The last main part of my Myanmar trip was to be in and around Inle Lake, which is a little bit southeast of Mandalay (about a 30min flight). I had talked with a number of people in Bagan and Mandalay who had already been to Inle Lake, and every one of them said it was beautiful and that I’d love it. It turns out, they were all absolutely correct.
An administrative note: I realized I could have been uploading larger pictures in my previous posts…doh!! So this one I used the larger pics so should be easier to see.
The Road From Hell, I mean, He Ho
My travel packet of information that I got from the travel agent had said that I fly from Mandalay to He Ho, and from there take a 2.5hr drive to see some Buddha statues in a cave, and then another 1.5hrs to get to Inle Lake where I’d be staying. Reading that, I assumed the Buddha statue cave was on the way to Inle Lake. Boy, was I wrong. We drove for 2.5 hours along the road from hell: the most bumpy, winding, dusty road you can imagine. To be fair, the scenery was beautiful. Very agricultural, and it was harvesting time for cabbages, wheat and potatoes so we saw lots of that happening in the fields along the road. It also meant there was a constant stream of these old trucks that looked like they were all welded together from scrap metal, hauling giant loads of cabbages, potatoes and other stuff. They moved very slowly, so we spent plenty of time behind them.
What was most surprising, and interesting, along the drive was how much of the work was being done by oxen and old 2-wheeled wooden ox carts. They were being used to haul the produce, till the fields, etc. All along the road we passed probably a hundred ox carts being pulled by one or two oxen. I felt like I had gone thru a time machine back to the middle ages (or whatever age they domesticated oxen and used them in agriculture).
We finally got to the caves, and they were somewhat similar to caves that I had gone to in February when I was in Laos. They are a few large limestone caves in a cliff wall, and for hundreds of years people have been bringing and donating Buddha statues to the cave. The caves have over 10,000 Buddha statues, and I’m pretty certain the guide showed me every single one of them. It was interesting, but frankly after the first 8,000 or so they all started to kind of look the same.
We had lunch, and then the guide informed me that we’d be driving back on the same road we just came: 2.5 hours back past the He Ho airport I had arrived at that morning, and drive another hour to a small village, then take a boat for 30 minutes to get to my hotel. What the hell?? Had I known the little excursion to the cave was completely in the opposite direction of where I ultimately wanted to go, and required a round-trip 5+ hour drive on a dusty, bumpy, slow road, I would have politely declined to see the 10,000 statues in the cave. Oh well, at this point I really had no option other than to sit in the back seat of the 1979 Toyota Corolla and ride for another 3.5 hours on the bumpy, dusty, winding road. Travelling isn’t all glamour, my friends.
After going over a couple of mountain passes at a brisk 20 miles per hour, and following trains of ox carts at a pleasant 2 miles per hour, we finally arrived at a village with a little “harbor” along a wide creek. We got into a longtail boat and headed up the creek (without a paddle…haha) and eventually into Inle Lake. The longtail boats were similar to those in Thailand, where they’re basically wooden canoes about 30 feet long, with an engine on the back and a long drive shaft with a propeller on the end. They look fairly crude, but they work astonishingly well for moving around the waterways, especially in tight areas.
Inle Lake is about 13 miles long and 6 miles wide, and is surrounded by small mountain ranges. It’s a shallow lake, with the deepest areas being only about 15 feet deep. It rises and falls with the rainy season, and since the rainy season here just ended in October, it’s near its high point. Within the lake are tons of floating pods of water hyacinth, as well as larger floating “islands” of hyacinths, grasses and other water plants.
We arrived at the hotel, and it literally is a hotel on the lake. The main part of the hotel and all the individual bungalow rooms are on stilts about 6 feet above the water. There are teak wood bridges that connect all the bungalows to the main hotel. It was a very stunning setting, especially from my porch at sunset. The stilts weren’t the most sturdy things, as my room “rocked” a bit as waves came in, but it wasn’t bad. Being on a lake, there was no shortage of mosquitos and other biting bugs (thank god I’m taking malaria pills…). My bed had a mosquito net around it, and since there’s no air conditioning in the bungalow, you need to leave the windows open. Thus, the mosquito netting is a requirement. That was the first time I’ve ever slept in a mosquito-net bed… it really wasn’t something on my bucket list, but maybe I’ll add it just so I can quickly cross it off the list. 🙂
Taking in the Villages on the Lake
We spent the entire next day on a longtail boat going around the lake. In total, there are about 70 different villages around the lake. Similar to my hotel, the villages are clusters of homes that are built on stilts in the lake, and they use boats to get around.
