Monday, 22 February 2010

A Day on Inle Lake

This is what we had been waiting for, and not only that; it has been the highlight dream during the planning of our Southeast Asian expedition. After having a substantial breakfast, we strolled eagerly to meet our guide who was waiting at half-past ten near the jetty, as arranged. “Mingalabar!”, we exclaimed as we greeted him in Burmese.
The single most wonderful thing about the people of Myanmar is that they are so appreciative of foreigners greeting them in Burmese. It seems to put smiles on their faces and they almost always respond with “Mingalabar”, but it a very enthusiastic tone.
We stopped quickly to pick up some bottled water to avoid dehydration and mounted the long, thin boat, which was wooden with an engine at the back that provided power for the propeller. Due to the fact that it is currently the dry season in Myanmar, Inle Lake and the canals surrounding this body are all relatively shallow, meaning that it is fairly common to see the propellers half out of the water at the moment. For the same reason, it didn’t go unnoticed that traditional working families were using oars, not for paddling, but for pushing against the bed of the lake to move their boat forward.
As we were released into the vast openness of the still lake, we stared at the incredible fishermen doing what they do best. It was all very mysterious because, from a distance, the fishermen appeared as silhouettes that were backlit by the morning sun. They seemed to row their boats in a very unique manor in that they were standing on the very front of their boats with one foot, whereas their other foot was pushing a large oar behind. As a silhouette, it fairly accurately resembled Long John Silver with his wooden leg! The fishermen also took a large bell-shaped net aboard each of their wooden boats to aid their catch. In order to catch fish, the fundamental importance appears to be rowing whilst stood because it allows the fishermen to glance into the lake’s clear water in search of fish. Then they place their net in the water and beat their oars on the surface of the lake, which disturbs the fish so that they frantically swim into the centre of the net where they are speared by the watchful eye of the captain. We couldn’t help but watch in amazement on a fishing technique that is so different to what we know.
We proceeded alongside floating clusters of hyacinths here and there and gazed upward to see that we were being followed every so often by swallows, herons, and cormorants. This was wilderness! Our first stop was at the Nampan Market, a considerably busy market given the fairly small population around Inle. As our boat pulled up to the side of the lake, we resisted the temptation of buying some useless junk from two women rowing their boat straight for us. We clambered across two other boats that had moored up already so that we could get our dry selves on land without falling into the water. At first sight, there were some souvenir stalls for the tourists, but exploring deeper resulted in a very rewarding experience of the real life of Shan people. We stopped for tea and coffee at one of the stalls, as well as snacking on vegetable samosas, chapatis and sweet spring rolls. We were also able to observe of the daily market trading of local produce, from axes and woks to chillies and even medicines. The market was an organised chaos of low-hanging tarpaulin canopies, dusty pathways and merry people shouting to one another. It was a fun environment to be in!
Alas we couldn’t stay in the market all day, but it was all very exciting because we were about to embark on another interesting experience. We were taken to a small complex of wooden houses that were supported above the lake with long, wooden stilts. On entering the buildings we watched women who were weaving wonderful works with warp and weft. One elderly lady was sitting on alone on the floor snapping lotus stalks, in order to collect the very fine fibres from within. The fibres were rolled together to make a single thicker aggregation, similar to string and this was wound around a reel for storage until further use. Lotus fibres weren’t the only materials being used in this textile workshop, but cotton and silk were also aplenty. We observed a room full of ladies seated at their complicated-looking weaving machines. Thread was set up in several vertical and horizontal assemblages within a large wooden framework that was mostly controlled by four foot pedals. Rhythmic knocking sounds of the small wooden blocks carrying the thread seemed to be helping the weavers keep consistently efficient. On the way out we had a look at some of the finished products and it certainly was incredible to realise that they had produced beautiful, delicate scarves, shirts, and trousers to name a few, all from scratch: from the stage of picking the lotus plants, or collecting the cotton.
After taking in these incredible works, it was time to relax with a cigar, though this was the last thing we expected. We crossed to another section of the lake and entered another suspended house where there were a few young ladies inside making cigars of all sizes. These women had tobacco ready to be wrapped up in decent sized leaves to make the bulk, but they didn’t forget to include the filters, which were made using leaves of maize that were wrapped into tight coils. We were offered some sweet rice crackers and a small cigar that had been made in this very place. The cigar was good but we preferred the rice crackers!
After a quick stop at a floating restaurant for noodle and egg soup, we carried on to see something that we really wanted to see. The boat pulled up beside a small, rickety pier and we walked up to this wooden shop. But inside were tribal Burmese women who had maintained a tradition of wearing large, heavy coils around their necks. These women had been wearing these golden coils since the age of nine years old and have been able to extend the length of the coil over many years as the coils caused their shoulders to be pushed permanently downwards. These coils are never removed because without these, there isn’t enough muscle development to support the vast length of the neck. Without the coils, their necks would simply snap.
It was time for the final highlight of the day: the jumping cats. To see these, we had to visit the monastery of Nga Phe Kyaung, where we moored the boat, took off our shoes in respect, and approached the feline curiosities. They jumped.

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