Inle Lake

The ride to Inle was fabulous. The scenery was green and lush, and we soon started climbing up the mountains and leaving the flatlands behind. We found a hotel after looking around for a while, and were quite exhausted after spending the previous night on a bone rattling train and hours on the road. The only thing we managed to do before falling asleep at 8pm was to tell the hotel clerk we were interested in a boat trip the following morning, so that he kept that in mind if any other tourist wanted to share one.

The next morning we were ready bright and early (after a good 11-hour sleep, who wouldn’t?) and came down to have breakfast. There we met a cool Canadian girl named Cat that would be our boat companion for the day, and shared an amazing feed with her. They served eggs, bread, a pancake with butter and jam, a local noodle soup, a plate of fruit, juice and hot drinks. For 14USD a night for our double room with en suite bathroom, it was quite a bargain!

The boat was ready to take us at 8am. We climbed in, sat on our thrones (they put really big, comfy chairs on the ‘deck’) and slowly made our way out the canal that connects Nyaungshwe with the big lake. As it started to widen up, we saw the first few local boats, fishing with some traps that they might have been using since the dawn of times, picking up river weed (maybe to eat? Maybe to be used as fertilizer?) or just hanging out. The distinguishing feature is that they row and steer from the front of the boat, using their leg. It looks quite awkward but it seems to work quite well, distributing the strain of moving the vessel to different parts of the body. Around us we started to see the first houses, with long poles keeping them out of the water, but otherwise surrounded by it.

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Once we approached the first little town, we noticed they had a few bridges connecting the structures, so that they could do a little bit of walking without needing a boat. The first stop was a silver smithy, where we were greeted with tea. They first showed us around the place, where we got to see the artisans at work and were told about the most common local jewelry types and their meaning. Afterwards we were taken to the shop part, where they had pretty much anything made out of silver you can imagine, all for sale. They were not at all aggressive trying to make us spend money, so it was quite nice to be able to browse through these beautiful artifacts. In the meanwhile, ladies would try to get us to buy some other goods by ‘parking’ next to us

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The next place we visited was a small shop that sold local crafts – weavings, jewelry, statues, etc. To lure tourists in, a few tribeswoman from the long neck clan were sitting outside working on handmade weavings. It was a bit of an odd thing, for them  to be there on display for photos to be taken. It made me feel a bit as though they were being treated as zoo animals, and I did not love it. Tim still snapped some pics, so here she is:

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Right next door, they had an umbrella making factory. They are all made by hand, and half of them are parasols and the others might (or might not) protect you from rain (I wouldn’t hold my hopes up). That doesn’t mean they are not gorgeous!

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Next stop was an actual weaving factory, where a bunch of young women were working away at these huge machines, making sarongs, scarfs or whatnot. I don’t know the particulars, but again these machines looked like they had been around for over a hundred years. Of course they were selling them at the same place, but as pretty as they were, the prices were quite inflated.

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Back on the boat we went and sailed a while through the water in silent contemplation. Our driver decided to give us an added bonus and took us to his home in the lake. It was really cool to be able to be inside one of these houses and see how the people actually live: Their simple rooms with a thin mattress and a mosquito net, the coal stove they use for cooking, etc. They even fed us some stuff that we would never find elsewhere: peanuts mixed with something yummy (sorry, no one really spoke much English), rice cakes with palm sugar, delicious tea. They had a gorgeous young child hanging out, and a very friendly cat as well. It was really a cool experience, even if we only learned a little bit of their day to day life through the universal sign language…

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Our next visit was to a cigar factory, if you can call it that. A few ladies were sitting on the floor with trays in front of them, hand rolling the cigarettes. They specifically did anise and fruit juice in this place. They gave us both to try first, and I must say the latter one was delicious! We hung out there for quite a while, smoking and chatting to the only guy there, that spoke some English. I sat on the floor next to one of the ladies, and she pointed to the stuff, asking if I wanted to try. I sure as hell did, after watching her gracefully roll for about 10 minutes and trying to learn the technique. As you can imagine, it was not as easy as she made it look at all, but in the end I succeeded and my ciggy looked almost as pretty as hers (not really). Right outside the house, they had a betel nut station (very common) where locals just make their own, to keep them going through the day. Cat had not tried them yet, so Tim gave her one. It was funny to see her face contort in disgust once she bit it, but it is something you must try! Tim put one in his mouth and started chewing like it was a prefecture common chocolate cookie…

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We had an hour to kill before the following part of the adventure, so our driver took us to a temple complex filled to the brim with locals and with a booming market surrounding the holy structures. We did not however see any other white people around, so we were causing quite the commotion. I went inside and spent my time looking at the four different Buddha statues pointing to the four cardinal points, and was asked for selfies twice. When I came out I kept walking around, and finally found Tim sitting down eating a Papaya salad. It was a very nice and peaceful place, and I could have definitely stayed a while longer browsing the stalls and just people watching…

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Regardless, our timing for this trip could not have been better. Around this time of the year, when they do their rice harvest, festivals explode all over the country. In this particular area, the festival consist of moving a sacred Buddha statue from one town to the other. In practice, it means they get about 10-15 boats, fill them with men (still using their feet to row), get some speakers on them to blast music and make them dance and get the party started. We sat on our boat in a part were one of the canals widens and waited until the procession passed us by.

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A few vessels around us were filled with locals, making us look a bit silly on our wooden thrones, but being their super friendly self, wanting to take pictures with us, etc.

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The last place in the list was the jumping cat monastery. A monk used to live there that taught cats to jump through loops, but unfortunately he passed away, so there are no more shows. The cats have not moved out though, so many hang out there, playing with each other and being pet by tourists. The whole place is made out of teak and looks amazing even without the felines.

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We made our way back into town, through some of the floating vegetable gardens (mostly tomatoes) and with a sense of accomplishment hard to match. We had such a busy day, had seen so much and had such an amazing time, it was hard to take it all in…

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It was around 4pm by the time we made it back, and decided to go explore the town. It is a very humble place, but full of life. We saw locals driving tractors with open engines, broadcasting the same design that has been around since WW2. Hell, considering the state of some, some might actually have been around for that long! We checked out the local market, where I purchased a pretty sarong, after bargaining for about 15 minutes. For dinner we walked for ages trying to find an Indian restaurant, and after we had almost given up, we managed to get accurate directions and had a wonderful meal.

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The next morning we had breakfast (still great) and set out to explore once more. We ended up back at the market, where we approached a thanaka stand to try to acquire some and talk to the sellers. They wanted to paint my face, and I was not about to stop them. They were super lovely and we bought a few small bars for next to nothing, which we would be using for the rest of our stay and then some…

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We booked an overnight bus to Mandalay, that would deliver us there at around 4AM. We were sitting around in the lobby waiting (too exhausted to walk any longer) and we met a Filipino and a Japanese girl (Kaori, what a beautiful name!), and a German guy. It was really cool to hang out with some fellow travelers and hear about their different experiences and ways to travel. Hopefully we will get to catch up with them another time. We made a few other friends on the truck that took us outside the town to catch the big bus, so it was a very sociable night for sure 🙂

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