Investigating Inle and its environs

Like Mr Soesoe I am gradually winding down. As I get to the end of my trip I’m slowly running out of energy, so I decided to take it easy on arrival and also have an extra day in Inle to do fuck all too. However I ended up doing a bit more than I bargained for before I left Inle.

I arranged a guide, Mr Htet Lien, for a three day itinerary covering various parts of the lake.  Having guides has been a real benefit, as otherwise I really don’t think I’d have got anywhere as much insight and information on the sites I saw without them. That does assume that none of them were talking bollocks for the duration of their time with me however.

It were nippy out in the morning, which made a nice change from the stifling heat and dust I was failing to get used to.  Being on and around the lake meant that even the jeans got a showing in the evening, as did the cold weather clothes for Korea.  Everyone is muffled up against the cold, the locals are in layers, with hats and gloves likes it’s winter. All the boatmen provide fleecy blankets and giant umbrellas for those sitting on the boats, to help stave off the breeze, however as the day draws on it quickly burns any mist off the lake and warms up in no time.  However once the sun goes down it is soon cold again, also pitch black, as they don’t have lights on the boats.

Here’s the bad news. There’s about 4000 boats on the lake, and the lake is at risk from many different factors, the diesel pollution from boats, invader fish species, declining fish stocks from overfishing, overuse of fertilisers on the floating island farms, rubbish and run off in the water, also the water table has dropped by over half to not more than 2mtrs in some parts and the lake has shrunk by about half a mile across its width in recent times. Mr Lien is part of a conservation group that is looking at how to come up with sustainable solutions before it is too late, as it is it’s already a depressing site. We spent a bit of time, as part of the trip, visiting some people to get them involved, this included an abbot of a small monastery who agreed to hold the meeting of the interested parties in a couple of weeks. The government wants to find the solutions to how to resolve the many issues impacting Inle but everyone knows that there is a balance to be had between ensuring it can continue to provide income for so many locals and recover.

When not using an outboard motor, the fishermen on the lake row using one leg. The legend is that about 100yrs ago a one armed man tired of waiting on mates for lifts decided to figure out how to propel himself and a boat across the water, and thus the unique leg rowing was born.

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Hands free fishing
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Fisherman on the lake.

Some of the guys on the water are not even fishing, they dress up in traditional Shan outfits and pose for tourists, then demand cash.  You could tell who the real fishermen were, as they were dressed in their work-a-day clothes.

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Faux fisherman waiting for tourists in the early morning gloom wearing his Shan outfit.

As well as fishing the biggest cash crop is tomatoes and other vegetables, garlics, gourds and rice.  People create floating islands from lengths of compacted water plants that have composted down creating a semi-solid mass. Long sections are cut and are floated to areas of gardens where they are pinned in place by bamboo poles. Water weeds are harvested to mulch and compost. Everyone was prepping for new planting, collecting the weed, clearing the land or transplanting seedlings.

Collecting water weed for the floating islands.

Our first stop was a visit to the 5 day market happening at Indein.  The market works on rotation at various sites around the lake.  Guidebooks talk of the mysterious magic that ensures that all locals know where the market will be, and when.  Turns out it’s actually posted up on calendars everywhere, and the fact it’s written in Burmese means no tourist is going to know that the local person they’re asking isn’t actually doing ‘woo-woo’ when he’s staring into space before telling you, he’s actually looking over your shoulder to the right date.

Market day boat frenzy

The channel to market was cluttered with boats, and a narrow walkway was equally full with stalls selling row upon row of tourist tat – jewellery, textiles, headgear made of teeth (whose teeth I didn’t discover), Buddha stories on dried palm leaves, wicker baskets of various shapes and sizes, fake silver, beaded necklaces, carved wooden dolls in couples that appeared to share a coffin, these turned out to be representatives of each tribal group.

Once you negotiated all of that and the hordes of backpack clad tourists all haggling with the stall holders through the use of a laminated card listing numbers up to 200, you came to the proper part of the market where the locals actually did their shopping.

Shopping done, and heading back to the boat.
Heading into town for a bargain.

The catch of the day was laid out on the ground with different varieties and sizes of fish gasping for breath, bunches of them were linked on strings made of banana leaf or something similar, eels writhed in buckets.  Not all were from the lake, some of the larger carp were farmed, and had been brought in from elsewhere.

