Getting to Inle Lake
Seven days, 2 plane flights, 1 night bus trip, 1 day mini-bus trip, 2 days motorcycle rides, 1 e-biking day, 3 Myanmar towns and lots and lots of walking after, I was off to my second night bus trip from Mandalay to Inle Lake to complete my Myanmar Big 4 adventure.
As I settled in the bus, I looked around and realized that I’m in for an all-Burmese passenger (except me) ride to Inle Lake. That makes this trip extra special because it felt more authentic, especially that the bus was easily filled not with foreign backpacks, but with bags containing local goods (I guess) and but challenging, as well, because no one speaks in English and I had to find a way to inform the driver that I’m getting off at Nyaung Shwe, the village north of Inle Lake where most budget travelers stay. The bus goes all the way to Taunggyi, which is 25 kilometers past Nyaung Shwe.
But what I found much more challenging is getting a good sleep during the 8-hour ride. Unlike the JJ Express bus ride from Yangon to Bagan, the temperature in the bus got freezing cold, and I’m suddenly reminded of northbound provincial aircon buses in the Philippines which makes me want to stuff the bus curtain inside the aircon holes. I really don’t understand the logic behind that…to get the most of what I paid for (aircon and free use of blanket)? Fare was 14,500 kyats, by the way.
They were also loudly playing a video of a singer in an outdoor concert. With every new song played, the background dancers, composed of two beautiful Burmese ladies dressed in traditional clothes and dancing in a folk dance kind of way, would also change. For a moment, I was amused, but it wasn’t much longer that I wished they just turn it off. After 3 hours of non-stop music video, I had no choice but to suffer from LSS, except that only the tune lingered, not the lyrics.
After successfully getting off at Nyaung Shwe in an early morning, I did not expect the climate to be that cold. After the scorching hot Bagan, it’s a good welcome though. Apparently, the town is cold because it is located about 900 meters above sea level.
Upon arrival at the drop off point, I rode a pick-up drive to take me to Joy Hotel at 2,000 kyats. I also paid the Inle Zone Entrance Fee of $10 at the station.
Taking the boat trip
A trip to Inle Lake would not be complete without a boat tour. I hired a boat through the hotel at 20,000 kyats. It’s expensive for a solo trip but the hotel staff couldn’t seem to get other travelers to join me that morning. The long and narrow boat can accommodate 5 persons. Anyway, going solo gave me plenty of legroom. It’s like sitting in business class or better than that.
It wasn’t long before I began to see what Inle Lake is famous for, the Leg Rowers, skillfully paddling with one leg. My boat driver was kind enough to slow down every time he sees me pointing my camera at something interesting. The lake is teeming with life. For the Inthas, it’s an important medium for transporting goods and villagers. The lake is their source of food and livelihood, and is the base where they’ve built a community.
A farmer harvests weeds from the lake
Traditional stilt houses
Leg rowers aside, the one day boat trip seemed like a factory/workshop hopping thing (a.k.a. tourist trap?). Ethnic villages surround the lake and it was interesting to see how life (and business) gets around.
The tour consisted of visits to the following: silversmith, blacksmith, weaving workshop, umbrella making, cigar making, boat making, In Dein, floating garden and the Nga Hpe Chaung Monastery.
The youngest silversmith in the village
These fish pendants are cute. And it can wiggle its tail when you touch it 🙂
Like the production of silver crafts, metal tools such as knives and farming tools are entirely made by hand by blacksmiths
The young guy at the top takes the lead supporting role to the blacksmiths by keeping the fire red-hot by pumping air with bellows in an up and down motion. Not an easy job.
It takes two to strike while the iron is hot. The repeated hammering creates an interesting rhythm.
I did not expect my visit to the weaving workshop to be very informative. I’ve seen a lot of weaving facilities in the Philippines but the process has not been explained to me in that detail as much as how the young Intha from the workshop did. Just to be clear, I could not recount all what she has related to me. Weaving, for me, until now is still a complicated process. I was just amazed how she explained, as if I’m on an OJT, how the pattern is arranged, how the fibers (could be lotus, cotton or silk) are loomed, the hand and foot work combinations, and all that.
