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. 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.
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.
A wonderful week in Inle Lake
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:
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.
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.
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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:
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
and in addition to the generations above, a future lotus weaver, who had never seen her face reflected on a camera’s screen before:
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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.
Where to stay and eat in Burma’s Inle Lake
For lodging, I stayed at Mingalar Inn. 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 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).
What to read before you go to Inle Lake
Books I loved that I now re-read, bringing me back to my time in the region.
Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin
The Glass Palace: A Novel by Amitabh Ghosh
From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey by Pascal Khoo Thwe
Golden Earth: Travels in Burma by Norma Lewis
The guidebook I used was the Lonely Planet Guide to Myanmar. Since my trip, the useful Travelfish website has started a Myanmar guide, and their Inle Lake guide is here.