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Inle Lake Part Two – How Long Can you Tread Water? – Inle Lake, Mynamar

Inle Lake Part Two - How Long Can you Tread Water?
Inle Lake, Mynamar

At 7:30 a.m. the next morning I exited my room into the refreshingly the cool haze and walked through the gauntlet of jabbering lake guides and touts along the river to my arranged boat at the far end of town. I was mildly surprised upon arrival that my captain and guide wasn’t going to be the woman I met the day before, but her brother. Unlike the smiling, likeable woman, the brother was sour and serious, seemingly unhappy about the prospect of guiding a tourist around all day. He lightened up considerably when I engaged him in conversation, unleashing the full gamut of my Myanmar conversational phrases, and we were pals from there on out.

Inle Lake village
Inle Lake village
As we motored down the river out to the lake, I complimented myself on the resolution to forego the offer for the 6:00 a.m. sunrise tour in favor of more sleep. The haze on the lake was thick enough to spoon into my coffee, meaning an appreciable sunrise would have been a bust. The 7:30 a.m. first-light however was moody and wicked, allowing me to take countless, arty, silhouetted pictures of the fishermen laying out their nets from their tiny, dugout boats.

After thirty minutes of zooming down the river and then slashing across the lake, stilt houses amid a sea of lake vegetation and scattered bamboo pole markers materialized through the fog. As we got closer I could determine that these were actually, deteriorating dwellings in an abandoned “neighborhood” which had been mostly stripped of their useful components and the entire place was now just a skeletal ghost town of sorts. After skirting along the edge of the deteriorating settlement for several minutes, my captain executed a sudden sharp turn into a break in the vegetation and, after a minor delay to puree through a section of the canal that was being taken over by a thick, onion-like plant, we arrived at one of Inle Lake’s water villages.

The waterway “streets” were lined with surprisingly large, two and three story, longhouse-like dwellings. There were intermittent slivers of earthen walkways here and there and the odd rickety bridge traversing the waterway, but mostly it was just houses sitting over water. It was a Saturday morning, so things were pretty quiet. There were some kids hanging out windows shouting ‘hello’ at me and a few people were climbing into the family canoe to run errands. The roar of my motor boat was drawing plenty of curious faces to the windows of the houses, as the locals mostly relied on whisper quiet, environmentally friendly, thin dugouts which they either sat in and paddled or stood and propelled using circular strokes with long pole-oars like gondolas, but with a strange twist, where they wrapped one leg around the oar for leverage and power and then essentially rowed one handed, leaving one hand free to lay fishing net or smoke a cigarette.

After a perfunctory tour of the village, my captain jetted across more open water, down a narrow canal and finally stopped where the canal became choked with parked boats. He indicated that I was to get out and walk to the market, “25 minutes” away. There was about five minutes of confused back-and-forth between us following this development. Yes, I was to go tour the Saturday market. No, he would not be accompanying me. Yes, it was really a 25 minute walk in that (vaguely pointing) direction and - despite having a wide open view of the landscape and seeing nothing resembling a market all the way to the distant mountains - no I shouldn’t have any trouble finding it. I tentatively set out.

Mere steps from where I was dropped off, a go-getting woman was waiting for me with a folding table of cheap souvenirs. I started to worry that she might be just the first of an army of vendors camped out and waiting for me along the way and that perhaps the Saturday market was only a “market” in the sense that it was a place for tourists to be hassled into buying crappy knickknacks. Minutes later it started raining significantly. Fortunately, I’d had the brains to bring the cheap, ¾ length raincoat that I had picked up on Borneo for US$3 which stemmed the possibility of getting the US$1,000 worth of fragile digital camera and Palm Pilot in my day bag unnecessarily wet.

