It was an early morning start; we woke at 5:30am, wolfed down the usual terrible guest house breakfast and headed out into the cold morning air. We met Matt at the bridge overlooking the boats on the canal before 6am; it was already light outside although the sun had not yet risen over the mountains. We needed to find a boatman and agree on a route and destination before the sun rose any higher, otherwise we’d miss sun rise completely.
We found a boatman with ease and agreed on 25,000 kyats for a full day going right down south of the lake; this area was supposedly much more picturesque and less touristic than the “standard route/area” of Inle Lake. Once we’d done our very easy and hassle-free/scam-free negotiations, the boat
man teenager arrived and proceeded to unfold chairs, lay cushions down on the seats and then provided us each with a blanket, life jacket and parasole. Luxury...
With the motor of the tiny boat roaring and our boat-teenager ready, we were off for our full day on the water, and what an absolutely incredible and memorable day it turned out to be…
As we gained speed and pushed through the water the morning air was indeed so cold we had to use those woolen blankets I’d previously laughed off. Sitting there on our little cushioned seats with blankies on our laps, I had to smile to myself. At least I wasn’t decked out in an oversized life jacket…
The boat continued out onto the lake and we were indeed able to watch as the sun rose over the mountains that seemed to form a wall on both sides of the lake. It was pretty spectacular to see and reminded me once again how lucky we are to be here. It’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Soon after we had left the canals the lake began to open up to reveal the massive body of water that is Inle Lake; we were struck by the natural beauty surrounding us and entertained by the several Bamboo Net Fishermen in their boats who appeared to be posing for photos quite willingly. The caught their feet into the edge of their nets and stuck out their legs; balancing on one leg with their conical nets jutting out looked rather comical and a little unnatural, but I guess made for a good photo. The push for money after they had finished posing was hardly there, if at all, and made me wonder what this area of Myanmar will become in the near future…
We did notice these fishermen had pristine “uniforms” on rather than the odd worn lungis and scrappy t-shirts, no fish in their boats and no equipment besides their one conical bamboo net…
The more authentic looking fishermen were just as impressive though – if not more – as they paddled the lake using their legs and feet rather than their hands. With their foot, ankle and lower legs wrapping around the paddle, they balanced perfectly on the other foot and went about using their hands for fishing. Their balance alone was something to marvel at and their perfect paddle strokes even more so.
I loved watching the fishermen paddling, fishing with their nets and working on the lake; it was more impressive for me than the pristine posing fishermen and when our boat-teen turned off the motor and let us float silently for a moment amongst the fishermen I felt truly calm. Another reminder of how amazing this whole experience is.
Our first destination for the day was the Floating Markets. Whilst it sounds touristic and flashbacks of the nightmare that is the Bangkok Floating Market came to mind, it turned out to be brilliant and we were so lucky that the market happened to be active the day we chose to explore Inle (the markets in this area are on a weekly rotating roster-type system).
The floating markets were pretty spectacular for a number of reasons, but what made it even better was the fact that we’d started our day so early; the local section of the market was in FULL swing whilst the tourist stalls (selling the same generic crap that no one would want at ridiculously overpriced rates) were all just starting to set up and had not really opened yet.
For this reason, our first destination for the day turned out to be the highlight.
Instead of being hassled to buy creepy wooden masks, beads, fake silver, wooden cats, miscellaneous objects, random things and bits and pieces of wood, bamboo and bone that Australian customs would no doubt have a fit over, we were able to wander around the more local area and take in the sights, colours, sounds, smells, tastes and the people.
People were everywhere: eating, cooking, buying, selling, socialising. Women from different tribal villages wore stunning clothing, head pieces, scarves, wraps and we saw several of the Long Neck-Ringed women shopping and socialising with the other women.
There were so many stalls cooking and selling food and the sounds and smells were beautiful. I bought a local tofu salad from a little man sitting on a tiny plastic chair, cutting up tofu and cabbage with big pair of hand-made kitchen scissors; the salad turned out to be one of the most memorable meals I had in Myanmar.The produce looked so fresh and colourful, the tomatoes so red, the carrots so orange, the herbs so green. It was truly an overload of colour, contrasted against the colourful head scarves and tribal clothing. It was actually a pretty special event to witness and be immersed in.
