"Mystical. Magical. Outrageously picturesque. These and many other words have been used in attempts to describe the fairy-tale land of Inle Lake and the amazing Inthas who populate its shores and its surface." - Wilhelm Klein, in Insight Guides' 'Burma (Myanmar)'
Chapter Eight - Leg rowers and floating gardens
Just out of Hsipaw women - and only women - were trying to save what was left of the rice harvest. Most of it had been flattened by the rains. I tried to find out how much damage had been done in the region but they were so shy, they just kept their heads down and didn't reply. As soon as we got back in the car they all looked up and I heard them chuckle.
Someone whose name I can't mention here told me all farmers are required to sell a fixed part of their harvest to the government for a price which is well below the going rate. The government allegedly resells it to the regions where it's needed most - if you ask me, it goes straight to the military camps - but no matter what, the thing is that it's desperately needed in the Shan state and the regime refuses to sell even a grain to the people there. The result is that they need to import rice from China, where they have to buy a quality lower than the worst in Burma but at a price higher than that of the best Burmese variety.
The car needed fuel. The black market price here was a whopping two Dollars per gallon ! In remote regions the cost of fuel is much higher. Like the rice it's imported from China but, contrary to rice, the quality's better than what the Burmese manage to refine. And that's noticeable : the engine doesn't pink as much.
Eight miles out of town a small track diverts from the main road to the left and leads to hot springs. They're not very impressive but the area is delightful. Most of the rice in the fields around here was also lost. The inhabitants of the small village nearby, very sad about the big loss, were busy separating the chaff from what they had been able to reap.
Our goal was Inle Lake but as that's about 550 kilometres (344 miles) away, we knew we needed a night stop in Mandalay. Phone Kyaw really went for it and when we were about to reach Pyin U Lwin, we still had a lot of time to spare. Twenty-seven kms (15 mls) to the east of town is another cascade, the Paik Chin Myaung Falls. This waterfall is higher and more impressive than the Pwe Kauk Falls.
Nearby are the Maha Nan Damu Sacred Caves, a pleasant and extensive cave complex in which scenes from the Buddha's life are depicted. It's a very popular spot, probably because it's one of those relaxed theme park-like attractions. Most of the stuff inside, including neon lighting, has been donated by military leaders and government officials and their families "to abate for sins committed". I doubt it will help them...
Entrance is free but a K50 photography fee applies. Care has to be taken : walking barefoot over the slippery pavement and cave floor can be treacherous.
When we emerged from the caves it was raining heavily, a change from the last few days which had been dry. We found shelter in one of the many little restaurants lining the parking lot.
I hoped the rain wouldn't last long. We were lucky... By the time we arrived in Mandalay it had stopped. We checked into the hotel, had lunch and then went to the Zegyo Market, Mandalay's principal. It's not at all a market, more like a big supermarket consisting of individual stands. Most goods are on sale there and if you're looking for something, there's a good chance you'll find it. I was looking for saffron, as Mr Book had told me. It was not so easy to find but finally we located an Indian spice merchant who had it stowed away somewhere. Saffron is so expensive, the Burmese cannot afford to use it in their cuisine and therefore it's rather difficult to find. The same goes for chocolate, by the way.
The spice was costly for the Burmese but dead cheap for me. I paid K440 (about $1.30) for an amount which would cost me $4.50 at home. It was a good quality so I bought several boxes.
We made an early start the next morning. It was a bright sunny day. The first leg of our route was Mandalay to Thazi, the start of the so-called 'Thazi-Taunggyi Corridor'. It was rather straightforward.
Near Thazi - in the township of Yimar Pin, I believe - is the most famous restaurant of the area, the Pan Cherry. All drivers, whether by car, bus or truck, stop here to eat or have a cup of tea or coffee. It's very conveniently located, roughly halfway between Mandalay and Taunggyi. The food is nothing fancy, but it's very safe.
