Inle Lake and Bagan
Inle Lake was one of the highlights of the trip for us. Every morning we were picked up from our riverside guesthouse in a narrow wooden fishing boat, with the loudest two-stroke engine, which sounded like an industrial lawnmower. It wasn’t just the noise pollution that was alarming. Unfortunately, the black, arid exhaust will eventually spoil the region, if an affordable alternatives can not be found.
After weeks of rain the lake was the colour of chocolate, darkened by the looming clouds overhead. But when it poured, we simply put up an umbrella and hunkered down. In sunshine the lake was a feast for the eyes.
The lake was dotted with traditional fishing boats, modernised to suit the influx of tourists, with seats, cushions and outboard motors spraying water in an enthusiastic fashion, disturbing the bygone peace of fishermen. Sometimes the boats carried families ferrying supplies to their stilted villages in the middle of the lake, or tomatoes from their floating gardens. The stilted houses, with patterns rush mat walls and washing hanging under the eaves, even use of advertising hoarding as building materials (Myanmar beer, Myanmar rum).
It’s the watery way of life that people come to see, and it does seem a little voyeuristic. On one hand this is a chance to see traditional life before it gets swallowed up by the modern world.
On the other hand tourism itself is changing traditions.
The lotus flower is of particular importance to the local people. Many different kinds are grown at Inle, including the Kyar Padonmar lotus, considered to be a holy flower. More than 150 years ago the art of making thread from the stem of the lotus flower was developed. It’s a time consuming process involving the thread being extracted, spun and woven by hand on a traditional handloom
There are several hand weaving centres you can visit in the stilted houses, along with traditional boatyards, cheroot cigar rolling shops, and blacksmiths, all in the middle of the lake.
In several weaving centres you can visit the Kayan long necked women, and for a dollar pay for a photograph. Whether the tradition is being kept alive for tourists or tourists keep the tradition alive is something your conscious has to decide.
Surrounding the villages fisherman crouch in their boats mending nets, or row and throw nets with their feet. It’s a strange display of skill, creating some picturesque tableaus set against the rolling green hills.
Bagan has a romantic and mystical magnetic pull, so it’s hardly surprising that it’s becoming a popular tourist destination. Siem Reap, in Cambodia, is well known and liked, but Bagan can hold it’s own in a fight.
Hundreds of brick stupas rise up through the dense undergrowth, shrouded in mist and golden light at dusk. The glints of gold can be seen far afield, fading into silhouettes at sunset.
What you can see today is only an impressive fraction of survivors from the 1975 earthquake. Some have been renovated. Some have been left as rubble, a reminder of the disaster. Some have been reclaimed by the jungle.
Once you’ve been saturated by 12th century frescos and 20ft Buddhas, you’ll probably wish to see some of the local crafts. The traditional black laquerware is impressive, but the sweatshop of young girls and boys etching boxes and bowls, may make you feel uncomfortable. Some designs take up to five months to complete.
Myanmar is on a cusp of something new. The frontiers are being opened up and international commerce is taking note of the opportunities presented by cheap labour. Westernisation will obviously change traditional Burmese life forever. The average man dislikes change, however, and for a while it will still be possible to see woven rattan single room huts (with satellite dishes), next door to brick stupas. The streets will still be thronging with hoards of mopeds, often carrying entire families. It’s not unusual to see a baby asleep on mother's lap as she sits sidesaddle.
Hotels: The accommodation, while not always up to international standards in terms of facilities, was always clean and we were well looked after.
Transport: Travelling around Myanmar on your own is tricky. The roads have their own unique set of rules, which makes hiring a car a daunting prospect. To cover the ground we did, you also need to take some internal flights. If you think public transport might be the way to go, there is very little, and even if you can find a bus, you might not be able to work out how the system works, given they don’t run to a strict timetable.
To read part 1 about Yagoon and Kalaw, click here.