“Tourists flee Burma, fears over 11 missing Americans at Lake Inle”, writes Amy Chan, in her excellent tale set in Burma called, Saving Fish from Drowning.
I couldn’t get the story out of my head as we travelled on our Air Bagan Fokker 100, landing in He Ho. The other Air Bagan Fokker 100, they only had two, crashed a few weeks ago in the same place. Obviously I have been in Burma too long… the Nats (mischievous Burmese evil spirits) have got to my brain, or what’s left of it after the Pinot Noir) or maybe the powers that be think I have more of a journey to make. Hopefully the latter.
OG and I set off with high hopes on yet another rickety bus to the port of Nyaung Shwe; we were bound for the mystical Inle Lake, the place the young colonials used to go for their honeymoons in the days of the Raj. The Shan Hills surround it and indeed it is like going back in a time warp. All transport is by water, either in smart motor powered longboats, (a hollowed out boat with four wooden armchairs in it), or a larger hollowed out longboat which squashes in as many people and goods as it can without sinking. We were to travel in the former, as usual our luggage had miraculously gone on ahead, so all that was left to do was to get into the boat and sit down. It’s like getting into a very narrow dinghy i.e. if you don’t step right into the middle, knee replacement or not, you wobble or even worse capsize! OG is used to boats as she leaps in and out of them with her grandchildren, I trod carefully and so did the other two passengers. Once installed our merry, longi-clad boatman manoeuvred his way out of the Piccadilly Circus of longboats and we set off down the long channel for the Lake.
Every building is on stilts, houses, restaurants, shops, schools, markets, even go slow signs, not that I could read them. We motored for about an hour southwards on this magical mystical lake, the hills were hazy blue, the reclaimed farming land was the brightest and lushest pale green and the spikes of towers and pagodas lined the shoreline. Several luxury Boro Boro style hotels, came and went, by that I mean lots of little cottages on stilts with walk ways to the central posh hotel. Finally we rounded a corner and the longboat chugged down a narrow water channel. There before us, on a tiny island, was a huge sign covered in bougainvillea, INLE RESORT. Our long boat drew up to what looked like a pagoda, but it was in fact a landing stage, uniformed porters clad in the smartest of longis greeted us with cool drinks and we were shown to our individual cottages. Every cottage, or indeed Royal Villa, has a wonderful view either out to the lake or onto a little lagoon. You have your own balcony where you can watch the bird life and sip your sundowner and, incidentally dry your undies. The service is excellent; it has a well-stocked wine list, unusual for Burma, and excellent food. The wonderful Mr. Bruno is one of the great hoteliers, he is in the dining room from 6.30pm until well past midnight, nothing gets past his hawk like eyes. He trains staff to make eye contact, everyone smiles, nothing is too much trouble for Mr. Bruno. Such is his eye for detail, that he will no longer serve fish from the lake in his hotel because small traces of preservative are now being found in the lake. His pastry cook makes the lightest croissants, and being Belgian of course he speaks dozens of languages. He is charm itself. If you go to Burma I urge you to stay a couple of nights in this Nirvana on the Lake… and say BPG sent you!
The morning dawned, we watched the mist disappear and the birds dive for fish from our personal balcony. No walks today, all our travelling will be in the wooden armchairs on the longboat. We are to visit a silk factory (where the thread comes from lotus leaves), and watch the world famous fishermen who row with one leg, it’s a jerky ungainly movement and looks most uncomfortable …wouldn’t do at Henley! A very wide gusset is needed for the trousers! (See picture) The people of this region are called the Inthar, and they are the most ingenious and hard working of any I’ve seen in Burma. If they don’t have land they dig it out from it from the lake, dozens of boats are to be seen with the boatman collecting the rich silt from the bottom of the lake with huge scoops. They then row it back to the waters edge pile it high and stake it with bamboo poles to keep it from moving or eroding. Seedlings are sown onto this fertile soil and soon you have a vegetable garden! Water hyacinth and lotus flowers grow like a fluffy carpet on the water so there are floating gardens everywhere and, as always, the Burmese people find a use for everything. If you can’t eat it you make something out of it! I was fascinated by the silk made out of lotus leaves, an invention, I was told, by a local Ithus weaver. She realised that if you snap the stem of a lotus flower there is a stringy thick sap inside and this can be spun and turned into a very light but strong thread.
