musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Sunday, June 3, 2012

From Myanmar (Burma): Meet the People of the Lake

Apparently in 2012 some people still live on the water...

We were intrigued the moment we heard about it. Thanks to the built-in flexibility of our trip and a stroke of luck, we were able to experience it first hand.

From Bagan, we had originally planned to take a boat up the river to a town called Mandalay. But after hearing that Mandalay offered only a couple things to see (although I'm sure it has more than that if you dig deeper), we changed our plans. Especially when we heard about Inle (pronounced in-lay) Lake, land of people that live on the water. Literally (for best effect say literally with English accent), live on the water.

Oh, and finding William (the stroke of luck), a fantastic local travel agent, really helped facilitate our adventurism. He arranged everything and, more importantly, facilitated payment for all domestic flights and hotels in a way that did not completely deplete our limited number of Benjamins.

But back to the people of the lake. I wasn't sure what to expect honestly. In my mind I was picturing Kevin Costner floating aboard a raft in that awful 90s movie that I actually kind of liked. What does it mean to live your entire life on the lake?

In short, Inle blew me out of the water. Figuratively. Our cab driver from the Heho airport (a structure about the size of your uncle Billy's red barn) nodded when we told him we needed to go to the Golden Island Cottages, a hotel that is, you guessed it, in the middle of the lake with each individual room on stilts above the water. How he was going to get us there in his Corolla wagon was beyond me, but I've noticed that Myanmarians have a way of getting things done. So we agreed on a price and off we went to the town at the northern tip of the lake. That's where we met Soe.

A man perhaps somewhere in his thirties with strong cheek bones and a distinctly Jin-like appearance (any Lost fans out there? Anyone? Bueller?), Soe would be our guide and boat driver for the next two days. We even got to meet his whole family (cute kids, grandma and wife who spent her days rolling tobacco to be sold for $3 for 50 cigars they call cheerots - supplemental income for the fam) at one point as we were escaping from a predictable downpour that seemed to happen around the same time every day. Good man that Soe. Heck of a boat driver too!

As mentioned and on friends' and William the travel agent's recommendation, we stayed at the Golden Island Cottages. Wow. No, we didn't have electricity until the evening (par for the course in up-country Myanmar), but it didn't matter. Sitting out on the patio watching the fishermen balance on one foot, a single oar wrapped up artfully in the other leg and a long net flowing effortlessly in their hands (wait until you see the photos of this - it's real I promise), all while enjoying a cold can of Myanmar (we were drinking the beer, not the fishermen - now that would be impressive) while being suspended on bamboo stilts a few meters off the water... did I mention that the sun was also setting? Again, wow!

The Inle Lake-ians truly do live on the water. From floating tomato gardens (from where they export the round red things regionally) and training boats for the young ones to countless homes, restaurants and hotels hovering over the water, this was a place from another world and another time. Don't bother with a watch; time is inconsequential. Focus, as I did to the tune of substantial memory card usage, on getting every photo with stunning clouds, gorgeous mountains and pagodas in every direction and fascinating people in every click.

Speaking of the people... One of my favorite parts of our time on Inle was the people watching and, yes, people photographing. Lauren astutely pointed out that if I took as many pictures of children near their homes in suburban Kansas, I'd be on somebody's (mostly likely the police) watch list. But it wasn't just the children that fascinated me. It was the women working in their family's professions (water gardening, home making, weaving, etc. of which the most fascinating had to be lotus flower weaving... Lauren has a scarf that took 4,000 flowers and a month to make to prove it) and the men in theirs (mostly fishing or pulling up sludge from the bottom of the lake, probably for use in construction). It was how everything seemed to flow together a bit slower than what we're used to; refreshingly disconnected from the interwebs, crackberries and, well, life on land. It was the fact that these people spent almost their entire lives going from stilted homes to boats, spending days (weeks, months, years?) on end without setting foot on earth.

As an aside... for a while I wondered why only the children would smile and wave as we passed by in our boat. Then I migrated the question to a different, more familiar setting to achieve my own answer... do you wave and smile at other drivers as they go by on the street? Well, the lake and canals are their roads... so why would they?!

I mentioned before that we were in pursuit of the real, not-yet-commercialized Myanmar. Well folks, we found precisely that in Inle. I'm not sure how many tourists annually get the amazing opportunity to go there, but given the remoteness of the location and the fact that Myanmar as a whole has only recently arrived on the more mainstream itineraries... probably not very many.

A special place indeed, I struggle to compare Inle to anything I've seen before. Ultimately I've come to the conclusion that it truly has a unique place in the crowded (and increasingly jumbled) travel log in my mind. One of a kind. An undeniable highlight of the entire trip. Wow.

I know I say this a lot, but stay tuned for photos from Inle and the rest of Myanmar soon!