Saturday, January 14, 2017

Our trip to Inle Lake

We had breakfast at Kumudara Hotel, then took a cab to the airport because, when reservation was reconfirmed, the airline said we had to be at the airport 90 minutes before the flight.  What joke!  There we no reason at all to be early, and once checked in and through security, we had to wait in a waiting room without any amenities waiting for our flight to be called.  And wait, and wait; flight after flight was called, and the scheduled time for takeoff passed; still it was other flights being called, with no announcements explaining why our flight was delayed or when we might expect to board.   When it was over an hour after our scheduled departure, a knot of frustrated passengers surrounded the person with the walkie-talkie who was announcing the flights, some saying that they would use a different airline.  Finally, she said that our flight would be next.  So, we piled onto busses to be taken out to the propeller plane that would take us on what was announced to be a 35 minute flight to Heho Airport, the closest one to Inle Lake – except it wasn’t.  We spotted the landing strip about 35 minutes after getting into the air, but then we circled for at least a half an hour before landing.  It was hard to understand why – there was not a cloud in the sky!

Finally we were on the ground, and our bags were wheeled up – by hand – to the baggage claim area; meanwhile, we made contact with a women holding a sign saying “Mr. Paul”: she was the emissary whom the hotel had sent to get us to the hotel.  Except – she wasn’t.  Her only job was to connect us with the driver of the van that took us on the hour-long ride from Heho to Nyaung Shwe, a town at the northern end of Inle Lake.  The roads were heavily used by trucks, share-vans that were used by locals for transportation ot their persons and their goods

and even tractors tootling along down the road

and the occasional bullock cart

When we were stuck behind a tractor, it was slow going indeed.

After crossing a small line of hills, the valley containing Inle Lake came into view.

Eventually we approached Inle Lake, but we had to stop at the outskirts of Nyuang Shwe to pay the “Inle Zone entrance fee” of ten dollars per person, for which we received a yellow ticket

that we never had to display while we were in the area (unlike the proof of payment of the Bagan Archeological Zone fee, which was checked several times while we were in that area).  The taxi driver dropped us off at the Shwe Inn Tha boat transit center in Nyaung Shwe.  It was there that we connected with the boatman, Kyauk, who took us in a boat that was wide enough only for one person, heading south through a narrow channel lined with buildings

from Nyaung Shwe to Thar Lay, where our hotel was located.  The channel widened a bit as Nyaung Shwe receded behind us. 

There were small side-channels running off to the left, making us wonder whether this might be some sort of boating canal running the length of the lake.  But finally the channel opened up to a very wide lake, with mountains looming on either side, and no end in sight.  THIS was Inle Lake.             

We sped down the lake, passing many other such boats, as well as smaller fishing boats being steered by only one person,

who might be casting fishing nets or just rowing, but rowing standing up – this meant that somehow they would grab an oar with one leg and row with the leg pushing the oar.

apparently this technique was developed because, especially during the dry season when the depth or the lake is only a couple of feet, and reeds and floating plants are at or close to the surface of the water, it is difficult to see them and hence steer the boat effectively when sitting down to row.

Then again into a channel, and finally we nosed under a gate into an enclosure.  Our hotel, the Shwe Inn Thar Floating Resort, was before us – sitting on stilts in the lake (Shwe means golden, and the Intha are the ethnic group indigenous to Inle Lake). 

We were greeted with a glass of orange juice, an explanation of the hotel’s layout and arrangements, and a question – did we want to hang around at the hotel this afternoon, or go back out on the lake.  We opted for the latter, and the hotel greeter mapped out a possible itinerary for the afternoon and then for the entire following day. It would cost us $15 to hire a two-person boat for the afternoon, and $30 fir the entirety of the next day.

First, though, off down the walkways

to our room – and what a room!  A cabin really,

but a cabin sitting above the lake on stilts.  There was an empty vestibule (still not sure what its function is supposed to be), a huge main room (bedroom), with a queen sized bed and a single bed, each with mosquito netting available, plus a sizeable balcony with two chairs, and two small bathrooms – one with a sink and tub/shower (albeit with no shower curtain), as well as a separate room with a small toilet. 

There is a picture window in the bedroom: here is the view:

and here the view from the balcony

All the windows have screens, inside shutters and outside shutters, except the bathrooms, whose overhead  windows have screens but no shutters (so when it cooled down at night, the bathroom doors had to be kept closed to keep out the cool night air).   Ear plugs are also supplied – both because the boat traffic gets very noisy in the morning on market day, and then there is the religious music that begins at 6 AM.  There is a hotel pool; we were too busy to use it, and besides it was chilly by the evening.  There was a poolside happy hour in the early evening of which we took advantage, albeit sitting in the bar near the pool.

