Inle Lake

We flew from Keng Tung via Heho to Inle Lake. The flight was only 35 minutes. People were a bit shifty when we asked why we could not have driven this. Answers varied from it was too dangerous (because of armed rebel groups) and was forbidden by the military: to the road was so bad that it would have taken 15 hours by road. Whatever the reason was, was quite irrelevant - we flew

Heho - From its humble beginnings as a small Danu village, Heho has grown into the main air gateway for tourists heading out to Lake Inle. Expanding with the arrival of the railway in the 1920s, the town became a major airbase for both the Allies and the Japanese during the Second World War and today its bustling markets attract a wealth of goods and villagers from the surrounding countryside. Pa O women, with their distinctive woven baskets and colourful head scarves are regular visitors to the market, which is the largest of its kind in southern Shan State.

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So only about 30 minutes from Heho to Inle Lake by car. The lake occupies a 22 kilometre long plateau in the middle of the central highlands, Lake Inle is home to the Intha, a people of Tibetan-Burmese descent who live amongst the waterside villages that spread along the shoreline and the islands of the lake. Wonderfully scenic and rich in tradition, the lake and its surroundings provide visitors with a glimpse of a rapidly disappearing world. The Intha still go about their daily business much as they have for generations, travelling around the lake in small wooden rowing boats from which they fish and farm, much as their ancestors have for centuries. The area is also renowned for its weaving industry, with Shan bags and high-quality silk fabrics known as longyi a particular specialty. The lake also produces a unique lotus fibre that is used in weaving special robes for images of Buddha, called kya thingahn (lotus robes). Whilst the lake encompasses nearly 120 square kilometres, its depth reaches no more than around 3 metres, resulting in the aquatic rural idyll of floating gardens of hyacinth and stilted thatched huts that makes this one of the most picturesque settings in the country.

Inle Lake is suffering from the environmental effects of increased population and rapid growth in both agriculture and tourism. During the 65-year period from 1935 to 2000, the net open water area of Inle Lake decreased from 69 km² to 46 km², a loss of 32%, with development of floating garden agriculture, which occurs largely on the west side of the lake (a practice introduced in the 1960s).

To make your own water garden you start by gathering up naturally occurring clumps of water hyacinth, “seagrass” and other lake debris. These are then secured in position using bamboo poles which are driven into the deep mud at the bottom of the lake, in areas of water between 1 and 5 metres deep. The newly created island is allowed to knit together, and grass is encouraged to grow on the surface. The grass is then cut, dried and finally burned to create a nutritious dressing of ash. More “seagrass” is heaped on top, with a final layer of fine mud from the bottom of the lake.

Eventually the mats become 1m thick with about a third of that above water level. Seed is planted in the fertile mud and the young plants are supported by bamboo canes. Depending on the season they are used for tomatoes, cucumbers, gourds and pulses, but are, unsurprisingly, not suitable for root vegetables. There’s plenty of space to grow onions, garlic and carrots on dry land. Inle’s tomatoes are the finest in Burma and are picked green, or just blushing, and transported all over Burma during the 8 month growing season. They are used to make a classic Burmese tomato salad, which includes sliced tomato (no pips), sliced shallots and peanuts, bound in a sesame seed dressing.

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We had a private long tail motor boat to take us, and our very good guide, to explore Inle Lake, one of Myanmar’s most spectacular sights. We passed through villages built on stilts over the lake, inhabited by the local Intha people. You can see the leg-rowing fishermen and their floating gardens built up from strips of water hyacinth and mud and anchored to the bottom with bamboo poles.

