Myanmar series part 5 - INLE LAKE

The Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery

Local farmers and villagers spread their cloth coverings on the ground or on wooden tables to sell their products at the rotating markets. Intha fishermen use arms and legs to row their long boats as they lay or pull up their fishing nets each day on a lake that figures into every local resident’s life. Villages dot the green hillsides where locals go about their daily life. Buddhist monasteries are located throughout the area. Temple ruins tell of an existence many years ago. Located at 3K feet elevation on the Shan Plateau in central Myanmar is the Inle Lake area. If you visit just one place in this re-emerging country, Inle Lake will provide an overview of what life in this country is all about. I knew, for the most part, what to expect when I traveled to Bagan. On the other hand, Inle Lake surprised me. Life is simple, laid-back and refreshing to watch. There are no large cities. The temperature is cooler at this higher elevation. The people are friendly and act like tourists are just part of the local life. Unlike Bagan, there’s no souvenir hawking. You can walk through markets and stop at workshops without receiving a sales pitch. Yangon and Mandalay are the two largest cities in Myanmar and bring with them all of the normal trappings of big cities. Bagan is a tourist location. Inle Lake is the real deal. If you want to see what life is like in Myanmar, stop here and immerse yourself into its daily life. Enjoy yourself!!!

Flying into Heho Airport in the Inle Lake region

My Asian Wings flight touched down at Heho Airport by mid-morning. The skies were fairly clear which allowed us to get a good glimpse of the colorful, rolling hills as we reached the Shan Plateau. After gathering my bag, from the airline staff who carried it into the terminal waiting room, I found my driver. At least, I thought I had. Turns out it was an airport staff member who greets passengers and escorts them to their driver who wait by their vehicles in the airport’s small parking area.

Farmer’s market in the Inle Lake region

Shortly after exiting the airport area, we stopped at the rotating farmer’s market, which is set-up today along the two-lane road we were on. Many of the markets in this area rotate from one location to another on a daily basis returning to each spot about once a week. This allows villagers access to their daily necessities at least on a weekly basis without them having to travel very far. Locals bring their vegetables, poultry, spices, firewood (most locals still cook over an open flame) and any other products they have to sell. Most just lay a cloth on the ground or use a small wooden platform on which to display their products. It’s a relaxed atmosphere as you walk through. No one insists you purchase their products.

The drive to Pindaya is full of color – trees, vegetables, plants

The drive to Pindaya, our destination for the day, takes a couple of hours from Heho Airport. It’s basically in the opposite direction of Nyaung Shwe, where I’ll be staying at the Hotel Amazing for four nights. It’s a very relaxing drive through rolling hills where the land is primarily used for farming. The various vegetables growing provide a multi-colored landscape. On numerous occasions, we passed farmers tilling their soil on a wooden cart pulled by one or two oxen. The day was nice – clouds floating across the sky allowed plenty of sunshine. The temps were cool here on the Shan Plateau. It was a nice respite from the heat I experienced during the first week and a half of the trip. The road was a decent two-lane road for about the first hour of the drive. At the town of Aungban, we turned north onto highway 41, which leads to Pindaya. Had we continued west on highway 4, we would have reached Kalaw – a very popular town for trekking in the region. As we got further along, the road narrowed to a point where we had to slow and move along the outside of the road when passing a vehicle going the opposite direction; however, it was still in fairly good condition. Traveling was rather slow at about 25 miles an hour. I didn’t care. I was relaxed and just enjoyed the scenery as we drove. Once again, my driver spoke decent English and we had an ongoing conversation throughout the drive. He said we could stop whenever I wanted to take a picture or just get out and stretch my legs. There wasn’t much traffic – mainly the small trucks carrying farm products to market – so we were able to stop along the edge of the road.

Within a few hours, we arrived at Pindaya Cave – one of the most impressive in all Myanmar due to the 8K Buddha images inside. Yes, you read that correctly – 8K. I couldn’t believe it when my driver told me. At the base of the stairs, which lead to the entrance of the cave, is a rather large spider opposite a prince with a bow and arrow. Re-enacting the centuries-old legend about seven princesses that took refuge in the cave during a storm where they were imprisoned by a giant spider who lived there, the prince, upon hearing their cries for help, kills the spider with his bow and arrow. After ascending the couple hundred stairs, I entered the Shwe Oo Min Pagoda and then Pindaya Cave. Small, large, set apart or tightly packed together, the Buddha images are literally everywhere. Meandering through the large caverns, which protrude deep into the mountainside, it seems the images are never-ending. Upon exiting the cave and pagoda, I stopped for a moment to enjoy the beautiful view of Pone Ta Lote Lake and the whole Pindaya region. It’s the slow (rainy) season in this region so there are not many tourists around. It’s really nice when you feel you have a whole place to yourself!

