Inle Lake (23 – 24 December 2014)
I discovered a few things about travelling by air in Myanmar while on my way to Inle Lake.
The morning started uneventfully enough and I arrived at the Mandalay International Airport to catch a flight to Heho. Since it was a domestic flight, the check in counter opened only about an hour before the scheduled flight time. I was early and so had to wait for a bit. J my Mandalay guide kept me company. When the check in counter was finally ready, and after I had said my goodbyes to J, I had to get my bags scanned before I could reach the check in counters.
The local agency had booked me on Air KBZ for all of my flights in Myanmar. I walked straight to the counter that had the Air KBZ sign on it and they checked me in by ticking my name off a paper list. Air KBZ flights were usually free-seating and so I was given a boarding card without a seat number or even my name. I had to be extra careful with my boarding pass. I was also given a sticker with the Air KBZ logo to stick on my person.
After I had checked in, I sauntered into the customs check area. It was divided into two with the left for international passengers and the right for domestic ones. I walked to the counter at the right and showed the officer there my passport and boarding pass. He looked at my boarding pass and my passport before returning them to me. I am not sure what there was to check since my name was not on the boarding pass. I would have thought that he only needed to see that I had a boarding pass. Still feeling a little puzzled and amused, I followed the signs to get to my boarding gate and I did this by walking right across the side meant for international passengers. It was not a large airport at all and so my boarding gate was practically just a few steps away from customs.
My period of anxiety started almost immediately in the crowded holding room however. I noticed that there were no electronic displays and so there was no way of knowing when any flight was ready for boarding or whether I was even at the correct gate except to rely on verbal announcements. A group of passengers was called to board soon after I had arrived at the holding room and I was uncertain if they were boarding my flight. My instincts told me not to board. And then another group of passengers was called to board not long after that first one but it did not look like they were going the same way as I was. It did not help that it was already very close to my flight’s scheduled departure time. I started looking out for Air KBZ stickers and realised that there were many people with them. Mine was of a different colour from theirs though so maybe I did not belong with them.
I was feeling quite nervous and started imagining what I would have to do if I should actually miss my flight. I also discovered that I was not the only confused foreigner as I saw one after another asking the ground crew in the room if they should be boarding. I tried asking one of the ground crew myself whether my flight would be ready for boarding soon. He did not know the answer as he was in charge of international flights and walked away with a smile. I love it when people give me service with a smile.
Gradually however more passengers entered the holding room and I noticed that some of them had the same sticker as I did. I felt somewhat more secure having seen them and I made sure that those people never left my line of vision.
The plane arrived a little late and when the announcement came for me to board I was almost crying for joy. It felt as if I had just survived a major catastrophe. After we got our tickets checked a final time at the boarding gate we stepped out of the door and walked a short distance to the plane.
The flight to Heho was just over 30 minutes. It did feel like such a waste taking a flight for such a short distance but I have to admit that it was nice to be able to reach my destination sooner and hopefully have more time for sightseeing.
The plane was a propellor plane and looked relatively new. Since it was my first domestic flight in Myanmar, I felt a little wary. Safety concerns aside however the airline donates 700 kyats to charity for every ticket sold and I thought that that was a nice gesture on the airline’s part. In any case the whole flight was smooth.
The arrival hall at Heho was merely a little room. Where is the conveyor belt? While I waited for my luggage to be unloaded from the plane, I noticed a customs counter in the arrival hall and some foreigners were showing the lady behind the counter their passports. I assumed correctly that I had to do the same and get myself registered. I had no idea why this crazy bureaucracy was necessary. I was not leaving the country so why did I need to be checked like this? It was only much later that I realised that visitors had to be registered when they arrived at a sensitive region in Myanmar. There was still fighting going on in some remoter parts of Shan State and Heho and Inle Lake are in Shan State.
The luggage trolleys arrived quite quickly and everyone’s luggage was unloaded directly into the little arrival hall. I got my luggage soon enough and headed outside to another hall. A lady was already waiting for me there with my name on a piece of paper. She was an employee of the local agency who had planned my trip and she was there to check that I had my ticket for the other flights I had to take on this trip. After the check was completed she led me outside to the carpark to meet my guide.
N my guide was a middle aged man who seemed like a really experienced guide. I was definitely impressed when he gave me a piece of paper with an itinerary in point form. He was going to deviate from the original itinerary a little and I have to say that his version seemed more interesting.
