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March 4-8, 2013. We could have taken a bus to Nyaung Shwe, the closest town to Inle Lake – about fifteen hours or more on an ancient bus over winding, pot-holed, decrepit roads. Or we could have taken a bus to Thazi, over similar roads, and then a train through spectacular scenery to Shwenyaung, and then a taxi to Nyaung Shwe. The trains are also ancient and decrepit, and narrow gauge so they rock from side to side and back and forth like a bucking elephant. And since there is no air-conditioning all the windows are open and all things blow in, dead or alive. Or we could have taken the boat back to Mandalay, then a train to Thazi, overnight in Thazi in one of two suspect guesthouses, then a train to Shwenyaung and finally a taxi to Nyaung Shwe. I’m sure you get the idea. We like to travel but we are not masochists. Instead we chose to risk flying on one of Asian Wings elderly, but certainly not decrepit, turbo-props.

From Don: So now I know why we had to be at the airport so early: as soon as all the passengers had checked in we were directed into the departure lounge and then soon after that we were on a bus heading out to the plane that had arrived five minutes earlier. We were on the plane and in the air, thirty minutes earlier than scheduled: they don’t bother with scheduled flight times, they just go when all the passengers have checked in. We arrived at Heho, had our passports checked, collected our bags, found our driver and were on our way to Nyaung Shwe five minutes before our flight was due to arrive.

Alison again: We drove through spectacular mountain scenery to arrive one hour later in Nyaung Shwe, and transferred to a long-tail boat for a one hour ride first down a canal, and then Inle Lake itself, to our hotel in the middle of the lake.

Don’s photo

Our hotel! Because we’d belatedly decided to fly between towns in Burma (except for the boat from Mandalay to Bagan) we had to rearrange our hotel bookings, giving us an extra day at Inle. By this late date the only room we could find available for that one night was at a five star resort in the middle of the lake. How tragic.

The hotel met all our wildest dreams and more. We thought we’d died and gone to heaven. It was literally in the lake. There was a central reception and restaurant area, with long walkways branching out on either side. Off the walkways were luxury cabins, each with its own private deck and lake view.

Decorative detail, hotel entrance

We watched the sunset from the comfortable chairs on the deck. Or was it sunrise? I can’t remember. I was too busy luxuriating.

We did something we’d never done before. Even though we were packed and ready to go about an hour before we needed to, and even though there were hotel staff waiting outside to clean the room, we sat on the deck luxuriating and enjoying the view right up until checkout time. We weren’t going to give up a precious second in that beautiful place.

I’d heard about the leg rowers of Inle Lake, and seen pictures of them. When we arrived at the end of the canal from Nyaung Shwe where the water opened up into the lake itself we saw them – men standing in the stern of their boats with one leg wrapped around a single oar moving it steadily back and forth in an easy rhythmic practiced motion. We were immediately captivated. The blue lake, the blue vista, the small wooden boats with huge basket nets, the rowers standing tall, leg and oar moving as one unit. We’d landed in another world and we were both filled with excitement.

Don, being less gullible than I am suggested they were greeters for the tourists. And he was right. We passed this opening into the lake four times over the course of three days and they were always there, however we also covered a lot of ground (so to speak) in our fairly extensive travels up and down the lake and frequently saw the genuine fishermen of Inle Lake, rowing with their legs. Theories as to why this method of rowing evolved range from it providing both hands free for handling the fishing nets, to needing to stand to be able to see the reeds and weeds in the water ahead. Either way it’s completely unique, I think, to Inle Lake. What a sight. We saw so many of them and it never got old.

The other main form of transportation on the lake is long wooden boats with un-muffled, deafening, soul-shattering engines, and a long-tail propeller. Speedy and fun. Hang on to your hat! In this case both my hats – very early morning cold. Brrrrrrr.
Photo from Don

I got to see the leg rowers race! Talk about lucky! Our first afternoon. Don is napping. I hear drumming. Close. I follow the sound, down the walkway from our cabin, over a small wooden bridge to the building next door, and there they are – two drummers on the deck of this big building facing out to the water drumming as several boats full of people arrive. I catch this shot of one of the drummers during a break.

Then the two racing boats arrive each with sixteen men. The racing boats are very different from the fishing boats. They are long and straight and have a bar along the centre for the rowers to hold on to. There are festivals of races on Inle Lake, but not at the time we were there. I’d love to be there for a festival, but to get to see even one race with just two boats felt like a miracle from nothing. Suddenly there it was, there I was, in the right place at the right time.

The winning team

We’d read about the stumpy lumpy gold Buddha’s at the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda at Inle Lake. Well they certainly are stumpy and lumpy. There are five of them in the middle of a big “stage”, and men only have been placing so much gold leaf on them for so long, in prayer, supplication, devotion, hope, yearning, reverence, and maybe even in surrender, that the original forms are no longer recognizable. They are stumpy lumpy piles of gold, in a splendiferous setting complete with whirling and flashing lights and beautiful altar offerings. Along one side, as part of the offerings we saw three or four carved watermelons, one of an elephant, one of a lion (the mythical chinthe or leogryph) and one of a hintha bird (the same mythical bird used as the design for the royal barge and copied for Karaweik Palace in Yangon).

On entering the pagoda we had to pay 500 kyats (about sixty cents) each to the door keepers to be allowed to take photographs.

Sometime in September/October the pagoda has a festival, lasting about twenty days, wherein four of the lumpy Buddha’s are paraded around the lake in one or more elaborate gilded barges pulled by hundreds of leg rowers in traditional long boats. The barges, again, are copies of the royal barge, based on the revered hintha bird. Now that would be a sight to see. However we did see the gilded parts of the bird that are attached to the barge. And a second housed in a very large boat shed. The barges must be enormous.

The people of Inle Lake are predominantly Intha as well as several other minorities including Pa-O. They are self-sufficient farmers, devout Buddhists and live simple lives in houses of wood and woven bamboo. Villages are in the lake itself, on the shores of the lake, and on the shores of the many canals that run out from the lake. It’s a very watery world. Some people are occupied in making the wooden boats everyone uses. We visited a home where boats are made but I only took photos of the little kids playing under the house, and the bigger kids playing soccer (football – the Burmese are completely wild about football!) on a tiny bit of land next to the boat “factory”. I think the big open boats used to ferry all the tourists around go for about $3000. Quite a few women are also employed in the hand-made cheroot industry that Burma is famous for. We visited a factory. There were about a dozen women sitting cross-legged on the floor, their tray of supplies in front of them, their hands flying with the grace and precision that comes from years of practice, rolling a perfect cheroot every time, then tying them into bundles of one hundred. Apparently they make about one hundred every hour, eight hundred in an eight hour shift. That’s a lot of cheroots! They are commonly smoked by both men and women.

Streets of houses in the water

Cheeky kid mugging for the camera

An enduring image from somewhere in Burma, possibly Mandalay or Yangon, but really it could have been anywhere in Southeast Asia: A man riding a motorbike. A woman sitting side-saddle on the back. On her lap is breakfast in a plastic bag. No plate, or container, just the plastic bag. She is eating with chopsticks as the bike weaves through the traffic. Some things you just don’t get to photograph, but the image remains.

There are five weekly markets rotating around the villages of Inle Lake. In the next post – a visit to two of them and the truly astonishing floating crop gardens.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.