The scenery on the lake was so beautiful and it wasn’t long before the cold air changed to warm and then hot. It was warm on our skin and as we floated through the lake I fell asleep briefly in the sunshine.
I woke minutes later to see our boat moving through tiny canals and little “laneways” amongst the high grasses and foliage. Tiny lilly pads and bright pink lotus flowers burst out from the water’s blue surface.
We rode through floating villages where bamboo and wooden houses stood on stilts above the water and it was fascinating to catch a glimpse of how life on the water might be like for these Burmese people.
We stopped at a Lotus Weaving factory; women weaving using thread made from the fibers of lotus flower stalks made intricate and beautiful items. We were shown how lotus flower stalks are broken and the sticky fibers stretched to create a thin thread. A painstaking and laborious process: in one day a woman can make 15 – 20 metres of lotus thread. Whilst we didn’t even consider purchasing anything from the in-factory shop (where prices fetched more than $300 USD for some items and were absolutely not in our budget), I found it really impressive to watch the craft and making processes; it’s hard for me to comprehend how these women learn and memorise these ancient weaving patters and operate such complex looking looms.
Back on the river, I noticed many of the houses on the lake had a loom and often, a woman working at it.
Our next stop was at a large pagoda area that is also another market location. We missed that market today as the floating market was happening instead, but we’d already been lucky enough to visit one market so no dissapointment. We were given a whole hour here to explore (I think purely so our boat-teen could have a nap in the sunshine) and ended up marvelling at the pagodas and then sitting for the rest of the hour in the tea house drinking packet-mix Burmese tea. It’s interesting to have another traveler with us; Matt had some fantastic stories to share about his travels abroad and it’s nice to meet someone who’s as passionate about Asia as we are.
Throughout the day we traveled by boat through so many little – and not so little – floating villages and I really never got tired of looking at the houses on stilts.
A floating Village called ‘Namba Village’ was especially interesting and gave us a glimpse of life on the river. Our boat-teen turned off the motor and we were able to witness a large group of male “carpenters” (what looked more like a group of local men working together) building a new home. Large bamboo frames were being installed into the lake, stilts and frames jutted out of the water and boats were being used to cart bamboo poles around the water. It was so impressive and it was so lovely when they all made the time to stop, wave, smile and say hello to us.
It was truly a joy to see the life on the lake and felt very authentic; it was non-touristic and we were often the only tourists around.
Some looked to weathered and worn and were standing on complete slants or angles, threatening to fall over at any moment. Others looked newer and stood proudly over the water. Clothing hung from under the house or through open windows. There was no glass on windows or no closed doors; the houses were open to the elements and exposed the insides of rooms.
Cats slept on windowsills in the sunshine, elderly people and children peered from windows and so many homes had looms out in the open.
It was nice to imagine what village life on the lake must be like. Taking a boat to pop down to the local store, cafe, tea house, work… it’s a lifestyle I can’t imagine.
Lots of hotels, cafes, restaurants and resort-style accommodation could be seen throughout the lake – even beauty salons complete with photos of Justin Beiber and shops selling packet-mix Burmese tea.
We stopped off at another area where boats were being built in the mud at the waters edge by barefooted craftsmen. Boats take two months to make and cost around $2000 USD.
Another stop off at a local cigar making factory where several women sit each day crafting cigars by hand with a mix of tobacco, honey, tamarind and banana, rolled up in dried leaves.
The women spent their entire time smiling at us all as they went about their work.
They worked with such speed, getting paid for each cigar they complete, rather than by the hour. It was interesting to see as we’ve seen these cigars all over Myanmar and in the mouths of many Burmese people. Apparently they’re pretty tasty.
I liked that there was no hard sell at any of the places we went; we were fine to just visit, observe and learn rather than be forced to part with money. I did wonder if these factories were purely set up for tourism or if they existed prior to the influx of visitors.
There were countless silversmith factories located throughout several of the villages we passed through but we never stopped at a workshop. We weren’t so interested in seeing those sorts of factories and were more interested in seeing life on the lake.
Our lunch stop was at a floating restaurant packed with tourists – no doubt every boatman had taken their tourists here. We ordered fish dishes and ate fresh fish (hopefully) straight from Inle Lake.
In the afternoon we headed first to a BIG pagoda where gold leaf was everywhere. It felt a bit like the Disney Land of pagodas with flashy entrances, tourist stalls, drink vendors, photography exhibitions, murals that stretched across the walls and ceilings, camera fees and gold as far as the eye could see.