We started in the morning at a large market. The market is only open every 5th day, so I was lucky that it was open the day I was there. It’s a large set of stalls, with villagers selling just about everything: fish, fruits, spices, vegetables, traditional “medicine”, tobacco/cigars, crafts, gold, bread, tea, textiles, spare boat engine parts… you name it. This market is the main way that the various villages exchange goods with each other and stock up on food and supplies for the following week. I’ve been to lots of markets like this in Thailand and elsewhere, but somehow this one was a bit more interesting. I’m not sure why, but it just was. I think part of the reason was that the market wasn’t at all geared towards tourists – it was specifically for the villagers, and tourists were just there to look and watch.
At one of the stalls, there was what looked like a pile of rocks. I asked the guide what it was for. He said it was a type of volcanic rock that some of the tribes people like to eat. Wait, what did he say??! I picked up a piece, and it was basically your standard red lava rock like you’d use in landscaping. At this point I wasn’t sure if he was pulling my leg or not. He said something to the women there, and sure enough, one of them grabbed one of the rocks, bit it in half, and proceeded to chew, crush and swallow it. She held the other half of it out for me to try…I was pretty sure my dentist would not approve of me eating lava rocks, so I chose not partake in that little bit of Myanmar tradition. But geez that was a freaky little experience!
On the way down the lake to the market that morning, we passed by quite a few fishermen on the lake in boats similar to the longtail boats, but without engines. They are very unique in the way they row their boats. They use a single oar, and they wrap their leg and ankle around it and row with one leg. It’s very bizarre the first time you see it. Apparently Inle Lake is the only place where this type of rowing is done. The guide said they adopted this form of rowing for two reasons: First, they need their hands free to hold their fishing poles and nets; second, because of all the floating clumps of water hyacinth and grasses, they need to stand up to see what’s ahead of them, so they needed an efficient way of rowing while standing. Whatever the reason, they look incredibly balanced and graceful when they’re rowing.
We then went to a village that specializes in weaving cloth. Many of the places weave with silk, but the one we went to specializes in weaving using lotus thread. The lake has tons of lotus flowers growing in it, and they harvest the stems of the lotus flower, cut it open, and there’s a bunch of extremely fine long fibers in it that they pull out and spin together to make a thread. Then they have these ancient wooden looms that they use to weave the thread into cloth. They primarily make scarves and longyis, and the prized and most expensive items are monk’s robes made from the lotus thread cloth. I initially wasn’t too excited when the guide told me we were going to see a lotus weaving place, but it ended up being pretty neat.
The next stop on our village tour was a blacksmith shop. We watched them making all kinds of knives, scythes, and scissors. It was pretty much as you’d expect: they had a charcoal fire, with a woman working bellows to feed air to the fire, and they’d pull out red-hot pieces of iron and start hammering it on an anvil. Over time, the iron began to take the shape of the knife or whatever they were making. Again, not something I would have chosen to go see, but I’m glad we went and it was interesting to watch.
Hanging Out with the Locals
I told the guide that I wanted to do something a little less touristy. He offered to take me to a traditional home where he knew the people. We took the boat to a home in one of the villages, and he introduced me to the people there. It was awesome! It was a 75 year old man who had never married, but adopted two sons. One of his sons was married and had two boys of his own, and the two boys looked to be around 4 or 5 years old. They were all living in the house together, along with I think the wife’s sister, so seven people total. None of them spoke a word of English, so my guide translated everything for me. The house was two floors, although the first floor only had a ceiling height of about 5 feet. It was basically a big open room, with a kitchen in one corner. The walls were woven grass mats, a grass thatch roof, and old teak wood floors. The upstairs room was also mostly a big open room, with a big shrine/offering/praying temple for Buddha, and a separate area where they all slept together on the floor. They also had a small mat separate from the sleeping area, and that was for guests to sleep on. I almost asked if I could be a guest that night.
We sat on the floor of the house, and one of the women quickly brought us some hot green tea. She then proceeded to keep running back and forth to the kitchen bringing us more food: rice crackers, dry wheat noodles, peanut oil to dip the crackers and noodles in, and bananas. Despite obviously having little money, they could not have been more generous with me as a guest; I felt so welcome in their home.
