The second largest lake in Myanmar is only 116km² in size and a mere 2m deep on the average. Some seventy thousand people lead their lives on these waters. After lunch in one of the lake side restaurants, we got on the boat to our lodge. The afternoon light was great for photography.
Of course the main activity is fishing and we saw at least four dozens of fishermen throwing their nets. The first thing that strikes you is their unique rowing technique, by using their leg and applying an s-like motion to pull the row while the stand at the front of the boat. The other interesting thing is the way they beat the water to drive the fish to the nets. There is an older method, in which they use a cone-like net with a central stick, but very few people use it nowadays. Those that do, usually fake it to get some money from picture taking tourists, but I was lucky to see one guy actually using the method.
We also stopped to check the famous Inle floating gardens. To form a garden, “firstly, naturally occurring clumps of water hyacinth, “seagrass” and other lake debris are captured by the farmer and secured in position using bamboo poles. These are driven into the deep mud at the bottom of the lake, in areas of water between 1 and 5 metres deep. The newly created island is allowed to knit together, and grass is encouraged to grow on the surface. The grass is then cut, dried and finally burned to create a nutritious dressing of ash. More “sea-grass” is heaped on top, with a final layer of fine mud from the bottom of the lake. Eventually the mats become 1m thick with about a third of that above water level. They are very stable… Seed is planted in the fertile mud and the young plants are supported by bamboo canes. Depending on the season they are used for tomatoes, cucumbers, gourds and pulses, but are, unsurprisingly, not suitable for root vegetables.” (source and more on this interesting article here).
Our lodge has floating rooms, built on poles so there is plenty of humidity. Fortunately the air conditioning provided enough heat as it got quite cold in the evening and the hotel restaurant was fortunately above average, as it was our only option for dinner.
The sunrise view from the room patio is serene as the first boats are crossing the calm waters and the resident seagulls are fishing in the shallow lake.
We spent the entire day circling the lake with out boat and local guide. First stop at the local market. The market is rotating daily along five different sites (Nyaungshwe, Heho, Taunggyi, Minethauk, Shwenyaung). Once floating, today is mostly on land as the waters have receded significantly.
After the market we traveled upstream to go to the Shwe Inn Tain pagoda. On the way we crossed a number of small artificial dams, made of tree branches, with an opening in the middle to allow for the boats to cross. The dams create about one foot height difference in water level and raise the depth of the lake so that navigation is possible all year round.
The Shwe Inn Tain Pagoda is a complex of 1000 temples, some more than 400 years old and most of them ruined by earthquakes. Some restoration works are underway, but most of temples in the periphery are badly damaged and overtaken by vegetation, adding to the drama of the place. The main temple surrounded by hundreds of stupas is in good condition but not so interesting as the ruins.
Although there is a long corridor of souvenir shops on the way to the main entrance, there were not so many tourists around that day. Good for us, bad for the merchants I guess. On the way to the temples, we stopped in the village to watch a local football game on what would be a badly maintained potato field in any country of the developed world. Quite a game I should admit and the whole village was rooting for their team.
After a tasty dish of fried noodles at the Golden Moon restaurant, we visited the nearby artifact shop of the Padaung women. The women are better known as giraffe or long necked women because of the brass rings they use to elongate their necks. Some manage to reach up to 30 cm of neck length, which is actually an illusion as the human neck does not get any longer. It is the shoulders that are pushed down to create the effect. “Their own mythology explains that it is done to prevent tigers from biting them! Others have reported that it is done to make the women unattractive so they are less likely to be captured by slave traders. The most common explanation, though, is the opposite of this — that an extra-long neck is considered a sign of great beauty and wealth and that it will attract a better husband. Adultery, though, is said to be punished by removal of the rings. In this case, since the neck muscles will have been severely weakened by years of not supporting the neck, a woman must spend the rest of her life lying down” (source here).
Next stop at the Hpaung Daw U Pagoda, a significant religious local site and home of the 18-day annual festival. The pagoda houses five small gilded images of Buddha, which have been covered in gold leaf to the point that their original forms cannot be seen. During the festival “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.” (source wikipedia).
We continued our “cultural” visit to number of small factories: cigar making, silversmith and finally, silk and wool fabrication. Although these are interesting to see, they are targeted to the tourists and you feel obliged to buy something from the front shop in order to thank them for the tour. We did not, as the prices are extremely high, not to mention that the ambience of a sweat shop.
Last stop at thee Nga Hpe Kyaung or Jumping Cat Monastery. A long time ago the resident cats were trained to jump and offer an impressive show to the pilgrims and visitors, but today they are just hanging out lazily. The wooden monastery is beautiful and is worth the visit though. On the way back, while traveling along the floating villages, we came across the day-end of a local school, with a myriad of boats that came to pick up the kids, all dressed in their white and green uniforms, back home.
We woke up very early and started before dawn our return boat trip to Nyaungshwe. We were not prepared for such low temperatures and cold wind during the one hour ride, but I was happy. I was able to shoot some great pictures of the fishermen that were already out fishing in the morning mist.