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Monday, 31 August 2015

Inle Lake, Myanmar

Written by Richard Taylor
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“You want to see long necks?”

I stared at Makai blankly.  “What?”

“Long necks.  You want to see?

“Yeah.  Okay.  I guess.”


Kupa revved the motor and steered our long boat into one of the other canals.  So far we’d seen the Floating Gardens, the Phaung Daw Oo Paya and the Pa Don Mar Silk, Lotus and Cotton Weaving shop.  I’d passed on the cigar rolling demonstration.  ‘Long necks’ meant nothing to me.  As of yesterday, Inle Lake meant nothing to me.  It was an add-on.  I’d been given an extra week in Myanmar and tacked a lake visit to the intinerary.


I was coming to Inle Lake fresh but arrived stale.  Lakes were fine for cottage idylls and languid summer days but unless they sourced the Nile, were packed dense with salt, or sat high in the Andes with cheeky names, they evoked a feeling of ‘meh’.  They’re not oceans.  They’re not boundless and mighty.  They’re not exotic.  Tell your friends you’ve seen the Arabian Sea and they visualize turbans and serpents and palaces.  Tell them you’ve seen a lake and the eyes glaze over.  Lakes have no snob appeal.


We rounded an embankment on which several boys were clinging to a fence and waving - some kind of school I guessed from the youthful chatter and laughter behind them.  Kupa cut the motor and Makai picked up her steering pole and moored us along a large teak hut on stilts. Another craft shop I was guessing.  While they secured the boat, a little old woman floated by in her tiny skiff and smiled at me and gestured. She had crafts of her own to sell.  I politely declined.  Makai helped me to the dock and I walked up the steps to the entrance of the hut where a young woman greeted me and took me inside the shop.  I stopped dead.




Two women were staring back at me.  They looked like sisters, twins I thought after a cursory glance, although their features were quite different. The commonality was the rings, at least a dozen golden circles around each extended neck.  Long Necks.  I see.  I couldn’t look at anything else. I found it difficult to look at them.  I turned to the young woman who’d brought me in.


“If you would like to take their picture that is all right,” she said.


We’d left the great temple plain at Bagan two days earlier in a small twelve seat tourist van, then transferred to a taxi truck for the last stretch of tree-lined road, stopping by a ticket booth at the edge of Nuang Shwe, the central town on the north end of the lake.  We surrendered our passports.  We surrendered ten dollars – this bought the entry ticket for the privilege of “lake looking” and, I assumed, the attendant activities.



Before the inevitable lake tour (“what the ‘tourists’ do,” I sniffed), I did a reconnaissance of Nuang Shwe, making mental notes for banks, post offices and other points of practical interest.  The town is attractively ramshackle in the midst of reconstruction but the tourist facilities are there: Hotels and restaurants and markets and pastry shops and ATM’s (remarkable how rapidly a nation changes once the door is cracked open a bit – travel books from just a couple of years ago warn of the dearth of infrastructure in Myanmar; the terrible roads, the lack of amenities, the near total uselessness of credit cards and traveler cheques, the invisibility of ATM’s).  Most striking however, were not the tourist perquisites or lack thereof but the near uniformity of tourist.  The French had descended on Inle and for the next three days the avenues, shops and restaurants were ringing in Gallic tongue.  This was often a featured soundtrack in French colonies of yore:  Morocco, Vietnam, Laos.  But Myanmar?  Formerly Burma? Formerly British Burma?  Was this the Year of Myanmar in France?  Was it being heavily promoted?


No, they explained to me.  Apparently it was just a coincidence.


The west side of Nuang Shwe has a natural border, the Nan Chaung canal, where one can negotiate tour prices at the various boat landings, the busiest below the Teik Nan bridge.  But that could wait.  I crossed the bridge to the other side where the main road forked with a dirt path that I followed through the fields and village outskirts.  Wisps of smoke were visible in the surrounding hills (I would see a lot of this, with flames as well).  The path ended with a bridge to a small monastery, where novices were kicking a ball about, ducks were gathering in the shallows of a tributary, locals were crossing a rickety bridge and attractive longboats were moored along the embankments.  Lovely pastoral stuff all of it, but no sign of the lake itself.  I’d tried to find Inle on the first evening’s arrival but failed and decided it was not a place I could walk too.


The next day, around two in the afternoon, I opted for the half-day boat tour and wandered about Teik Nan.  I was approached with various deals and packages and settled on Kupa’s offer.