The way to Inle Lake took me through some mountain roads. Heho airport is more than 1,100 metres above sea level and the lake is in the valley beyond the mountains at 880 metres above sea level.
On the way we stopped at a paper umbrella workshop to have a look. There was the usual demonstration of how the umbrellas were made. I was most fascinated by how they made the skeleton of the umbrella. Every part of an umbrella from this workshop came from a mulberry tree and is decorated with real flowers and leaves. They are all entirely handmade.
About 7 kilometres before Nyaung Shwe, which is a major town near the northern shore of the lake, we made a stop to visit the wooden Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery with the oval windows. It was quite an interesting sight.
But even its interesting oval windows were no match for the temple next door. This is a stone building with small niches and glass mosaics all over the walls. There is a statue of Buddha in each niche with a sign carrying the name of a donor. There had been several foreign donors including one from Hungary and a few from the US. The glass mosaics depicted scenes in local and Buddhist myths and legends.
We arrived in Nyaung Shwe soon after and had lunch. Since we were in Shan State, I was brought to a restaurant to try some Shan food. I had assumed that since the Shan people were a part of the wider group of Thai peoples their food would be spicy. I was disappointed however, although they might have removed the spiciness for the sake of foreigners. But other than the lack of spiciness the food at the ViewPoint was pretty good.
After I had eaten I was introduced to the boatman who would be taking me around the lake for the next one and a half days. As we were visiting a lake, we had to travel like the locals did, on boats. I was half afraid that I would get seasick but at least I was finally being exposed to the elements and not greenhoused inside an air-conditioned car.
We travelled down this canal from Nyaung Shwe for about half an hour before it suddenly opened out into the lake. Fishermen were at work and I finally saw the classic Inle Lake postcard picture scene of a fisherman rowing his boat with one leg. My sightseeing at the lake had finally properly started and it was quite a sight to see.
We headed further south until we reached some villages on the lake. What I had not known previously was that there were actually villages built right on the lake itself. N called them villages but in fact some of them looked practically like towns to me. These villages or towns did not look too different from those on land except that they had watery roads. The local Intha people kept their houses out of the water with long stilts and even created floating gardens out of aquatic plants on which they piled earth and grew tomatoes, gourds, flowers and other good things. These gardens looked so still that I had to be told to realise that they were in fact floating on the lake and merely anchored in place with long wooden poles.
We weaved in and out around the floating gardens, being very careful to always stay along the watery highways and out of the floating boundaries created the same way as the gardens. N remarked that some floating gardens were no longer properly maintained and I have to admit that many areas, especially at the boundaries, did look quite unkempt to me.
We stopped by one of the villages to visit Nga Phe Kyaung. This is better known as the Jumping Cats Monastery for the cats trained to jump through hoops by the monks there. Unfortunately I did not get to see a single cat at the monastery that day. But that was fine since there were some fine statues in the monastery.
N took me to another village where we visited a boat making workshop. They made boats out of teak wood and it looked like terribly hard work. I learnt that to buy a boat with an engine would cost about 2 million kyats. That sounded like quite a princely sum in the local context.
From the workshop, N led me onto a small boat and then rowed me around the village. This was a much more pleasant experience than being on the engine-driven boat. In this way I could enjoy the village at a much more leisurely pace without the noise of the engine. It was a good way to absorb the atmosphere of the tranquil village too.
I asked N if it might be expensive building one of these houses. It sounded like it could be done at within USD10,000. However the authorities are imposing stricter controls on building in the lake. At the same time, I am not sure that I would be comfortable living in the middle of the lake. For one I would not be able to simply walk out of the house and go on one of my aimless rambles. Secondly, even though there was electricity supply, I would still not have access to the modern conveniences of a developed city that I have become so used to. What do I do for reliable internet for instance? But most importantly, I doubt that I would make a good fisherman or boat maker.
While cruising along, at N’s expense who was rowing all on his own, I kept getting reminded of some Thai horror movie which started with some guy being taken down this misty canal or river on a rowboat in exactly the same way as I was. I think I get too dramatic too easily whenever I am enjoying myself.
