Inle Lake was my last stop in Myanmar before returning to Yangon and then heading back to Bangkok. It’s on Myanmar’s main tourist trail and probably every Myanmar tourist stops here at one point. Hence my expectations were a little ambivalent – for no reason as I would find out later. I arrived via yet another night bus from Mandalay. And for some reason the night buses in Myanmar always arrive at the most ridiculous times. In this case it wasn’t much different and I was dropped off at a junction a few kilometers away from Inle Lake at about 4.30 in the morning. Transport into the town of Nyaungshwe, where most of the accommodation is located, wasn’t a problem however and I arrived safely at my guesthouse. Since I had only two full days, My plan was to get a few hours of sleep and then go explore the lake and its surroundings.
A first glimpse of Inle Lake
Inle Lake is Myanmar’s second largest lake. Due to its abundance of fish and the fertile lands around, it has been feeding the people of Inle Lake, the so called Intha, for hundreds of years already. Most of these people still live a simple and traditional way of life with trade and craftsmanship playing an important role in their lives. And that is exactly what most tourists, apart from the beautiful scenery itself, come to Inle Lake for. Same went for me and on my first day I rented a bicycle to visit one of the frequent markets around the lake. Actually it is considered to be one market which rotates through five different sites around the lake area, thus each of them hosting an itinerant market every fifth day. After some strenuous cycling along a road which hasn’t even deserved the name, I arrived at the rather small market. Since I had slept a little too long, most of the vendors were already starting to pack up. It was still interesting to get an impression of the people and the goods they were offering. The market serves the most common needs of the people, ranging from all sorts of local produce to tools, textiles and tobacco. What I instantly noticed was, that most women were still dressed in their traditional garments which were very bright and colorful. I wandered around, soaking in the sun and atmosphere and snapped a picture here and there. After a while people started to load their goods on small boats, some with small motors, others just being paddled. The locals of Inle Lake are known for practicing a distinctive rowing style which involves standing at the stern on one leg and wrapping the other leg around the oar.
Most of the vendors were gone, the bustle of the daily market was over and I wanted to take a rest before heading back to town. I found a small tea shop by the road and ordered some tea accompanied by a bag of nuts and cookies. As usual the locals were very friendly and with the help of my basic Burmese skills, I was able to strike up a small but entertaining conversation. The rest of the day I spent arranging a boat trip to a bigger market and some of the many work shops around the lake. The trip would take a whole day and since I knew I wanted to take my time to take a lot of pictures, I decided to go alone and not with a group. Well worth the price of around 15 dollars.
An explosion of colors at Nampan Market
Early the next morning I met my private boat captain in town. As I found out quickly, he didn’t speak any English at all so we silently walked towards the pier where his boat was anchored. Good thing I had arranged all the places I wanted to see the day before at one of the small travel agencies. We took off just after dawn. It was cold and it would take about an hour to make it to Nampan Market, the biggest market around Inle Lake. On the way, we spotted some traditional fishermen in the middle of the lake and my boat driver seemed to read my mind. He circled the fishermen slowly so I could get some good shots of them going about their business. Standing up, holding the oar with one foot and standing on the other, the men were silently pulling in their nets with hopes for a nice catch. I don’t know for how many hundreds or thousands of years the people of Inle Lake have been doing this without changing a thing.
We finally arrived at the market located at the banks of the lake. And it was big, hectic and full of boats with locals either arriving or already returning to their homes. Nampan Market was way bigger than the market the day before. I got off the boat and started to roam around. The sheer size of the market and the variety of goods on offer was amazing. It seemed like almost everyone from the villages around had come here to shop. Fresh fish was being sold and traditional snacks and food was offered at every other stall. The air was full of strange scents and smells, it was loud and busy. And again, most women, old and young, were wearing their colorful dresses. All combined it, was an overload for my senses and I sometimes caught myself just standing in the middle of it all, looking around in amazement. I don’t know why, but there were not many tourists present which made the experience even more worthwhile. I started taking pictures of people and bought some small things here and there. I found out, if you buy something small, for example a bag of peanuts or some fruit, the vendors are way more open for getting their photograph taken. Just makes it a bit more personal. I probably spent two hours just walking back and forth observing and looking for interesting scenes – a photographers paradise. It was great to have the flexibility this individual trip allowed as I doubt a group would have had the patience to wait for me.