Pindaya Cave

Assembling hand-made umbrellas

Before leaving the area, we stopped at a small workshop that makes hand-made umbrellas. The tedious process requires the work of several people to make the decorative cloth, the stem and spokes and then the assembly. After a delicious curry chicken and rice lunch (including my daily Coca-Cola) at the lakeside Green Tea Restaurant, we were back on the road heading for Nyaung Shwe. Re-tracing our steps through the colorful, rolling farmlands, we passed the airport turn-off and pulled into Nyaung Shwe, the primary town of Inle Lake, shortly before sunset. All in all it was a cool, beautiful, relaxing day and a great introduction to the Inle Lake region.

Hotel Amazing is a modern facility with very friendly staff

Hotel Amazing is part of a small Myanmar hotel chain. The hotel is a modern facility with about 15 rooms and dining both inside and outside (on a bridge over a canal). As typical in most of the lodging places I stayed, the Wi-Fi was pretty weak. My iPad noted a connection to the internet; however, the signal was just too weak to browse the web or even connect to e-mail. In most places, the internet seems to be a rolling connection where it’s here for a few minutes and then gone for a while. I think the locals have grown accustomed when to engage it and for how long before spending their time on other things. Occasionally, I was able to gain access, for very brief periods, using one of the hotel’s computers. The hotel’s menu was pretty typical for a hotel including items that tourists would enjoy and local food that backs off a little on the spices.

I found a great little café called Linn Htat (or is it Htet as noted on the menu) that serves traditional Myanmar cuisine. Conveniently located on the main road in town, it’s just a simple location with a metal roof and walls, cement floors, plastic chairs and tables. For under 5 USD, you can get a delicious local meal including beer.

My first full day, without guide or driver, gave me a chance to explore the town of Nyaung Shwe on foot. There’s nothing fancy about Nyaung Shwe. It’s a simple town set out on a grid with one main road that runs from beyond Hotel Amazing through the middle of town ending at the canal that connects to Inle Lake. On each side of the main road are small rectangular shops or places to eat – all with cement floors and metal walls and ceilings.

This small canal is used by locals to bring their products to market

The road appears to be hardened dirt. There’s probably a little asphalt in there somewhere. In the center of town is the Mingalar Market, which is busy in the early morning as locals come for breakfast or just look for the products they need. A series of tarps act as the roof for the market to keep the rains off the dirt floor. A tall person like me has to walk stooped over to keep from banging his head on the tarps or the guide ropes holding them up. On the backside of town, running parallel to the main road is a small, narrow canal that connects with the main one noted earlier. This narrow canal is crowded, during the day, with long boats belonging to the locals of Inle Lake as they come into town to deliver their locally grown fruits and vegetables or are looking to pick up supplies from nearby shops.

A monk reading while standing in the window at Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery

Just outside of town, on the main road, is the Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery - built in the 1800s. The red-painted teakwood structure, built on stilts, has oval windows where you can catch a monk reading at times.

There are a number of small pagodas and simple homes located throughout the town. Bikes and motorbikes greatly outnumber the cars. There are not a lot of vehicles. Most people get around by boat.

After eating breakfast at the tables over the canal the second morning, I was greeted by Htwe (pronounced “Trey”) who would be my tour guide. This day would be by water and the next day by foot. Over the next two days, I would find Htwe to be very knowledgeable of the local area and one of the friendliest people I had ever met. I really enjoyed spending time and chatting with him about life in this fascinating place. We walked the half-mile to the canal at the end of the main road where we would meet our boat and driver. On the way, we stopped at the Mingalar Market where Htwe explained how the market process works in the region. It was earlier in the day than when I walked through previously. The market was bustling with locals getting breakfast along with coffee or tea and just shopping for whatever their daily needs were that day. According to Htwe, most local markets are busy early in the morning and then slowdown as the day wears on. We navigated our way through the locals, who were engaged in negotiations or just daily chit chat, walking on the dirt floors avoiding any rain puddles, but also dodging the low tarps that act as a roof against the elements. In one corner, there was a clothing auction going on. A dealer brings in a number of garments and then, one by one, auctions them off to a group of locals (primarily women).