Arranging the thread pattern before weaving
Like playing a piano, weaving involves harmonious coordination of the hands and feet
My first time to see a man weaver
It was also my first time to see how fibers are extracted out from lotus stems. The lotus stem is cut into half and the fiber will appear as the halves are pulled gently apart. The fibers are wet with water, twisted and rolled by hand to form thicker strands. These are then spun and woven. According to the girl (forgot her name) who walked me through the workshop, lotus plants are of course abundant during rainy season, and that the stems are longer during this time, giving them more fibers.
I’ve also learned that the textile patterns and color combinations are unique for each region.
Just next to the umbrella workshop is where I found a long-necked Padaung woman. I saw only one of them at that time. I overheard (it’s becoming a talent by now) the other tourists’ guide that the other Padaung women are out somewhere for a festival or ceremony. Taking her portrait didn't feel right as I was torn between capturing a cultural experience and promoting a human zoo.
These are the metals that the Padaung tribe wear around their neck. Tried to lift it and it's really heavy.
Everything here is floating, including bazaars
Tobacco cigar or cheroot making
The happiest workshop I visited in Inle Lake. Not sure if the constant handling of cheroot has got something to do with their happy disposition
Sweet and no sweet cigars are available
My visit to the Indein village is supposed to be the highlight of the boat tour. It’s at the western side of the lake and quite out of the way from the usual boat tour route. That is why an additional fee is applied when Indein becomes part of the itinerary (the 20,000 kips already includes Indein).
I mentioned “supposed to be” the highlight because I failed to fully explore the stupas around the hill. I was the only person at the first cluster of stupas closest to the banks of the lake. And I thought that was it (see pictures below). It did not occur to me that there is denser cluster of pagodas on top of the hill, I didn’t even know there’s a track leading up the hill. My heart sank as I later saw internet pictures of the rest of the stupas when it’s too late to go back. Sigh! How could I let that opportunity pass?
The surrounding environment changed on the way to Indein
A young native from Indein village
Next attraction is the floating garden. How did Inthas formed an “island” and use it to grow vegetable crops? Similar to the process of reclamation, they fill the lake with water hyacinth, water grasses/weeds, and other lake debris and use bamboo poles to put the “land” in place.
Unfortunately, despite its economic and social benefits, it does have environmental implications. Increasing areas of floating gardens will result in encroachment of open water area of the lake, while the use of fertilizers and pesticides can cause water pollution.
The floating water hyacinths are also becoming a problem as they clog water flow, block sunlight and reduce available oxygen for underwater life.
After seeing the floating gardens, we headed towards Nga Hpe Kyaung Monastery. The clouds turned heavy and it began to rain as we approached the monastery. I was glad to quickly take refuge under the monastery because I only had a non-water proof sweater against the cool wind and rain. I wasn’t able to get decent pictures inside the monastery because it was too dark, but they do have Buddha statues inside this wooden monastery.
Together with all the other tourists “trapped” inside the monastery, we waited for the rain to stop. When we were ready to leave, the surroundings came into vibrant colors.
That ends the boat tour. Upon returning to the Nyaung Shwe jetty, while enjoying the cool wind and stretching out my legs in my business class seat, I can’t help but feel an uneasiness as I tried to take in everything I saw and experienced in this boat trip. The Intha people are definitely dependent on the lake for their livelihood and their basic needs. Increasing tourism activities had led to the increasing number of hotels and restaurants around the lake. For sure, this meant more income for the lake dwellers. What I noticed though, is that the locals are not pushy when it comes to selling their items, which is a good thing. They would usually say, “Just looking and I will be happy.”, which to my understanding meant to just take time to look at what they have to offer, even if you have no intention of buying.
It will be such a waste if the lake's beauty and beneficial uses deteriorate in the future
However, what concerns me is that Inle Lake has the potential of being a Pasig River if present unsustainable practices continue. For instance, I confirmed from the stilt restaurant where I ate my lunch that they dump their wastes directly to the lake. How? I used their toilet and seconds after flushing, I heard water drain directly to the lake…then it hit me, I ate fish for lunch. Uh oh!
I am not sure of the current efforts in environmental conservation in the lake area but one thing is for sure, that something has to be urgently done as more tourists are expected to flock in years to come, and the lake dwellers themselves, aside from the government and the cooperation of the tourists play an important part in this undertaking.
Traveled March 2015