Best of Burma: Photography and Memories from Inle Lake

Categories Myanmar (Burma), Photo Essays, Where Have I Been?

After most of my photos (and 3 backups) were stolen late last fall, I never got around to accomplishing my goal of writing about all of my weeks in Myanmar (Burma). I’ve put up a photoessay or two, as well those stories that stuck with me in vivid detail. Getting chased up a hill by a pack of marauding monkeys, watching Hpa-An go up in flames in the dead of night, witnessing a solar eclipse on the Ayeyarwaddy with a Kachin boat crew and a captain intent on having me sing karaoke with him. But it really isn’t enough, because I still have close to a thousand photos that have never seen the light of day, from Inle Lake and Mandalay and the Kachin State Fair in the far north. And moreover, Burma is one of those space-time hiccup places, where each and every second lends itself to a dizzying aggregation of stories, laughs and quirky memories.

In the next few weeks, I’ll be posting photo essays from Burma. These aren’t necessarily my best pictures, but rather those photos that, with one quick glance, bring me back to the moment when I took them. The first set is from Inle Lake, one of the more popular of Burma’s tourist spots. And yet, despite group tours from Russia and parts of Europe, it was still possible to sneak away into solitude with ease. I spent close to a week in dusty Nyaungshwe, waking at dawn to make the most of the rotating markets on the Lake. Staying the extra days also meant that I had time for a hike or two in the surrounding Shan foothills and the ability to get a welcoming wave from the night market vendors who remembered my face and my obsession with their thick Shan noodle soups, curries and delicious chapati.

At close to 120 square kilometers, the lake is enormous and the many reed-lined marshes and canals that zigzag off the main waterway make it seem even larger.

When you think of Inle Lake, you think of this:

Inle Lake Burma- fishermen in the morning

and this:

Inle Lake Burma- fishing

and even this:

Inle Lake Burma-11

The awkward-seeming but very effective way of paddling the boats on the lake have ensured that any mention of Inle is immediately followed by questions about the fishermen. There is no question that it’s a well-practiced talent; several of the tourists I met tried their hand (well, foot) at paddling the boats and every single one fell into the lake in the process. And there’s also no question that each of my photos above still makes me smile. Those scenes are beautiful on their own – but there is much more to the area than boats and fisherman.

For starters: the lake itself. On a clear day, it has hardly a ripple and with the complicated maze of side canals and streams to navigate, each lined with houses on stilts, decorated with flowers and colourful laundry swinging in the breeze. Wide-eyed, I would glide through these suspended villages, amazed at how meticulously the houses were kept up and how every part of the house had a function. A small wooden outhouse attached at the back allowed for privacy, a net spanning the poles beneath the house served both as storage and a catch-all for stray flipflops, small canoes etched out of a log were the primary means of quick transport from floating house to floating house.

But with all these tiny details, the bigger picture never got tiresome. It was just stunning.

Inle Lake Burma- reflective scene

On one of my early days on the lake, my boat driver apologetically asked if we (me and a few other tourists who went in on the cost of a boat for the day) would mind stopping in at his village. He wanted to introduce us to his family, and offer us some tea. Oh, and his best friend was getting married – would we mind saying hello? Of course we were overjoyed, and the wedding was an incredible opportunity to see a lakeside village up close, and partake in one of their important moments. Predictably, the wedding party was fairly surprised to see 3 foreigners join the festivities, but recovered quickly and within minutes we were sitting down and eating pork soup and curry with the guests. The room was divided into men and women, with the bride and groom in the front of the room, separating the halves. As a foreign woman, I was first invited to the women’s side of the room, where people ooh’d and ah’d over the fact that I was wearing a Burmese longyi, and then brought over to the men’s side for some whiskey and a cheroot cigar.  Our time with the wedding party ended with a photo and some hand-holding, followed by the entire wedding (including the bride and groom) piling on the steps of the house to see us off.

Inle Lake Burma- Wedding

* * *

A few days of rising early to catch the markets, and I was ready for something new. My guesthouse mentioned a few hiking trails in the area, and so a multinational hodge podge of travellers (we were from Canada, Australia, the Netherlands and Switzerland) set out on bicycles for the day. We not only got lost, but we got lost while hiking through the Shan foothills, looping back toward the far side of the lake and dodging burning brush, the fires heating us even more as we tiptoed by. We ended up at a Wat built into a cave, which remains memorable for the circuitous attempts to arrive and also because of this:

Inle Lake Burma- monk holding a cat

A cave Wat for tribeswomen in the middle of the Shan foothills, with prayers led by a monk holding a cat. Following a delirious few hours of getting lost in the mountains, this was an extremely memorable afternoon.

