We had a short internal flight to make the trip up to our second base of the holiday. Flying from Yangon to a small airport called He Ho. It’s pretty much literally just an airport, I didn’t even really see the existence of a town close by to it. It was very small, went with the size of the plane really, two each side of the aisle! But it was a pleasant flight and, as we weren’t flying too high, there was a decent view of the countryside as we flew over. We were even fed a couple of pastries on the flight as well which were gobbled up in moments!
A coach was ready to greet us at the airport to take us on the short journey to the town of Nyaung Shwe which was to be our base for the next three nights as we explored the wonders and beauty of Inle Lake. On route to the hotel we stopped off at an umbrella & paper making business where we were shown how both were made. The skill and techniques of both were impressive and I of course made one or two purchases for back home, but not an umbrella I might add, as stunning as they were.
The lake is located in the Shan state to the east of the country and is surrounded by mountains. Home to a number of tribes people but most notably the Shan, Intha lake-people of Inle, the Pa-O who wear bright orange turbans, the Loi who live in the long houses and of course the Padang or Kayan which are the tribe of the long necked ladies. Clearly the lake, as with most similar to it, is rapidly decreasing in size and increasing in pollution. Just one generation ago the water in it was clean enough to drink, but now, with the increase in motorised boats for tourism and also local vessels, locals producing more litter and chemicals from the floating gardens on the lake, the quality of water and the size of the fish stock are drastically on the decline. It’s certainly in places as remote as this that you really see the impact that modern day plastics, despite their convenience, have on the natural world.
The main economy in this area is agriculture with the floating gardens on the lake created by the Intha people in which tomatoes and other vegetables, fruits and flowers are grown and are sold to locals and also sent to the larger cities to be sold. Each of the gardens is a long thin strip created using mud from the bottom of the lake layered on a bed of weeds, mainly the floating hyacinth by the looks of it. Most of the tomato crops had just finished and so we either saw the withered plants ready to be taken down or locals prepping the beds for a new crop. Fertiliser is used in the algae that is dragged up from the bottom of the lake and the gardens are all held in place with long bamboo poles and are a clever use of the southern part of the lake. The gardens have become so successful that large portions of the lake have almost vanished beneath them and as a result local farmers have been banned from creating any more. It is thought though that some more are miraculously appearing overnight, however, when the authorities eyes are looking elsewhere – crafty buggers!!
Fishing is also, obviously, another economic mainstay and whilst we did see a number of genuine fishermen out trying their luck, February is the dry season and so there is not an abundance of fish at the moment. It is here that the fishermen use the unique rowing style using their leg whilst they have their hands free to cast nets and such the like. This has become quite an iconic image for this area and in fact Myanmar itself and so it is not surprising that once you come out of the canal onto the main lake itself you have a number of fairly redundant fisherman happily posing for photos (for a fee) to help them maintain an income all year round as the fish population drops. There were even some incredibly young looking fisherman out on the lake, one looked 8 or 9 and I seriously am impressed with the balance and coordination of them all as the perch on just one end of the boat, I’m sure we’re into try it would be most unbalanced and I’d end up more often than not somewhat drenched. But then this is why they are the skilled fisherman and I am just a western lady with appalling balance!!
Our first full day on the lake was sublime – did get rather burnt despite the oodles of suncream slapped on all over ever spare inch of skin not covered and come the end of the day the good old red lobster look had returned as had the Rudolph nose. We were in 4 seater boats where you had a seat but all behind one another and whilst there was an oar, the boatmen were not about to row us across the lake with just their leg! There was a motor at the back of the boat which was bloody loud, it soon became just a background noise though as you powered through the waters. The boats are all made of teak wood which is grown in the north of the country and usually last around 10-15 years apparently. Ours were painted in lewd vibrant colours rather than being the more natural hues of the wood and so I would have thought that this might have prolonged their life span too. Much hilarity was had as the 4 of our boats zipped in and out of each other up and down the waterways.
