Inle Lake

After the initial ride across the lake following our trek, we went onto the water 3 more times during our 6 night stay in Nyaungshwe. There’s a vibrant, bustling life going on out there, though it’s a bit deceptive because the lake is so wide and calm. At any given time you can see at least 50 watercraft. Some long boats carried just a few people, others were packed with many, and still others carried cargo such as sacks of grain or rows of empty wooden crates. There were smaller canoes too, with 1 or 2 or 3 people inside, fishing out in the open, or harvesting alongside the edges of the many floating gardens that are strewn about the lake. Islands would come and go, some with temples on them. Sprinkled around the distant perimeter of the lake, were roof clusters of floating communities. Up beyond them, golden Hershey kisses dotted the hills. Always, the water was placid, reflecting the green hills, white clouds, and blue sky.

One day we decided to bike to some hot springs, said to be maybe 45 minutes away. We’d already learned about how maps, directions, and distances seem to be foreign concepts in Myanmar, it took 2 hours. The first hour was on a gorgeous, flat, shady, tree-lined, berm that cut through the reeds and rushes. But the second half was difficult, as the trail turned rocky, went uphill, and had too many trucks using it. The hot springs were also a letdown: two separated swimming pools, divided by gender (no mixing). We did not want to use them, nor did we want to bike back to town. So instead, we paid a long boat driver to ferry us -and our bikes- back home across the lake. While he prepared things, we followed the sounds of chanting children to a single school house. The teacher stopped class briefly and introduced us, and showed us their thick English lesson plan. The ride back on the long boat was again, magnificent. Through the green, peaceful, marshes we chugged, passing people on land and in other boats, who knew our boatsman.

There are countless villages and sights to see all around the lake. A day or 2 later, we planned out a full day and decided on 3 such destinations. We met our hired canoe skipper early, and headed out while the lake was still misty and atmospheric. There’s an iconic image for Inle Lake: the Intha fisherman, standing up on his flat-bottomed skiff, propelled by a single wooden paddle, one leg wrapped around it to drive the blade through the water in a snake-like motion. This frees his hands to manage the large, conical net that drags below the boat. There were many out this morning, and one allowed us to get close for a picture or 3. Our first destination was the village of Inthein, 90 minutes away. It turned out to be the same village where our trek tribe had our last meal before getting into the boat. But at that time, we didn’t know about the temple bonanza a few hundred meters away.

Nyaung Ohak is a large group of crumbling stupa, in the foothills. Most are overgrown with vines and earth, yet with carvings of animals, deva, and chinthe still visible. Farther up, via a very looong covered stairway, flanked by stalls selling high quality and amazing lacquerware, puppets, jewelery, headdresses, etc., is Shwe Thein Paya, an incredible complex of over a thousand stupa, surrounding a central Pagoda. Many are crumbling now, but many more are being reconstructed and painted (we preferred the original structures). Weaving our way through them, small figurines or ornamental stone carvings rested at the foot of their once-host stupa. Inside their cavities, many carved Buddhas still remained -but most were missing.

From there we got back into the boat and cruised to Phaung Daw Oo Paya, which is a large, ornate, multi-layered Pagoda island complex, and home of the holiest religious site in the region: the beloved “5 Buddhas”. Outside, berthed in its slip, was an ornate, golden dragon/swan boat, reserved for special ceremonies. Inside, worshipers pay to apply gold leaf to the 5 amorphous blobs -which once presumably resembled 5 Buddhas. Close up cameras capture and display the action on the monitors hanging in the common areas. Around the interior walls, large paintings detailed the history, beliefs, and culture of the region, and photographs showed lake ceremonies from many decades past, staring that festive, golden boat.

From there we cruised across the lake further to the stilted village of Nampan, where the Alodaw Pauk Pagoda houses 4 different looking Buddhas as you walk completely around the central quarters. Typically, women are not allowed to enter their “rooms”, so we didn’t stay long.

On the way home across the lake, we slipped through one of the many floating gardens where flowers, tomatoes, squash, and fruit are grown. We were allowed to climb upon the spongy green beds for a minute. Lone farmers squatting on the edge of their long canoes, somehow manged to slowly glide themselves alongside the crops, while cutting and gathering the harvest.

On our last day in Nyaungshwe, we hired a woman to paddle us through the local marshes for 2 hours. No engine. She stood at the back like a gondolier, using the Intha method of wrapping her leg around the paddle. Quietly we glided, past villages, school yards, other boater friends of hers, and through the narrow channels of the lake. Young monks flew kites high above their monastery. Without saying a word, she wedged the front of our canoe onto the marshland, pointing us straight at the sun, which lay setting behind the mountains. We admired the moment in silence for several minutes until it sank into the west. She then turned the boat around and glided us back to town. This great day -and our visit to this small part of the world- was coming to an end.

Some regions of Myanmar are off limits to visitors, but understanding which ones depends on who you ask -and seemingly, the day of the week. Trying to arrange for remote excursions was very difficult. We’d been really hoping to move on to Maurak U in the northern part of the country, but had finally accepted it as off limits right now due to rebel conflicts. Eventually we hatched a different plan, and made arrangements with a pair of brother travel agents / taxi drivers to take us to the train station in the morning. One of them had an iphone cover that was a photograph of Aung San Suu Kyi’s visit with Obama at the white house. Jennifer wanted one! He lead us all over town looking for another, but couldn’t find one. When we returned to his shop, he gave his to Jennifer.


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