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Published: March 16th 2012
As I peddled furiously along narrow winding paths trodden only by the footsteps of those before me who live along the banks of Inle Lake I could only gaze at the extraordinary beauty of this natural bowl of water encapsulated by towering mountains. The sun soaked us with its heat, the roads coated us in their dust and the locals waved at us cheerily as we passed them. The paths narrowed further until they came to an abrupt stop; just in front of the steps of a traditional stilted teak house on the far edge of a tiny village made up of ten or so other similar houses. I pondered the distance debating if it was worth going further considering the pathway had now completely vanished under my wheels. Children we passed playing football only moments ago swarmed us waving their hands in the air pointing backwards; Ahh, the international sign for “You’re going the wrong way”!
I had cycled for a good twenty minutes and found myself cycling back along the exact same route until I took an alternative diversion in the hope this might take me to Inle Lake. An hour and a half later I
figured I should have arrived at some water. I anticipated flocks of foreigners hanging out of cafe’s and bars along a waterfront years previously stolen from the locals in order to extort more money out of thirsty travellers. But there was nothing. No over-populated waterfront, no bars, no cafe’s, no signs. Just a man at the side of the road waving at us pointing down a track road which common sense dictated led to water. We followed the pointing fingers and found a teak bridge which led over the marshy waters in to the beginnings of a mass of water, although we could only see a tiny trickle. Walking our bikes along the bridge we encountered fisherman, children swimming, stilted water villages, excited locals and stalked all the while by the man with the eager pointing hands from earlier. He stopped us and asked if we wanted a boat. We declined the offer pointing to our bikes and explained that we would ride back along the waterfront. Language barriers prevented his understanding, and as it turns out our understanding also; the bridge unexpectedly stopped in the middle of the water, with guess whose boat moored at the end? Of course,
our stalker. He cornered us and told us to use his boat. Again we declined, took photos, tried to look unabashed by the sudden let down of a sunset bike ride along the water’s edge before heading back to the main road along dust filled roads which wound their way back to the hotel. The extraordinary large face of the moon accompanied us along our journey as it rose above the usually tall green peaks smothered in shades of burnt oranges and pinks as the sun set opposite.
It wasn’t until the next day when we hired a boat to take us to see the Lake that I comprehended a) just how huge it is, b) there is no waterfront area as it is all marsh land and therefore inhabitable unless you live in a teak house on stilts and c) just how formidable a mass of still water can make one feel. In previous cities of Burma everyone had complained of the tourist numbers flocking to Inle Lake and crowding the areas. Starting later in the day I felt nothing of the sort. Bagan was jammed full of tourists, but the lake was not. It
is hard to explain the beauty of Inle Lake, it is astounding and so unexpected. I imagined a lake where I could see the other end, but Inle is so massive you cannot. As we approached the opening of the silver expanse of water I was transported away from the worries of the bus incident; and maybe this was the first time I didn’t think about it or see it for any length of time. I observed the peace transcend, the mist rise and the expanse go on forever. A calm instilled itself inside my heart and my mind; my fear of water temporarily evaporated with the droplets of water making their way back in to the atmosphere. I fell in love with it.
We did the tourist route and stopped off at certain places of ‘interest’ but our boatman was more than obliging to take us through the floating gardens and the water villages rather than silk factories and other government run organisations. I was happiest sitting in the boat gliding through the water, marvelling as we sliced the stillness creating ripples which I knew would never disturb much of the water considering its sheer immensity.
It was almost as if my being here could be a secret from the rest of the lake. When one throws a stone in to a pond the ripples extend to the furthest corners, every part of water appears to be affected by my throwing the stone; but here on this lake, those ripples would never trickle to the sides. I guess you could say the same for the sea but I have never in my life seen water so still and return to such stillness so quickly. It was mind-blowingly beautiful. So tranquil, so motionless, almost like time its self had stopped.
We past fisherman standing on one leg like flamingos, while the other leg was wrapped around their ore and steered the boat as their hands were casting out the fishing nets. Some took their young sons out with them, little faces peering out at us over the edge of the long boat, their eyes following us until we were nothing but specs in the distance. Watching the fisherman adopt their gait was a formidable glimpse of what the body is capable of without modern contraptions. The pagoda market was stunningly refreshing and local. The
only tourists there at the time, although I assume a typical tourist spot considering the number of stalls selling t-shirts emblazoned with images of fisherman and the words ‘Inle Lake’. The market itself was a mass of vibrant colours intermingled with fruit, vegetables, necessities and clothes as the locals bartered for goods weighing items with traditional scales I remember seeing in my Mothers Antiques shop when I was very young. As an inquisitive child I used to place other antique jewellery on it to see how much things weighed in equilibrium to another item. In Burma they positioned an apple on one tray and a battery on the other; the battery acting as a weight.
The floating gardens were exactly what is says; floating masses of gardens; vegetation on the river which can be stood upon. Locals ferried themselves about with their long boats gliding between the rows of floating grass planting, picking and pruning. Something I found almost incomprehensible. The floating villages graced us with their beauty as we glided between the rows of stilted structures observing daily life as women washed in the waters; children collected water or played; men cleaning or working on their
house. Venice is incredible and a truly beautiful place to experience but here on Inle Lake was by far the most absurd thing I have ever seen; far more astounding than Venice; although Venice has the grand architecture in its favour.
In the basic structures, simple living, and lack of western standards lends Burma to make one truly feel at peace with the world, whilst at the same time heart wretched at what could be perceived as poverty, only relative however. There is not absolute poverty here, not that I saw. They may not have what we have in our western worlds but I have learnt this does not make one poor. It is in this simplicity I find tranquillity. I perceive a world where it is almost untouched by the greedy capitalist and can observe people at work in real life, not performed for the foreigner to make an extra buck or two. Sadly this is starting to happen with the Karen tribe, long necked women who are forced in to slavery so tourists can take photos of them; tantamount to a zoo, an example of tourism gone wrong and one we could actively stop
by not going. Other companies have shot up around the lake such as cigar rolling; silk weaving; silver smiths and much more which display women in rows who then perform for us when we walk in to the premises. Apart from these minorities; which in comparison to other countries is miniscule, there is the opportunity to explore real Burmese life untouched and unaffected by western civilisations. It is purely mind altering and earth shatteringly remarkable.
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