Visiting Inle Lake has been kind of surreal. I did little research on this location before arriving and most people who visited described it as “touristy.” By Myanmar standards, it is. In Yangon, I maybe saw one other tourist a day. In Bagan, there were plenty of tourists, but with a playground of temples to see (over 3,000) you could go hours without running into anyone else. So yes, Inle Lake is “touristy” in comparison. Regardless, arriving here was almost indescribable. Almost. I actually looked around and said “Wow. This is my life,” with a giant grin on my face. So what was it about this place that won me over?
My friend Emmy and I decided to rent a boat for the day since it’s the only way to really get around. We stopped in Mr. A Tun’s tours and scheduled a boat from sunrise to sunset (literally). It cost us each a whopping $7.00 ($8.00 if you include the tip).
Our guide didn’t speak much English so our ride started off with a bit of confusion. My mantra for Myanmar has become “When we get there we get there, and I don’t know where there is, but I’m sure it will be worth it.” If I stick with this attitude, then everything seems to work out and I don’t get stressed. Trying to stick to any kind of schedule in Myanmar is laughable. It’s like trying to hold onto a live fish in water. It’s just not going to happen.
Our boat took off at 6:30am with the engine making too much noise in the otherwise quiet morning. The sun was still behind the mountains as if it were too lazy to get out of bed. A feeling I could relate to. As we picked up speed, a continuous spray of mist settled upon my face. I pulled a blanket over me and snuggled up for the ride ahead. The blast of wind hitting me gave the illusion of fresh air. Something I’d deeply missed over the last month. Suddenly the pollution seemed almost non existent.
The Famous Fishermen
Our boat slowed, and the engine was cut off as we approached the famous fishermen of Inle Lake. I’d seen so many photos of them before, but seeing them in real life was different. The way they fish here is like a dance. The men teeter on the edge of their boats while balancing on one leg. Their other leg rows an oar and they cast their nets into the clear water. All without breaking a sweat. It’s mind boggling and beautiful all at once. I wish there was a tour that let you try this in shallow water. I’d be the first one to sign up! I’d also be the first to fall in.
The only downside of the famous fishermen is that the men who are dressed up are really just for show. They hold the old school fishing nets and wear fancy hats and pose for cameras. It’s actually the less elaborate ones who are really fishing. At sunrise, we got hit up by a “street performer” (yes in the middle of a lake) who was posing for photos and then asking for money after you’d already taken them. It left a bad taste in my mouth knowing that we’d been scammed before the sun was even up.
Silver Jewelry Studio
Our boat began to dock at a random building on stilts. We got off the boat and discovered it was a jewelry studio. We received a free tour explaining how all of the jewelry is made. Of course, at the end, they want you to buy something. I could see some tourists getting a bit frustrated by this strategy that left them feeling guilted into a purchase. I decided to embrace it and buy really cool souvenirs for my family. It’s nice to be able to add a personal story to each gift and show pictures. Needless to say everyone is getting a gift from Inle Lake this Christmas.
The Floating Villages
After the silver shop, we made a detour through a floating village. We found ourselves surrounded by homes built on stilts. None were connected to land or even to each other. Each stood alone reflecting in the calm, crystal clear water. It appeared as if we were gliding across a mirror instead of a lake. People were on their docks preparing for the day ahead. Washing up in the water or doing laundry in front of their homes. A sneak peek into their private lives. In some parts of South East Asia, people who live in floating villages have never even stepped foot on land. An idea that astounded me.
Five Day Market
After another half hour, the air began to warm and the breeze coming off the water wasn’t as harsh. We approached the five day market which moves around each day of the week. Each day seems to have a different specialty item for sale. However, I could be totally wrong here because no one could actually explain it to us in more than five words of English. It sounds frustrating, but it’s one of the more charming parts of Myanmar. I actually love the language barrier because it leaves so many unanswered questions. Like why they have eight days of the week (Wednesday is two days). Or why the steering wheel in cars is on the right but they also drive on the right. It’s like Myanmar is playing hard to get and adding a little mystic to keep you interested.