The meandering dirt road that was hopefully leading to a market of some kind was lonely and nearly deserted of people. Once in a while I’d encounter a wobbly old man or a giant wooden cart being pulled by two water buffalo and piloted by a couple kids under the age of 10, but otherwise it was just me and my imagination which was typically running wild about the possibility of me blundering into one of Myanmar’s no-foreigners-allowed areas and being tossed into the hoosgow. The road was bordered by wet and dry fields with the intermittent, far-flung house dotting the landscape, some featuring screaming and waving children hanging out the windows. There were no people and no signs confirming that I was heading in the right direction, but as my captain had promised neither were there serious forks or turns to deliberate on, so I could only assume I was still on the right track.

After twenty minutes I came to a canal with a wooden bridge solid enough to support a car and on the other side the Saturday market was going full bore. My worries of it being a thinly veiled tourist trinket bazaar were completely squashed. The place was about as touristy as East St. Louis at 2:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Even if I had wanted to buy something at this market, I had few choices as nearly everything on sale was some kind of basic staple; raw meat, vegetables, spices and produce, with only a few stalls selling manufactured goods like flip-flops, clothes, basic home necessities and cigarettes. One ambitious guy actually had a glass case on wheels, displaying cheap wristwatches. There were some permanent stalls set up on raised wooden platforms, under open thatched-roofed shelters, but there was an equal number of people who just staked off a spot for themselves on the open ground and laid their goods out in baskets or spread out on cloths and woven bamboo mats with tarps tented up to protect everything from the elements.

I was the only tourist there, which baffled me because back at the canal there were at least three other motor boats with tour company logos decorating the sides. Where the heck were those people? Hopefully they hadn’t bumbled into a forced labor camp and found themselves in spontaneous new careers. In any case, I relished the surreal feeling of being the only Pinkie in a mostly primitive market full of people who were going about the dutiful business of supplying their homes for the week. If you could look past the flip-flops, manufactured t-shirts and watches, the market was probably unchanged from what it had been hundreds of years ago. I stuck out like a 200 foot Reclining Buddha in the Christian Science World Headquarters parking lot. I tried my best to remain inconspicuous, quickly whipping my camera out for pictures of the action and then stowing it away again, but my gleaming, freshly shaved head, my clothes, not to mention my height - not even average by western standards - had me towering over everyone else, forcing me to walk under the temporary tarps stooped over like Yao Ming at a 7-11. As usual, adults were split between openly gawking at me or totally ignoring me, while kids and girls went ape-shit, yelling, giggling and trying to stealthily spy on me, until I would swing around and catch them in the act and they’d scream and scatter. At one point I had an entourage of about eight teenaged boys following me around, asking me basic questions, pondering my camera and transforming me from tourist into the main attraction.

At one end of the market there were a few lively games of chance going on, involving die the size of a soccer balls and a tic-tac-toe board with colored chips and different animals in each square. Fistfuls of tattered, dirty money were being passed around. I was still in the company of the gaggle of teenaged boys and I asked one of them if it would be OK to take a picture and I was flatly told that this would not be a good idea. I would learn later that gambling is among the long list of things that will get you thrown in the slammer forever in Myanmar and despite this happening in a very public place, no one wanted to risk being caught on film.

The market atmosphere was endlessly fascinating for me and I dearly wanted to hang out, but that would have meant cutting out another part of my Inle Lake itinerary. The walk back to the boat was enriched by the stream of people heading home in the same direction. I talked and laughed with many people, taking a few pictures and playing the oddity for small children which I embellished, making faces and ape noises as they squealed and ran for their mothers. I briefly stopped at a sorry looking, neglected pagoda on the way back to investigate its humble offerings and dazzle a few loitering kids with my digital camera.

My boat captain had done a little shopping in my absence. The boat was now half full of some exotic bundled wood. We motored off and started a comprehensive tour of Inle’s craft shops. First stop was the paper making shop. I was given a quick course on the paper making process before being led into the shop and presented with a complimentary thimble of tea which I sipped while watching a collection of women using the shops paper products to assemble hand fans, parasols, and umbrellas. I was then invited to peruse the well stocked souvenir shop, which I respectfully passed through, but purchased nothing.