Because Inle Lake is probably the second-most important tourist attraction in Myanmar, after Bagan, I thought the road leading to it would be very good. Big was my surprise when I saw the worst road we had traversed so far. It was absolutely terrible; often we couldn't go faster than 20 kph. Getting to Inle Lake turned into some kind of adventure with washed-away roads, mud slides and potholes deep enough to accommodate truck wheels. In several places soldiers (yes, soldiers) and working crews were clearing the thoroughfare. The mountain views and the extremely lush vegetation everywhere I looked were simply stunning.
We simply passed through Kalaw and Aungban without having a look around because there was no time; we had to move on. A grinding 12 to 13 hours after we'd left Mandalay, we arrived in Nyaungshwe, the main base for visits to Inle Lake. It was already dark.
We checked in at the Evergreen Hotel, picturesquely located near a stream running through town. Run-down doubles with fan (no A/C) and private toilet/shower (hot water) were $15 but could be bargained down to $12. Breakfast is included but not terribly good. The management and staff is quite disinterested and could do with a change of motivation but the hotel has one big advantage : the very quiet location, a virtue in this country !
There's no lack of eateries in Nyaungshwe. We chose the Shan Land Restaurant, near the canal to the lake. All places were infested with little grey flies and the Shan Land was no different but it was possible to sit on the balcony upstairs. Light was dim there, and thus the flies were not attracted. Actually it was a very cosy place to eat and while the evening away; it would be quite suitable for a romantic tête-à-tête. The food was good and the service very friendly indeed.
Two young Burmese men were sitting at a table next to us. One of them turned his head towards me and started talking to me in French. He said he and his friends were students from Mandalay; they were travelling around in their own country to write a guide book. He summed up several hotels and restaurants around Inle Lake and reviewed them, saying which to go to and which to avoid. He seemed like a friendly dude. He then continued by telling me he'd tried the boat services and they sucked. He knew how to arrange things cheaper and wanted us to join him the next morning. Kinda weird behaviour for a researcher, I thought.
My suspicions soon proved to be well-grounded. Everything went really fast suddenly... Our 'friend' poured down half a bottle of hard liquor, was totally wasted in no time, repeated the same boring stuff over and over again, stood up, went to a Burmese girl sitting a couple of tables away, made indecent proposals to her (causing the girl to feel extremely ashamed and leave), tried to stagger back to his seat but did only make it to a table where a single traveller until that time had been enjoying his meal, grabbed the bloke's pint of beer, bottomed it, then fell on the ground, almost comatic. The Shan Land staff had seen it happening and asked the fellow to get out. But he was too far away, he didn't even hear them, so the waiters escorted - no, dragged - him out. I saw them putting him into a rickshaw, where he lied the rest of the evening sobering up. After the incident, the entire hotel staff including the manager came over to apologise. It turned out the 'travel writer' was a rickshaw driver - so he was lolling in his own vehicle - not from Mandalay but local and infamous as a con-artist. He'd stolen money and a pair of sunglasses from tourists and had been jailed for it.
Phone Kyaw and I talked for pretty much the rest of the evening only sometimes interrupted by loud applauding and exclaims of enthusiastic appreciation... tourists attending a dinner show at the Hu Pin restaurant, probably the best in town. Hu Pin is something like a godfather in the Inle region. He owns most important businesses or at least is involved in them. Even the motorboats on the lake carry his name.
The next day began grey. I expected it would start raining any minute. Nevertheless we were set to make a boat trip on the lake. There are two options : canoe or motorboat. The former allows you to go in places where the motorised version cannot go, but obviously they're not suited to fully explore a lake as big as Inle Lake. Our time was limited so we preferred to go by an engine-propelled vessel.
The government collects $3 from everyone entering the area, either in advance from your hotel or when you start out by boat. We had the fee added to our bill.
Hiring a boat for the day cost us K1,200. It's basically a longboat in which a couple of chairs have been placed for the 'convenience' of tourists.
