - a common propeller plane).

A note on the airlines here in Burma. Four airlines fly the domestic routes and there's quite a bit of controversy about which one to fly as they all seem to have some level of affiliation with the government (and

Monk students having lunch.
therefore by flying, you know that some portion of your fare is going to the government). Yangon Airways seems to have the best safety record and to boot it's logo is a cute flying elephant. Good enough for us. Myanmar Airways (which we are not and will not be flying) is owned by the government and evidently air incidents (read: crashes) are a bit of a problem. Yikes!

After landing, we went through the requisite H1N1 "do you have a fever? let's check your temperature and find out!" checkpoint (we're mildly curious to see what happens when you do have a slight elevation in temperature . . ), got our bags and met our guide, Sanda and our driver for today, Mr. Han (a very large man with a big smile and apparently no first name).

We had arrived at the airport nearest to Inle Lake in the town of Heho, a bustling village of about 20,000 people located about 25 miles from the lake. Sanda explained that we were in luck. Today was a big market day in Heho and we would be able to stop and have a look around. Apparently the market operates on a

Angelique and our guide as we arrive on Inle Lake.
five-day rotation and the location of the market changes each day.

The market was very large with rows and rows of vendors selling mostly produce but also some basic clothes (made in factories outside of Yangon; according to Sanda, the better quality clothes are exported). Sanda pointed out foods local to the Inle region: eggplant, oranges, ginger, rice, onions, chilis, garlic. We did some price comparisons. How much for 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of ginger? Pennies in Inle. Almost 100x more in the U.S.

At the back of the market there were a few oxen for sale. $500 will get you an ox and another $500 a cart. Not needing either, we wrapped up our walk and continued down the road towards Inle Lake. On the way we dropped in at a gorgeous Shan monastery built in the 1800s by the British and made almost entirely of teak wood. Inle Lake is located in the Shan state within Burma; the population are mostly Shan people, a group that is closely related to tribes in neighboring Thailand. In fact, the term "Shan" is derived from "Siam", the former name of Thailand.

There are 37 young monks studying in

Leg paddlers on Inle Lake.
the monastery; 3 older monks keep them in line. Sanda led the way into the main temple where about a dozen boys were praying under the watchful eye of the head monk. Some were chanting, others were sitting quietly, some were staring out the window (or at us). Most of the kids looked a bit bored. It must be a tough life for these kids. They leave home, sometimes even before they are 10 years old, and follow a strict schedule here: wake up at 4am, spend most of the day in prayer or meditation, eat only a few small meals (nothing after 12pm). Somehow we can't see our nephews, Owen and James, living this way.

We talked with the head monk for a few minutes (he asked where we are from, how we like Burma, etc). We told him that being in charge of 37 boys is a difficult job and he agreed. As we all sat cross-legged on cushion two cats joined us; their names are Mr. Black and Mr. White. Too cute.

On to Inle Lake. Nyaungshwe is the main town and is located at the north end of the lake. In Nyaungshwe we transferred

Fisherman on Inle Lake.
from the car to a motorized canoe, which would be our transport for the next 24 hours. It was pretty comfortable with three lawn-chair like seats.

Inle Lake is absolutely gorgeous. Approximately 13 miles long and 7 miles wide, it is home to over 100 villages and 80,000 people. Think about that for a minute. 80,000 people live not near the lake but ON the lake in "floating" villages, collections of houses built on stilts and organized into neat rows or neighborhoods. These people are all from the Intha Tribe but many other tribes make the trip from the surrounding mountains for the popular market days on the lake.

Inle Lake has a very different feel from Bagan. Since the lake is so large, it is easy to get away from people. We saw very few tourists. Most of the Intha make their living by either fishing or farming. The farms ("floating gardens") are quite extraordinary. They're semi-islands in the water planted with all kinds of crops. We are visiting in the middle of the tomato harvest. The lake sits at an elevation of 3,000 feet, making it a little chilly in the winter. The surrounding mountains top

Family transporting kids after school back to the fishing village. Inle Lake.
out at approximately 5,000 feet. Fortunately, we had good weather today and it was warm in the sun. There's such a peaceful, pastoral feel here. Very easy to enjoy.