Kupa helped me waddle across the other skiffs, settle in his long boat and slowly backed us out into the canal.  We were about to leave when we heard a shrill cry over the engine.  On the bank a woman was hailing us and bounded across the skiffs as sure footed as Eliza on the ice floes. This was Makai.  She was chattering at Kupa, a possible scolding for leaving without her, dropped a blanket and life jacket at my feet and took her place at the stem.  I never did determine their relationship: Husband and wife, brother and sister, father and daughter, or business partners.


Life on the banks of the Nan Chaung canal was interesting enough but after thirty minutes I began to shuffle.  How far was this lake?  Up front, Makai was now baggage wrapped in a blanket, despite a very strong sun.  Few boats were flanking us but several were returning to port, two of them covered in clouds of seagulls.  They didn’t look like fishing trawlers, mere passenger boats like our own and what attracted the birds was a mystery.


Finally, the banks widened and Inle Lake was before us.  Kupa slowed us down and we glided towards one of the most surreal exhibitions I’d ever seen – two fisherman in two separate skiffs, oars in one hand, large conical nets in the other, perched on one leg, performing an aquatic ballet on the sterns of their craft.  It looked choreographed (I expect they wait for the tourist boats) but it remained wholly bizarre, Rogers & Hammerstein sans music and like King Brynner, I declared it a puzzlement.


The motor sputtered and we continued, although Kupa was in sync with me, slowing the boat whenever I raised my camera to shoot.  Those first two dancers had been an anomaly but only in style – the other lake fishermen had a different move, steering the boats with oars wrapped neatly under one knee, leaving the hands free for casting nets – extremely powerful groin muscles on display.



After a half hour of clear sailing, reeds were breaking the surface and clumps of green began to pass along side.  We were nearing the Floating Gardens and Kupa cut the engine once more, steering us into a narrow channel. The greenery was dense now and the produce varied – there were even tomatoes, floating on compressed mats of vegetation, held in place by long bamboo posts.  Tiny stilted huts stretched out to the horizon and there was a delicacy to the place.  I wondered about its practicality in high winds or typhoon but I supposed it worked for them.  Besides, a typhoon would devastate anything, floating or not.


Lotus fibre weaves are a specialty of the region and I was treated to a sampling at the Pa Don Mar shop.  The finished fabric is pretty coarse stuff (used for monk robes among other things) and is often mixed either with cotton, feeling much finer to the touch, or silk, which I imagine was restricted to the carriage trade or people in bigger boats.


“Phaung Daw Oo Paya?” asked Makai, when we were on our way again.


“What’s that again?”




I nodded.  A shrill little cry of “okay,” rose over the growl of the motor as she signaled to Kupa who took us down another canal.  There were more stilted dwellings and restaurants and shops, a veritable city of them.  We waved; waved at other boat tours, waved at the people crossing the bamboo bridges above us, waved at the children under the huts, perched on beams over the water surface.  Then we were alone again, traversing another narrow channel and the vegetation was dense, more so than the gardens, so that the canal was almost completely overgrown.  I thought we might run aground but it cleared finally, and another of Myanmar’s magnificent golden pagodas suddenly loomed before us, gleaming in the light of late afternoon.  Makai got the pole out and steered us into the wharf.  There was considerable boat traffic and visitors now – Phaung Daw Oo is the most important temple in the region and it bore the usual stamps of Myanmar’s temples:  Cool white tiles on the outside (after the required doffing of shoes, they feel very pleasant on the feet), icons and portraits inside, more than the usual number of donation boxes and a trio of Buddha statues raised on a central platform.  Thin pads of gold leaf were being offered to pilgrims and visitors, who applied it to the surface of the statues for luck.  Consequently, after years of this custom, the Buddha figures were unrecognizable blobs, Michelin Men left out in the sun.


After the temple had come the Long Necks.


“If you would like to take their picture, that is all right,” she said.


Of course I took a picture. I needed proof of my disapproval.  Hypocrisy? Curiousity?  Like photographing a car accident.  This is terrible.  Let me take a picture.  Oh well, different culture and all that.  I’ve taken pictures of locals:  Oh there’s a street sweeper; oh there’s someone cleaning squid; the man in the tree is chopping coconuts; how quaint, this delightful local colour.  My uneasiness has been mitigated somewhat by the dozens of times the locals run up to me with their pals or girlfriends or children, ask for “one picture please,” put their arms around me and smile broadly for the lens.  I’m a specimen too.  It’s different of course (any excuse will do).  It’s not the same with these two sisters though.  They’re not sitting by the doorway having a smoke break.  They’re there for me.  They sit on a bench so tourists can gawk at them.  One of them was smiling.  The other looked downcast.  What was she thinking?  “Look at my miserable lot,” “When’s dinner,” “Stop judging me you self-righteous foreign slug.”