Unfortunately, a real horror story indeed happened when I tried to disembark back at the boat making workshop. I think I made the decision to hop onto the pier too early. I had merely held onto a pole at the pier with my left hand when the boat started drifting away from the pier. Then came the surreal realisation that I was not going to be able to get out of this situation without getting wet and the people around me started crying out in horror. I started thinking about how I could keep my camera, which I was still holding in my right hand, dry. Before I knew it the lower half of my body was in the water. N and the boatman were aghast and they quickly pulled me out of the water. I sustained only a few minor scratches but a very bruised ego. But thankfully my camera was dry and that was all I really cared about!
With that exciting dip in the lake behind me, it was time to head to my hotel. A room had been booked for me at the Shwe Inn Tha. This hotel consists of a series of houses built right on the lake and connected to each other by wooden walkways. Each house is an individual room. It was almost like one of those water villas in the Maldives except that guests here were not expected to take a dip in the lake directly from their rooms. N had told me that the water of the lake had become so polluted that no one drank it anymore. Furthermore the locals did their business directly into the water and allowed the currents to take care of it. All that organic material was no doubt good for the floating gardens but unfortunately not for swimming.
Once I got into my room I soaked my wet clothes in a lot of hot soapy water and cleaned myself up quite thoroughly.
The next morning was misty and I was a little worried that it would remain like that the whole day. It was also quite cold being at that altitude and so early in the morning and I suddenly missed the hot sun. N and the boatman arrived at the agreed time and took me to an area on land reclaimed from the lake. I had come here to explore a local market which operated only once every five days. I have always been fascinated by local markets and I was hoping to see something exotic there.
The whole setting of the market was definitely exotic. Nevertheless, being Southeast Asian myself, and having seen the former wet markets of Singapore many times before in my youth, most of the items on sale at the market did not really amaze me. It was still a good experience exploring the market though.
There was a stall selling clothes at the market. N told me that those were second hand clothes donated by people for the needy in Myanmar. The clothes did not end up with the needy however but in the hands of not so needy merchants who sell them at local markets. I will have to careful where I send my donations to now.
Near the market was the Phaung Daw U Pagoda. This is an important temple because of five Buddha statues there. They are considered to be extremely holy. However no one can see the images at the moment. It is just physically impossible. They are all completely covered with so much gold leaves that they look more like gold blobs.
There is a procession once a year where four of the statues are rowed around the lake area on a barge Intha-style (i.e. one-legged rowing) for everyone to pay homage to. This Phaung Daw U Festival is the biggest event of the year for the locals of Inle Lake.
The fifth statue is never taken out during the procession now because of a local legend. Story has it that during one procession in 1965, strong winds started blowing and all five statues fell into the lake. All except the fifth one were retrieved. When they returned to the temple disappointed, they discovered the missing statue there. It had miraculously returned home on its own! The next year when the statues were going to be put onto the processional barge again, the skies grew dark suddenly and the fifth statue became too heavy to be moved for no apparent reason. The people accepted that the statue just did not want to go on the procession. From then on, it has always been left behind.
After the temple N took me on a seven kilometre hike inland to see the Indein Pagodas. The hike was amazing as it took me through the countryside. The original itinerary had provided for a boat ride along the canal to the pagodas. I am however grateful to N for making me travel along that canal on foot instead. It was a most scenic walk along a tree-lined dirt path with fields on one side and the canal on the other. It was also fun to poke my nose into the lives of some of the people living in the area.
N was definitely a hiker and if not for the fact that I was quite a walker myself I would not have been able to keep up with him!
I got to speak with a monk from Mandalay when we stopped by this monastery which also managed an orphanage and a school for the orphans and kids of poor families. He was merely visiting himself but generously showed me around the place. Before joining monkhood he was a civil engineer and had worked in Malaysia for a while. That was twenty-one years ago and he had never looked back.
There were a couple of huts on the grounds of the monastery and N told me that monks would retreat into them to meditate. And when they meditated they could take days or even weeks on end. I simply cannot imagine how anyone could do that but apparently people do.
We passed by this small field which an old couple was preparing to plant kidney beans on. The husband was 67 while his wife was 66. Their kids had already started their own families and were living their own lives. It was somewhat painful to see the old couple still slogging away like that at their age although they did not seem too unhappy about their situation.
We finally arrived at the Indein Pagodas after almost two hours of hiking. I was almost sorry that the hike was over.
There were at least a thousand of these pagodas at Indein. I asked N why so many were built and so close to each other. He said that they were built at a time when the people of Myanmar were not Buddhists yet. The pagodas were built at such great number and concentration to make a statement so that people would pay attention to the religion. Not only that, these pagodas also served as a territorial marker at a time when the boundaries of territories were more nebulous.
