Inle Lake Boat Trip: an extraordinary day in Burma!
The canal, a wide gap cut through the reedy marshes, was busy at this early hour with locals transporting goods; their boats even faster than ours, they rushed past leaving us to bump jarringly over their wake.
We’d met our friends, Karen, Robert and Kayla, down by the jetty with an onslaught of offers from the boatmen clustered around the waterside. Our boatman (arranged the day before) found us; we clambered down to his boat where four wooden seats and four life jackets were waiting for us.
He had a mild panic when he realised there were now five of us, Kayla perched on a wooden box at the back of the boat and we set off.
We soon spotted the fishermen, there were many of them out in the middle of the lake, their stance iconic against the hazy background.
The lake was both placid and a riot of activity; goods and people were being ferried across the lake, up and down it; men were dredging the lake in places, pulling up weeds with long sticks and piling it up on their skiffs.
Apparently the weeds are full of small fish and this is a way of harvesting them.
There were many tourist boats; foreign tourists neatly perched on wooden seats, just as we were. The Burmese tourists were also out on the lake but they were packed many and low into their boats, sitting on mats, their heads and shoulders peeking over the waterline.
Despite all the people, and the noisy boats, Lake Inle was peaceful and bewitching– large enough to absorb all the activity leaving you with an overwhelming feeling of calm.
Our boatman – darn that I didn’t note down his name – suddenly had an idea and gesticulated that we would detour to his home to pick up another chair for Kayla. We were then zooming up that wonderful canal again to Maing Thauk, along the long wooden jetty where we’d met him the day before.
He pulled up alongside a stilt house and his wife appeared with a sticky-nosed young child. We all waved hello, “mingalaba!” and she brought out a fifth chair for Kayla and we shuffled our chairs up to fit it in.
Back along the canal and out onto the lake again, we passed many more dredgers and fishermen.
Our boatman took us down to the southern end of the lake, to the village of Kyaing Kan where we visited a lotus thread workshop.
The factory is a wooden building built on stilts over the water; the weavers here make cloth out of lotus fibers. The fiber is stripped from the lotus plant and worked into a rough thread before spinning into a finer thread ready for weaving. The thread is naturally dyed using local plants and the cloth is traditionally used for monk’s robes.
The products in the shop were expensive, these were luxury items. The fabric wasn’t soft as we expected, especially for the price tag; but the process was fascinating and it created a unique product.
Our boatman asked if we’d like to see how the boats were made and we all jumped at the chance. He took us to a boat-making factory nearby, we had a look around then the boat-maker came over and talked us through the process.
There was much activity in the factory; yet the men seemed to be working on the building’s structure, sawing beams, rather than a boat. It looked rather dangerous to our nannied minds!
There were a couple of tables selling wooden souvenirs, manned by the carpenters’ wives; I purchased a wooden spoon, a perfect souvenir for a vagabond baker! The boatman proudly told me he’d made the spoon, now how’s that for provenance!
We moved on, the boat weaving though the water streets of the stilt village back to the lake.
Further up the lake, on the opposite side, the boatman took us to Nampan: another small village of stilt houses and workshops.
Our destination here was a cheroot factory where we were ushered in to see three young women hand rolling small cigars and cigarettes. Each of the girls were sat cross-legged on the floor with a wide dish, piled with fragrant tobacco, between their knees.
Some of the tobacco had spices mixed into it and the girls were sealing the cheroots with a glue made from rice.
Their faces were decorated with thanakha, a paste made from a particular type of tree. This pale paste is distinctively worn throughout Myanmar as make-up, sun block and moisturiser.
Some cheroots were offered around for anyone who wanted to try one and a few boxes of the cigars were purchased before we left. The smoke was very herbal, heavily scented with star anise.
Next stop on the lake was the Paung Daw Oo Paya, a big temple on the edge of the lake. Inside, after paying the tourist entrance fee and the camera fee, the temple was focused on a golden, roofed platform in the middle of the room. At it’s heart some men and a monk were adding gold leaf to five lava-like blobs; which, I discovered after reading the pictorial stories around the walls of the temple, were images of Buddha.
The images (figures) had been discovered near a cave and transported by boat to their current spot. The Paung Daw Oo paya was constructed around them and these extremely sacred figures have been venerated with gold leaf so many times since then that they no longer resemble the Buddha at all.
Once a year the golden images are transported across the lake in the Paung Daw Oo festival, on an elaborate barge shaped like a Hintha, a mythical golden swan. The barge was moored in a large shed next to the temple and we wandered over to have a look. Between it’s golden wings I could see where the tray of Buddha images would sit.
We bought snacks from some ladies at the entrance to the temple and there were plenty of souvenirs to be had from the many stalls outside. The temperature of the day had risen considerably and it was good to be back on the boat simply for the breeze as we motored off.
Lunch was at a stilt restaurant, in a small booth over the marshes, after which we headed for Inthein.
Inthein is a small village some way off the lake along a narrow, winding canal.
The canal is ‘stepped’ to allow for the rise up to the village, this cleverly involves a series of low dams, each with a narrow opening at the top which allows the water to flow and the boats to skim over it.