After taking all this in while dropping our bags, we were off to the boat for an afternoon on the lake – Kyauk turns out to be permanently assigned to us for our visit.  At this southern end of the lake, as least, the population lives in a series of villages, some perched at the sides of the lake and hence attached to the land there, but some of them right in the middle of the lake.  Our hotel was in Thar Lay; we were on our way to Nam Pan, a village close, where we stopped for lunch at Shwe Yaung Inn.

Instead of the rolls or bread you would get at a restaurant in the US, the waitress brought us  large crispy items that we later learned were tofu chips, served with a sweet and very slightly spicy sauce.  I had the Whole Lake fish in Spicy Curry while Nancy had Fried Fish with Mixed Vegetables – the fish in both dishes had great taste, but the curry was much better than the mixed vegetables.

We were done with lunch by 3 PM; the next two-and-a-half hours was spent cruising around the lake visiting three separate villages.  Part of the pleasure was just getting a sense of life on the lake, and part was visiting artisans to see them and work and hear about their craft, along with, of course, an opportunity to buy their products.  Least interesting was the first visit, to a “cheroot” maker whose building shared a walkway with the restaurant – these are cigarettes made of tobacco from Malaysia wrapped in a local leaf and then given various fruit flavors:  no thank you. 

Far more interesting were the weaving, blacksmith and boat-making displays.  But as we went from Nam Pan to the nearby village, In Paw Khone, where a number of weaving centers were located, we spotted a tourist-sized boat for of formally dressed people heading across our path.  The boat driver remarked that they were going to a ceremony, and from the fact that a parasol was being used to shelter a dressed-up child, she inferred that it was the Inle Lake version of the novitiation ceremony that we had seen the day before in Bagan.

The weaving facility was the most expansive artisanal enterprise that we visited: first we watched the spinning of silk thread but even better lotus thread – pulling several strands of fiber from the stems of the lotus plant, then rolling the strands together on a board to form thread

that could then be woven into scarves alone, or along with silk.  

We watched the dying of silk thread

and the weaving of silk (or silk and lotus in alternating bands) into scarves, longgis, fabric for purchase, or other items

Listening to the looms click back and forth, Nancy reminded me how much it sounded like my the surname of my maternal forbears, Ka-chuck, Ka-chuck, Ka-chuck – a name that meant “weaver” in their native Ukraine.  After an extensive tour, we were led into a very large shop of silk, lotus and cotton products, and I am sure we more than made up for the “free” tour  by buying some of the shop’s products.

Next was the blacksmiths in Se Gaung, where we watched a hand-turned bellows keeping some burning wood hot to heat metal pieces, which were then shaped by  a series of hammer strokes by three young men each time a piece of red hot metal was pulled from the fire

Then the boat-builders in Nam Pan, where we watched the construction from teak wood of both a fifteen-meter tourist boat

– which, we learned, would take five men a month to build, costing $1500 — and an eight-meter fishing boat which would take one man two weeks to build, costing $800. 

He agreed with be that despite his naming his price, a boat would be a bit large to take home in my suitcase as a souvenir.  They had some carved tchotchkes as well as small lacquerware pieces for sale in the shop, but we were not in the market for any of those

Looking at the tourist boat in which we had been riding as well as those we passed on the lake, Nancy had remarked that it appeared that they had been painted with lacquer, and, in fact, our guide confirmed that lacquer was used not only to paint several layers on the boat but also to seal the boat’s joints.  The guide told us that there were five or six other boatbuilders on the lake, but that his shop’s production was the greatest, about forty boats per year

Leaving the boat-builder, the sun was heading toward the horizon but our boat driver had one more thing to show us – the Phaung Daw Oo pagoda back in Thar Lay.

Next to the pagoda was a boat whose prow was in the shape of what looked to be a duck (although we learned later that it is a hintha or hamsa bird).  Kyauk told us that, on religious holidays, the boat it is driven all over the lake showing off the Buddha figures from the pagoda

I hoped that we would be back for a closer look another day.

By this time, we could see the sky getting red at the horizon, so our boat headed back to our hotel.  The sunset was dramatic, of course.

We could see the night lighting on the Phaung Daw Oo pagoda

All this we saw from our private balcony
And while the dusk was gathering hotel staff came to our room to prepare it for the evening, including pulling the mosquito nets out over the bed

We ate dinner at the hotel’s restaurant – another disappointing place featuring Chinese AND western AND pizza as well as a small selection of Myanmar dishes in the part of the menu called “traditional.”  Seems to me if you try to be all things to all people you are less likely to do any of them well.  The grilled lake fish, though we very tasty; Nancy’s “Grilled Fish (butter fish)” turned out to be small chunks of fish on skewers.  This was OK, but not as good as the Grilled Lake Fish.

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