Back at the boat, a few members of Inle’s “floating market” - women in canoes with souvenirs on display - had homed in on me and were laying in wait. I flirted with them for a few moments and then hopped in my boat and zoomed off.

Next stop was the silversmith. When I arrived, the six guys working in the shop leapt up from their food, drink and naps to return to their work benches where I observed and photographed them crafting miniscule components for silver jewelry and trinkets using rudimentary tools. I was presented with more tea and then steered yet again into the shop for a hard sell on their products. As always I had no intention of buying anything, particularly a soft, precious metal, that was going to take up space in my bags for another four months and probably get smooshed in the interim. I gulped down my tea and left quickly. The floating market had caught up with me while I was inside and tried to sell me the same things all over again, like I hadn’t just seen them 15 minutes earlier. Fortunately, as I was trying to brush them off another tour boat carrying four Germans arrived and I tiptoed off during the confusion.

My boat guy asked me if I was hungry and indeed I was. He took me to a stilt restaurant that had the looks of being an over-priced, tourist trap, slinging crap food, but I was heartened to see that the prices were virtually the same as the restaurants in Nyaungshwe. Even better the food was fantastic. I love theses little surprises about traveling in Asia. If I had been in a similarly remote, yet popular locale in Europe, you could bet your milk money that the food would have been barely edible and unabashedly three times the normal price, but this kind of blatant tourist buggering simply wasn’t happening in SE Asia. Even in a restaurant in the middle of a lake, high up in remote mountains that had to have what I assumed to be oodles of logistical problems in presenting clean, savory meals, the proprietors actually made a point of providing acceptable levels of service and quality, while not taking advantage of their near-captive audience and charging ludicrous prices.

As I ate my delicious plate of chicken and vegetables with cashews over rice and smiled and winked at the waitresses that slowed and gave me goofy smiles as they passed my table, I became aware of a single, particularly captivated admirer. A stunning young waitress had taken up position a few tables away from me, sitting sideways on a chair, with her arm and head resting on the back, shamelessly staring at me with longing eyes. Though I was finally becoming accustomed to the constant attention from women and girls and even finding ways to innocently and nonverbally flirt and delight them, this girl was giving me the most intense, laser-guided, conspicuous lust vibes I had yet experienced, including Bangkok (not counting lady-boy prostitutes). Whenever I caught her staring, she wouldn’t look away or break into an embarrassed giggle like most girls, she would simply brighten her smile and keep her eyes locked on me. She looked to be about 15 years old, but what with most people in this part of the world looking wonderfully youthful, I had to assume that she was probably in her early to mid twenties. She had beautiful brown eyes and the darker completion of someone who has done her share of outdoor work under the sun. Her medium length, dark hair was pulled back in a single braid and her only attempt at makeup was a layer of understated red lipstick on her full lips and the requisite smudge of sand wood powder on her cheeks. Though she was clearly a plain village girl doing the only work available to her, I couldn’t help but imagine how this girl’s natural beauty and pleasing demeanor would have likely vaulted her to the height of social popularity and in some cases professional success if she had been raised in virtually any western society. With my mouth full of food and the distance between us I couldn’t speak to her and it didn’t matter as she was soon yanked out of her trace by a managerial type person to wait on a table of recently arrived Pinkies.

Out for a drive
Out for a drive
Though she was now in action and being forced to function, I noted that her eyes were always back on me whenever possible. I finished my food, paid and left while she was still on task. When I walked around the front of the restaurant to get down to my boat, I took a quick peak in the window only to see her staring back, ignoring someone’s order.

