There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Inle Lake (1), Stilt Houses, Fishermen and Non-Swimming Buddhas: Part 10 of Myanmar, Land of Gold

A short drive from Heho brought us to Nyaungshwe the main settlement on (or more accurately near) Lake Inle.

Nyaungshwe is a small town – or a large village - and we found ourselves at the docks almost before we realised we had arrived. There was much frenetic activity and our cases were manhandled from car to water’s edge by unseen hands as we were led to a waiting boat.

Like most passenger boats on the lake it was a long canoe. Local people usually sit on the floor, but tourist boats have four seats set one in front of another while the boatman perches at the back beside his long tailed outboard, the propeller set so that its tip breaks the surface of the water - there is a lot of weed in the lake and nobody wants to get tangled in it.

Leaving the dock at Nyaungshwe
The town is at the end of a wide canal and we pottered down it for twenty minutes rounding rafts of water hyacinth and passing reed beds and stilt houses before we reached the lake itself. The houses are the homes of the Intha people, who live around, over and even on the lake.

Stilt houses beside the canal from Nyaungshwe
Surrounded by green hills, Lake Inle is placid, shallow and a very pleasing pale blue.

Emerging onto the lake we found ourselves amid a cluster of fishermen. Intha fishermen use canoes smaller than the one we were in and lacking an outboard. They stand on the stern sometimes setting out nets in groups, sometimes using a single net like the one in the picture below.

Fisherman, Lake Inle

The boats are manoeuvred by means of a single paddle, which may be held in the hand for balance (as above), but when they row they use one leg, leaving both hands free for their nets. Somehow they seem to maintain hold of the paddle without actually grasping it. Their sense of balance is wonderful. Perched on one leg at the end of the boat they pull on their nets or push on their paddle without the slightest wobble. Sometimes the paddle becomes less of an implement for rowing and more an extension to their leg, and one with which they seem effortlessly able to walk on water. We watched them here and at various points on the lake over the next two days and every time we marvelled at how each fisherman was so at one with his boat and the water.

Almost walking on water, Lake Inle

At present they fish for real, and the man who came to show us his catch (and yes, he was wearing a Chelsea shirt) was merely being welcoming and friendly. Lake Inle has many tourists, and the numbers are growing; two or three lakeside resort hotels already exist, and several more are at the planning stage. The fishermen who happily pose for photos for nothing will soon realise they can make money from it, and indeed more money than they can out of fishing. Before long their fishing, like the cormorant fishermen on China’s Li River, will merely be a tourist attraction. That will be a sad day, but it is probably inevitable.

Part of the catch, Lake Inle

We scooted across the lake to the stilt villages of Ywama and Tha Lay...... 

Ywama, Lake Inle

Coming home from market, Ywama

........ with their floating gardens where they grow squash, tomatoes and flowers.

Through the floating gardens, Ywama, Lake Inle
We approached Phaung Daw Oo temple, but before our visit it seemed appropriate to pull up at the landing stage of Mr Toe’s restaurant.

Mr Toe's on the left, Phaung Daw Oo straight ahead, Tha Lay, Lake Inle
The only restaurants around the lake are tourist oriented, but we had a pleasant place to sit overlooking the water and the temple, and the menu looked interesting. After a fried tofu starter we had ‘special’ lake fish with a tomato salad and smoked aubergine. We were not totally surprised to find the fish tasted distinctly muddy. Sue had a simpler spiced version which was better as the heat disguised the muddiness.

'Special Lake fish' Mr Toe's restaurant, Tha Lay, Lake Inle
It was a very short boat trip to the temple. On the landing stage men were selling books of gold leaf....

Outside Phaung Daw Oo Temple, Tha Lay, Lake Inle
I seem to have missed all the gold leaf salesmen!
... while inside the customers (and as at Mandalay it was men only) were queuing to apply the gold leaf to five small Buddhas. The little Buddhas had been so covered that it was hard to discern their original shape.

Applying gold leaf to the Buddhas, Phaung Daw Oo Temple
Lake Inle

Moored next to the temple is the barge - reminiscent of a huge bath duck - on which the gilded Buddhas are taken on an annual parade around the lake. Some years ago it capsized, dumping the Buddhas into the water. Lake Inle is shallow and four were quickly recovered but the fifth was feared lost. A few days after the survivors were returned to the temple the fifth miraculously turned up on its own, covered in weed but otherwise undamaged. No doubt there are local people who believe the literal truth of this story, and that is how Sue told it. I did not ask what she believed.
The Buddhas' barge, Phaung Daw Oo Temple
Tha Lay, Lake Inle

Back in the boat we re-crossed the villages.....

