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Published: April 5th 2012
Though Myanmar is becoming an increasingly popular destination, there are still experiences not touched by tourism’s tenacious tentacles. Since I gravitate towards the road even less travelled when journeying on the road less travelled, I was thrilled by a certain prospect on offer at Inle Lake. My arrival at the undistinguished town of Nyaungshwe was via a half-hour flight and bumpy 90 minute car journey; immensely preferable to the ghastly minimum 12 hour bus alternative. I transferred to an elongated boat that contained a single column of seats, where each passenger sits directly behind the one in front. The driver settled at the stern where he controlled a ridiculously noisy motor that propelled all occupants at speed.
My first voyage on the lake revealed delightful surrounds, the vast waters mostly encircled by thickly wooded emerald hills. On the lake, fishermen in rudimentary canoes practiced their craft, which included the unusual method of men wrapping their calf around an oar for steerage whilst keeping both hands free to tend to nets. Some fishermen would slap the water with their oars (to what end I am unsure) and others kept large conical nets shaped by curved staves.
My accommodation for four
nights was the Golden Island Cottages at Thale U run cooperatively by the Pa-O people, and guests arriving are musically greeted by percussion-playing staff. Built entirely over water, it was enchanting to traverse the extensive wooden platforms towards the rustic huts with cathedral ceilings. Staying on the lake is visually serene, but aurally irritating, for those same elongated boats from which I had just disembarked, sounded akin to oversized lawnmowers as they skirted across the waters transporting people and produce. Thankfully, the lake assumes a quieter character during the evening and one can sit on the balcony in chilly conditions, and gaze across a darkened expanse of water faintly illuminated by the gibbous moon.
Travelling throughout the lake offered vignettes of a fascinating lifestyle. These resourceful folk have constructed substantial floating gardens within the lake, where all manner of fruit, vegetables and even flowers are grown; it is remarkable to watch people tending to the rows of crops in boats instead of on foot. Even more impressive were villages built on the lake, such as Nampan Pokpa, where lines of sizable wooden houses perched on tall stilts towered above the glassy water. Restricted in their movements, adults and children
would respectively cook and fly kites from the balconies or steps of their abodes. Life for residents would require many adjustments, for they cannot easily visit neighbours nor participate in community gatherings in spacious public areas. It was picturesque, fascinating and beautiful – probably the most astonishing village I have ever visited.
Inle Lake hosts other attractions, one being the Nga Hpe Kyaung, or better known as the Jumping Cat Monastery, but on the day of my calling, it contained only two of its three crucial ingredients; yes it was a monastery, and indeed there were cats, but none were jumping, which defeated the primary purpose of visiting in the first place. Floating markets operate around the lake on a rotational basis, but the Ywama market was most disappointing as the majority of goods for purchase only catered to tourists, such as souvenirs and T-shirts, with the traditional food trade being relegated to a small area. The most impressive site in the region was undoubtedly the 2,478 stupas contained within the Kakku Buddhist site; its multitude of cream spires being too numerous to absorb in a single visit.
The primary reason for residing at the Golden Island Cottages
was to utilise its exclusive and rarely used hiking routes to the south-east of Inle Lake. When researching, I noticed that the oft used trekking base of Kalaw to the west was more popular, but was suffering from its own success. The much sought experience of trekking through traditional villages unaffected by modernisation being tempered by hawkers selling items and children requesting pens or sweets.
This trek was the highlight of Myanmar, as my desire to saunter through areas virtually untarnished by tourism was realised. During these two days, I did not sight one souvenir stall or shop, nobody offered me anything to purchase (the antithesis of Bagan), nor was any item requested, and the only two English words uttered by anyone apart from the guide was one instance of “thank you”. Here was a wonderfully refreshing approach to tourism, a locally run enterprise that sought to retain the culture and practices of the people without pandering to touristic whims. Even though December is peak season, it was the first trek along this route in two weeks.
Under a brilliant sun, our small party of four hiked past farmhouses, across fields, through foliage and leapt irrigation channels, whilst
Fisherman on Inle Lake - Myanmar
Note how he uses his ankle to steer the boat.
the trusty guide, Mong Nyo, explained differing aspects of Pa-O life. One could avail themselves of the opportunity to participate in separating rice by whacking it against wooden slats, engage in translated conversation with framers about their snorting black pigs, and observe treacle being made within thick plumes of steam. Our journey paused for lunch at Dat Gyi, where all assembled sat upon the floor of a house to devour a delicious Pa-O meal served in numerous small bowls.
