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Published: February 2nd 2012
To say Inle Lake is breathtakingly beautiful just doesn’t do this place justice...
We had arrived in Inthein just after midday, seeking refuge from the scalding sun and its seething heat after what had been a gruelling three day, 60km hike across the Burmese countryside from Kalaw. Coincidentally, the local market was scheduled to be in town on the morning of our arrival, so we had rose early from our monastic (literally) lodging and hiked at a decent pace to reach Inthein market on the western shores of Inle Lake. When we arrived however, Amy and I and indeed our fellow hikers were simply too exhausted to really take everything in around the hustle and bustle of food vendors and souvenir stalls. Rather, we settled ourselves with what reprieve a local restaurant could provide and quietly ate our lunch before boarding our boat, which would take us north to Nyaungshwe, our base for exploring the lake and its surroundings for the following five nights.
Along our boat went, idly meandering across one of the lakes offshoot waterways for ten minutes or so. By this point we were back under the sun’s unforgiving glare and it was taking its toll
on us. We tried to huddle under our scarves for any shade we could muster but even this did not detract from the heat. I started to feel a little drowsy and almost dozed off but no sooner had my eyelids begun to feel extremely heavy, we had reached the vast openness of the lake itself. Weighty eyelids no more, I was wide eyed in wonder at what lay before us!
Inle Lake is an incredibly beautiful place. Its waters are impossibly serene for a setting where so much activity takes place on a 24-hour basis. This tranquillity was the first thing that struck me about Inle Lake, whose waters appear silk-like on their surface, such is their calmness. Reasons for such smooth waters are found on each side of the lake, where it is protected on its east and western shores by mountain peaks stretching the 13.5 mile length of the lake itself, each lined with countless golden Buddhist stupas glinting in the afternoon sunshine.
As recently as one month ago, we stayed in Danau Toba in Indonesia, a large lake beautiful in its own right whose shores are rich in culture. However, what we found at
Inle Lake surpassed Lake Toba in a more intimate way, what with the gentle nature of the co-existence of the lake and its human inhabitants, whose daily lives are so intertwined. As we glided towards its northern shores, I found it remarkable how such a short glimpse of this place had left me in awe.
Arriving in Nyaungshwe, we checked into our accommodation for our stay before a much needed afternoon nap. Earlier, we had arranged to meet with our travel companions for a celebratory dinner of sorts, having successfully completed our epic walk! So naturally, we all went for a curry! Sitting in the restaurant, enjoying the food and each other’s company, we swapped stories (and contact details) as night descended upon the town. After possibly the best cup of chai I have ever tasted, we said our goodnights and goodbyes before retiring for the evening to an actual mattress!
The primary thing to do on Inle Lake is of course to hire a boat and driver who can ferry you around and across the waters to see firsthand what makes the lake so special. Before doing so however, we needed to recuperate somewhat from the hike
we had taken, which wasn’t such a difficult walk in itself but the exposure to sun and heat had certainly taken their toll. I also took the opportunity to earn some significant ‘boyfriend points’ by tending to Amy’s severely blistered feet – money in the bank some would say but then, you didn’t see the state of her feet and in hindsight I’m not sure it was worth it!
We had planned to spend a significant amount of time in Nyaungshwe, in part due to budget but primarily to enjoy the laid back lifestyle. I’m sure some will turn their noses at the fact that we spent most of our time around the lake simply doing nothing at all but wandering around the streets of the town and enjoying its people and paying considerable attention to the cuisine. But as I have mentioned previously, we had anticipated and thus far experienced (certainly in Kalaw) a slow paced country and wanted our time to continue to reflect that, so days spent doing little else but people watching, eating and aimlessly rambling around Nyaungshwe’s streets seemed ideal to us.