We exit the market and continue our walk to the canal where a number of boats and drivers eagerly await their customers for the day. Htwe had reserved a boat and driver; however, after noticing a leak when getting in, we hopped into another boat that had a different driver. Each boat is long, narrow and has a few wooden chairs in single file down the middle of the boat. Padded with cushions for your back and seat, they are pretty comfortable to sit in. In a few minutes, we were navigating, by oar, out of the boat dock area and into the main canal that leads to Inle Lake. It was fairly cloudy that morning and looked like the sky could open up at any moment. Rainstorms come and go in this area. It can pour down for 30 minutes and then turn into a beautiful partly cloudy day with radiant sunshine. The driver turned on the motor as we got into the open and proceeded at a fairly calm pace down the canal heading towards the lake. There’s not much traffic today. We pass a few boats packed with locals coming in from nearby villages to sell their products and to purchase whatever their needs are.

Crossing Inle Lake during a driving rainstorm

As we reach the lake, the driver puts our boat into high gear and we start to skim across the water. Wouldn’t you know it? Within a few minutes, the sky opens up and the rain is coming down in what seems like buckets. Since we’re moving pretty fast, the rain is coming in horizontally. Both Htwe and I are holding our open umbrellas at the top of the handle desperately trying to keep them from flipping up and blowing away. It was actually pretty cool. It’s not cold at this time of year. All I had on was a quick-drying, polyester short-sleeved shirt, short pants, my Nike cap and flip flops – my usual attire in this region of the world. After a 15-minute downpour, the rain let up. It would sprinkle a little the rest of the day but not much. It turned into a warm, beautiful partly sunny day.

Intha fisherman using his leg to row while his hands are releasing the nets

The boat driver, a young teenager from the local area, was dressed in shorts and a t-shirt when we started out. When the downpour started, he quickly got into a long raincoat and stood on the back end of the boat navigating through the storm. He was very skilled, and polite, for being such a young man. The rain had abated as we approached some local fishermen. Our boat driver slowed so Htwe could explain the lake’s fishing process. It’s pretty interesting. The local “Intha” fishermen row with one arm and one leg while the other arm casts their fishing nets and the other leg is used to stand on at the very end of their long boat. Other fishermen that we passed dredged the bottom for a seaweed type plant that would be used as the base for the tomato gardens grown on the lake itself.

The fishermen live in houses built on stilts over the lake

There are so many incredible sites to see on the lake and around the edges. After crossing the lake, we arrived at the fishermen’s village – houses built on stilts over the lake. The stilts, driven into the lake’s bed, push the floors of the houses some twenty feet above the water level to allow for fluctuations in the level of the lake. With the motor down low, we cruised up and down the village “streets” as locals were going about their daily duties.

There are many industries around the lake in addition to fishing and dredging the lake’s bed. We stopped at a silk-weaving shed where locals use old manually driven weaving machines to spin and make their silk products. Next was a shed where young women made cheroots (or homemade cigars) from the locally grown tobacco. After lunch we stopped to see a silversmith operation. All of these shops are located on the water’s edge. Our boat driver pulled up to the dock outside of each shop and tended the boat while Htwe explained the various processes to me as we walked inside.

Woman making cheroots (cigars)

Our next stop was Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda (aka Hpaung Daw U Pagoda). The pagoda contains five images of Buddha. Each one has so much gold leaf added to it that the original image has been distorted. During the pagoda festival in September/October, four of the Buddha images are placed on a replica of a royal barge designed as a hintha bird and taken throughout Inle Lake. One image always remains at the temple. The elaborately decorated barge is towed by several boats of leg-rowers, rowing in unison, and other accompanying boats, making an impressive procession on the water. The barge is towed from village to village along the shores of the lake in clockwise fashion, and the four images reside at the main monastery in each village for the night (Wikipedia). The processional barge can be seen docked near the pagoda.

We left the pagoda and proceeded up Indein Creek to the village of Indein. The boat seemed close to full throttle for the half hour ride. Going uphill and against the flow of the creek gave the feeling of going slower than we really were. I was totally relaxed sitting in my comfy chair in the warm sunshine watching the rice paddies go by while catching an occasional glimpse of a farmer and his water buffaloes plowing a field. About every quarter mile, we came across a man-made levee with an opening slightly wider than our boat. I believe the levee backs up the water allowing local farmers to use the creek for irrigation purposes. Our driver slips through each gate with relative ease.

After docking our boat, Htwe and I hiked for about a mile through the forest, along another creek and then through the main part of the village, where children could be seen playing, ending at the Shwe Inn Tain Pagodas – a cluster of centuries-old stupas similar to the ones seen in Bagan. The ruins, clustered in one area, are overgrown with plants and grass. They are small in stature compared to some of the ones in Bagan and are packed tightly together. It was quiet here since we were a little ways from the village of Indein. I was alone in my thoughts as I enjoyed the solitude walking through the ruins. I felt like we had the place to ourselves – one of the joys of traveling during the off-season. We encountered a few more tourists who were just arriving as we returned to our boat. It was early afternoon at this point and we were getting hungry. The driver turned the boat around and we headed back down Indein Creek towards the lake.