Back through the floating gardens.
Travelling can be such hard work.

and the floating gardens.....

A floating gardener
Lake Inle the Nga Phe Chaung Monastery, an impressive teak building with golden shrines and huge wooden pillars, best known as the ‘Jumping Cat Monastery’ after a monk trained the temple cats to jump through hoops to order. There are many videos on YouTube and this link is to just one of them. When they found out what was happening the religious authorities declared that monks had more important tasks than training cats, and put a stop to it.
Nga Phe Chaung, the (former) Jumping Cat Monastery
Lake Inle

There are no more jumping cats, but there were plenty of monks lounging around doing nothing. There are thousands of monks in Myanmar, some like those we met at Moe Goak, are impressive people doing important work, others, seem to lie around in the shade, occasionally fanning themselves but largely doing very little. All live off the generosity of their fellow citizens, but some seem more worthy of it than others.

Inside Nga Phe Chaung Monastery

There is a small market round the back and at one stall I found a tee-shirt that fitted, a rarity in Southeast Asia. I did not like the design and the woman largely dismantled her stall finding another one in that size. 10 000, she said when I had OKed the design. 10 000 Kyat is £8, which is a silly price, so I offered 2000, which is equally silly. Searching under a pile of tee-shirts, she unearthed a card printed with a number grid – a bargaining aid for those without a common language. She pointed at 8000. Without my glasses I am not good at counting 0s, so my next offer was 40 000. This caused some hilarity, but fortunately she did not hold me to it and we finally settled on 6000 Kyat which seemed to make everybody happy.

We pottered back across the lake passing the memorial marker at the point where the golden barge had unfortunately tipped its precious cargo into the lake.
Memorial where the Buddha's barge capsized, Lake Inle

A little further on we encountered a group of fishermen vigorously slapping the water with their paddles to drive fish into their nets. In apparent defiance of the laws of physics none of them fell in.

Fishermen slapping the water with their paddles, Lake Inle

We arrived at our hotel, one of the growing number of resort hotels around the lake. The setting was magnificent and gardens were impressively well kept, but the cottages unfortunately reminded me of Butlin’s.

Arriving at our lakeside hotel, Lake Inle

We were shown to our chalet and while Lynne had a brief snooze, I went for a walk. Sue had said that Khaung Daing village was not far away and I thought I would take a look.

Leaving the hotel, I followed the road through a wood, passing the entrance to another lakeside hotel and a bamboo shack apparently used as a very basic bar. Twenty minutes later I reached the village. In the centre was a collection of gold painted stupas which ten days ago would have impressed me greatly, but now I knew that every village in Myanmar has something comparable, I had become blasé - to the extent of not even photographing them.

I did, though, photograph a group of boys playing keepie-uppie with a rattan football. This is a national sport in Myanmar, played wherever there is a space and a bit of free time. The same game is played in Vietnam, but there they use a sort of elongated shuttlecock.

Playing keepie-uppie with a rattan 'football'
Khaung Daing, Lake Inle

I was on the point of turning back when I finally came across a smart new restaurant, obviously aimed at the tourist market. As this was the only alternative to the hotel restaurant - and hotel restaurants are almost invariably the best way of paying high prices for very moderate food - it seemed a good idea to eat here.

I walked back and in due course we both set out for Khaung Daing. It was a fair stroll through the hotel garden just to reach the gates which Lynne remarked looked a bit like the entrance to Jurassic Park. Darkness was settling over the wood outside, but we pressed on and duly reached the village. The restaurant had a few other customers, mainly westerners escaping from the big hotels, as we were. The food was not particularly good (pork with potatoes, rice, string beans and spring rolls with bananas in syrup to follow) nor was it particularly cheap.
Hotel gardens by Lake Inle

The walk back, though, was magical. Once out of the village there were no artificial lights, except for the headlight of a motorbike that puttered past, but we saw our way by the extraordinary brightness of the full moon, our every pace mimicked by our obedient moon shadows. The hotel gates were closed and bolted, and I did not fancy our chances of climbing over them, but a friendly security man was there to let us in and give us the usual beaming Burmese smile.

Myanmar, Land of Gold

1 comment:

  1. What has happened to the cats? They jumped happily when we were there. Not the most exciting thing we've ever seen but anyone who can get a cat to do anything deserves much praise! Hilary