As I jumped into my boat, a group of Myanmar women and girls arrived in a tour boat and started yelling to me in English. I slyly pulled out my camera and executed my now well practiced photo maneuver, telling them “min ayan le deh” (you are very beautiful) and when they shrieked and laughed, I took their picture. As my boat pulled away, I blew them a kiss and with the resulting crazed screams you’d have thought a naked Brad Pitt had just dropped out of the sky.

Sensing that I’d had my fill of being led through souvenir shops, my boat guy took me to the Lake’s only pagoda, Phaung Daw Oo Paya. For a pagoda in the middle of a mountain lake, it was indeed impressive, but unassuming and small by regular standards. In a grand departure from other pagodas, there was an unfriendly man sitting at a desk near the entrance demanding a photo fee. Though it was only 300 kyat (about 33 cents), I passed on principle and was not sorry about my decision once I was inside. It was quite nice, but not photo-fee worthy.

From there it was back on the crafts circuit. We stopped at a weaving shop that I actually really dug. Not only because they were doing it old school, with the giant, manual, foot-powered looms, which looked mind-bendingly difficult, but also because the clothes they were making were beautifully bright and sharp. I wasn’t sorry to be led into the shop this time as the stylish shirts and shocking affordable prices had me immediately abandoning my firm anti-souvenir attitude. I had my heart set on one of the traditional, Shan-style shirts, but the problem was they were all too big for me. It was confounding. Here I was the tallest and broadest person in the room, but due what I assumed to be the owners trying to target big, fat tourists, even their smallest shirts were draped on me, shoulder seams half way down my bicep, gapping sleeves big enough for a truck to drive through and a bottom hem long enough for me to go pantless without anyone being the wiser. I had put so much effort into browsing and admiring the colors that this size issue made the clerks and owners a little frantic to sell me something, anything. First they tried to convince me that the over-sized smalls didn’t look that big me and besides the half silk, half cotton blend would shrink a little in the wash, but I was firm. I wasn’t going to leave the shop with a shirt that made me look like I was at a Talking Heads “Stop Making Sense” theme night. Then they offered to custom make a shirt for me and have it sent to my hotel the next morning, but I was leaving on a bus for Mandalay that night, so that was out. Finally, someone emerged from a back room with a fiery blue, flamboyant shirt that had ‘party shirt’ written all over it. It fit well and while the intense blue was a little much for the eyes in daylight, I was sure it would make the ladies swoon at night. With my quirky taste in unusual colors and styles thoroughly tweaked, I bought the shirt for a mere US$7.

With everyone satisfied, I was escorted to my boat and jubilantly seen off by nearly every employee in the shop.

My soaring mood crash-landed at the next stop, the Lake’s hand-rolled cigar shop. The rollers were entirely made up of adolescent girls. I was served tea and had to admit seconds later that I didn’t smoke, so the sales pitch was thankfully dropped, which left me to talk to the girls and take pictures. All but one of the girls was between 14 and 16 years old, the odd women out being in her early 20s. They rolled the cigars with basic tools with a deftness that allowed them to virtually never look down at their work, leaving them free to chat and eyeball the Pinkies. Using a fresh leaf as the vessel to hold the ingredients together, they threw a dash of tobacco in, rolled it, inserted a filter made of bamboo and glued the leaf closed with sticky rice goo. I was told that the girls could roll 100 cigars an hour, producing an average of 1,000 cigars a day. It took a second for me to lock onto these numbers and then do the math backwards, but I eventually realized that they were working 10 hour days, meaning they were clearly not in school. I decided to save the pompous “why aren’t they in school?” line of questioning for when I was with someone with a better command of English and not directly profiting from the work of out-of-school youth. The girls’ pay is 20% of what they produce, so if they crank out 1,000 cigars, they take home 200, which they in turn have to go sell at the market during their fleeting free time in order to make actual cash. Apparently these cigars are only smoked by people in rural regions. City people prefer manufactured cigarettes, considering the leaf cigars as unrefined and strictly for country folk. As far as child labor goes, I suppose this was pretty benign, but it was still crushing to see firsthand. Rather than causing a scene and handing out enough 1,000 kyat notes to the girls so they could buy the shop and put the owners to work, I downed my tea and left.