* * *

But back to those markets. Far from being a tourist destination, they are a means for the Pa-O to get their supplies for the next few days. Running on a 5-day schedule, the markets rotate their way around the lake, allowing for each hilltribe to descend toward the water’s edge for their shopping. With bright towels on their heads and colourful woven bags, the Pa-O were different than the other tribes in Burma, dressed in black pants and tops and all wearing khaki canvas lace up shoes.

Inle Lake Burma- Pao tribeswomen on Inle Lake

Boats full of Pa-O would motor up to the market each morning, parking in a chaotic inkblot of wood and paddles, requiring anyone arriving later to jump through all the boats to reach land. Getting in and out of the markets was itself a feat; lots of good-natured yelling and laughing and maneuvering to set the boats free. I vividly remember tipping over into a boat of Pa-O as I precariously made my way to the market, my longyi puddling around me with all the tribeswomen laughing and holding it up so it did not fall off.

Inle Lake Burma- Boats and Boats at the Pao markets

The markets themselves were a feast for the eyes, bright spices lining the ground leading into the main market area, piles of fresh samosas and coconut sweets and rows upon rows of freshly caught fish for sale. I wandered aimlessly for hours, taking photos, getting new foods thrust into my hands by smiling vendors and watching the inimitable movement of the market as it wound down for the day.

Fresh vegetables from Inle Lake

Every market also had its flower section, with bundles of flowers perfectly laid out on towels or blankets. Almost every single person at the market left with their food and with bright flowers under their arm and the houses on the lake and those in Nyaungshwe were all decorated with fresh sprigs, no matter the day. Given the cost of one bundle (10 cents), I took to buying several and giving them to each hotel on the day that I left town. The friendliness of every one of their staff, no matter the city, meant that it was a fun way to show my appreciation as I moved on. I would get my share of big smiles in the markets, too, walking around with my own bundle of purple, white and pink.

Inle Lake Burma- morning market flowers

And the markets in the farther reaches of the lake were inevitably untouristed and the source of some fun, quirky encounters. I remember having to pee and making the universal “holy crap I have to pee” move (leg crossed over other leg, panicked look on face), and being taken by the hand by one of the older women at the market to the edge of the forest. She pointed me to a crude outhouse that charged several kyat for access. Looking into the woods, I saw several Burmese women squatting there, free of charge. So of course I did the same, which had the bathroom attendant in a deep frown and the Burmese ladies waiting for their turn doubled over with laughter. My escort, waiting for my return, flashed me a huge smile and took my hand once more, returning me to where I was before.

* * *

Along the lake, several larger wooden buildings on stilts housed weaving mills, with bright spools of reds and blues lining the walls and floors. While silk weaving is present throughout several areas of Burma, Inle is also known for its lotus weaving, meticulously spun using the long stems of the lotus plant. Time consuming and work-intensive, the stems are pulled apart to expose their silken filaments and rolled into thicker and thicker threads. An unimaginable amount of time and effort is required to build a full spool, let alone weave it into a garment.

Inle Lake Burma- lotus weaving

We wandered through the weaving houses, several generations of weavers working as we went. Slowly whittling the fibers into thread and carefully cutting through the lotus stems to separate them out for use.

Inle Lake silk weaving

Inle Lake Burma- woman weaving silk

and in addition to the generations above, a future lotus weaver, who had never seen her face reflected on a camera’s screen before:

Inle Lake Burma- baby looking at his own reflection

* * *

Outside the old teak Nga Phe Kyaung monestary was this beautiful, proud girl selling bracelets, her smiling face covered in intricate sandlewood thanaka. I asked to take a picture and immediately she stopped smiling to pose. I love how – at a first glance – this photo leads you to believe that she was standoffish, unfriendly or melancholy but seconds before (and just after) she erupted into bubbling laughter. This was Burma, too – first glances melting away to yield so much more underneath, a complicated country that cannot be whittled down to one set of words.