On a bend in the canal we found a large group of young monks who were bathing in the murky water; they waved gleefully at us, their red robes draped over the grassy bank behind them.
We were dropped off at a small jetty just before the village and followed the path to an almost deserted market place. Inthein is famous for its many stupas: new and ancient. Unsure of where to go, a lady pointed us in a general direction. Spotting a cluster of old stupas on a hill to the right, we headed towards them.
A young child monk met us on the climb up, beconning us up to the stupas: we followed; well, we were heading that way anyway. The old ruined stupas are crumbling and atmospheric; some contain Buddha figures within them.
Beyond, up a bigger hill we could see more old stupas with a flight of steps leading up to them. It was so hot, we found shade and rested for a while admiring the view back across the valley. The further set of stupas seemed like too much effort so we sat and chatted, the young monk joining us.
He spoke no English, gesturing that we should give money to the Buddha statue nearby. When we made to leave he asked for money, something monks are apparently forbidden from doing; we don’t know whether he was a fake monk or simply a kid monk taking a chance. I personally go with the former; but hey, he looked cute in the photos, and he totally took the money we left for Buddha!
Back down the canal water steps we descended, to the lake where we now drifted serenely though the floating gardens: a fruit and vegetable farm floated on the lake.
The produce hung from wooden trellis, set in neat rows: squash and tomatoes were the most evident. Two children in a small boat floated along side us, grabbing our boat then handing each of us a flower. Of course we had to pay for the flower! The guys gave them some small change and they paddled off.
We stopped at a weaving shop, another beautiful wooden structure on stilts. It was a treasure trove of souvenirs and gifts, a tourist honeypot with women weaving in the sunlit front of the house. The weavers were long-necked tribal women, hired to bring custom to the shop; one of the Burmese shop girls showed us the stuff the long-necked women were weaving then introduced us to one.
Heavy gold rings coiled around her neck, from her shoulders up to her raised chin. The girl bought out some examples of the rings, they were really heavy; the weaver also wore them on her ankles.
The long-necked woman posed for photographs with us, the scripted tourist routine. I felt very uncomfortable doing so and refrained, not wishing to objectify her in such a touristy way. According to the guidebook, the Padaung women originally wore the rings to make themselves less attractive to raiding tribes; but now they are exploited for the tourist dollar. The heavy rings deform the neck and shoulders, and many women cannot support their own heads without them.
Later, she went back to her weaving; I photographed her: a tribal women, weaving for tourists in a shop like an animal performing at the zoo. It made me sad; we all felt a little wretched, it just didn’t feel right at all.
We boated to our final destination of the day, the Nga Hpe Kyaung: the Jumping Cat Monastery. In the past, the monks taught the temple cats to jump through hoops during their free time; this, in turn, became a tourist draw. The temple was lovely, dark and cool; the cats were evident as soon as we stepped inside.
Some were sauntering past, some were lazing, none were jumping.
We’d been given an hour by our boatman, after walking around the temple we found a spot to sit down and see if anything might happen. A lot of tourists came and went but there didn’t seem to be any display of the cats’ talents.
One cat was heavily pregnant, she lay beautifully in the middle of the floor while people stepped over her. All the cats were well fed and healthy; just before we left one of the monks was preparing their food and they were all gathered around him, expectantly.
The end of our fabulous day was drawing to a close, we motored out into the middle of the lake to watch to sun set beyond the mountains to the west.
We cracked open the bottle of Red Mountain Late Harvest wine we’d bought the previous day and sipped it as the sun went down, as the fishermen tried for their last catch of the day, as the other boats motored past us: a magnificent end to the day.
Our boatman put is foot down, or whatever the boat term is, and we joined the throng of boats heading back to Naungshwe along the reed canal. He got a fine tip for not subjecting us to endless shops, and for an excellent day, enjoyed by all of us.
I had been concerned that Lake Inle wouldn’t live up to expectations; that it would be too touristy; that we would get ripped off by a boatman. Those concerns were unnecessary, the lake exceeded everything I hoped for: there were so many more fishermen than I could have imagined; there were tourists but they melted into the vastness of the lake and our day soaking in hot pools and sampling Burmese wine had gifted us a great boatman.
On The Rails To Mandalay. The Mail Train To Thazi. Another wobbly train through Myanmar, this time through the beautiful hills.
The Golden Land: Travels Through Burma a video ‘trailer’ for these posts about Myanmar.
Golden Yangon Arriving into Myanmar and being utterly astounded by the glittering Shwedagon Pagoda!
Colonial Yangon, the Rangoon of my Imagination a morning stroll that sent shivers down my spine.
The Myanmar Rail Experience. Exactly what it’s like to take the overnight sleeper to Bagan: an adventure!
Bagan, You’ve Never Seen So Many Temples Oh my goodness wow! WOW!
The Iconic Bagan Sunrise to the Unforgettable Sunset. Hot air balloons, well worth getting up before dawn!
Wine and Hot Springs: Cycling Lake Inle Not some thing I’d ever imagined I’d do in Myanmar!
By Rachel Davis