As we drive past men standing majestically on the end of little wooden boats, their skirts flowing in the breeze and their leg wrapped around the oar as they paddle along, we could only be in one place in the world: Inle Lake.
Despite being told that we would get in between 2 and 3am and therefore could get a good nights sleep, we eventually arrived at 5am. I had been awake since 2 ready to get off… But we weren’t going to let a bit of tiredness stop us: we signed up for the 8.30am tour of Inle Lake.
We walked to the boat and then three of us plus the driver cruised down a river towards the lake. I was sat at the front and as it slowly opened out in front of me I was in awe. It was huge and surrounded by mountains and green trees. There were several boats in sight but all small boats like ours including men fishing in a traditional Burmese fashion and men collecting weeds from the river bed (not sure why but apparently they needed a lot)! One thing that was particularly cool about these fishermen we that when they row, they wrap one leg around the oar and that’s where all the power comes from.
We cruised through the floating gardens and floating vegetable patches, scattered with weird shaped vegetables, until we arrived at a silver workshop. A woman showed us how they turn a rock of pure silver, sourced locally, into all types of jewellery. Some of the jewellery they made was 98% silver and 2% copper but the cheaper jewellery was 20% silver and 80% copper. It was interesting to see the sill and precision needed to make these necklaces and bracelets etc.
Next on the itinerary we were taken to a souvenir shop ran by Long Neck Padaung women. It had similar stuff that we had seen in other parts of Myanmar so none of us bought anything. I was fascinated by the women making scarves as they had a special way of weaving by hand. There was also one of their coils on show for tourists to pick up and I was surprised to feel how heavy they are! The coils press down on their shoulders, giving the illusion that their necks are longer. It’s lovely to see a tradition still continuing but it causes so many issues to the women that it’s a controversial topic.
Around the corner was a bamboo umbrella workshop. The rather uninspiring woman gave us a run down of all the steps and we had a look around the workshop. I particularly liked the ones that are made with two layers of paper and real flowers are pressed in between.
We continued further around the lake, passing whole villages on stilts on our way until we reached Thaung Thut Village. Here we watched how the fibres inside lotus stalks can be turned into thread then dyed then turned into scarves etc! Things made from lotus threat are 7x more expensive than silk as it is so difficult and time consuming to make. In the wet season they make approximately 50m but in the dry season it’s only possibly to make about 10m. I stood for ages watching the women make scarves on machines and I couldn’t woke out how the wind the bobbins up so perfectly so that the patters all line up! Each woman will make 4 scarves a day.
After lunch in another floating village called Nampan we saw a cheroot workshop. These women each make 800 cigars and cigarettes a day and we got to sample two. One was banana flavoured and not so great and the other was mint flavour. I’ve never liked the taste of tobacco but the minty after taste wasn’t too bad. Our hostels in Inle Lake and Mandalay gave away these cheroots for free which I thought was a great present for my brother to try but sadly Singapore customs have taken them off me which I did not anticipate.
Our penultimate stop of the day was Phaung Daw U which was a temple. It wasn’t a particularly special temple and Ammun and I are pretty bored of temples now so we left very soon after arriving. It’s one of Myanmar’s principle shrines and in the centre, men are allowed to stick gold leaves onto the 5 Buddha statues. Women aren’t allowed to even enter the middle section and the Buddhas have completely lost their shape as there is so much gold stuck on them.
Our final visit of the day was to Nga Phe Chaung monastery which is also known as the cat monastery because the monks that reside there used to train the cats to jump and perform tricks for tourists. They don’t do this anymore but the cats have stayed. I think I saw seven cats, three of which were small kittens. I first spotted them when they were stuck on one of the shrine and struggling to get down and then I played with them and watched them play fight.
After a very fast and bumpy ride back, we went out for dinner. I love all food (as you can probably tell from my blog) but after 3 months of repetitive rice and noodles we’re pretty bored of it so we went to an Indian restaurant that had great reviews. The food was delicious and served with loads of sides as the Burmese usually do. Ammun was very happy to finally have some Indian food again although looked a little shy when the woman started speaking to her in Punjab and she had to admit that she’s not fluent in it.
We popped back to the hostel to get a map to the night bazaar but ended up chatting to two girls called Anna and Zoeli who were in our room in Yangon while it chucked it down with rain outside.
There were pancakes for breakfast. Pancakes with syrup. However, we got a bit of a sigh when we asked for breakfast three minutes after it was meant to end and ended up with eggs. I wanted pancakes.
The eggs gave us lots of energy for our day of bike riding. We joined Anna, Zoeli and another girl called Aniko and set off for the Shwe Wan Pyay Cave. There were a lot of uphill sections so we took it slow and despite two layers of suncream, my arms still managed to start burning! The caves were small but filled with images of Buddha. We had to use torches of the most part so it was difficult to get good pictures.
Because it was so hot, we were all struggling to cycle (and this was Ammun’s first encounter of hills and bike gears) so we went back towards the hostel and had lunch at a little restaurant called Paw Paw that had been recommended to me. It is run by a mother and daughter duo who aim to “empower marginalised young women to become responsible citizens and encourage their professional growth” which I think is great. Although the food was slow to come, it was amazing!
They were also so friendly that Ammun could finally ask her burning question: what was Myanmar like before the borders were opened to tourists? She said that, like with anything, there are good and bad things about it. Although she liked that the borders had been opened and tourists could see her beautiful country and she liked that tourists are very respectful of their culture, it means that the rich are getting richer and the poor are suffering. I think it’s a very valid point and it makes me think that maybe we should have stayed in small guest houses as opposed to hostels who may be run by foreigners and therefore the money goes out of the country. It’s hard though when we wanted the hostel vibe and there aren’t many (cheap) options. If I were to go back in the future I would love to see some of the more remote areas of the country and small villages but I would need more than 8 days to do that!
Another thing that I never tried was the thanakha make up that most people wear. It is a traditional cosmetic paste made from the bark of the thanakha tree and it has two purposes: beauty and sun protection. It is unique to Myanmar and has been worn by both genders alike for more than 2000 years.
My favourite thing about Myanmar is their strong sense of national identity. Yes, a little bit of it is put on for tourists (like the fishermen on the lake posing) but in no other country have I seen a teenage boy who’s clearly one of the cool kids, wear a skirt (longyi) and yellow make up (thanakha) out of choice. The country is very corrupt and there is a lot of bad stuff going on that we didn’t see but it’s evident that the Burmese people are proud of their country and I love that.