Life among the pagodas
Up until this year, we hadn’t really traveled much throughout Myanmar. Other than living in Yangon and Jim’s time living in Rakhine state, most backpackers have seen more of Myanmar than we have. So when a friend from the US made plans to visit us, we thought it would be a perfect excuse to see some more of this wonderful country, in this case, Inle Lake in Shan State. Unfortunately, our friend had to postpone his trip at the last minute and was unable to join us. Since we had already made plans to go and had several local friends joining us, we went anyway, and it was wonderful.
We planned to take part of the trip by train, just to see what it was like. By the time we were able to buy our train tickets, the only seats available were either private bunk rooms for 4 people, or ordinary class benches. Seeing as the ordinary class benches cost about $3 per seat and meant that we wouldn’t have to split up our group, we opted for that. Let me tell you, you get what you pay for.
The train departed Yangon at 5 pm, and was slated to arrive in Thazi, the midpoint of our journey, at 5 am the next morning. We really enjoy trains, but this journey really tested our love of train travel. Had it been a daytime train and we could enjoy the scenery and not miss an entire night’s sleep, it probably would have been a completely different experience. There were still some things to enjoy, particularly the food vendors who boarded the train at each stop, hawking local snacks, such as boiled eggs, rice cakes, fermented bamboo shoots, or prepared meals such as rice and duck egg curries. Some vendors carried a veritable 7-11 in a basket, selling everything from nail clippers and tissues to menthol lozenges and cigarettes.
The main marvel of the night train ride, however, was its passengers’ capacity for sleep. The benches were hard and the train bounced and jerked so much that it seemed to be going up and down nearly as much as it was going forward. (I don’t even think paying extra for a sleeper car would be of much good, since the odds of being jostled out of the bunk are too high.) Even the train’s toilet, which was a squatting toilet, had a bar for gripping while you went, and it was absolutely necessary to use this to keep from slipping into the toilet. And yet all this motion did not prevent most of the passengers from sleeping, some upright, some on old newspapers spread across the floor, some tangled up on each other’s laps, and most of them remarkably impervious to the bouncing of the train. Every time I travel here, I admire the people of this country all the more.
[Lena actually slept for most of the train ride–hooray!]
At five, we arrived in Thazi, found some breakfast, then boarded a van headed for Inle Lake. We had originally planned to take another train from Thazi to Inle, but there was a bridge out on the route, and plus, it would have taken 12 more hours, whereas getting there by car was supposed to take 4-5 hours.
The journey by car ended up taking a few hours longer than usual (though in this country, interrupted travel is the norm). After two long stops to water the van engine and let it cool off, the driver started removing parts and took out the turbo radiator, at which point we concluded that it was time to find a new way to Inle. A passing van was flagged down, and we squeezed in and continued on our way.
[Lena riding with our friend Kyaw Ni, her Burmese grandfather. He also happens to be the husband of MaSanda, our translation partner.]
[The mountains of Shan State; those are most likely tea plantations in the hills.]
I am so glad we were able to take this leg of the trip during the daytime, because the scenery was stunning. Not everyone in our group was so enthused about the height and the drop-offs near the edge of the road, though!
[Coming up on the city of Kalaw, a popular starting point for tourists who come to Myanmar to trek through the tea plantations.]
We made it to our destination, the town of Nyaung Shwe, at midday. By then we were all so sleep deprived that it felt like a bit of a challenge to stay upright. We found our guesthouse, had some lunch, and then crashed for the rest of the day, with plans to rent a boat and tour the lake the following day.
From Nyaung Shwe, we had to take a boat several miles through the city’s man-made channel in order to reach Inle Lake. Because the lake’s surrounding area is so flat and its shores are so marshy, you cannot actually see Inle Lake very well until you are right on it. But it does not disappoint in the least.
[Most of the boats on the lake are outfitted with this sort of motor. We asked a boatman, and apparently engines are easy to come by, but finding and purchasing a good boat is more difficult, and costs close to $3,000, a fairly high startup cost for most local people.]
[Ko Kyaw Ni enjoying the ride.]
[Our first stop was a pagoda and adjoining market on the lake. Business and religion mix quite comfortably here.]
[Note the “Ladies are Prohibited” sign at the foot of this shrine. Common Buddhist belief is that women are dirty, and must be kept out of especially holy areas. In this case, only men are permitted to do the meritorious act of applying gold leaf to the idols within this shrine.]
[Here in Myanmar, it is important to know one’s birthday, as in day of the week upon which you were born. In this pagoda, Buddhists buy and light the candle representing the day of their birth, another act of merit making.]
[In Myanmar it is believed that the latest reincarnation of the Buddha had earlobes reaching his shoulders. It is also believed that all of his fingers and toes were exactly the same length. Most, if not all Myanmar images of the Buddha depict him this way.]
[MaKhineKhine, a friend from our neighborhood, also came along with us.]
[Our friends got us a Shan traditional outfit for Lena. She wears it well, doesn’t she?]
[Villages on the water.]
Next we had the chance to visit a place where fabric is woven using fibers from within the stem of the lotus plant. This particular lotus is unique to Inle and a handful of other lakes around the world, but Inle is the only place where it is woven into fabric. It takes many, many plants to make a skein of weaving material. As one of the staff said, “Myanmar people are the only ones patient enough to be doing this work.” None of the processes for making lotus fabric were automated; from the fiber extraction to the weaving itself, all the work was done by hand. From raw material to finish, one piece of cloth will take weeks to create. One kilogram worth of thread itself takes about two months to produce. (For a better photographic depiction of lotus weaving, check out this photography blog.)
[The houses are all built just high enough to escape the water levels in the rainy season!]
[We next visited a blacksmith’s workshop, where all manner of metal work was being made.]
[Tattoo equipment made at this shop. The reddish booklet is full of sample designs.]
[Okay, back to the boat and the lake!]
[Kids getting out of school. In Myanmar, all school buses are referred to as “ferries”. Here, kids are heading home in literal ferries.]
[We couldn’t get enough of the boat ride around the lake. Inle was certainly a never-ending feast for the eyes.]
We are so glad we could visit Inle Lake and the surrounding area (more photos of that to come later). Most of all, we are glad that these good friends were willing to come with us and make the trip so much more fun.