At eight in the morning, a scruffy-haired kid resembling a street urchin in black Adidas tracksuit pants and a ripped maroon top escorted us to Nyaungshwe’s main canal, Nan Chaung.
We were about to embark on our first Inle Lake tour, taking the generic route advertised by all hotels and travel agencies. This was without doubt THE prescribed activity to do at Inle Lake. And since Inle Lake is THE prescribed place to visit in Myanmar, this is about as touristy as it gets in this country.
We had a longboat just like those used by locals to get around, except instead of sitting cross-legged on the wooden bottom, the four of us on the tour were privileged enough for wooden deck chairs complete with grey velvet cushions and life jackets (which we used as back cushions).
Disconcertingly, our kid guide (who we later learned was 15) jumped behind the engine, cranking a jack in the rotor. A kick, rumble and spurt of smoke from the engine signalled to us the beginning of our journey.
Or not. Just upriver, the engine spluttered, coughed and died. Our kid driver pushed the boat to shore with a wooden panel cruelly large and heavy for his tiny frame. He got to work on the motor, but to no avail.
Across the canal was a large sheltered shed showing off the familiar rusty metal junkshop of a mechanic’s. A man appeared from within and tinkered with the engine; after he gave the jack a good rotation the engine coughed reluctantly to life again and we got moving.
It was still a good half hour before the canal met Inle Lake, our anticipation increasing with the wait. And then we were there. The expanse of the lake opened before us, over 20 kilometres long and ten kilometres wide, bordered east and west by mountains.
Its aluminium surface rippled as local fishermen passed us, one foot poised on the boat, the other wrapped around a long wooden paddle which they wove snake-like through the water. Dragonflies skimmed the surface while birds soared overhead.
Boats heading back to Nyaungshwe ferried hessian sacks or baskets full of tomatoes and eggplant fresh from the gardens of Inle’s Intha tribe. Stilt houses stood erect from the pearly water.
Inle Lake floating market
The first stop on any Inle boat tour is the floating market, which rotates between towns around the lake. On approach to Nampan, the village blessed with the market today, there looked to be a pile-up of boats, but this was merely the “parking lot” as it were. We jumped from boat to boat to reach shore.
The market sold plenty of souvenirs, including lacquerware boxes, key chains, silver jewellery, carved wooden Buddha figures and boats, metalwork, concertina books of Buddhist fables, and longyis, the traditional sarong.
As we passed, vendors called out “Just looking?”.
There was a rank fish market, clothing and toiletry stalls, fresh produce.
“Bad business day,” longyi sellers claimed. “I do good deal.”
A dentist hacked at a man’s teeth, the poor patient sitting in a barber’s chair with his head cocked his head upwards as curious onlookers gawked.
Weaving, silversmith and tobacco workshops are also a mandatory stop on the tourist route. Unfortunately the absence of a guide (our kid spoke no English) made it feel as though we were simply being taken out for a day of shopping, ferried from one boutique to the next. But I still found the workshops interesting.
We entered a stilted teak house to the wooden clackety-clack of half a dozen working looms. The thread, we were shown, is pulled from lotus stem, but cotton and silk are also used. The silversmith’s workshop resonated with the chink of anvil on iron, while women posed behind glass cases filled with beautiful silverwork.
But the tobacco workshop was particularly interesting. A group of women sat behind baskets of musky tobacco. This isn’t ordinary tobacco. They use tobacco mixed with banana, pineapple, honey, and sticky rice, as well as the normal options. It made me want to be a smoker.
The women filled plastic sheets with tobacco before wedging a banana leaf between the tobacco and the plastic. They rolled the whole jumble together and then slipped out the plastic sheet, scissored the tip, and proudly presented a new cigar.
Phaung Daw Oo Paya is another rather unnoteworthy but obligatory stop: the piece-de-resistance of the temple were strange blobs of gold that were originally Buddha statues. The practice of putting gold sheets of paper over the Buddha had so disfigured the icons they were now unrecognisable.
The final stop was Jumping Cat Monastery, or Nga Phe Kyaung, where we saw plenty of cats, but none who seemed willing to jump for us.
The monastery is well known for a place where monks had trained cats to jump through hoops for tourists. Yet the cats seemed interested in nothing more than stretching out lazily on the ground, and those with enough energy merely scrammed from our presence. Perhaps they were just mimicking their owners, for the monks, who were few and far between, acted in a similar fashion.
The entire boat trip seemed rather pointless, redeemed only by the mesmerising silver lake, the verdant mountains beyond, and the Intha’s strange method of moving their boats through water. If you have little time, perhaps I would recommend this.
But I advise you now, exploring the lake sans regimented tour the following day transpired to be one of my favourite Myanmar experiences. And it’s got some tough competition, from admiring Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda to enjoying my own DIY hike in Kalaw to getting totally rattled on Hsipaw’s buffalo train. Explore my range of Myanmar travel stories here at ARoamerTherapy today.