The trek resumed after this satisfying repast; my boots created puffs of dust from the dirt roads and crunched upon the occasional rocks as one made use of the infrequent trees that dotted the trail to prevent exposure to the increasingly warm sun. Approaching the base of a steep hill, we again rested under a lavish tree, whilst the women washing clothes and men overseeing cattle cast curious eyes in our direction. The steepest part of the trek now commenced and my unstable footing that usually causes undignified stumbles when hiking was thankfully solid and no such incidents ensued. However, my hikes scarcely proceed without difficulties, and on this occasion my rarely induced asthma intervened. Managing this presented little difficulty,
but the party was somewhat slowed as a result.
Finally, the steep incline flattened and the distant valley indicated that the most difficult part of the hike was concluded. After passing a lush collection of soaring bamboo trees, we reached Hti Ne (pronounced Tee-Ne) and this village of 800 people would be the resting place for the evening. The village has no electricity but the government is seeking to rectify this situation, primarily to thwart deforestation due to the demand for wood to cook and heat homes. Only two televisions inhabit the village, but an absence of television reception in this area means that entertainment is provided by a selection of DVDs, and curiously, South Korean soap operas are the preferred choice.
Soon after, we arrived at the house that would provide our shelter for the evening, my slumber would be on the floor, and the only water was cold and not running, but it looked most agreeable after a tiring hike. Whilst resting, I noticed that a group of young children had climbed a wooded cutting opposite the house and were peering at me through the glassless window, but when my eyes met their gaze, they shyly
dropped from view. This game continued for 20 minutes, but wanting to enliven matters, I chose to explore the village, knowing that these curious children would follow. Aware that openly observing them would cause the children to scatter, I proceeded without a backward glance, but my peripheral vision caught sight of a Pied Piper type scene.
Arriving at a lookout, I discerned that the children had occupied a ridge immediately behind me. Whilst admiring the deepening sunset, adults wearing earthen-coloured shirts and longyi
would halt their progress upon seeing me, stare for a while without uttering a word, and eventually continue their journey. After five minutes, I assumed the children would be so accustomed to my presence as to not scamper if I faced them, so upon concluding my landscape photography, I carefully turned to espy several clusters of assembled youngsters, with the bravest and closest mimicking my photographic actions. After using physical cues to deem if it were acceptable to take photos, I cautiously captured their beaming faces, and when showing the results, they squealed, laughed and ran in circles of delight.
Parents beckoned their offspring to dinner and concluded this noisy affair, so I returned to
my quarters to await dinner. This home used to house seven children, but due to the elder ones being married, only the three youngest (boy of five, and two girls of seven and ten) still resided here, and they squatted in the opposite corner of the spacious room finished in long planks of richly coloured wood and silently gazed at me. To stimulate some interaction, I extracted my netbook for the purpose of exhibiting photographs of my travels. With Mong Nyo translating, and with the children huddled close to the small screen now sitting on the linoleum floor, we embarked on our world journey.
We commenced by exploring a country unknown to the children – Australia. After displaying images of my family, friends, apartment, workplace and the city of Brisbane, the obligatory koala and kangaroo images were shown; it was the first time they had seen these animals. We shifted to Asia, and thanks to those South Korean soap operas, they were familiar with that country. Indonesia drew blank reactions, Thailand was known, and much interest was evinced in the Schwedagon Paya, Golden Rock and the temples of Bagan from their own country. Embarking for Africa, they were unaware
of Kenya, Ethiopia and Rwanda, but the children excitedly identified certain animals, namely the lion, elephant, zebra and giraffe, but were unfamiliar with all others. Our visit to nations within the Middle East and Europe was another new experience, and though not knowledgeable of the locations, they were impressed with the size and beauty of the buildings. At all destinations, I briefly imparted information about each country, and made particular effort to display images of similarly aged children in each continent.
Our world tour proceeded for an hour, but was interrupted by the arrival of dinner, so the children hastened to eat with their parents. Now in a quiet room without the excited chatter of little voices or the deeper tones of the translating guide, the beauty of these now concluded moments was keenly felt. In a place with no electricity and rudimentary schooling, I had opened unknown and unseen parts of the world, and we joyfully shared the excitement and discovery of this journey together. I sincerely hope that the modernisation of Myanmar, and the arrival of electricity and other amenities such as computers in Hti Ne, will allow the younger generation to expand their education and open
a world of potential and possibilities. And perhaps, if their opportunity and curiosity is sufficient, then they, or even their own children in the future, may be able to sight some of these places with their own eyes.
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