After a few days however, we finally decided we were ready
for our big expedition out onto the lake, so hired ourselves a driver and boat and arose early to a crisp, clear morning to begin our day’s exploration. The weather hadn’t changed at all from our first night in Kalaw to our final day at the lake – scorching days and freezing nights, all the while accompanied by clear skies. Beginning our boat trip at 7.30 in the morning, we sailed through the chilly morning mist that covered the lucid waters, huddled in our fleeces and beneath blankets provided by the driver, as we headed for our first scheduled stop of the day at Maing Thauk on the eastern shores of the lake. The market which we had largely ignored at Inthein was in town and following a few days of doing nothing, we were ready to take in what the market could offer.
To be completely honest, it didn’t offer much! Or rather, it was much like some of the other local markets we have experienced during our time on the road (although absolutely less impressive than the local market at Bac Ha in Vietnam). It is something that both Amy and I have spoken about with each
other and perhaps mentioned in this blog numerous times - when travelling for such a long time, we’ve noticed how things which would have had us frivolous with excitement at the commencement of our trip have now become commonplace in our travels, and as such lose their “shine” with each visit. It creates a challenge in finding and appreciating subtle nuances in each place, but I must admit this can be a little tiresome at times. It is a similar effect with temples – unless we anticipate being amazed at first glance, we often question the value of even visiting.
After departing Maing Thauk, we found ourselves winding our way through narrow waterways, surrounded by reeds and long grass on each side as we made our way back to the main body of the lake. The next stop along our tour was Namphan, a floating village towards the south eastern side of the lake. As we approached, our boat slowed and we drifted effortlessly through small passageways which criss-crossed their way between stilted houses. Passing numerous villagers who offered smiles as they operated basic rowing boats, it struck me just how complicated even the most seemingly effortless task must
be for these villagers, who dwell in a place where no two buildings or structures are connected by land. For these people, even a trip to buy vegetables must be undertaken with painstaking repetitiveness and patience, climbing into their boats and ferrying their way across these waters for what is sometimes a matter of mere meters in distance.
However, the rudimentary nature of Namphan holds a certain appeal to which I think many can relate; to live such a peaceful existence. In this village, their lives are consumed by the lake and their lives are dependent upon the waters. Whilst it may seem tedious climbing into a boat for what could be a ten meter or ten mile jaunt numerous times per day (not a single traffic jam on these waters!), the simplicity of this way of life is, to me, in some ways enviable. However, whilst simple in some ways, this by no means underestimates the difficulty of the lives of these people – none more so that the fishermen who hold a somewhat iconic status on these waters.
Aspiring to perfect their craft from the age of twelve years old, these fishermen head out onto the
lake in the same basic boats we saw gliding around Namphan. This in itself requires technique and skill indigenous to Inle itself – in directing their vessels, these fishermen stand, precariously balanced on one leg at the very rear of the boat, whilst their ‘free’ leg is positioned away from their body at a 45 degree angle, all the whilst grasping a wooden oar with their foot. Then, with their leg (no hands!), they create elongated circular motions with the oar face, masterfully rotating its position between vertical and horizontal in the water to shift the boat forward with skill and grace that is almost ballet-like.
This act alone must take years to perfect. However, it is not the only difficult challenge facing these fishermen. Through all seasons, they must brave the lake, often for three and four day stretches before they will return home satisfied with their catch. I have already spoke of the harshness of conditions in this area and the extreme change between the blistering heat of the day and the painful cold of night, a dire reality these men (and boys) will work and sleep through, all in the hopes of catching approximately $10 worth
of fish per day! For Amy and I, meeting the fishermen and seeing them at work alone made this boat trip worth the while.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of some of the other stops along our route, including a rather hectic (with tourists) Phaung Daw Oo Paya (the holiest religious sight in southern Shan State), some floating gardens which were admirable in practicality and inventiveness but aesthetically lacking, not to mention the silk and jewellery production sites. Perhaps it sounds unappreciative and I am almost certainly not doing some of these sites justice, but in reality, what make this lake truly special (besides its unbelievable natural beauty) are the lives of its fishermen and the existence of their families in villages such as Namphan and indeed out on the unforgiving lake itself. It was a unique experience observing and learning more about their daily lives in one of the most stunning settings we have travelled to thus far...
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