We visited a number of the local businesses on the lake where we were shown the traditional methods of making things that are still used and preferred today over machinery. Weaving of silk, cotton and even strands made from lotus flower are arduously made and hours spent over creating different patterns, dying the cloth and such the like. It seemed to all take a painstakingly long time to create not that much fabric. All beautiful none the less but you can see why the expense is a lot to buy some of the material premise into scarfs, shawls or other items of clothing. Blacksmith where we saw knife blades being created with multiple workers working all at the same time on the same blade. I honestly couldn’t cope with the heat in there, it was hot enough already without the intensity of the fire pit as well. The silversmith was fascinating as we watched them starting to beat out a small round disc which in time would end up as a bowl or beaker. Made of 98% silver and 2% bronze or copper as it was too fragile to use 100%. We watched as a chap painstakingly soldered together tiny rings which would, in time, all be joined together to make the chain of a necklace. Amazing amount of work goes into creating each piece which you don’t really stop to think about and rather take for granted when buying jewellery. Of course I had a little expenditure in their shop (see it as helping to support the local economy) and got a silver necklace and two pairs of earrings in patterns that are traditional to the Shan culture. After visiting here we popped to the market that was sort of behind the shop, mainly for tourism as there were a number of sellers selling the same old stuff, many of it the fake or not so authentic wares of the lake but there were also some food outlets. Not that I was about to eat anything from them I hasten to add.
We saw bamboo weaving and boat making and heard about how the locals all club together paying in a certain amount each 5 days or so into the kitty and each time the market comes one name is pulled out and they get to spend that day on whatever they need. Essentially if they needed a boat they could buy it this was and it was a clever payment plan. You’d have to REALLY be sure that you were ‘in’ with the right people who paid up every month. Of course none of them are going to have the minimum $800 it costs for a basic boat saved up and so it is a really clever and practical way of overcoming this. People can spend it on whatever they need there is no restrictions, but you might get it at the start or the end – just depends when your name is drawn but between the start and end at some point you will get a large lump sum to make the necessary larger expense purchases.
We also met ladies from the Padaung tribe. Clearly up in the area of the lake the they were for tourism purposes, but if it brings them in the money and they aren’t being exploited then fair dos. The ladies from this tribe start wearing the coils from about 9 years old and they have 13 coils which can weigh up to 4 kg, from 17 years old it increases to 14 rings and weights 6 kg and then from 20 there are either 24 or 25 coils that weight from 8 to 10 kg. We had the opportunity of lifting the equivalent coils up and oh my god they were heavy! But why do they wear them? Its thought to be part of the tribes identity and culture. Nowadays some of the younger members of the tribe who want to go into education away from the lake have created and wear a clip version of the coils so that when they move well away from the area they are not stared at and can go about a ‘normal’ 20th century life. One of the ladies was showing us her coils that were installed (is that the right word?) in three different sections so that the lower one which was slightly larger could be lifted up so that the ladies can sleep. It felt a little surreal seeing them having seen and heard so much about them but yet another experience ticked off on the list of new things accomplished.
There are of course pagodas to see on the lake as well the main one we visited which was called Hphaung Daw Oo Paya which is nothing special if I’m honest but houses five small Buddha images which are almost unrecognisable as such as they are ones to which gold leaf can be added, only by men mind and resemble boulders rather than Buddhas now. Ladies are prohibited. This has been explained to us as not being according to the religion but more the tradition on the individual pagodas themselves, not all permit ladies to get up as close as the men can. There are often processions when they are taken in carriages on the boats on certain key dates and have been dropped over the side before now and recovered. One is thought to be a particularly bad traveller as something always goes awry when it’s removed from the Pagoda itself and so followed have given in and made the decision to only perform the ceremonies with four of the original five ‘boulders’.