The lake, averagely 19 kms (11.9 mls) long and 8 kms (5 mls) wide and at an elevation of 1,328 metres (4,354 ft) above sea level, is very scenic with hills lining both sides. It is home to the Intha, which means 'Sons of the Lake'. This tribe only lives here; once a minority, they now number around 100,000, distributed over 37 villages on and around the lake. The men have become famous in the world as 'leg rowers' because they've developed a unique technique to move their small canoes around.
Inle lake is very shallow and full of plants, mainly water hyacinths. They would make it very difficult for the fishermen to see the fish if they were sitting down, so they stand up, row with one of their legs and meanwhile scan the surface for tiny air bubbles or ripples. When he detects these, the Intha fisherman takes his conical trap (often with a length of 2-3 metres), positions it over the correct spot and swiftly pushes it down with one foot, using the remaining leg to immobilise the boat with the oar. A ring upholding a net around the bamboo framework of the trap is then released and any fish within its range is captured (often only one at a time !).
The fishermen operate in the open lake and thus we could see them almost as soon as we'd left the narrow channel connecting it with Nyaungshwe.
The submerged weeds can also entangle oars and boats; standing up the Intha can circumnavigate them. Our boatman needn't do that. Not because he was such an experienced operator - he wasn't at all, actually - but because the propeller can deal with the plants. It did feel as if the boat was temporarily held up by an invisible hand but never did it cause any problems.
This is another one of those places where the people have become tired of all the attention, just as in the Mahagandhyon Monastery in Amarapura. The 'leg rowers' clearly have enough of being just photogenic objects. Just imagine yourself busy fishing in the middle of a lake. From different sides motorboats speed in your direction, chasing away the fish on approach. You don't need to expect a friendly, curious "hello". Generally speaking, that's a thing of the past and has now been substituted by the simultaneous clicking of umpteen cameras. You know a fee worth a week's pay is collected from each and every pair of eyes looking at you, but you never see a cent of that.
Not very pleasant, is it ? It definitely is not, and I felt quite sorry for these folks, as I had done for the monks at Mahagandhyon. Then I realised I wasn't looking at the complete picture. The Intha are in fact the wealthiest tribe in all of Burma. Now that may or may not mean much, but it's a fact they're not struggling to survive like the members of several other ethnic groups are. They're masters at farming and fishing but also very skilled in crafts such as carpentry, metalworking and weaving, and chances are that, upon your entering the pile village of Ywama, one of the ladies trying to sell you the most useless souvenirs is the annoyed fisherman's wife. Many of the longyis, silverware and the typical Shan-style shoulder bags one sees all over the country are produced here, right on the lake.
Unless you tell him differently, Ywama will automatically be the goal of your boatman because it's about the only place where he can collect some commission on things you might buy. This shouldn't make you wary of visiting the village, really, as it's picturesque, makes for a nice stop to have lunch and relax for a while and has a few interesting sights. If you don't want to be taken from one handicraft shop to another, just tell him to skip them. We did after a visit to the silversmith.
Every five days a floating market comes to Ywama. We were one day early and intended to come back the next day, but when we heard it's primarily people trying to sell you souvenirs we forgot about it. Sure, the locals buy and sell goods at the market themselves but you will be surrounded by canoes full of junk. At least, that's what I was told by other travellers; like I said, we didn't bother to come back.
Phaung Daw U Paya, opposite the main landing place in Ywama, is the holiest shrine in the southern Shan state. This 'Pagoda of the Royal Barque' was built in the 1960s to accommodate five Buddha images brought back by King Alaungsithu from Malaysia. The small statues are enshrined in the centre of the pagoda and have been so extensively covered with gold leaves that they're completely deformed and now look like shapeless lumps of gold. The devotees don't care; they know there's a Buddha somewhere underneath...