Fish for tea

Further into the market were snack sellers everywhere, both sweet and savoury.  Massive rice crackers at least 12” across were piled up in stacks 3’ high, skewered by thin bamboo sticks to keep them together, baskets contained various sweets made of brown sugar – peanut or sesame seed brittle, bright red chicken heads on sticks, thick pancakes, steamed sticky snacks in banana leaves. Mr Lien bought a crème caramel type dessert made of sugar, and some fried snack made of chick pea flour like you get in Bombay Mix.

Looks like the puppet show has gone drastically wrong…

We had a cup of coffee at a small shack and Mr Lien told me about his daughter, 15 and at a private school about 40mins away.  Private schooling costs him about $4000 a year, however it was clear that he wanted to ensure his daughter got a good education.  He had dropped out of university in his second year when he realised the only way he could succeed was to be able to bribe his way to good exam results and he didn’t want to do that.

Education in Myanmar is extremely basic and only recently was free schooling introduced for children.  It’s apparent that many families send their children to school, preferring to send them out to work after the mandatory schooling stops around age 9.  Only 75% of children finish primary school in Myanmar. At the teashop across from my hotel were 2 girls of 12 and 16 working for the owner, they don’t receive a salary per se, it’s akin to indentured servitude. At least they are working in a legal trade, girls are also regularly trafficked over the border to Thailand or China, promised good jobs they are bought and sold by agents to be used in the sex trade.

On that happy note, we wandered back to the boat and headed south for about 60miles through a narrow channel past Shan, Intha and Pa-O villages to a manmade lake for lunch and a visit to Sankar. This artifical lake was created in the 1960s by the Japanese, and was created to provide power to a plant which serves Yangon.  It was a case of sit back and relax, and watch the world go by for the next couple of hours.

Everywhere something was being washed, pick-up trucks, motorbikes, oxen, kids, clothes, women. You name it, it was getting scrubbed.

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Washing day on the water.
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Buffing up nicely
Stopping off for some water weeds, and a bit of oxen washing.

After lunch, a quick tour of the rice wine barn out the back we then walked up to the top of a nearby hill (complete with pagoda, and monk in a woolly hat that matched his robe, smoking a cheroot – no photo) to see the view and then headed off to visit the ancient stupas.

View from the hilltop.

Some of the stupas had been renovated by benefactors of the previous regime, new brickwork, new whitewash or updated umbrellas.  All a bit out of place, but seemed to be a common theme across Inle, shiny newness was the order of the day it seemed.  It wasn’t just Burmese benefactors chipping in, at another site there had been fundraising for works by Singaporeans, Chinese and others.

Spot the new kid on the block.
Offered – stupa, major renovation required…

Heading back to Inle and we stopped off at Takhaung Mwetaw Pagoda for a bit more stupa staring. You can never have too many shrines to Buddha!

Umbrella, ‘ella, ‘ella…
Takhaung Mwetaw Pagoda – mixing the old and the new.
Buddha at Takhaung Mwetaw Pagoda, just in case you’d forgotten what one looks like.

A quick tour of Naung Po, to watch pottery in action. One of many of the cottage industries I’d be seeing over the next few days.  It always felt a bit weird turning up and us being able to potter about and have a good nosey in what is basically people’s homes or villages.  Nobody seemed to mind, or if they did, they hid it spectacularly well.  It’s also disconcerting the way parents would encourage their kids to wave and smile and pose for photos being taken by the tourists.

Sort of like the Generation Game but without Larry.

This village makes a variety of pottery items, but mostly large pots, which they produce to mainly sell to Karen State (where the ladies wrap heavy brass coiled around their neck, and sometimes arms and legs too) for their alcohol.  Sounds like quite a niche market!  The kiln was in the back yard, buried about 2mtrs down, the fire kept going for about a day before it’s left to cool for another two, before being opened up.

Pottery field

The noise of the boat engine droning on was almost hypnotic, a backdrop accompaniment to the setting sun. It was an ideal way to end the first day on the lake, although being at the front of boat that had no lights in the pitch black and the cold wasn’t and it was a relief to be back on dry land 30mins later.

Accidental decent sunset.





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