Docking at the Golden Moon Restaurant for lunch

A little over a half hour later, our boat driver guided us to the Golden Moon Restaurant located right on the water. The driver pulled the boat up to the restaurant’s dock and Htwe and I disembarked, climbed the stairs and entered a fairly deserted restaurant. Htwe and I chatted about life in the Inle Lake region as we ate our Chinese lunch. Good food and great company.

Tomato gardens, growing on the lake, are tended to by a farmer

After a stop at a nearby silversmith shop, we headed for a tour of the floating gardens where locals grow vegetables, such as tomatoes, on islands, made of weeds and water hyacinth that float on the lake. The gardens are quite extensive laid out in long rows that look like streets. Farmers tend to the vegetables while navigating the rows from their boats.

Nearby the floating gardens is the Nga Phe Chaung Monastery, which is also known as the Jumping Cats Monastery. Built in the 1850s on stilts above the lake, the monastery is known for its plethora of cats, which do tricks including jumping through hoops. There were a lot of cats when we visited; however, they must have been tired out because we didn’t see any of the tricks. Oh well, maybe next time.

It was time to head back across the lake towards Nyaung Shwe. The fishermen were pulling in their nets and checking on their catch for the day as the sun was getting low in the sky. We made it across the lake fairly quickly and entered the canal for the final 15 minutes to Nyaung Shwe. As we cruised down the canal, long boats, packed with locals, were heading out to the lake and probably home to their villages after dropping their products off in town and shopping for the next several days. The boats with the locals do not have chairs like the tourist boats do. The locals sit low in the boat with their heads barely visible.

I enjoyed my day with Htwe so much that I booked him for tomorrow for a day trek through the local mountains. The first day had been booked through Kyaw – my Yangon-based travel agent. This second day, I booked directly with Htwe since we were together and he had an opening in his schedule.

My tour guide, Htwe, standing inside the cave we came upon during our hike

The next morning, Htwe met me at the hotel. Again, we took off on foot; however, this time we went in the opposite direction from the canal. We were heading towards the mountains. It was a beautiful, warm day. Clouds floated across the sky as the sun peeked through at intervals. Nyaung Shwe is located in a valley surrounded by rolling green hills. It didn’t take long to reach the base of the hills. We hiked along dirt roads and paths that had been cut through the uneven terrain. There are many open spots that provide a gorgeous view of the lake and the entire valley. Trekking is very popular in this area. We came upon a fairly large cave with several Buddha images where local monks would gather to honor Buddha. This morning, we were the only ones there allowing us to explore on our own. It was nice to hike the area with Htwe. Living in the area and leading treks for a living, he knew everyone – the local villagers, the schoolteachers, and most everyone we came upon. He knew the hills like the back of his hand.

Several classes take place in the one room school house in the village near Inle Lake

Several classes take place in the one room school house in the village near Inle Lake

One of the highlights of our day’s hike was visiting one of the local village schools. The brick building housed four classes in one large room. The teachers were very friendly and nice to allow us to observe their classes for a while. The children seemed interested to have visitors. Htwe dropped off some markers that he purchased from the market in Nyaung Shwe. He tries to bring something each time he stops at the school. Unaware that we were going to be stopping here, I had nothing to deliver so I gave some local kyat to the teachers to purchase something for the kids. Next time, I will be better prepared.

Monks eating lunch at the monastery we stopped at during our hike

Another highlight was a stop at one of the local monasteries. The monks were happy for us to stop. Htwe had brought some food from home and prepared lunch for us – chicken, rice and hot tea. What a nice surprise. It was good too. During our hike, we passed through villages, chatted with a man chopping wood that he would sell at the local market and passed farmers tending to their fields as they harnessed their oxen.

These last two days were really enjoyable. I felt like we immersed ourselves, in a relatively short period of time, into the local life of this region. Seeing the sites is the easy part of traveling. Understanding how locals go about their daily lives is much harder. I feel we did a good job scratching the surface. Again, I am amazed at how friendly the Myanmar people are. They have been so welcoming to me.

Tomorrow, I return to Yangon to be picked up by another driver and tour guide as we drive to Kinpun Base Camp – the jumping off point for Golden Rock – one of the top pilgrimage sites in all of Myanmar.

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