In a wooden shed nearby, on the lake, the royal barge can be seen. It's a beautiful processional boat but it's not possible to get up-close to it without wading through the water (which was deep enough not to attempt it).
It was well in the afternoon when we left Ywama. We were taken to the floating gardens, another attraction unique to the lake. The Intha hardly had any farmland but they were inventive and created gardens afloat on the lake's calm waters to grow their vegetables. Left to its own devices it takes about fifty years for the combination of water hyacinths and silt to produce a fertile floating deposit. Some farmers, however, create the gardens themselves by weaving reeds together. On sections normally 100 by 2 metres (328 by 6.5 ft) big tomatoes, courgettes, salad and several other vegetables are grown with weeds and mud dredged from the lake as fertiliser.
Normally it's possible to walk on the gardens but due to the previous, heavy rainfall the soil was so soaked it was not really feasible.
The day had started out totally overcast but by now the sun was burning down on our heads mercilessly. The combination of intense sun light, water glare and the higher altitude filtering out less UV rays could potentially lead to sun-stroke. Stupidly, I'd forgotten to bring a hat of some kind.
We docked at the landing of a rather run-down monastery in the middle of the lake. I couldn't believe at first that this old and desolate-looking complex with its rusty metal roofing-plates was the Nga Phe Kyaung, the 'Jumping Cat Monastery' from the guidebooks and tourist brochures. It looks a lot better inside than outside. There were a lot of tourists inside, waiting for the 'show' to begin. The chief monk was just sitting there in a chair, talking to some lay people. A monk in his early thirties, I'd guess, was talking to a couple of attractive French ladies in pretty transparent shorts. It was annoyed and with a sigh that he stood up to give a demonstration with the cats. With an impatient "Here !" he wanted everybody to line up to take the snaps they wanted. The cats jumped through little hoops and through his arms rounded as hoops. It was a nice sight, but that's all. The monk returned to the two ladies he was talking to before; they acted even more charmed by him now, something he visibly appreciated very much. He definitely didn't obey the 227 rules of monkshood - something I was convinced of when I saw him going through a stack of Western fashion magazines full of pictures of scarcely dressed women. Not something unusual for us, but it definitely is for a Burmese monk.
Of all places it was here that I remembered I had promised the deceased old monk in the hilltop monastery of Hsipaw that I'd make a good donation in the first monastery I'd enter, and so I did. Actually I'd been in the monastery in the Shan village near Hsipaw but there I'd forgotten about it (not surprisingly).
The Nga Phe Kyaung houses something else, at least as impressive as the jumping cats : an outstanding collection of antique Buddhas in various styles.
The sun was really unbearable. I could see my skin getting more and more red while looking at it. I adore sun and warmth but here we got truly roasted. We asked the boatman to return to Nyaungshwe.
Back in the main channel we passed by the village of Nanthe, where we made one last stop to see the 700 years old Buddha in the ruined stupa complex of Kyaukpyugyi Paya. It's reached by way of an adjacent small monastery (with friendly monks) and a very attractive sight. It was almost impossible to get to it; we had to wade barefoot through foot-deep muddy water, scaring away a flock of frolicking ducks. The innards of the temple were definitely unreachable - the water would have come up to our loins - but the centrepiece Buddha was clearly visible.
It was still light when we arrived back in Nyaungshwe. I had my mind set on visiting the Shan Palace Museum, the palace of Sao Shwe Thaike, the first president of Burma, but everyone I talked to about it discouraged me from going; they said there was nothing left worth seeing. Instead we headed to the Yadana Man Aung Paya, the oldest temple in town. At the entrance we bought something that can best be described as the Buddhist's Survival Kit : a package containing dozens of candles, incense sticks, dried and fresh flowers, etc. The old lady selling them did that with such a devotion we couldn't resist. It was dead cheap.
The interesting paya contains a beautiful Buddha image in an unusual mudra (hand position). A caretaker showed us around, not expecting anything in return. When a person takes action with disinterest, when a place doesn't press me to give money, then I usually do give something.
