Tuesday, 5 February 2013

A cruise on the Inle Lake

Mr Aung Wyn is 62 years old. For the last 40 years he’s been a boat driver on the famous Inle Lake.

-20 years I worked for the government – he says – but didn’t like it. They didn’t pay enough. For the last 22 years I have been working for myself – he adds with pride.
He now employs his young nephew to help him out, so he can also enjoy the cruise around the Lake and focus more on the tourists he takes onboard.

He promised me that today we will go to a less known place on the Lake.

-It’s very poor there. They don’t have much, but it’s nice. You will like it – he informs me, while sitting down just behind my back and wrapping himself with a blanket.

It’s 7 am and the sun is rising above the water, throwing orange and yellow light. There is still mist around and the air is really cold.
 We slow down near the fishermen, who are already working. The Inle Lake is famous mainly because of them. They stand on the top edge of their boat and wrap their leg around a paddle, so the weight of their body is balanced on the other leg. In that way they can work with both of their hands. For a second or so we look at each other. They smile at me and shout ‘Mingelaba’ (hello in Burmese), so I feel a bit better with pointing my camera at them and taking some shots.

There are less and less fishermen around Inle Lake. There is not much rain in the area these days, the water becomes shallower every year, and the fish are almost gone. It is better and more profitable for the locals to focus on the tourists. The question is: if there is less of these famous fishermen, and more boat trips companies, will the tourist be coming back, and locals earn enough money to live?
-The government doesn’t care – says Mr Wyn – as long as they earn their bit, they don’t want to invest.

We carry on and speed up a bit. I’m taking my surroundings in. The Lake seems endless. It’s more like a sea or an ocean. There are lilies and other green plants growing on the water. From time to time we can see a fisherman’s silhouette from a distance.

We stop at a silver jewelry factory. A tiny Burmese girl welcomes us with a cup of green tea. Mr Wyn explains that the silver here is genuine and all of the products are hand-made. He warns me not to buy anything from the women that sell similar things from their boats on the Lake as they are not real and very expensive.
He then takes us inside the bamboo hut, where 2 men are working on small silver bowls. The girl shows us how they melt the material and what sort of products they can make. There are tiny chains, which take 4 days to make, earrings, bracelets and bowls with detailed ornaments of peacocks and plants.

Behind the hut there is the famous floating market, which today is not floating….
-Not enough water – says Mr Wyn, shrugs his shoulders and proceeds to walk around the stalls, explaining which of the sellers are from which tribes, and which products are, in his opinion, genuine.

We finally stop in a corner to look around. It seems like you can buy everything here: the antique-like mini statues of Buddha are displayed next to colourful fabrics, women wearing pink scarves on their heads are bargaining with another lady selling rice and chilli peppers, and some tourists next to them are interrupting the exchange with their long lensed cameras. The place is buzzying with life. It seems like this small space is filled up and will burst in a minute. And all of this is filled with a distinct smell of fish. I turn around and there is a family of 5 sitting on a ground, around a small blanket where they are proudly displaying a dozen or so small fish. Next to them sits a man with yellow coloured eels, which are still alive. They move on the ground, trying to escape. From time to time the man is gently putting them back in their place.

 We’re back in the boat and swimming towards the south. On our way we pass villages, where people lead normal, undisturbed lives. The more south we go, the more attention we get. People come out of their huts and shout ‘hello’, they bring their children out to wave us good-bye. I feel a bit like a movie star.

Then we stop at a weaving factory, which is another complex of bamboo huts. Here some of the most finest materials are made. Mr Wyn shows us a lotus flower plantation, a little bit further, behind the hut, and explains that some of the clothes the factory makes is made out of it. I have never heard about lotus flower clothes and when I touch a piece of a scarf I am surprised by the quality and softness of it. I imagine that wearing a dress made out of it, must be a little like wearing a piece of heaven.
-I have a coat made of it – says Mr Wyn – It is good for your heart and liver.
He can’t actually explain how the lotus influences your health, but maybe there is some sort of truth in it.
We enter the ‘factory’. There is a big room, where older ladies weave the fabrics on very old machines. The clocking sound can be heard from a distance away. There is of course a shop with some of the products and I can’t help but buy a scarf. It’s made out of cotton, but it’s beautiful nevertheless.

