Nyangshwe and Inle Lake, Myanmar

October 23-31, 2009

Sunrise on Inle Lake.



We arrive at the small lakeside town of Nyangshwe, and within five minutes after setting out for a walk from our guesthouse, we meet a man riding his bike down the dusty street who claims to be a guide. He is an older fellow (oops, turns out he is just two years older than I...) who proposes to take us to see the once-every-five-days market at the far southern end of the lake -- a place where he assures us there will be "no foreigners" (i.e. people like us) and we will see the local tribe-folk doing their weekly shopping. We agree on a price and time, and at 6am the next morning the three of us (Mark, our new Belgian friend Didier, and I) arrive at the busy town dock and climb into a 20' long wooden motor boat for a day-long tour of Inle Lake.

As the sun rises, we skim across the mirror smooth water. It's a dreamy, otherworldly experience ...except for the throbbing, ear-shattering diesel engine noise, which we (thankfully) block with earplugs. We're in a long line of boats transporting goods to and from the local markets -- crates of soda, beer and bottled water, drums of diesel fuel, bundles of firewood -- and "school boats" full of children on their way to waterside classrooms. We pass women paddling slowly through the reeds, their faces painted with thankka paste, conical bamboo hats perched on their heads, a long boat carrying red-robed monks huddled under huge brown umbrellas, a canoe transporting a kid with his bicycle.


Traffic jam on a narrow channel.


Outside the main boat traffic lanes, lone men fish from small wooden canoes. They are supple and sinuous, like tall cranes they balance on one leg at the very tip of their thin boats, then wrap their other leg around the oar, using their lower leg to push and pull the blade through the water. We watch, incredulous, as as one fellow gracefully paddles his boat, casts a long net, then pulls it back into the boat, all the while casually chewing a wad of betel nut.

These fishermen seem to live on the water, fishing from dawn to dusk, casting nets, setting huge conical fish traps, and collecting eels trapped in small baskets submerged during the night. The conical fish traps still confuse us -- three college educated 50+-year-olds watched as the traps were set, collected and emptied, Didier recorded the process on his tiny video...and we still haven't figured out exactly how these contraptions work!



A boatload of eel traps.







We wind our way along narrow sinuous water channels through the reeds, and pull in at a shore crowded with wooden boats. Traders are busily loading and unloading goods, some using wooden ox carts that are in the water and pulled up next to the boats. The market on shore is a hopping spot, and we are certainly the only foreigners around.

We wander past stalls selling betel nuts, produce, fish, meat, medicine, clothes, cooking pots, handmade tools, and a huge array of baskets (which we see everywhere being used as backpacks and carrying bags), through the busy ox market, and past the wooden cart repair station. We sit down to breakfast at one of the many thatch-roof wooden tea stalls -- deep-fried crispy rice cakes and melt-in-your-mouth fry-bread, fried noodles with veggies and tofu, steamed sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves, and cups of the local green tea. We attract stares from the locals, but it is a festive and friendly mood here. The market is a gathering place for friends and families who are taking advantage of the opportunity to socialize and catch up on the week's news.

We were lucky to visit two such markets on consecutive days, held at two different villages on the southern shore of Inle Lake. We hear tales of government spies who keep an eye out for rabble rousers, and can't help noticing when a fully armed government soldier pulls on a black mask, hops on his motorbike, and roars out of the market. We're in Shan State, the eastern edge of Myanmar bordering China, Laos, and Thailand, where locals have been fighting for years against the government for independence. Later, we read in the Herald Tribune that the Shan have a army of 40,000 equipped with anti-aircraft missiles, funded by the lucrative, fast-growing opium trade. Not far from us is the "Golden Triangle" region where foreigners are barred from travel. There are certainly plenty of interesting-looking characters wandering about the market, and we know there is a lot more going on than we can understand.


Betel nut sellers assemble packets of lime and chopped betel nuts wrapped in pepper leaves. Everyone seems to have a mouthful, their teeth and lips stained bright red.


Inle Lake is about 14 miles long and 7 miles wide, and no more than 6 meters at its deepest. One village after another dots its marshy shoreline, clusters of wooden houses perched on stilts or, in poorer areas, simple bamboo shacks. We dock at one of these bamboo huts, take our shoes off and carefully crawl up the bamboo ladder, and soon find ourselves sipping tea with a friendly family in a surprisingly neat and tidy room, dishes lined up on shelves, the teak wood floor gleaming in the afternoon light.

We travel down one waterway after another, arriving at a village where everyone is a silversmith, fashioning beautiful jewelry and hammering intricate designs on alms bowls. Rounding another bend we hear the click-clack-click-clack of wooden handlooms: women are weaving beautiful silk and cotton fabrics and, miraculously, creating a fine yarn from lotus flower stems. The next village we visit makes ceramics, thrown on a wheel turned by hand and fired in a simple wood-fired kiln. Our guide is keen to visit the village that distills a tasty rice liquor, and we spend a good bit of time sampling the wares. In the midst of these communities are floating pagodas, monasteries, shrines and temples, some dating back more than 700 years. We stop to visit with one "teacher monk" who invites us to enjoy a plate of la-hpeq dhouq (moistened tea laves, sesame seeds, dried shrimp, peanuts and garlic) and, in one of those odd travel moments, turns on a music video to entertain us!


Creating yarn from lotus stems!

Lotus flowers.


Rice liquor distillery.

Silversmiths at work.

Afternoon video at the monastery.


One of many small shoreline monasteries.


Phaung Daw Oo Paya, the holiest site in Shan State.

On the road from Began to Nyangshwe we passed many trucks heading our way piled high with veggies. Now on the lake we see a lot boats loaded with baskets and crates of vegetables, particularly tomatoes. We pass long lines of tomato plants, separated from the lake by small berms and tied up with bamboo sticks. These tomatoes are growing on floating beds of water hyacinth! Essentially a huge hydroponic garden supplying Myanmar with fresh tomatoes, one of the many ingenious and surprising ways the inhabitants of Inle Lake utilize this rich and complex ecosystem.

In Nyangshwe, tomatoes are packed into handmade wooden crates and loaded onto trucks.