We concluded the day with a visit to a local cheroot factory. 'Factory' is definitely an overstatement as only eight or so women were working there. The speed with which the women can make these cigars is astonishing. They recited Buddhist texts to set the pace. This happened under the watchful eye of the managing lady, literally and metaphorically speaking : she was present but also looked at the workers from a picture on the wall. The photograph of her and her husband was decorated with all kinds of flowers and stuff and looked as venerated as the little Buddha image below it.
We thought about spending one more day in the Inle Lake area but decided to visit the caves at Pindaya instead.
On our way out of town we passed the Shwe Yaunghwe Kyaung, a picturesque wooden monastery especially notable for its oval windows. One of these windows with one or two red-robed monks sitting behind it makes a great snap. Phone Kyaw told me this monastery used to be largely ignored by tourists but because of its photogenic character it is now on most tour groups' itineraries.
From Nyaungshwe our driver took us to Heho, passing the tiny airport, and then on to Aungban where a crossroad leads to Pindaya. It's a highly scenic route right through multicoloured fields; especially the yellow flowers, used as offerings in the temples, create an impressionistic scene.
This is Pa-O and Danu territory, two tribes mainly involved in the growing of dry-cultivated rice. We stopped and walked into a field to have a look at the farmers who were busy separating the grains from the chaff. It were Pa-O people, shy but definitely welcoming. I didn't get the chance to get to know them any better, though... A busload of package tourists had seen us standing there and came running into the field themselves, and without even saying hello to the people, they started snapping and videotaping away, then left as quickly as they had come. A pretty sad bunch.
I loved Pindaya from the moment we entered it. The houses of the local Taungyo tribe reminded me of those seen in mountain regions of Western Europe. In the distance I noticed two stairways leading up to one and the same point on the slope of a long-drawn series of green hills; a point marked by what looked like a glass tower. That spot is the entrance to the Shwe Ohn Hmin, better known by the trivial name 'Pindaya Caves'.
Pindaya is an extremely charming town, very relaxed, very flowery. The view from the lake towards the cave is extremely beautiful and so is the short drive thither, alongside the water, then by way of a boulevard of enormous Banyan trees.
Apart from the stairs we'd seen from a distance, there's also a road leading up to the tower-like building. In it is an elevator that takes you to the entrance free of charge but is closed during the afternoon when the lift boy takes a break.
The lift stops at a platform about ten metres higher. The view is fantastic : the covered staircase snakes down and ends near the lake, at a cluster of white stupas, part of the Shwe Ohn Hmin Paya.
From the lift a short walkway ends at the cave entrance proper. Before we could even attempt to buy tickets we were already - and I must say rather rudely - directed to the ticket desk. There we had to pay a $3 entry fee but I think it's worth every cent.
What's so special about the Pindaya Caves is that they're crammed with Buddha statues. It's estimated there are 8,094 of them. Why they're there nobody seems to know.
The view from the entrance, with a small pagoda and several exquisite images vying for your attention, is especially beautiful. Looking up in the main cave chamber, you see a gigantic rock hanging from the ceiling, apparently ready to fall. It was as if it was right there to make us realise how mortal, how puny we are. Thinking of that in the presence of thousands of Buddhas definitely made an impression; I certainly felt very humble...
A novice monk guided us to a so-called meditation cave, a small side chamber in which a kind of altar had been installed and which was used for - exactly ! - meditation. We had to enter on our hands and knees. The boy insisted to show us around further; obviously he was after some 'pocket-money' but I didn't mind, he was likeable young fellow. He led us to a stalactite which, given a good bang with the bamboo pole provided, resounds like a gong. Another eye-catcher is a small pagoda which looks like a square tower topped with a pagoda spire. Hundreds of tiny Buddha images are carved in all four sides. And finally there were the 'perspiring Buddhas', sitting images whose lacquered surface is always wet due to a chemical reaction of the lacquer with the air around it. At least that's the theory, and I know it is possible, but when we were there, I couldn't feel any condensation on them, not even the slightest drop. Someone told me it was "because of the season"...