The pagodas were built between the late 12th and early 13th centuries. Most were crumbling away though some of them managed to retain their original Buddha images and frescoes and these were still relatively intact.
At one end of the area however a number of the pagodas looked really new. They in fact looked entirely 21st century to me. N told me that these were all built during the same period as the crumbling ones but these looked new as a result of rebuilding by over-enthusiastic donors. I agreed with him that these archaeological monuments were best left as they were and appreciated for their age. Sadly not many locals thought the same way. On the other hand, how does one convince them to find other ways to gain merit when doing up pagodas has been carried on for centuries?
We met up with the boat at the canal at Indein village and it took us back to the lake in no time. I was then taken to some cloth weaving workshops for a visit. This looks to me like quite a major industry in the area and almost everyone in the village seemed to be employed in weaving, reeling or dying cloths in different family-owned workshops.
The locals weaved two types of cloths here using two different weaving materials, silk and lotus fibres. I knew that lotuses had all those sticky fibrous things in them but never knew that they were strong enough to be used as weaving material. Lotus fibre cloths were formerly only used to make robes for Buddha statues. Now they are also used to cater to tourists’ tastes.
N then took me for a walk around the village. This was a less touristy area and I felt really comfortable there. In some places it almost felt like Venice except that here was more down to earth and much less commercial. And of course the village was mostly wooden.
After we had worked up quite an appetite with all that walking in the morning, we went for lunch at a restored traditional Intha house aptly named “Inthar Heritage House”. N ordered some Shan appetisers and Shan noodles for me. Although the noodle dish was a bit wet, and I do not usually enjoy noodles in soup, I actually liked this one.
While having lunch I got to speak with N a little. I discovered (no surprises actually) that he was Intha and lived in Nyaung Shwe. He was employed as a guide by the local agency that had planned my trip and would not want to be a guide anywhere else. He loves his hometown, the lake and his Intha heritage and the peace of the area. He wants to be healthy in old age and so he tries to move about as much as possible. He therefore conducts hiking and cycling tours around the lake for his clients. N claimed to know every road and every path in the area and based on the hike that morning I could believe him.
I learnt a little about the conflict in Shan State too. The region had always been governed by a number of local chiefs. This had always been the case even after the Burmese kings had conquered and incorporated the region into their territory centuries ago. The Burmese kings willingly gave the Shan chiefs quite a bit of autonomy and everyone was happy with that arrangement. The situation changed suddenly however when the military junta took control of the country. These soldiers in charge insisted that everyone in the country ought to be under full control of the government and the centuries old autonomy of the Shan chiefs was taken away. That of course did not sit well at all with the chiefs and war broke out. The fighting however had in recent years been more or less put under control and that was how tourism managed to gain a foothold at Inle Lake. The heated dispute nevertheless continues today in the remoter parts of the state.
Speaking of heritage, built heritage in particular, I have this strange fascination with the bridges built by the locals. There was nothing spectacular about them but there was something quite elegant in the way they were constructed and connected two sides of a waterway.
We ended the day of sightseeing at a cheroot workshop. The smell of tobacco was strong but it was interesting to watch the workers, who were all female, roll the cheroots. I was hoping that I would be offered one to try but sadly that did not happen.
It was Christmas Eve that day and so there was an obligatory Christmas party at the hotel which I simply had to attend because I could not go anywhere else for dinner. I was pleasantly surprised though that every guest was given a Christmas present. It was an ethnic sling bag with the guest’s name hand-embroidered onto it. I quite like mine.
I got to speak with the hotel owner at dinner. This was a lady who also owned another hotel on shore. I liked the fact that she had built the Shwe Inn Tha in that way to reflect her Intha culture. Not only that she made sure that she hired locals at her hotels. Even the band playing at the Christmas party was a local amateur. She was concerned that her guests might not enjoy the band since it sang mostly songs in the Myanmar language. But she simply had to give her own people the opportunity. Now how could anyone fault her for doing that? I thought that she was brilliant.
I never knew that I would be so taken by Inle Lake. I had originally expected just a body of water on which I would be taken around on a boat to see the incredible fishermen and their one-legged rowing and some floating gardens. But as N pointed out to me there was a lot more in the area. I will definitely consider coming back here for hiking tours, except that I will try not to fall into the lake again then.