My favourite of this area however HANDS DOWN has to be Nyaung Oak which is a collection of overgrown and renovated stupas with carvings in many of Buddha, chinthe, devas, elephants and peacocks. Slightly further up the hill, connected by a long collunade (plenty of shopping opportunities which Zar Zar tried rushing us all past!) were even more stupas called the Shwe Inthein Paya which were from the 17th and 18th century. The majority of these are being restored but it doesn’t deflect from their beauty in my mind. He were harassed by locals selling scarves despite our constant and polite no thank you. They are nothing if not persistent! I wasn’t keen on seeing very young children even with an armful trying to sell them to you, but after asking Zar Zar she pointed out that it is actually school holidays at the moment. Plenty of Kodak moments amongst the stupas, a real treat for those who enjoy a good photo!
We also saw ladies making cheroot – sort of a cross between a cigarette and a cigar but with not that much actual tobacco on it. With filters made of bamboo and contents including licorise, star anise, Tabacco warped in a dried banana leaf and sealed with some sticky rice they weren’t too strong to smoke, just a strange flavour. You could buy packs of them in all different flavours as well, banana and honey for example. You saw all of the locals smoking them on the lake young and old but of the younger ones I’d say mainly male.
Some of us did a cooking class on one of the evenings at Mercury Home Cooking School which was a fantastic experience. It was a shortened version of the usual offer as you usually go to the market with the owners to buy all of the products that are needed for the meal, with time constraints in place we didn’t have time to do this sadly. We chose a salad and a curry that we were going to cook and the five of us each chose something different so that we could then try each others. Cooking on clay pot fires in sort of Balti style dishes we prepared all of the meals chopping the meat, vegetables and herbs and being shown how much of each spice and seasoning to add into the sauces. We also made a Shan Soup – well I did that bit which they added in as we had not tried it before. I have to say it was hands down the best meal that I have had here. I chose to make chicken curry and eggplant salad but we also had tea leaf salad (a bit odd, probably not something I’d choose to have again) tomato salad, avocado salad and the deep fried spring onion and veg appetiser – they do seem to deep fry a hell of a lot of things here. It was a family run business with one of the daughters taking the lead in the kitchen department, one also took care of the massage, another did laundry and they also funded an education programme during the holidays for poor children who are a little behind in school with the profits that they make, mainly from the massage. We had a fabulous evening with a lot of laughter throughout and were even dropped back at the hotel after. I’m not normally that ‘in’ to cooking classes but it was so ridiculously cheap it seemed insane not to have a slightly different experience and I loved every moment. There was one slightly worrying moment when we sat down to eat, I had put my antibiotics in my place to remind myself to take one with the meal (for the chest infection diagnosed on the day I flew out) and Tony, one of my fellow travellers took one thinking his wife had put it out for him to take as it looked exactly like the pain killers he takes for his knee. The look on his face was priceless and he certainly won’t live that one down!
Several of us all opted to have a traditional Burmese massage, thought it was quite strange that we were all going at the same time but assumed that they must have a lot of rooms as so many have massages. NOT A BIT OF IT!! We were all on beds next to each other in one room!! I do have to add here that for Burmese massage you keep your clothes on. They do a lot of stretching and pulling and clicking and it was incredibly painful as they worked out the tension in several areas on my legs. I was put in positions I am not sure I have ever been in before now and by Buddha it hurt like hell. No pain no gain I kept telling myself and I could barely help in agony with all the others around me! Some of us did get the giggles at times and the background music was interesting – twinkle twinkle little star and there were 10 in the bed and the little one said roll over (very apt!). There was a little child hanging around who was always popping her head in (I kept opening my eyes as it was hardly calming and relaxing) and I guess that her father must have been ‘working’ on me and he must have been making faces at her as she appeared to be making funny faces at me at one point! It was a hilarious experience and whilst not relaxing as such I certainly felt a good deal looser if nothing else.
