Our next destination was Inle Lake in the heart of the Shan Plateau. It’s a beautiful freshwater lake, 900 metres above sea level, the second largest in the country. It’s 22km long and 10km at it’s widest point. It’s a relatively shallow lake with an average depth of just 2 metres but can be deeper in the rainy season. The whole lake and the surrounding villages belong to the Nyaung Shwe Township. Approximately 70,000 people live in either the four small towns and numerous small villages that border the lake, or in pole houses on the waters of the lake. Although several different ethnic groups live in the area, most are devout Buddhists of the Intha ethnic group.
The lake is about 35 km from Heho. For much of the way, the road is bordered on both sides by water. Small bridges give access to the houses – and also provide the clothes line! Many fences are made of woven bamboo slats. In this area we were to see just how important bamboo is in this country.
The Shan Hills rise behind the water ways. These are the main watershed for the lake. As more and more of the hillsides are turned into farm land, more run off threatens the lake with silt build up.
One interesting ‘photo opportunity’ along this road is the red painted, teak-wood building of Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery. Over 150 years old, it sits in the water on strong stilts. An interesting architectural feature is the oval windows, some covered with stained glass but mostly open or shuttered. Peeking through the windows we could see some mirrors, mosaics and ornate carvings, some gilded with gold.
These young novices are celebrating shinbyu, a special rite of passage when a boy enters a monastery for about a week as a novice monk. While there, they learn the discipline of a monk’s life and the basic tenants of Buddhist faith. Just as regular monks do, they have to wake up early and wash with cold water. Their beds are mats unrolled onto the wooden floors. They have just two meals a day, and eat only food that has been given as alms. But, as Sunshine told us from his own experience, a boy gets hungry. He told us of running home one afternoon to raid the pantry and of being caught in the act by his mother. She didn’t scold him; she just asked him to think before he acted. He went back to his monastery chastened – and still hungry! Most of these boys will go back to their homes at the end of the week, although some may stay on in training as full time monks.
Sunshine suggested that this week spent away from their families in a monastery teaches young boys the values of their society, the need for them to embrace responsibility for their actions and the ’cause and effect’ of their actions upon themselves and others around them. It is an important tradition.
We soon arrived at the small town of Nyaung Shwe, the main ‘gateway’ to Inle Lake for tourists. It has a river channel running through it that connects it to the main lake some kilometres away. Near to where a bridge crosses the river channel, is an impressive mirror-tiled stupa. The boats lined up by the edge of the channel are the commonly used, local long-tailed boats. These boats are driven using a very, very noisy single cylinder diesel engine connected to a thin, lengthy rudder that resembles a long tail.
It was quite amazing to see, in such a small town, this intricately decorated stupa using mirrors and glazed, coloured tiles .
Nyaung Shwe consists of one main road with many side streets and a few parallel roads. Its a popular destination for back packers and ‘budget’ tourists who can’t afford the ‘higher end’ lakeside hotels.
Nyaung Shwe serves as a marina for the numerous long-tail boats that carry tourists across the lake. We were soon to experience riding in one of these not very comfortable and very, very noisy boats. But we did have a modicum of comfort. Unlike the boats the locals use, the tourist’s boats have small chairs and take only four passengers in each boat. Riding in one takes a little time to get used to the balance.
There’s a few kilometres to travel along the channel towards the main lake. Because of the constant wash of small boat traffic, there are wood and bamboo and pole fences between water and houses.
All along the channel, we saw women doing their washing, and having a chat. While I don’t advocate changing my washing machine for this method of doing the laundry, we do miss out on the neighbourly chat!
I wondered what stories this old building could tell. My love for renovation was rekindled when I saw it. With some TLC and skill….
Because the channel is the major ‘road’ between the lake villages and the town, it needs constant dredging to keep it open. These are the boats used for that task. We saw one in operation but no photos.
This was the first ‘leg rower’ that we saw on our visit to Inle Lake. The men of the lake villages row their long dugout boats by standing on the back and curling a leg around the pole to paddle. The reason for this is that there are many patches of rather tall grasses and water hyacinth in the lake and the men need to be able to see over them. It looks extremely tiring and not too good on the back! This man has a load of water weed that will be used to help build up the floating gardens in the lake.
When we finally reached the main lake, the water was flat and still, perfect for the fishermen to try their splashing technique to bring fish to the surface and move them towards the nets that have been cast.
This long boat has four of our group on board. As it was beginning to look like rain, they had donned their rain ponchos while the water was relatively quiet. They are not easy to get into while sitting down!
Rain clouds gathered ominously over the hills as we motored passed floating rafts of water weeds.
This building just seemed to rise out of the floating weeds. The hills were now lost in rain.
We slowed down so that we could get quite close to this fisherman without disturbing his work.
One of the lake’s small villages, built on small islands and surrounded by water and water weeds.
As the rain begins to fall, a local long-tail boat whizzes by. There are quite a few more passengers on the local boats than on ours – they don’t have the benefit of chairs! They are born to life in boats.
Sunshine finally gave in and put on his bright pink poncho. Ours were blue – a much less exotic colour.
As the rain began to clear, we went by the bamboo and thatch houses of another pole village. Beyond, you can see just how far up the hillsides the farms have gone – more run off and silt for the lake.
In this village, the ‘laundry’ is a small bamboo platform just above the water level underneath the house.
As we neared the further end of the lake, there were some larger, restaurants and guest houses.
This was our lunch stop – a rather late lunch, to be sure. We were in for surprise. Around Inle Lake, the Golden Kite Restaurant is considered to be the best to place to come for pasta and pizzas! The owner is really proud of his Italian cooking – and it does make a change from Burmese cooking. The majority of the staff here speak some English well and we enjoyed our stop off here. From the deck I took some video of the various water craft going by.
Back on board our boats, we continued further south towards the end of the lake. This house is typical of the houses we saw. Sturdy timber poles lift the houses out of the water. The flooring is bamboo, the walls are woven bamboo and the roof is thatch. The walls need renewing about every fur years. This one has a few new wall patches or sections. The roof looks like its ready for renewal.
In almost every house, the laundry is a couple of bamboo poles set just above water line. There’s no running wear or electricity in these houses. Cooking is done on a small pottery brazier on the floor. People in these villages are born here, live here and die here. They are real water dwellers.
Towards the end of the lake, the open waters give way to narrow ‘lane ways’, between grassy, reedy ‘hedges’. These are the village roads and need to be negotiated with some care. There are signs of electric it being added to some areas here but the supply is quite sporadic and unreliable as yet.
I was surprised to see this garden oasis on the lake. A small island has been transformed into a garden and art gallery. It’s on my list of places to visit next time! But it was not on the plan for this group tour.
We were on our way to this village – the only place in the world where the thread-like centres of lotus stalks are turned into beautiful ‘silk’ thread and woven into light and lovely scarves and shawls.
And that will be the focus of our next journal entry.
Jennie and David
Photography © JT and DY of jtdytravels