We went to the market on Sunday, and it appeared to be wood day. Boats floated past us filled to the brim with logs. I was surprised such small boats could carry so much weight. We opted to walk around the farmers market section which included touristy items as well. I’d learned early on to never pass up a fresh made “pancake.” We saw a woman selling the doughy version which tasted like a mix between a croissant and a crepe with sugar thrown on top. We purchased one each without hesitation and relished in the yummy treat. I pictured them for sale in the U.S. under some crazy name like a “crepsant.”
It’s worth noting that people here are extremely eager to sell their wares and encourage bargaining. At 8:00am some people were already packing up and desperate to sell a few more items. I managed to buy a Buddha mask that was $48 for $18. Thanks mom and dad for teaching me to negotiate at flea markets.
Hand Weaving Studio
After leaving the market, we pulled into a well maintained building while our driver said “weaving.” We walked in and found a woman sitting on the floor breaking lotus flower stems in half to make thread. It was incredibly tedious and time consuming. I learned that it takes 4,000 stems just to make one scarf, and lotus scarf (understandably) costs more than silk. In Inle Lake, one costs $300. In the U.S. this same scarf would probably cost over $1,000 easily. We toured the rest of the “factory” where women wove scarves of lotus, cotton, and silk on giant looms.
On the way out, I waved to our driver who was sitting with the other drivers gambling and having a cigar. He looked so startled to see me that he threw the dice at his friends, tossed his cigar over his shoulder (into the lake), and stood up perfectly straight with a smile. I burst out laughing after seeing his “I’ve been caught” face. He then said “tobacco shop?” and we laughed and nodded that we would go there next.
Finally, a place I wouldn’t buy something. That thought lasted about five seconds until I saw they had flavored cigars. I have to say, as someone who doesn’t smoke, a hand rolled banana cigar is pretty good. We watched the women make each one by hand as a guide explained the process. She showed us every step down to the sticky rice paste that glued it shut.
“Long Neck Village”
We moved onto the long neck village which was just three women sitting and posing for photos. I had wanted to see them in Thailand where they originated but have been told it’s not a real village. The women used to wear the rings as protection from wild animals as tiger attacks were common. If an animal lunged at their throats, the metal saved their lives. Today, younger women wear them for tourism to make money for their tribes, which has been debated as being unethical. A full set of rings weighs about 20 lbs and is in three separate sections. Unfortunately, no one could explain to me how they get the tight coil on.
Our boat pulled to the side of the lake and was surrounded by rows of greenery. The floating gardens are where locals grow an abundance of food. I wish there was a tour within the gardens where you can learn how they grow things. From a distance we saw tomatoes, eggplant, squash, and tons and tons of watercress. Watercress seems to grow like weeds on the lake. Emmy and I stopped our boat to grab some to see how it floats. We were successful in not flipping our boat over. While we were stopped, we had an impromptu photo shoot. Our driver seemed amused as we walked all over his boat. I don’t think many tourists dare stand up once inside.
Jumping Cat and Five Buddha Images
At some point in the day we went to two monasteries. One was named “Jumping Cat” which left a lot to the imagination. Arriving there was a bit of a let down as the only cat was laying belly up snoozing in the sun. The second temple had five gold blobs in the center. People seemed to be very impressed but our lack of a guide left us clueless. Later, we checked Lonely Planet to discover that the five blobs used to be Buddha statues. People purchase gold leaf to put on the Buddha’s but over time so many layers were added that you couldn’t tell what the statues were anymore.
The Wooden Bridge
Our last stop was the wooden bridge where we had to kill 2 hours before sunset. Slightly dilapidated, each step left you wondering if you’d fall right in. A theme with Myanmar bridges. We decided it was best that we grab some snacks. I opted for a banana pancake (crepe) and a pineapple lassi. Emmy got a chocolate pancake and strawberry juice. We hung out in a hut over the water and enjoyed the peace and quiet.
We got back on the boat in time for the sunset. Our driver drove us into some weeds in the middle of the lake so our boat wouldn’t drift. The light reflected off the lake in brilliant colors. It was as if the entire sky had caught fire. As the sun lowered itself behind the mountains, we realized what a perfect day it was. No one rushed us. There was no schedule. Half the time we had no idea what we would be seeing, and yet it all worked out in the end. It was the most perfect day I’ve had on this trip.
This post originally appeared on www.fulltimeexplorer.com