My last artisan stop was at the blacksmith. I was in a sour mood and I had long since filled my daily quota of overbearing hard sells, so I didn’t spend much time here. I took pictures of the impressive coordination of four men sledgehammering a single, red hot piece of metal with machine gun rhythm, which was being formed into a short, machete-like blade. The shop mostly had weapons, shields and gongs on display, with a few shelves devoted to statuettes of various Buddhist images. After cautiously playing with a few of the more threatening blades, I thanked them and left.

From here, I was taken on a wandering but fascinating tour of the wet tomato fields. Some people were tending the plants from the edge of their dugouts while others were standing in waist deep water. There were yet more people trolling back and forth in larger dugouts, dragging the water and pull out some kind of nasty looking, snarled weeds. I got the feeling from watching this that these people probably had to deal with more mud, gunk and moisture invading their lives and homes than probably anyone else in the world. I fell into a daydream where I imagined that each home had a decontamination zone just inside the front door where everyone had to strip down, deposit their muddy cloths into an air tight, contaminant safe-box, then get sprayed down from head to toe by a fire hose and blow dried before finally being allowed to enter the house. At least that’s how it would work if it were my house.

The last stop of the day was thankfully a little more of a cultural oh-wowing, the Nga Phe Kyaung (A.K.A. Jumping Cat Monastery). This ancient monastery doesn’t look like much from the outside - indeed it looks like a bunch of interconnected, abandoned shacks - but the interior reeks of primeval holiness. It also reeks of cat piss. It ain’t called the Jumping Cat Monastery for nothin’. There are cats everywhere and I took note that not a single one of them was jumping or even walking around in a spirited way for that matter. In fact they all seemed to be stoned on incense, as they were all bizarrely curled up on the floor in the exact same catatonic - could lazy cats be the origin of this word? Anyone? - position on the floor, unmoving even when people tried to pet or prod them. The only other tourists in the monastery was an English family, though their precocious daughter took time out from entertaining a monk to inform me that they were in fact from Hong Kong.

The souvenir girls outside the monastery had a field day flirting with me and joking about my bald head. One girl playful tried to sell me a hair pin. It was at this point that I realized that I might be the only shaved headed, non-monk in Myanmar. I briefly flashed on the entertainment value of switching clothes with a monk for one day, filming me walking around town and then sending the tape to “Myanmar’s Funniest, Decidedly Non-Democratic and Non-Government Criticizing Home Videos.” I sealed my legendary status with the girls by assaulting them with my artillery of basic Myanmar phrases before jumping back into my boat.

Inle Lake, indeed Myanmar in general, was turning out to be much more intense than I had imagined. I was being battered at high speed by strong emotions and strange urges all day long. Among other things, in just the past seven hours I’d wanted to live in the market town, apprentice in the silver shop, rescue one of the 14-year-old girls at the cigar shop, marry the gorgeous waitress and study at the monastery (being a devout non-believer of all forms of religion, this impulse was more to experience the monk way of life than attain any level of spirituality). I have an unpleasant history of swinging through acute mood oscillations, particularly when I’m mentally fatigued and Myanmar was definitely pushing my buttons in this regard. And I was only half way through it.

I hadn’t bothered to look at my watch since lunch, so I was devastated to see now that it was already after 4:00 p.m. I grunted, flapping my arms like a startled pigeon and in full blown tizzy mode I reminded my boat guy that I should have been back in Nuangshwe already and why hadn’t he taken me back sooner? Apparently there had been a bit of a miscommunication, he’d screwed up what time I wanted to be back (4:00) with the time that I had offhandedly mention that I needed to be at the pickup truck departure point (4:45). My bad for offering too much information and now I was screwed. Nuangshwe was a good 30 minute ride away and even if we went full bore, there was no way I would have enough time to retrieve my bags, settle with the hotel, pry my ticket out of Mr. China and make it to the last pickup truck leaving for Shwenyaung Junction. I had no choice but to get a ride with Mr. China.