I walked around the shop.  There were fabrics for sale and a plethora of carvings and Buddhist icons.  Another ‘long neck’ was weaving at a loom, pumping out a lovely rich fabric in shades of purple and red.  I felt better watching her.  Okay.  She’s not a freak show.  She’s doing something. She has a life.  She just happens to have an extended neck.


I took her picture too.



We started back, Kupa slowing the boat when we neared any sunset frieze that tickled my sense of cliché.  Fires burned in the surrounding hills and the breezes carried the billowing smoke over the water’s surface.  This was an eerie sight – fishing craft and motorboats emerging from the vapours as if the lake itself were on fire.  The air began to chill rapidly.  Up in the stem, Makai was again a formless blob under a blanket.  We reached the mouth of the Nan Chaung canal and continued for several minutes until the engine sputtered and Kupa pulled into the reeds.  He shouted to Makai, who still wrapped in her blanket, hopped down to the stern.  They murmured and chatted and Makai produced some enormous shears.  Apparently, a piece of the priming rope had caught in the engine and we waited twenty minutes while Kupa cleared it.  Makai moved out front again but she’d forgotten her blanket.  I gave her mine.  We reached port after dark where they helped my out over the tilting crafts.  They looked at me gravely.  I suspected the jammed motor had resulted in a severe loss of face.  I didn’t want them to think I’d been upset by the incident, so I thanked them for a fascinating tour and gave them a large tip.  They bowed. 


The day after the lake tour, I rented a bike and cycled around the east side of the lake.  There was no dramatic Fisherman’s Dance this time – the farmers, their oxen and the women cutting sugar cane went about their business in what seemed the conventional way.  The country road was generally sound although passing through the little village of Maing Thauk was a boneshaker, the lanes under construction or in need of it.  Finally the way was smooth again and all was pastoral tranquility until a massive five star hotel came looming up on my right.  It had no real business being here.  I had to stop.


Two men on the other side of the road were hosing down and polishing a cobalt blue vintage Mercedes (I don’t know from cars but this definitely wasn’t current).  They were Frenchmen of course and when I inquired why they’d risk a fine car on uncertain terrain, they bid me turn around and check out the Palace Hotel’s main drive.  There, parked along both sides of the semi-circle were gleaming autos from decades passed:  Jaguars, Bentleys, Citroens, even a Mustang.


“It’s not a very good car,” one of the Frenchmen said of the latter.  “I don’t know why they brought it here.”


It was a cross-country race, the men told me.  I mentally filed this under THINGS I’D NEVER EXPECTED TO SEE IN MYANMAR.


Later that afternoon, I cycled the other way, beyond the passport and ticket booth, heading up the road we’d entered by.  Flanking my right was the narrow, elongated body of water we’d passed on arrival.  My taxi mates and I had wondered if this were the famous lake, since none of us knew better.


“This can’t be it,” we muttered, this picturesque pond but rather pathetic lake, and we glowered at each other like we’d been had.


It was in fact a pond, called Thazi.  Except for the light road traffic, it was a fairly deserted stretch, a few people fishing and working the fields.  I did find a small gaggle of tourists visiting the Shwe Yaungwe Kyaung, a handsome wood monastery for novice monks, several of whom were slouched by the windows, gazing back at us in a bored way.


After leaving the monastery I cycled past a young boy who was shouting at the top branches of a lofty tree.  There was motion up there, two or three of the boy’s companions sending down nuts in a clatter.  I stopped and watched and held my breath.  They had to be fifty feet up.  One of the nuts hit me in the chest and the boys laughed.  They descended.  They descended quite easily.  I hadn’t noticed the heavy bundle of bamboo stalks, rising from the ground to the big tree’s main fork, which the boys used for a ladder.  This was a regular thing then, this hair-raising bit of business.


As I cycled back to Nuang Shwe, as the buses and taxi trucks passed me, a gleaming sports car would occasionally join them, filled with beautiful people.  These I realized, were the vintage racers, buffed and polished, European museum pieces on their way to glory.  I revised the mental file. One could see most anything here:  Golden temples, lakes of fire, floating tomato gardens, Long Necks and dancing fishermen.  Had the locals boasted of purple zebras and carnivorous seaweed, I would no longer dismiss it out of hand.  At Inle Lake, it could just be possible.



(c)Richard Taylor

Last modified on Monday, 31 August 2015