Our long boat approached the silk factory and all we could hear was the sound of the old fashioned looms, the click clack as the shuttles went backwards and forewords. The dyes are all made on site from natural products, and the intricate setting up of the designs is all done by women some of them with their very young children sitting at the foot of their looms. I wondered how the children learned not to flop into the water but maybe they learn to swim at birth, after all they are born on the water. OG and I bought some gloriously coloured scarves and I am sure it won’t be long before we will be wearing lotus cardigans or anoraks!
Being that we were on stilts, the customary visit to the squat was novel, it wasn’t only a squat but this time, it was also a long drop! I hope your mind is boggling, mine did! A quick sanitise of the hands and we were ready for lunch. Space is limited when you are in a restaurant on stilts so the tables are close, the lunch was delicious, all chosen by Ni Ni our guide and only local produce, peanuts, bamboo shoots, tomatoes, garlic, sugarcane, rice and vegetables. Try turning that into a recipe! Oh and Burmese chips – cornflower strips deep-fried and sprinkled with salt. Yummy!!
More Pagodas in the afternoon…. Phaung Daw oo Pagoda. this is the holiest on the lake and the Buddhas are so heavily covered in gold that they look like huge golden balls rather than Buddhas. You may have got the gist that by now OG and I are pretty well pagoda’d out!
Water markets….the five day markets! The longboat marketeers move up and down the Lake rotating every five days. Imagine a village market with stalls but all afloat, pushing and shoving to sell their wares, every boat piled high with veggies, flowers pots, whatever you make – chaos but it works . You sell one lot of stuff and go home with another lot!
You may have heard of the Giraffe women or Long neck tribes. They are Tibetan Burmese ethnic peoples who have been horribly persecuted for generations, some of them still live at Inle Lake. They have the special powers, I was told, for training elephants but apparently it is the gold rings around the women’s necks which conjure up the most interest. We did see three long-necked Padaung women all with numerous rings on their necks and arms and ankles (picture). Sadly now they seem to be on show for tourists to take photos, but the history is interesting. The long neck is a sign of beauty and should a hapless Padaung woman be accused of adultery she will have the rings taken off as a punishment, which is either a death sentence, the neck muscles become weak and it breaks, or she will be forced to lie down for the rest of her life! Ni Ni told us a nicer story, he said that there were lots of tigers where this tribe lived and the women wore the rings on their necks, ankles and arms because that’s where a tiger bites!!!! Not sure I believe him!
We did do one trip to dry land during our few days at the lake . Our long boat took us to a tiny inlet where we jumped onto land and walked into the inner countryside. Once again we were immersed in the countryside, first we came upon a kindergarten where the children came scampering out to see us and then insisted on not singing one song, but three…. before we were allowed to leave . Not one child was undernourished, unlike Yangon which we visited a few days later. That is the difference between the city and the countryside. Towards the end of our walk we realised that we had hit ablution time so everybody, water buffalo included, leaps into the nearest water at about 4pm and the daily washing ritual starts. We felt we needed to avert our eyes as entire families were washing themselves, their children and their clothes. We felt like ‘the unclean’ and couldn’t wait to get back to Inle Resort for a warm shower … the first in a long time … warm I mean!
OG and I adored our trip to Burma, it was much enhanced by our wonderful guide who allowed us to open the door and see ordinary peoples’ lives. We were often very far from the tourist trails and those were the bits I enjoyed the most. Some of it was challenging, railway bridges, and hotel rooms with loos in, but nothing we couldn’t manage . We really felt we had stepped into Burma and shared and watched a different life. The Burmese people are friendly and their religion and heritage is very important to them. I do hope and pray they will survive and not be gobbled up by the Mega powers who are watching and waiting to pounce. The Lady is a remarkable woman and so I hope she continues to have good health and strength in order to soldier on.
My lasting memory will be of a beautiful, fertile country with laughing children, thousands of golden pagodas and dozy velvet nosed water buffalo and if there is such a thing as reincarnation I would like to come back as one!
P.S. I’m off to Sydney for a bit of grandson therapy…… and ….voyeurism……. just a little peek, at the hot life guards on Bondi Beachafter that, …… dancing with the trishaw man Penang.