There was no tourist entree fee and a sign warning tourists about purchasing gold leaf from street peddlers. We’ve seen a lot of signage like this in Myanmar to date; signs telling locals to “warmly welcome tourists” and “take care tourists.” I love Myanmar and its non-scammy ways.
We watched as men bought patches of gold leaf and stuck them to gold leaf covered buddhas on a podium in the centre of the pagoda. No women were allowed on the podium, nor allowed to place gold leaf anywhere sacred… It makes me wonder…
We headed on towards the floating gardens that cover a decent portion of Inle Lake. Various vegetables are grown on floating gardens and held in place with bamboo poles. The gardens seemed to stretch for kilometers with lane ways and canals dividing them so that boats can move through.
Having a boat-teenager at this point was awesome because he found a decent patch of garden, stopped the boat and let us jump out onto the floating garden. At first, when he skipped out of the boat and along the floating walk way, the three of us were a bit shocked… and then, when he invited us up, there was no hesitation.
Yes, it’s silly but true: wobbling, jumping about and flouncing around on the floating garden was a real highlight and has become a stand-out memory of our time in not only Inle Lake, but also Myanmar.
The water was soaking up through the mulch past our shins and our movements made each other wobble off balance, just as much as our laughter. It was all a bit surreal; here we are in Myanmar, frollicking about on a patch of garden that is only inches thick, floating above the massive Inle Lake. Loved it.
Loved it even more when a group of life-jacket clad tourists rode past in their boat with looks of horror/envy. Their boatman wasn’t as fun as ours.
Back off land and in the boat, school was out and that meant countless little boats began emerging with uniform-clad children. Parents paddling, children paddling – I even saw a small child paddling with his foot! We saw so many children throughout the day mastering skills like paddling, rowing and fishing; I was truly amazed and impressed. At one point I saw a toddler – yes, a toddler – rowing a boat.
Our final stop for the day was at a famous floating monastery, well known as the Jumping Cat Monastery. Unfortunately, there were no jumping cats (any more) but there were a lot of lazy looking cats hanging about. Apparently one of the monks here taught some of the cats to jump through hoops and… well, there are a few different stories so I’m not exactly sure what the deal is, but supposedly the monk – or the cats – got sick of the hoops and the jumping and performing…or…apparently the monk died. Who knows.
Regardless, the monastery was impressive and packed with locals. There was a large group of women sitting in a circle peeling and crushing handfulls of garlic with pestles. The sound of the pestles thudding against the garlic and mortar was rhythmic and in time whilst the women socialised and took more garlic cloves from the central dish.
It was a pretty touristic place and appeared to have been extended massively to incorporate tourist shops and vendor stalls, food and drink carts, a silversmith shop and some other sales focused stalls. There were a lot of tourists being bought here and whilst it was interesting, not exactly my favourite stop of the day.
Back in the boat late afternoon, we began the journey back to Nyaung Shwe. We asked our boat-teen to go back slowly so we could see more fishermen on the lake and enjoy the sunset. All three of us had really loved just observing the working fishermen on the lake and the stunning scenery and vast body of water was so beautiful (and created brilliant photo opportunities).
It was all so stunning and beautiful I don’t think any of us had really wanted the day to end. It had been such a brilliant way to spend the day and our time here in Myanmar. As the sun began to set behind us, I was so grateful to have had today – it will remain as one of the more memorable days to date.
Back at the boat docks we ended our day on the lake. Our boat teen smiled and helped us off the boat; there was no touting, no asking for more money or tips, no awkward “requests” (aka demands) that we’ve so often had to deal with in these sorts of situations. I really appreciated that and it’s something that continues to stand out for my in Myanmar. I truly hope it stays like this.
Matt, Jake and I headed to a local joint for a few beers in the evening and then dinner at a Burmese restaurant. It was the first time in Myanmar we’d had beer and we made sure to try the local specialty, Myanmar Beer… it was late before we moved on for dinner and ate more local style foods, curries, shan noodles and fermented tea leaf salads.
By 9:30pm we all called it a night – we were all exhausted after what felt like a massive but incredible day. It was so awesome, I actually can’t even begin to describe how it felt. All I can say is amazing, amazing, amazing.
A true highlight of Myanmar, and our Asian Adventure.