Breaking Burma Day 102: Inle Lake – A Floating Village

The day began later than expected since C2 and Chief hit the whisky bottle a little too heavily the night before. After an all too familiar breakfast composed of a mound of rice draped over by a fried egg, we began and finished our trek to Inle Lake finally hitting the downward portion that had been long promised. With our time together on the winding dusty trail, Vim and I chatted football (the real kind. They always try to say soccer in case I may not be aware of the term ‘football’ in the worldwide sense but I make sure to correct them and make them aware of the difference between myself and the average American. Like I have begun to tell people, I am a European at heart) before diverting our attention to the never ending debate over biscuits vs. cookies; those people across the pond must have an American style biscuit laying around somewhere but they act like I am from another universe. To put in lay man’s terms, they (as if they are the ‘others’ from an episode of ‘Lost’) consider a sugar cookie to be a biscuit. When lunch time came around, I craved one and only one thing and that would be Cap’n Crunch. I miss Western food as much as I have been missing my own bed. A simple bowl of cereal is all I ask. Is that violins I hear playing in the background? Any who, we broke for lunch near Inle Lake after paying the entrance fee. When lunch was completed we said thanks and goodbye to C2 and the vivaciously energetic Chief, who may have not spoken much English but was a joy to be around especially when C2 translated how delicious we thought his meals were. We had to pay a small additional fee to make the sightseeing tour possible, which wasn’t a worry. The boat itself had wooden chairs for each of us to relax on but all of us were attentive for a variety in reasons, mainly taking in the views and praying to Poseidon that the small dingy of a boat wouldn’t capsize into the murky waters that the driver whisked us through. In one comical moment we got stuck since the water was just too shallow to the point that for those lucky few to push the boat out of the muck their knees just barely got wet. The boat continued along passing fishermen both near and far trying to fish. The photo of the fisherman on Inle Lake is one of the classic photos of Myanmar so all of us were fishing along with them but, for us, the ultimate photo. The fisherman played a dangerous game that only they could balance in which they threw out their nets into the water and reeled it in with their hands while their extending leg pulled back on the oar or paddle thus mushing their narrow wooden boat forward. Richard and I were especially in a competition to get a photo of a fisherman with the ‘best leg’ (not so creepily, the photo of a fisherman giving us the best photo of him with his net and steering leg. Most odd of all to us until we discovered the reasoning behind it, the fishermen took their paddles and swung them up into the air like a lumberjack readying his axe before thrashing at the water with one clean swoop. Apparently they have their nets already set up and use this technique to scare the fish into them. Whenever we diverted from the main portion of the lake that looked like the kinds of lakes we know and recognize, we found sights that did not seem natural or rather real as if I could have never created such a moment or scene no matter how times I tried. The boat teetered itself on the imaginary tight rope as it maneuvered itself through the narrow waters that can only be described as their streets or alley ways. The further and further we went, the more the lake turned into marshland or swamp than the atypical lake. I quickly discovered that no one can get anywhere on the lake without some sort of boat. This is not like Venice in which you can avoid the gondolas and ferries by walking through the maze of alleys and over bridges. Here in Inle Lake you have the simple yet reliable option of the boat. It makes me wonder how such a thing came into existence. Why would so many people (Inle Lake is deceptively populated) choose to build their homes on stilts in the middle of the lake? You think that is crazy and I will raise you once more. They have chosen build floating gardens in which vegetable plants of all sizes (oddly massive hanging squash) line the land or rather water where they have mounded enough earth in between the rows of streamlined water that separate and distinguish each group. Eventually I realized how much of a life source this lake truly is. It is a resource for fish and the water itself that hydrates the rice paddy fields that revolve around the circumference of the lake in the surrounding gardens. Besides the many sights and sounds that demanded our attention just off the boat on this fairytale lake, mountains shot up on a near 360 degree revolution of the lake hauntingly painting the panorama as they faded into thickening haze. Beyond the floating gardens, our first stop was at a tobacco shop. We got to taste samples to convince us to purchase some cigars. I am not smoker but for a treat these banana leave wrapped cigars hit the spot. They were sweetened by honey and their alcohol (probably whisky) and a hint of anise that sent me over the moon. A pack of five sounds like a nice treat for myself. At the clothing and weaving shop, we watched women take lotus plants that grow out of the very waters upon which the stilted shop stood and turn them into clothing such as scarves or a dress. When a lotus stack is snapped in half a somewhat slimy string is revealed. After enough string is combined, the result turns into a surprisingly smooth piece of cloth. Women worked the threads into a full piece of clothing using older sowing techniques. The main guide hovering in the area told me how much money they made for their labors and I found it comical how ridiculous of a figure. The $20 per day they supposedly made sounds dirt poor to you and me but for them that is a rich paycheck that they sadly don’t receive; it is all about sweeping the facts under the rug and revealing a bright and warm lie that everyone can live with. The next stop was a much too touristic jewelry shop that Vim and I bypassed immediately for the usual accompaniment of tea. With that behind us, we went to what I had read was supposed to be a jumping cat monastery (aka a monastery with cats trained by monks to do tricks) but I only could find one cat lazily sleeping next to a monk. The monastery was quite dark but I enjoyed reading the panels the stretched around the perimeter of the main room telling stories of Buddha; I may have learned nothing knew from the walk around but heck I am trying. The boat continued along through the lives of these village people who have chosen a life on the water. I kept zooming in and out with my camera hoping for the right angle, the perfect shot of the Inle Lake fisherman. Through all the narrow passageways that represented their streets and driveways and past their waterlogged gardens, I couldn’t help but think how this place will be in only a matter of a few years. The tourism industry in Myanmar is skyrocketing and with the further influx of foreigners I wonder how genuine of a place like Inle Lake can stay; will it stay true to its roots? We passed several resorts getting built up on the water on stilts just like the villagers but with glitzy accommodation. After a fair bit of time on the lake, we cruised to Nyaung Shwe, home to the more cheaper accommodation options. Vim and I had booked different hotels due to the earlier confusion so he ditched his for mine at Aquarius, by far the best accommodation I have gotten while in Myanmar by a long shot as it had a communal rainforest type of feel. All of us eventually met up for dinner after taking some much needed showers from all the sweat and dust the coated our bodies over the past few days. I wasn’t hungry so I just smoked the first of my cigars puffing on the sweet taste of the smoke. Despite not ordering any food, the waitress offered me a gift of one of their cigars, an usual yet by now not surprising gesture from the warm and welcoming people of Myanmar. Richard, Vim, and I left the girls to go to a beer station down the way for some drinks. I continued puffing on those cigars like a chain smoker, each cigar accentuating the next. We chatted away shooting the breeze while enjoying the local Myanmar beer. As the beer station began to close down at 9:30 pm an older French gentleman joined us for a drink. He was here in Myanmar to help a friend get his chain of hotels up and running by showing the local Myanmar how to accommodate for Western style expectations. This Frenchie was an interesting chap, a man you might expect to run into in a small town in the countryside of France sipping his wine and regaling in his stories of yesteryear. Being a photographer as a hobby, he showed us some of his photos which could have easily been taken from the cover of National Geographic or Lonely Planet they were so pristine. Eventually around 10:30 pm the beer station couldn’t contain us any longer so we went out into the quiet night in our separate directions to revel in a well earned night of sleep finally in the comforts of some sort of civilization.

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