Very early misty morning.
Watch the sun rise over the lake.
Splash some water on my face.
A quick breakfast
and it’s off to market we go.

Across the lake and down a canal,
a long time down a canal
passing pagodas and monkey bridges.
Hand built stick-and-straw weirs,
so weird and ingenious.
Controlling the water flow.

People fishing.
Washing dishes clothes buffalo themselves.
And walking. To market.
It’s off to market we go.

March 4-8 2013. I love going to the local markets. The ones where everyone goes to get their meat and fruit and vegetables. And visit with each other. And eat a meal together at the food stalls. The ones where the people who actually live in the places we’re visiting do their buying and selling of food and household goods. It’s the fore-runner of the de-personalised sanitized supermarket, a place where we can get a glimpse of the strong community ties and the authentic ordinary lives of the people.

The markets in the Inle Lake area move each day from one of five locations to the next, ranging from Nyaung Shwe at the north end of the lake to Nan Pan at the south end. We went to three of them and celebrated the life and liveliness and busy purposeful energy of the people living there. Markets are all about the people.

There were some pagoda ruins near the market and we decided to go have a look. Next thing we had a young monk at our side wanting to be our guide. He may have been a monk, or he may have just been dressed as one. It doesn’t matter. We let him guide us anyway to several crumbling pagodas at the top of a hill and then paid him 400 kyat for his trouble. We noticed that the heels of his flip-flops were worn through to the ground so we offered to take him to the market to buy him some new ones. He said they would cost 1000 kyat (about $3.00). We wanted to take him to the market and buy them for him. He stood his ground. He wanted the money. In the end we gave it to him and he ran off. Maybe just maybe he went and bought himself a new pair of flip-flops. Maybe, just maybe he didn’t want to be seen as so poor that the tourists had to buy him shoes and he wanted to get them himself. Or maybe he went and bought a whole bunch of fun stuff like CD’s and candy. I hope he had fun whatever he did with the money. I have a feeling new flip-flops weren’t that important to him.

On the ride from our glorious hotel in the middle of the lake to our nice, but more mundane hotel in the town of Nyaung Shwe we were promised a visit to the floating gardens. I imagined a smallish area I suppose, of lovely flower gardens, maybe a community effort in one of the streets of the lake villages. How wrong could I be? The “gardens” are acres and acres of crops. Acres of them. Floating. Inle Lake is 14 miles long and about five to seven miles wide and fully 25% of it is covered with crop gardens. Tomatoes are the big crop but they also grow cucumbers, squash, beans, lentils and some fruits.

We’d seen some of the small wooden boats so piled up with grass-like weeds from the lake that they were sitting barely above the water. We’d seen groups of people in their boats working together to collect these weeds. Once I even saw a group of about five boats move together, each man rowing rhythmically with one leg. When they all joined up someone pulled out what looked like a large thermos container. Time for a tea break I suppose.

These weeds form the basis of the gardens. They also gather the invasive, non-native, water hyacinth. It’s all piled together in long rows and anchored with bamboo poles that are driven into the bottom of the lake. They grow grass on top to help stitch it all together, then burn the grass and add more weeds and finally mud from the bottom of the lake. The garden beds rise and fall with the level of the lake so are impervious to flooding. Completely fascinating and ingenious. Other crops are grown on land (root vegetables obviously, and rice), but who would ever have thought of building islands and growing crops on the water? The farmers are quite wealthy apparently. That’s the good news.

The bad news is the long time use of pesticides and fertilizers is causing health problems and the water is no longer safe for drinking and cooking.

Tending crops by boat

This man, while gently rowing in the traditional one-legged fashion is spraying his crops with fertilizer or pesticide.


Heading into town

We arrived at the boat dock at Nyaung Shwe, clambered up the steps with our luggage and looked around for a way to get to our hotel. The first obvious solution – a trishaw each, with each of us in one seat, and our case strapped in the other.

Another early morning, another market. This one the big one in Nyaung Shwe. Huge. Everyone comes to town. Comes early and comes loaded.

We noticed several nuns going from stall to stall in the market collecting alms – food for the day. We especially noticed these two little poppets, no more than seven or eight years old. Each time they were given a carrot or two, or a cabbage, or something for their baskets they would sing a little prayer for the stall holder. I’m not a fan of the word cute. But they really were. Heart-melting cute.

Outside the market, waiting for a fare.

Next post: Yes, another market. And haircuts. And a ten hour hike in the hills above the lake, including a brief attendance at a village wedding (we always seem to find weddings without even looking).

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.