South East Asia's Venice: Inle Lake
The bus from Yangon to Inle Lake was the first of many night buses around Myanmar. For reasons unknown, the buses all arrive into the town at unconscionable hours of the early morning, 3:30 a.m., 4:30 a.m., so you’re guaranteed to be sleeping on the bamboo benches in the guest house’s reception area until your room is ready several hours later. Some guest houses shut their gates overnight so even if you have a reservation you’re forced to wake up one of the groggy-eyed owners who will lead you to said bench. I shared a taxi to the bus station with a French couple who were travelling with their adorable three-and-a-half year old son. I’m pretty sure this little guy had been to more countries than I’ve been already, since his parents were seasoned travellers. The father, Arnaud, had come to Myanmar four years ago and he couldn’t believe the tourist boom since that time. Even so, the bus was still packed with far more locals than tourists. The combination of the driver’s incessant honking, the icy blasts of air conditioning and blaring Burmese soap operas on the television made it near impossible to sleep. Thankfully, when we finally arrived in Nyaung Shwe, the town just outside of Inle Lake, my friend Paul had already secured a room at Remember Inn since he arrived a day earlier.
After a few hours sleep, myself, Paul and a young Australian couple, Kim and Lachy, rented a boat for the day trip around Inle Lake.
We sat one in front of another in wooden chairs as the driver propelled us south through the narrow channel until we reached the mouth of Inle Lake.
As soon as the boat glided into the lake, flanked by mountains shaded blue by the hanging mist, we could see the traditional fishermen, made famous by their prominence on the cover of the Lonely Planet. Balancing on the tip of a narrow, palm-shaped boat, the fishermen use one foot to row their oar, the top of which is secured under their armpit. This frees up both hands to cast out the large net and haul the fish into a large-cone shaped basket. The agility and balance needed for the whole process is amazing. The lake is dotted with these simple fishing boats, which in the distance start to look like fallen leaves on the water, just barely causing crescent-shaped ripples across the glassy surface.
The town at the south end of Inle Lake looks like the Venice of South East Asia. Rickety wooden bridges connect blocks of land separated by a murky canal. We walked through the little market, created by scarfs and tarps pulled over bamboo poles. Women sold jewelry, hand-woven scarfs and traditional Shan shoulder bags. Kim and I bought a few pieces of jewelry from one really sweet woman. When we walked away, she came running after us and when we turned around she said “present.” She was holding out two wooden bead bracelets which perfectly complemented the others we just bought. Just one of many random acts of kindness in the hearts of the Burmese people.
The driver took us to a silver workshop, a family-owned business where we could see the different stages of turning raw silver into delicate jewelry. The next workshop was a scarf weaving workshop where several women were making colourful scarfs on the loom, adding one thread at a time in careful precision. Next the boat driver took us to an umbrella making workshop, but as soon as we stepped onto the deck, our attention was instantly drawn to the two long-necked women from the Padaung tribe, as the sun glinted off the brass rings circling their neck. Rings also wrapped around their legs below their knees and around their forearms.
I tried to be polite and not stare so I sort of did a scan around the workshop but my eyes were always drawn back to the women, who were weaving scarves. By the melancholy look on their faces, it’s clear they’ve grown used to being made a spectacle all their lives. The older woman, who looked to be about 70, was very frail, with a frame as small as a child’s. The brass rings coiled around her neck at least 30 times, starting wider near her collarbone for support and then narrowing as they reached her head, which appeared to float above the rest of her body.
Her face was weathered with wrinkles but the skin at her forehead was taught. Her features seemed to slope downward, like her face was brown clay and someone had taken their thumbs and pulled downward at the outer eyes, the edge of her nose, and the corners of her mouth. He chin was lifted up of her own effort, not rest on the top ring as I would have thought. It was as if she was resisting complete dependency on the rings, a sort of silent rebellion against that which traps her. I’ve read that the rings produce severe bruises on the collarbone and deformity of the neck, so that when the rings are taken off they can barely support their head.
The story goes that the Padaung women were so beautiful, they risked being stolen by other tribes or the king. So gold rings were put around their necks so they’d be less desirable. Other tribes mutilated women in different ways for similar purposes — one tribe with facial tattoos and another with large plugs in stretched ear lobes and nostrils. The process, thankfully, has now been stopped, being recognized as the huge human rights abuse. A Canadian photographer, Brent Lewin, documented the last of these women through a striking series of portraits called Stealing Beauty.