I had a fantastic conversation with the old man: he was funny, and very open about his life growing up and his family. It turns out, he worked for 35 years in the weaving village working the looms, and then he started his own weaving shop until he couldn’t do it anymore and retired. The two women asked if I wanted a cigar to smoke, but I politely declined. They then sat on the floor and were rolling cigars like there was no tomorrow. That’s how they make their money – they roll cigars and sell them to the cigar company a ways down the lake. They were cranking out a cigar about every 30 seconds. They take pre-shredded tobacco and wrap it in the leaf of a tree (I forget the name of the tree, but it’s not a tobacco leaf). They add a “filter” to the end of it made from some plant, run a line of glue along the edge to seal it, and toss it on the pile with the other thousand or so cigars they’d made. It was interesting to see how consistent they were with the size and shape of the cigars, with everything being done on the fly and no measuring of anything.
We spent about an hour with the family, and I could have easily spent the entire day there it was so fascinating to me! When we were getting ready to leave, I asked the guide if I could give them some money as a thank-you for the food and hospitality. He said no, that would make them feel bad – they weren’t trying to sell me anything; they just genuinely wanted to welcome me into their home. Wow.
Just One More Pagoda… and the Famous Cat Jumping Monastery!
My guide then wanted to take me to a “very famous pagoda,” followed by a “very famous monastery.” Uggghhh. I’d seen so many pagodas in the past week I wasn’t sure I could stomach walking thru yet another one with yet another hundred Buddha statues. But given that he’d taken me to the people’s home and I had such a great time there, I felt obligated to go, so off to the pagoda we went. I tried my best to sound like I was interested in the explanations he was giving about the pagoda history, but frankly I was more intrigued by the cockroaches on the floor.
We then went to a very famous monastery on the lake (again, on stilts in the water). Why is it so famous? Well, because they have a bunch of cats there, and they’ve trained the cats to jump thru little bamboo hoops. I’m not kidding. That’s what makes it famous, and it’s commonly referred to as the “Jumping Cats Monastery”. Even more shocking, apparently local people from all over Myanmar come here to see it! My guide started talking with some of the people there, and sure enough, some were from Mandalay, some from Yangon, some from other parts of the country I hadn’t been to, and they were all there to see the cat show. I of course started laughing to myself when I thought about what the kids in some of those families must have been thinking: they were hoping their parents would take them to Disneyland for vacation, and instead they’re going to a jumping cats monastery…
Then the cat show started. A guy holds a bamboo hoop about a foot off the ground, rubs the cat on the chin, the cat jumps through the hoop, and he gives the cat some kibbles. I’m thinking to myself, “I travelled half way around the world, and I’m in the middle of a lake, watching cats jump thru a hoop. Something doesn’t seem right about that.” I don’t really like cats to begin with, but this was just ridiculous. But I’ll be damned if everyone else wasn’t absolutely enthralled by that 10-minute bit of entertainment. I did my best to seem as excited as everyone else was about it, and thanked my guide for showing me such a fantastic sight. I’m not sure how convincing I was, but I honestly tried to be as appreciative and respectful as I could.
The Floating Gardens of Inle Lake
Our last area on the lake was the floating gardens. This was actually really and truly fascinating. As you probably know (if you were paying attention at the beginning of this post), water hyacinths form floating clumps on the lake. The villagers take those clumps and clump them together in long rows, then put dead grass on top, then dirt on top of that. They stick long bamboo poles thru them, down into the mud at the bottom of the lake. That keeps them in a straight line, and keeps them from floating away. They line them up like rows in a garden, with a narrow waterway between each row so they can get their boats in between the rows. They then plant crops on those floating rows: typically tomatoes and cabbage.
For fertilizer, they go out in the lake and stick a bamboo pole down to the bottom and scoop up seaweed, and mix that in with the soil in their floating rows. Earlier in the day, we had seen men out on the lake scooping up the seaweed into their boats. We went thru waterway after waterway where you could see dozens and dozens of rows of floating gardens with thousands of tomato plants primarily, with a few cabbage rows mixed in for good measure. It was a way of farming that I’d never heard of before, so really cool to see that firsthand.
The next morning I was flying back to Yangon. The guide picked me up in the boat and we left the hotel at 6:30am for the 30minute boat ride back to the village, followed by an hour drive to the airport. It was very foggy out as the sun was just coming up, with fog drifting across the lake. There were already a lot of fishermen out on their boats, and it was beautiful to see them throwing their nets and rowing with their legs through the fog on the lake – a great last impression for me of Inle Lake. As we drove from the village back over the mountain pass and to the airport, the road was busy with trucks and carts hauling entire families and workers out to the fields. With the fog, it was a very surreal but beautiful scene.