Sunday, January 31, 2016

Inle Lake and the End of Myanmar

We landed in Heho, the Inle Lake airport, and found ourselves both cold and wet. It may be the dry season, but the lake region was getting soaked by full-on rain on our arrival. For our first day or two there, because of the rain, we were stuck in the hotel and read/napped. Fortunately, our hotel was small and the hotel staff was extremely attentive while we lazed around, offering us juices and teas regularly – they even gave us a full plate of fruit, including a whole papaya!

When the rain finally let up, we quickly discovered that there was not much to do in the town and took a cab to the winery on the outskirts. The winery was an open house looking over a vineyard by a lake; it felt almost like we were in Napa Valley or the south of France! And yes, Myanmar has wineries – though the grapes are young and the wine is not fully developed – and we were given a tasting menu each as we lunched at their open restaurant.

While we enjoyed our wine, we came to talking to another pair of lovely ladies. They happened to also be from NYC; being homesick, I relished the conversation around US politics and NYC haunts for a few hours.

I was wrong about my initial analysis of Burmese food. Marion and I found a restaurant that served Shan-style food (an eastern state and tribe in Myanmar), and I was blown away by how tasty the food was! We went back every day in Inle Lake to have fried yellow tofu (from the same vendor), and at least once a day I savored Shan-style sticky noodle soup (spicy and peanuty goodness!) that every restaurant offered.

In Inle Lake because we repeatedly saw people using the extremely polluted waterways for domestic purposes. The water was a hazy, opaque green, yet people would squat on piers and clean. This cleaning included laundry, teeth, and general bathing. Marion was disgusted and confused as to why people used the water when it was so clearly unacceptably gross; I tried to explain how sometimes they do not have another choice, either because they cannot access clean water at home yet, or cannot afford it. It is clear, though, that Myanmar has miles to go in terms of giving people access to clean water supplies for daily domestic purposes (one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals).

One day, we climbed into a longboat and sat on two precariously-stationed chairs in the middle while a boatman drove us around the Inle Lake. We started in the murky canal waters and made our way to the vast main lake area, where fishermen fished everywhere. The water seemed surprisingly shallow and full of high water weeds (so sometimes I was concerned the boat would bottom out). The mountains surrounding the lake rolled breathtakingly for 360 degrees.

The boat driver was a funny guy, but he had a strict schedule for us – mostly including cottage industry shops set up in the floating villages. As foreign tourists, I feel it is seen as our duty to buy as many souvenirs as possible to stimulate local economies, and we were shuttled through shops that carried handmade silver, silk weavings, wood carvings, rolled cigars….you get the picture, we saw a lot of different shops. In some places, we happily obliged buying a couple unique crafts, but in many, we politely walked through the shops and rushed back to the boat. One of the shops included some long-neck (Karen tribe) women weaving, their necks elongated by heavy metal coils and swaying with the rhythm of the looms. It felt awkward for us to watch them weave, partly impressed by their hand skills and partly in awe by their necks – I did not feel comfortable taking pictures as they scowled at us.

Cruising through the floating villages was a strange thing; it felt often like we were driving down the roads of a normal village, only the roads were made of water and our car was actually a boat. There were electricity poles and wires dangling above the streets, like any other place, except if you ran into these poles you might get electrocuted more severely. We also got off of the boats and walked through towns on more solid ground, where many of the temples were guarded by lines of souvenir stands manned by the locals. There were other temples that were accessible only by unstable, wobbly bridges over which we had to walk.

We also went to a village off of the lake some ways, called In Dain. There, we hiked a little bit to the top of a hill for a view of the lake. In the village, we also went to a pagoda. Most pagodas we visited in Myanmar had a long parade of souvenir shops you had to walk by to get to the center, as I’ve mentioned briefly, but this pagoda had nearly a kilometer of shops. The center had a forest of stupas of different styles/ages/sizes we walked through before reaching the Buddha. The place was lovely, and walking on the ground for an hour or so was a nice change from the rocking of the boat.

We ended the day watching the sunset in the middle of the lake. Some costumed fishermen (or were they just businessmen, we are unsure) posed for the tourist boats in the traditional way the lake’s fishermen balance – with one foot pushing an oar into the water and the opposite hand managing the fishing cage. It may have been contrived, but the effect on the water with the sunset in the back was beautiful, as they teetered on the edge of their boats in the golden light.

Our last night at Inle Lake included a movie at the local French café. The visuals in the movie were great, but the plot was a bit confusing and too much like a soap opera. The movie was about a monk who worked in a hospital and fell in love/knocked up a patient dying of cancer. The lady died in childbirth, and her brother brought the baby to the monastery, telling the monk secretly that he was the baby daddy. No one else knew the secret, though, and when the monk was in a coma from a fever, the child ended up getting adopted by a loving family with a crippled son, leaving the monk alone and heartbroken. What a show! And what a way to remember the Shan state.

We flew out to Yangon as our last stop before Cambodia. Yangon is the antithesis of what we experienced in the other areas of Myanmar – it is flashy, congested with cars and people in more Western clothing, and cramped with stores of all calibers and restaurants of all types. We found out there was even a Yves Roche store somewhere in town! And people were selling everything you could think of on the streets, including remote controls in piles. We visited the Shwedagon Temple (a headliner pagoda for Buddhism), which was massive and golden, but we had seen so many temples by then on our adventures that we were not as excited as we could have been. Otherwise, we spent a lot of our time picking up last-minute souvenirs and eating Shan noodles before we left for other countries.

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