Inle Lake Burma- young girl with thanaka on her face

Where to stay and eat in Burma’s Inle Lake:

For lodging, I can’t recommend Mingalar Inn enough. Perfectly kept, bright rooms with teak wood floors, a welcome lemon juice every time you return to the Inn at the end of the day and the price ($7/night for a single; $12-18 for a double depending on size, each with private bath) includes a huge breakfast of banana pancakes, eggs and more. Run by a lovely family, who write me still to ask if any more birds have taken a crap on my head. (They were talking to me during birdcrap #7). For reservations, email mingalarinn-at-gmail.com or call 081/209198, and tell them the birdcrap woman from Canada sent you.

For food, the best places to try just about anything are the morning markets. When the cycle has the market elsewhere, Nyangshwe’s Mingalar Market morning stalls still serve up delicious Shan noodle soups and tofu salads. At night, a small night market sets up on the main drag in the tiny town, with grilled whole fish stuffed with cilantro and chilis ($1) and a chapati stand serving great curries and huge, fluffy chapati (50 cents) at rickety plastic tables.  If you’re looking for more ambiance and some Western food, Star Flower Restaurant (near the post office on Phaung Daw Pyan Road) makes its own home made pasta and has a garden full of fresh basil, used liberally in their sauces. I had the roasted eggplant with basil pasta, and it was incredible. They’ve also got wood-fired pizza. More expensive than your usual fare ($3-4 for a (huge) plate).

-Jodi

42 comments to Best of Burma: Photography and Memories from Inle Lake

  1. Seeing the day-to-day lives of other people makes me feel like such a wuss sometimes. That last photo is fantastic.

  2. Wow, what an experience. Beautiful photos as well. I love the light on the lake photos.

  3. Beautiful write up of what seems to be a beautiful country and people. Love the pic of the bracelet girl.

  4. Lotus weaving? Absolutely new to me. Good grief. More time-consuming & labour-intensive than silk = very expensive, I’m presuming? And a specialised local industry (I’ve just read elsewhere it’s often used to make the robes of monks) rather than a national export?

    And as unwieldy as those boats look at first sight…how silly to stand in the *middle* of boats, halfway from the bow, when boats are mainly about interacting with what’s ahead of them. What better way to fish?

    Cheers, Jodi. :)

    • Yes on all counts :)

      The fishermen do make paddling look easy, but I’ve got a great series of photos from a Russian tourist I met trying to paddle in the middle of the lake, followed by the following series of him trying to climb back into the boat when he fell out. Despite their size, the movement of the nets on the water remains incredibly graceful and was a lovely sight at dawn when the morning mist was still on the lake.

  5. I’ve always been curious about Burma/Myanmar. Must have been quite an experience. The shots of the fisherman are fantastic!

    • Thanks Roy. It was such a fascinating place that I risked overstaying my visa for 2 weeks. It’s a complicated place, but an extremely interesting (and photographic one) too.

  6. Nice pictures!!Inle lake is wonderful indeed, but the boat trip was very boring, too many tourists and souvenir shops. If I had to go back I would go with my own boat, and not with a tour. But I enjoyed also the 5 day market in nan pam ( and also in Kalaw ), Myanmar markets are really beautiful.
    Anyway I think the villages around Nyaung Shwe are definitely worth a visit, very few ( or none ) tourists and extremely friendly people. We also liked very much the french/burmese wineries, the landscape was really amazing from there, it looked more a place in toscana, and not in the wild Myanmar.
    Ciao!!

    • Ah, I’m sorry to hear that Fab. I actually didn’t go on a tour, just found a boatman at dawn each day and gathered a few other travellers with me to make up our boat. We only went with them once they agreed to skip the souvenir shops (though we did want to see the lotus weaving, which was well worth it!). I didn’t get to the wineries but heard from others that it was a lovely trip and I’m glad you managed to experience it yourself! Thanks for reading and for the comment. :)

  7. Hi Jodi,
    I really enjoyed this peek into ordinary life in Burma. What a pleasant surprise.
    Such beautiful pictures. As the mother of two small children (one of whom is only 2 months old), I especially loved the one of the baby girl.

    • Thank you Jenna! The baby girl was adorable. I’m debating doing a whole series on children in Burma because they were just so vivacious and excited to spend time with you, with their bright smiles and thanaka-coated faces. The wedding was especially fun because there were 2 sets of twins in the wedding guests, and an older girl kept walking up to me, taking my hand and showing me the twins going “SAME!” as though it was the craziest thing ever. Lovely day :)

  8. I wonder how similar lotus silk is to cactus silk – when I was in Morocco I saw a few cactus silk scarves and rugs and they were unlike anything I’d ever seen before, very sheer and reflective and absolutely stunning. I also happened to know a fellow traveller who somehow got roped into spending 900€ for one of these rugs ;)

    • I’d be curious to know myself – I’ve never seen cactus silk but it seems painstaking in its process as well (not just because of the spikes ;) Sounds beautiful. The lotus thread was actually quite thick and not transparent at all, but looked so rich and deep in colour. And far too expensive for me.
      Safe travels to you and thanks for reading!