Weaving the most expensive fabric of the world
After a traditional meal on the market, I returned to the boat and my driver. Next stop would be a traditional weaving mill where the most expensive fabric of the world is being produced. It is made of lotus plant fibers and is mostly being used for robes for Buddha statues. But some is also used for normal clothes being exported to the Western World. Inle Lake is the only place in the world where this trade is being practiced. Inside the shop, only women were operating the huge weaving looms. Besides the lotus fabric, they were working on all sorts of silk items, shiny and most colorful. They were working concentrated but were happy to get some distraction joking around with me. I was actually given a tour through the mill which was rather short. So afterwards I just went back by myself and took my time to check everything out. The women’s craftsmanship was so delicate and interesting, that it was well worth it. Especially in Burma it was such a door opener to speak those few bits of the local language. The same happened here and the women opened up and had no problem getting their pictures taken.
Black Smiths, Silver Smiths and Umbrella Makers
My boat driver and I had a little snack afterwards before continuing our little trip. We stopped at several workshops ranging from black smiths, cheeroth cigar rolling, silver smiths and umbrella making. Without going into the details of all of these, it was just amazing to see what these people can do with the simplest tools and methods. They are so gifted and talented and their products so unique. I don’t know why, but I really got to like visiting traditional workshops like that. It’s interesting and usually makes for great and unusual photo opportunities. The umbrella maker probably impressed me most. He made every single part of those beautiful pieces himself and he was quick too. He let me try using his traditional machinery to carve the handle of an umbrella. Needless to say that I was not only slow but that my product had to be saved by the laughing professional. I also ended up buying some of the handrolled cheeroth cigars which were really good. Sweet and with a light licorish flavor.
Ending the day with chanting monks
After visiting another temple and a monastery situated in the middle of the lake, it was time to return to Nyaungshwe. I was a bit tired from walking around so much and wanted to rest a bit. But the day had one more highlight up its sleeve. It was dark already when I went outside in search of some street food. I was roaming the streets when I heard melodic chanting coming out of what seemed like a big monastery. Curious as ever, I walked closer to see where it was exactly coming from. All of a sudden I was approached by an old monk and I already expected to be thrown off the premises. But no, not in Myanmar. The monk gave me a warm welcome and asked where I was from and what I was doing here. His English was alright and we had a brief chat. He explained, that the novice monks were in the midst of their daily chanting session and invited me to come inside. Of course I didn’t say no to this offer and followed him inside. It was a big hall, brightly illuminated with more than 50 novices sitting on the floor. The older ones in the front and the younger one in the back. The chanting was monotonous and melodic at the same time and made up for a meditative atmosphere. I sat down in the back and observed the monks chanting away.
When it was over, the old monk approached me again and said, that in half an hour the monks would gather again for their daily reading. Apparently every night, after chanting, the novices read traditional stories and poems. And that’s not the quiet reading one would think of but more of a loud citing. With their little books in front of them, the young novices were reading out loud filling the hall with what seemed like a hundred voices. It was a great end to and eventful day.
Last thoughts …
I was skeptical at first since I heard Inle Lake would be probably the most touristy place of all of Myanmar. But in the end, it wasn’t too bad and I wouldn’t want to have missed it. In peak season it is probably crowded but even then, the area offers so many interesting things to do and see. Especially for a photographer the are is a little heaven. In the end I could have at least spent one more day to explore the far South of the lake which is supposed to be very interesting and less visited.