We motored back to Nuangshwe. Since I was hosed anyway, I had the boat guy slow down repeatedly to take some of the same pictures of fishermen that I had taken on the way out that morning, but with the benefit of better lighting. I got one last mind-f*ck out of the day while we were heading up river to the jetty. I was preoccupied with something on the right hand side of the boat (probably girls) when my captain suddenly slowed down. Knowing that he only did this when there was something cool to look at I whipped my head around only to see a little boy that appeared to be standing on water. Did a double take and discovered upon closer examination that he was in fact standing on an almost fully immerse water buffalo that was either walking or swimming up the river. It was one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen. He was standing on its back, holding onto the buffalos nose ring rope, surfing along like a horseback circus performer. I took many pictures before returning my gaze forward only to see another boy sitting in a dugout and driving along a small, single file herd of water buffalo up the river in a surprisingly orderly fashion. Just as I was marveling at how docile these things were, the head buffalo decided he was going to head out on shore and have a snack in the tall grass. The buffalo behind him, followed suit and so on. The boy in the boat started yelling helplessly and another boy on shore came racing out of a house to shoo the beasts back into the water before they ate all his family’s grass. It was a well-timed laugh.

Cigar making
Cigar making
When I got to the hotel Mr. China and one of his cronies was waiting for me. Since a throw down right there in the lobby would have been socially uncool and possibly resulted in me losing my only ride to the Junction, I held my tongue until we were practically at the Junction. I started out by asking him about the discrepancy in the price of the bus ticket. He countered saying that the price I had gotten was for a different company and that my more expensive ticket was on a better bus. Then I unloaded on him in quick succession over his inflated boat tour price, his bum-rushing me into the more expensive hotel and the seemingly over-priced taxi ride into town when I first arrived. By now we were at the Junction, so I closed the show on his non-stop theater of lies with a flourish by going after him about his supposed name. I had him on his heels, he was stuttering and making lame excuses. Finally, sensing all else was lost, he locked onto the bus ticket issue, swearing that he had not padded it. Having caught him at a half dozen lies already I wasn’t in the mood for this. I told him that in lieu of his actions that I was only going to give him 2,000 kyat for the ride to the junction, take it or leave. He whined that 2,00 wouldn’t pay for the gas, but again I was convinced that he was a sorry liar and I had no sympathy. He finally accepted when I mentioned that I would talk to the MTT (Myanmar Travel and Tours, the gummet’s tourist arm) office about him. He relented took the money, and asserted one last time in his defense that I go to the bus office and check the price of the ticket.

With him out of my hair, I sat down at the café in front of the bus stop, ordered a meal and took out my book to pass the 90 minutes I had to wait for my bus. After an interval of calming down I decided to wander over to the phone booth-sized shack that functioned as the bus ticketing office to check the price of the ticket. When I asked the woman she hesitated for a second, narrowed her eyes and said “6,000 kyat,” the price Mr. China had charged me. So, I was left with three possibilities; either Mr. China had gotten her in on the plot while I wasn’t looking, she herself was padding the price for a little payday at my expense or Mr. China wasn’t lying for once. My terminal and often ass-biting desire to want to believe people are being honest whenever possible ate at me and I finally resolved that perhaps Mr. China had not lied about this one detail. As if on cue, the man himself strolled past the restaurant and I ran out to tell him I had confirmed the bus ticket price. I apologized about chastising him in that regard, while reiterating that I still wasn’t too happy about the rest of his scams and it would behoove him to take a slightly less predatory approach to his future clients to avoid similar confrontations. Finally feeling at peace I ate my dinner and eventually boarded my over-night bus to Mandalay.

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