  9. Those photos of the lake are stunning! Burma is such a giant unknown to me but I only hear great things about it from people who have been there (a grand total of three people now). I don’t know if you’ve written about it before, but was it difficult to get into the country?

    • Thanks Kirstin. Pick up The River of Lost Footsteps if you want to know more about Burma – it’s easily the most comprehensive and engaging history of the country that I’ve read.

      It wasn’t hard to get in. I applied at the Bangkok embassy, with 2 photos and their visa application. They ask for 10 years of work history and your plans for the country. I hadn’t booked my flights yet as I wasn’t sure if I would be rejected or not, and they accepted the visa application nonetheless. I did a “crash course Burma”, if you are looking for more info –> http://bit.ly/cRHlbi

  10. Breaks my heart whenever you talk about the loss of your photos! The ones you have posted here are absolutely stunning!!! What a lake…

    • Aw, thanks Andi. At least I have the ones I uploaded to Picasa, and some of the Burma/Cambodia photos that were on the 1 memory card that wasn’t taken. Still, what a mess that was! Glad you enjoyed the photoessay and hope wedding planning is going well.

  11. Great photos! Love the contrast of colors on Inle Lake.

  12. Beautiful photos and beautiful stories to accompany them! You seem to have a knack for making local friends wherever you go in the world. I definitely regret not being able to make it to Inle Lake during my time in Burma – we only had ten days and that was just barely enough time to make it through Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan.

    • Thank you Megan! I think part of the friendliness was because I wore the longyi throughout, and partly because I would spend longer in each city and frequent the tea shops and street stalls instead of restos. But the destinations where I had more limited time (like you in Burma), I had far less local friends. Really lovely photos from Mongolia – Erdene Zuu was a favourite of mine as well :)

  13. My favorite is the one of the spool on the ground — it’s amazing how a still, mundane object can be so vibrant and tell the story of a place so effortlessly.

    And the next two shots of the weavers are great — love the natural light especially, and how you captured these quiet moments as they worked.

    –C

  14. How awesome to be able to give all the hotels some flowers. I know they bring a smile to my face when I receive them.

    Fantastic pictures!

    • Thank you Erica! And congrats on your departure – looking forward to reading about your travels. Be sure to eat your body weight in chicken pastor tacos from Mexico. Delicious!

  15. Hi Jodi,
    I was at Inle Lake last January and really enjoyed my time there. You managed to get better photos of the fishermen than I did. Most of mine turned out a little out of focus due to bobbing around on the lake. I was very impressed with the lotus weaving too. Such a labor intensive activity!

  16. Beautiful photo essay. This brings back great memories from our visit to Inle Lake over three years ago. We were only able to visit one of the markets, but loved it – our boat driver ended up having to drag us away!

  17. what a beautiful and interesting place. adding burma to my travel wish list :)

  18. Jodi, I so appreciate how this post tells a story. The last photograph is breaking my heart and I love the images and anecdotes about the fishermen and the unorthodox way of paddling. I hope to make this trip myself one day, but until then, I will travel vicariously through your beautiful stories.

  19. Hi jodi, these are really amazing photos … i like the first 3 a lot

  20. Looks fantastic! I have fond memories of my time around Inle Lake as well… It’s a very special place that I think I might want to go back to someday. That whole area for me stood out and you could feel you were right on the edge of where most tourists go.

    I loved the canals that wind their way around the edge of the lake and how you get airborne in the boat due to the way they create weirs and other water management devices.

    • It’s true, those canals were a highlight, as well as seeing the streams of buffalo coming home at the end of the day, lit up by the setting sun. Glad you enjoyed Inle too!

  21. Beautiful photos! The colors are amazing! I love the baby looking at her reflection in the camera’s screen! :)

  22. Wow Jodi! What a great post. My friends and I were visiting Inle Lake back in February and I think we have very similar photos, including the lotus root weaving ;)

    Fantastic blog! Looking forward to reading it (though, starting 3 years late…)

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