It is early afternoon and the sky is crystal blue. It is slightly warmer, but when we sail through the Lake I feel chilly.
We enter an area where there are more and more green plants on the Lake. When we pass, a big white bird lifts from it. There are no boats around and when the driver finally switches the engine off, it is so quiet that I can hear my own heartbeat. I look around and realise that we just reached a shore. I jump out and notice that a few people appeared from behind a corner. They look at me and smile. They exchange some words with Mr Wyn and he leads me to a small shed, a few yards away. There is a kitchen, where a woman is cooking something in a big pot, over a charcoal grill. Her children and husband are sitting at a table. Mr Wyn asks me to sit opposite them and we look each other up. The woman brings two plates. One is filled with something, which looks like asymmetrical biscuits, cooked in a deep oil. The other contains what I think is ketchup.
-Here, eat! – orders Mr Wyn.

I don’t have a choice, I take one and dip it in the sauce. It tastes like deep fried vegetarian chicken nuggets, with some beans. I’m told that it is minced barley with red beans and corn – a very popular snack in Myanmar. While I enjoy the filling food, Mr Wyn informs me.

-This area is very poor. They don’t have schools here. There is only one school for this part of the Lake. None of the children has gone to the university. They mostly finish 4 or 5 classes and then they come back to the village to help their parents in the field. In this village there is now drinking water. I think some charity has built a well recently.

We finish our snack and Mr Wyn is taking me to the village to visit one of the families. We climb a bamboo ladder and sit cross legged on the floor. I am shown to the kitchen and bedroom – all very clean and tidy. I am told that this family is quite well-off as they make pots and sell them at markets. 
We drink tea and chat about Burmese politics. Mr Wyn openly critises the government and tell of his dislike of USA and China. Then suddenly he starts talking about snakes and tigers, living in the mountains. He seems to be enjoying my curiosity and attention, while the hosts are sitting next to him quietly. Throughout my visit they haven’t uttered a word and Mr Wyn confirms my suspicion that they don’t know any English at all. I thank them for their hospitality and we make our way out.

Mr Wyn takes me for lunch in one of the restaurants, built on water. The view from here is magnificent and I enjoy watching boats, full of monks, passing us by. Mr Wyn brings a big bottle of rice whiskey and pours it in a small cup for me. I try a little bit and wince – this is strong stuff, even for a Pole.

The day is getting to a close, so we drive through the floating gardens, where on the water people grow vegetables and plants. The garden is not in bloom at the moment, so the horizon is green with its leaves.

We then stop at the jumping cats monastery. The monks are not to be seen, but there are cats around. Mr Wyn organizes his own show and makes one of the cats to jump through his folded arms. A few tourists that witness it clap with amazement. Mr Wyn seems pleased that he’s got audience and repeats the trick.

The monastery makes a great impression on me. It is made out of dark wood, and the inside is very cool. There is a little bit of light streaming through the windows and door. There are impressive Buddha statues around it. Mr Wyn tells me that all of them are cleverly done: despite the size, they are very light so they can be carried on water easily. He walks up to one of the images and shakes it to prove that it is indeed as light as a feather.

The day is almost over now. We make our way to the harbour and we witness a little bit of the sun setting over the water. I have been to many places, I have seen many lakes, but I think this is one of the most beautiful places I have seen so far. A little artists wakes up in me and I think that if I had a talent, I would like to paint this Lake in a different light, at a different time of day. 

It costs around 130.000 Kyat to rent a boat with a guide. It is best and cheapest to share it with 4 or 3 other people.
The boats can be hired from one of the many tourist offices, or directly from the boatman, who sell their services on the street. 
Make sure that your guide speaks a good English, as not all of them do.
If you would like a customised trip, ask the boatman to take you to the far south or far north of the Lake as well as to the usual tourist spots. 
Have a wonderful trip!


  1. Hi Jo! I've still been making my through your blog. I mentioned before I'm not a huge fan of Southeast Asia. I just love your story. But, I stopped at this one. Your pic of the gentlemen in the hat is captivating. I'm always curious when you mention food and cleanliness and health. Because you did this and had to eat! :)

    1. haha yes, I didn't have a choice. Actually, that snack made me sick later on at night. Well, I think it was the snack. I had so much green tea there and not sure where the water came from and how clean it was, but I'm pretty sure that the snack made me sick.
      However, it didn't make me stop trying out things I don't know. I love food and experiencing different forms and shapes of it makes the whole travel experience so worth it.