In the book I’m reading, From the Land of Green Ghosts, the author, Pascal Khoo Thwe, who grew up in a Padaung tribe, describes his grandmother, a long-necked woman, as such: “Her brass neck rings gleamed in the candlelight. The rings were 14 inches high and rose to her head as though they were supporting a pagoda stupa. Hanging from her ears and neck were several silver chains holding coins and charms.” Khoo Thwe writes that his grandmother was taken to England to be displayed in as a circus freak, but at the time the family thought it was a privilege to go to England and be able to bring home some money. Thinking back, in my attempts not to stare at the women, and my quick photographs, I didn’t even say min ga lar ba (hello) to the women. I wish I would have said hello and jay zu tin ba dare (thank you) for the beautiful fuchsia scarf I bought.
The boat ride also brought us through several floating villages surrounding Inle Lake, where single-room bamboo huts with thatched straw roofs stood on precarious looking stilts disappearing into the cloudy water.
Some villagers bathed in the water while crouching from their bottom step while others washed their dishes or their babies.
We floated by the school as it was letting out and all the kids climbed into boats as naturally as Canadian kids would climb onto a school bus. Some boats were piled with eight or 10 kids, like a car pool service while others had four kids with the oldest sibling paddling the way home. We were so happy to see a little slice of everyday life around Inle Lake.
Our last stop, via the floating gardens and narrow channels between water-logged patches of green earth, was the jumping cat temple which is famous for, you guessed it, jumping cats. We sat on the ragged burgundy rug and had tea while some small black cats lazed about. It wasn’t until a big group of tourists formed around the cats, cameras posed expectantly, that someone from the temple kneeled down behind the cat and held his arms out to form a little barrier. The cat leapt over the arms, held at about knee height at the most and the tourists were oohing and ahing with amazement. Kim, Lachy, Paul and I just kind of looked at each other and laughed. Don’t get me wrong, the cats were cute, but I’ve seen higher jumps from house cats in YouTube videos. Later we were joking that maybe the monks all got together and said “we’re low on donations, we need to find a way to attract more tourists here, what do Westerners like?” “Cats!” “Like to eat?” No, no, these videos of cats jumping on YouTube get like, a million hits.” “Brilliant, let’s call it jumping cat temple.” Savvy monks.
Our boat driver glided us back to Nyaung Shwe as the afternoon sun was sloping closer to the mirrored face of the lake. We paid about $5 each for an unforgettable journey around Inle Lake.
The next day we rented bikes to explore the perimeter of Inle Lake. The ride from Nyaung Shwe to the west side of the lake was bumpy and hard on our backsides, as our bikes trundled noisily over uneven dirt roads dotted with jutting stones and pot holes. Large trucks and motorbikes would rumble past, leaving us in their gritty dust. Five minutes out of the town, we were in rural Myanmar, where people work the land with bamboo baskets, simple tools and their bare hands. Farmers haul their harvest using ox carts or in some cases, decades old tractor trailers. Women balance heavy woven baskets on their heads and men carry buckets brimming with water and hanging like scales from a wooden pole rested on the shoulder. The more I see of Myanmar, the more I realize that the people, their way of life and their friendly willingness to let you into it is the most vibrant attraction the country has to offer. Many travellers hit the hot springs as their first destination on the bike ride but when we discovered it was basically concrete swimming pools with hot water, we decided to give it a pass. We took a boat to the east side of the lake, where we walked our bikes on a long railing-less wooden boardwalk the width of two people that looked like a strong wind could blow it over.
We ended up meeting a group
of people also travelling by bike and heading for the winery, which sits high
on a hill overlooking the lake. Joining us was Joe, an American who lives in
Switzerland, Kate, a Ukranian who lives in the US, Omar, from Turkey and Petr
and Kate, a couple from the Czech Republic who live in Australia.
We reached Red Mountain Estates and walked our bikes up the steep gravel driveway, eager to rest our overworked calves and reward ourselves with a nice glass of wine.
The best seat in the house — a lone wooden chair next to a barrel for a table and a wheeled cart as a perfect prop — was occupied by a Frenchman, dressed in bicycle spandex and wearing a tipsy smile at having finished a bottle of rose. He asked Petr to take a picture of him and Petr, being a skilled photographer, took a stunner, because the Frenchman sat back down, wine in hand, and smiled broadly at the photo, then looked out at the calm lake and mist shrouded mountains that were his backdrop and laughed to himself, as if tempted to pinch his own arm in case it was all a dream. As he looked back and forth between the photo and the real thing, he embodied what we all were thinking. This goofy smile that travellers get when in the moment they realize how lucky they are to be where they are.