While we were staying in the Inle Lake area some of us also made a trip to the Red Mountain winery which was a little way out of the town so we paid for a taxi which waited for us while we did a wine tasting before taking us back into the town area. The scenery was spectacular and one of the group came just for that. The sun was setting over the lake and you could have been taken off anywhere. We tried four wines, two red and two white. Not a fan of red anyway however none of the group deemed them to be palatable, despite the indulgent description. We did however, all like the Sauvignon Blanc from 2016 which we also all agreed wasn’t chilled enough, will definitely be looking for that on the drinks menu looking forward. The Muscat was palatable as well if a little too sweet but would have accompanied blue cheese beautifully. Just the idea of wine tasting in Burma was an adventure that had to be tried to be honest and for the view alone I’d whole heartedly recommend the trip out in the evening time but it does get popular and so you would need to book.
Our last stop before making the train to Kalaw, our next stop on the trip, was a monastery outside of Nyaung Shwe called Shwe Yaunghwe Kyaung. The beautiful main sort of central building if it was made out of teak with beautiful oval windows which were apparently were there for views of the monks inside meditating. We were there pretty early so there were not many others wondering around the site apart from the monks. The younger monks were all preparing to go out to the village to get food for their alms bowls as part of the religion is that they are not allowed to prepare the food they eat for themselves and so they rely on the local community to feed them. Just to the right in the photo below there was a man painting the days of the week on parchment for sale in one of the little stalls to the right of the picture (out of sight).
To the right of the monastery was also a shrine to Buddha which was rather spectacular it has to be said. With small little niches carved into the walls each of which housed a buddha either paid for by locals or travellers as all of the names of donators and the country that they came from were underneath each of the individual niches. Surrounding them were also stories of the Buddha in and around the niches made of shiny stones and bits of glass and as you walked around the shrine you could see the Western influence sneaking in.
It was on waiting for a party to exit the shrine that I spotted the CHARMING Italian lady that I had the misfortune of coming across on the plane from Dubai to Yangon. I had a nasty coughing fit just as I got on the plane. There was a seat between us but you would have thought that I was coughing literally IN her face from the beautiful unsympathetic looks I was being given (and by her fellow travellers who she talked to in Italian and gestured in my direction and chatted LOUDLY to). Make a girl feel good who already is feeling pretty sick! Anyhow, the beauty made the decision to change seats before take off which gave me the whole row to myself, small bonuses. She and her comrades kept looking over to me throughout the flight and saying things in heated Italian. JOG ON PEOPLE. Its a chest infection and I could have done NOTHING about it. Come the end of the flight, and having worn her dark glasses all flight (not sat by a window I hasten to add) she went to retrieve her bag which she had great difficulty in finding and had 5 flight attendants (no Im really NOT exaggerating) trying to help her look for it. Not long before she had jumped up to retrieve it from the locker above where she was originally sitting, the locker was already open and in jumping up on the seat and not watching her head she smacked her nose in the process. Karma is amazing at times! She proceeded in broken English to say to the attendants that it had hit her on the head when it opened. I went to great lengths to explain to the English speaking attendants that that was NOT the case and gave an accurate description of how she smacked her nose. Idiot. She had hot & cold compress and a plaster. Low and behold at 0715 when the sun was barely visible the beaut had the dark glasses on still exiting the dark shrine and it took literally EVERYTHING in my will power not to jollily chorus ‘Buongiorno’ and wave at her and her party. I did notice that despite the MASSIVE signs at EVERY temple in regards to both shoes AND socks needing to be removed, she had not removed her socks. I just giggled to myself kept clear and regaled the incident on the plane with a couple of the others.
The intricacies in the shrine were amazing and the floor was just beautiful. There were also Buddha images in the centres of each of the areas of the shrine with the 4 Buddhas one of which is lying down so that the other Buddha can walk over him as the legend says that the road was not built at one point and so one of the other Buddhas laid down so that the other Buddha could walk over him. This has been depicted in many of the shrines and temples that we visited on the whole trip.