Other industries on the lake include cigar production, silk weaving, and silver- and gold-smithing (using materials from the nearby mines). The mines are near a second lake just south of Inle; however, the other lake is strictly off limits to tourists (and many Burmese).

Our hotel, the Inle Resort, is spectacular. It sits right on the Western edge of the lake and is a collection of large individual bungalows on stilts. We decided to splurge and, for $90, have a "Royal Villa" bungalow, which sits on the lake itself, facing west (great for sunset). It's honeymoon material. A large living room area with glossy teak floors, sliding doors that lead to a huge bedroom with floor-to-ceiling windows and views of the lake. The decor is all local (sculptures, paintings, etc). Unfortunately, we only had 30 minutes to settle in before heading on to lunch and the sites.

We had lunch at a restaurant on the lake. Not surprisingly, fish is the specialty here and it's quite good. We

Floating village on Inle Lake.
had a whole grilled fish cooked in garlic and ginger, a spicy fish curry, tomato juice (extremely fresh but not salty enough for Angelique) and starfruit juice (pretty good!). Plus rice and bottled water. All for $11.

The Phaung Daw Do Pagoda is the most popular tourist site on Inle Lake and a very sacred pilgrimage site for many Burmese people. After Bagan, our interest in temples was less than zero but we perked up upon hearing the story of famous five Buddhas who live here. They are five statues of sitting Buddhas (think of Buddha in the typical cross-legged position). However, after many many years of people (men, actually - women aren't allowed to touch them) sticking gold leaf on to them, they've turned into little lumpy gold blobs. And the buddha statues love to travel. Every October, four of the five go on an 18-day tour of the lake in a very special, very extravagantly ornate boat with a full entourage. The fifth little blob doesn't like to travel any longer. Apparently many years ago during the October festival, there was a huge storm and he fell overboard. The villagers panicked and looked everywhere for him but he was lost. Magically, a few days later, he appeared back at the temple, covered in seaweed. He prefers to remain on terra firma these days.

Our next stop was a weaving village. The ladies here weave silk and lotus fibers. These lotus fibers taken from the stem of the lotus plant (which grow on lily pads throughout the lake). The fibers are very strong but the material is rare and the end product is expensive ($50+ for scarves). The lotus fibers feel like a coarser cotton. Before returning to the hotel, we also visited a group of women making cigars in a large building on stilts. We don't smoke so no cigars for us....but we were able to enjoy a small snack and some green tea while we watched the women rolling cigars.

On the way back to the resort, we passed by a large fishing village and then through some floating gardens. School had just finished for the day and we saw many canoes filled with kids coming home. The children smiled and waved and called to us in both Burmese and English as we made our way through their neighborhood. It was really nice.

Back at the resort, we watched the sun set over the lake. Our only option for dinner was the resort but the food was surprisingly good. The restaurant is positively cavernous with dozens of tables, a stage and even a balcony upstairs with more tables. This resort is clearly meant to be used by large groups but tonight it was very quiet. By the time we left, only six tables were in use.

If you ever visit Burma, try shan noodles. They are similar to Pad Thai, but with slightly different spices, and they're delicious!

We were surprised to be served dinner rolls here in the land of rice. However, we later found out that wheat is grown on the mountains that surround the lake. The teak forests have been heavily logged and some of the land is now being used for farming. Angelique also tried a local wine (!!). The producer is a German guy who planted vineyards about 20 miles away. He grows several varietals including shiraz (syrah), cabernet sauvignon, and sauvignon blanc (this is the one that Angelique tried; it wasn't bad at all!).

Unfortunately, we leave Inle Lake tomorrow afternoon. We hope to visit again to explore the nearby mountains - there's a great trek that begins in the village of Kalaw and ends 30 miles east at Inle Lake. Tomorrow we visit the famous Jumping Cat monastery.


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