We took the stairs down, back to where the car was parked. Small shops over there sell the tastiest crisps you can buy in the country, if not anywhere. The potato chips are fried in peanut oil.
What I needed, though, was not a bag of crisps but real food. We went to the Taik Seik Restaurant, also near the lake. I had fried noodles with various vegetables; a very cheap and delicious meal.
I'd heard about traditional umbrella-making in Pindaya so wanted to check it out. U Ohn Khing Umbrellas (no address, just ask around) is supposed to be the best workshop in town. I certainly wasn't disappointed. The people there were very welcoming and only too happy to show visitors around. The whole process was explained to us, from the pounding and drying of the bamboo pulp, the lathing of the handle and top, the spanning of the framework, up to the painting of the paper. Never, ever, have I seen someone lathe a piece of wood so fast, not even with modern machinery. The guy here pedalled a piece of bamboo to which a thread was attached. At the other end it was wound around a wooden cylinder which also contained one of the wood clamps.
This is the perfect place to watch this handicraft and learn. Admittedly, the quality of the umbrellas doesn't come anywhere near that of those from the sea-side town of Pathein but they're still nice pieces of work, especially for the price : $1-2 only.
It was with regret that I left Pindaya. I never got the impression that it was spoilt by tourism, something I somehow had expected because it's a pretty well-known place.
Back over the same road to Aungban, then on to Kalaw. We considered the older hotels but for the price asked there we could also have a very nice room at the modern Eastern Paradise Motel, Block No. 5, Thirimingalar Street. Splendid rooms with fan, TV, phone and private toilet/shower come at $10 per person, lesser rooms are available. The female staff is very friendly and helpful. The only let-down here was that unfortunately it was a bit (too) noisy.
There isn't much to Kalaw. It's just a simple small town which has no real sights to offer to the traveller. The reason why the majority of visitors bunk here is to use it as a base for treks to nearby villages, mainly inhabited by members of the Palaung tribe.
I wasn't sure about going on a trek here, so I decided to head into town and talk to some people. Of course, most of the guides in the many 'travel agencies' (actually only specialised in treks) tried to convince me trekking in Kalaw was really cool. One of the offices advertised treks to Palaung and Padaung villages. The Padaung are the tribe of which the women have the famous long necks and whose villages are normally situated in the Loikaw area, definitely not here. Later, I was talking to Kris about eating something in the local Nepalese restaurant and consequently about my dining experiences in India. A man overheard our conversation and apparently had understood what we were on about. He was of Indian descent and recommended the Nepali eatery. He turned out to be a local guide on his way home after guiding a couple of travellers around for three days. He told me there are no Padaung around Kalaw - something I already knew. The trekking agencies just use it as a way to draw travellers in, telling them the 'longnecks' are no longer there but treks to other villages are still possible.
The Indian fellow was a nice guy and his only intention at the time we met him was to go home to his wife and children, so I knew I could believe him when he said the villages in the immediate vicinity of Kalaw were over-trekked; the villagers are already very used to foreign visitors and often rather try to sell bamboo hats than talk to them. I verified this statement with Phone Kyaw. He said he'd been on a trek with two women a couple of months before and it had indeed been rather disappointing. Although a nice Dutch traveller we met at the hotel tried to convince us of the opposite, we decided to give it a miss and spend our time elsewhere.
In Kalaw I got convinced that in the Shan state a lot of women are taking care of business, more than elsewhere in the country. This had occurred to me before, but in Kalaw it was particularly noticeable. When I discreetly enquired about this fact, I was told that men in Shan state are actually very lazy and often prefer blowing opium pipes to working and caring for their families. Whether this is true or not, exaggerated or not, is beyond me but nobody came up with a better explanation.