Myanmar – a Longboat on Inle Lake

Well that was fun! After breakfast, we walked ½ block west to the canal and negotiated a boat for the day… 20,000 Kyat ($14) bought us a full day touring Myanmar’s lovely Inle Lake.  Our designated photographer Sue got the bow, boys in the middle, and Dad – deliberately drawing the short straw – sat in the back near the noisy, smoky, boisterous 2-stroke engine.  Thank god for earplugs.

We roared south down the canal inlet and entered Inle from the north, where the long, flat lake spreads and all the longboats fan out in a race south.  At the mouth, we pass some picturesque Intha leg-rowing fishermen, and plenty of gulls.  Dodging through the flotilla of our floral nemesis – the perniciously invasive water hyacinth – we motored across the lake in about 40 minutes, enjoying the broad valley views along the way.

Inle really does remind me of a meadow-lake in the middle of Napa, with marsh merging to flat fertile fields, in turn rolling up to hills and lush low mountains on either side.  This valley takes good advantage of its beauty and benign climate: anything grows here, tourism is booming, and the region feels prosperous. If the Myanmar government can get out of the way, we’ll probably begin to see red grape wineries pop up here soon.  But the increase in trade and tourism begets touts…  come quickly before the charm is strangled by pollution, the water hyacinth and commercialism.  It keeps changing fast, and it don’t last for long: those leg rowers had outboard motors hidden in their hulls.

At the south end of the lake our driver dropped us at the day’s market in Nan Pan.  The “weekly market” rotates around the lake on a five-day cycle… kind of like your grocery store coming to you.  Tourist trinkets dominate the stalls near the pier, but a short wander past the Alodaw Pauk Pagoda brought us to the heart of the market and fertile photo grounds for Sue.  I bought some sunflower and pumpkin seeds, and some chips to feed the geese.  We explored the boathouse which harbors a what we think were racing canoes and several majestic peacock barges – single hull versions of the larger barge I saw a few days ago on the Ayeyarwady.

Here in the marshy margins of the lake it feels less like Napa and more like Venice-meets-Polynesia. The traditional homes are built on stilts above the water with wood porches, thatched roofs, and bamboo woven walls punctuated regularly with open windows for the breeze.  There are also small islands with cement jetties and concrete block buildings.  Freshwater pipes strapped to wooden footbridges connect these islands, and they don’t seem to have any qualms about stringing electrical lines across the waterways.  No phone lines here… these developing countries have leapfrogged land lines in favor of cellphones.

Our longboats have flat bottoms and the motor and driveshaft are hinged so the driver can lift the prop out of the water and skim easily over water hyacinth or the floating wood barriers that control their spread.  Weaving through this water world we come to a “clothing factory” which has about 20 active looms weaving cotton, lotus and silk into shawls and longhis.  It’s a vertically integrated manufacturing process… they show us how to cut a lotus plant, pull and twist fiber (works pretty much the same for cotton), then strand it onto a bicycle wheel into 100’ long lengths that eventually get died then wound around bolts of either ~18” (scarves) or 4’ (longhis) in width.  These individual threads get painstakingly threaded through each of the loom’s 180 teeth.  Then the weaver uses a variety of wooden bobbins to form a pattern by slinging them back and forth across the bolt’s threads… it’s a fascinating and complex weaving sequence, and it gives me a new appreciation both for the labor intensity of traditional weaving, and the massive economies of technology.  It strikes me too that this kind of repetitive labor exemplifies Trump’s mythical “good old days” that so many Rust Belt voters yearn to return to… no thanks.

Next up: the cigar shop, where they roll cigars out of just about anything that grows and dries.  Tobacco yes, but also corn, anise, banana leaf… I bought a mix and wrapped them in a lacquer jar.  Then a silver shop for Sue; then another novelty photo-op shop stop where the weavers work neck rings to spread their cervical vertebrae… they’ve got nothing on Sue.  Another scarf purchase and everyone wins.

For lunch we stopped at a cute restaurant on stilts over the marsh.  There a raised wooden walkway splits a dozen thatched patios, each with their own table; we chose he one on the end and watched the boat traffic, ducks and a farmer working her field.  Next my favorite excursion – we motored up a major western tributary to Inn Diem, the hill with 1000 pagodas.  The water flowed deeper and faster here, and vegetation spilled over the narrow channel’s walls on either side.  Our driver accelerated to clear flood gates and slowed to avoid spraying water buffalo… Sue said it felt like Pirates of the Caribbean; I thought it felt more like Heart of Darkness or Apocalypse Now.  Either way it was a memorable image.

When the inlet shallowed, we climbed out and up the hill through a shaded gauntlet of trinkets and touts to the temple at Inn Dem (or Inthein, or Indein… nothing translates easily here) and it was charming.  There really are a thousand stupas crammed together, most with tinkly bells chiming in the afternoon breeze.  The descending sun cast a warm, golden glow across this impossible maze of spires; if it wasn’t a sacred place the boys and I certainly would have played hide-and-seek.  Be sure to look for Sue’s pictures (once we can find Wi-Fi bandwidth strong enough to upload them).

The boys were disappointed when the Jumping Cats at Nga Hpe Kyaung monastery didn’t perform, but Max got some negotiating experience haggling for a bracelet, so at least we’ve got a memento.  We then motored past some floating gardens, where the Intha farmers grow tomatoes, squash, flowers and other fruits and vegetables on long wooden trellises supported on floating mats of vegetation.

Our timing was good and we cruised north back to Nyaung Shwe as the sun set, enjoying the silhouetted images of the Intha leg row, tourist boats, and the well-wooded eastern hills.  The boys are docile as gulls, cormorants and the occasional egret sail by; Inle is a sanctuary to birds and my beasts.

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