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We stayed at the Sanctum Inle Hotel - on TripAdvisor and 9.3 on Booking,com and their own web site . It is a lovely hotel, in a series of 3 story blocks, each with distant lake views. You need to be on a top floor room to have any chance of actually seeing the lake. The rooms are spacious and well maintained and are certainly "luxurious". The hotel has its own jetty, so the long tail boat that takes you round the lake can dock right at the hotel. The position is perfect. There is a nice restaurant. However it was spoilt when we were there by the preponderance of large groups, which monopolised the dining areas, at the expense of couples like us. I tracked down the less than conspicuous manager to ask about this, and he really was not interested in us as a couple. Only groups were of any importance to him.The swimming pool is really nice, with views over across the lake, and a place to take in the spectacular sunset Negative points: rooms could be improved by having luggage racks, there is nowhere discreet to put your bags. The stairwells are exterior, and are not well lit at night, with dangerous pools of darkness. And there were problems getting porters to take your bags: on checkout I ended up carrying our bags a long way to the boat , as the porters were sitting around chatting and uninterested. So, a hotel that was nice to stay at, but spoilt by being more interested in groups that individuals

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Given that most tourists coming to Burma, come to Inle Lake, then there are "things" for them to see and buy. As yet there is very little hard sell at any of these venues, and the owners were happy for us to wander round without buying. Given the fact that all the venues are in stilted villages on the water, then we accessed them by boat. Included in this list was a silver jewellery workshop, which I thought was very interesting, and one could see the workers making silver chains from hundreds of small silver links, through to elaborate fish from silver - two chains were purchased, our only purchase. Other workshops included cheroot making (very dexterous young ladies turning them out by hand), and silk and lotus fabric weaving. The lotus fabric was interesting, in that they can use all parts of every plant here to either eat or make something:

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Lotus fibre weaving. It is said that about 100 years ago, a woman named Paw Sar Ou wanted to give a special robe to the head Abbot at the Buddhist temple she visited. She discovered that she could cut the stem of a lotus plant and that when she pulled the halves gently apart, threads appeared. Paw Sar Ou was able to collect enough of these threads to spin them into longer fibers and then be able to weave cloth from them on her loom. From this fabric, she created a special robe to give to her Abbot as an offering. It was discovered through cutting and carefully pulling the stem of a lotus apart, that fibers can be created which could be used in weaving. There are many kinds of lotus that grow around Inle Lake but the best known and holy of all of these flowers is the Padonmar Kyar. Today we can enjoy the beautiful textiles woven from the humble lotus plant. From the lotus fibers , fabric, scarves, robes to be used by monks or to dress sacred images in their temples as well as shirts, jackets and necktiesae all made. I thought that they were expensive, being much more expensive than silk, and they did not, to me, have the same luxurious finish as silk

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Cheroot Making. Women and teenage girls sat cross-legged on the floor of a rickety building, hand-rolling cigars and cheroots. (Cheroots, from the Tamil word curuttu — to curl or roll– are cigars with the ends snipped off.) They each roll 500 cigars a day. They are basically for the local market/ You’ll spot these dark-green cigars throughout the country, but Inle Lake is known for its flavoured cheroots. The only tobacco in them is often the single leaf that holds the rest of the ingredients together. Rolled inside that leaf is an elaborate blend of dried banana and pineapple, star anise, brown sugar, tamarind, honey, and rice wine, among other ingredients.

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The Padaung long neck tribe has about 7000 people nowadays. When the girls are about 5, they start to wear the necklaces. The more necklaces are worn, the longer their necks become. A female adult may have up to 35 necklaces; they can’t take them off or their neck will be easily broken. The Padaung consider the longer neck they have, the more elegant they are. The Padaung long neck women are are said to be happy with their special “fashion”. They not only wear necklaces but also bracelets but the most attractive point is always the long neck like giraffes. Many women try to give birth on Wednesday and if it’s a daughter, she would be a “lucky Wednesday child”. We came across this family of three women, weaving cloth and selling it to tourists

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Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda

Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda is the lake’s main sanctuary and houses five small gilded images of Buddha, which have been covered in gold leaf to the point that their original forms cannot be seen. The gold-leaf application to such excess is relatively recent. Old photographs hanging on the monastery walls show some of the images in a more pristine form. It is reported that some gold has been removed on occasion to reduce its mass. Although the monastery is open to all for veneration, only men are permitted to place gold leaf on the images. Another part of the ritual for pilgrims is to place a small robe or thingan around the images, and to take the robe back to their houses and place it on their own altar as a token of respect for the Buddha and his teachings.The images are of differing sizes, rangng from about nine to eighteen inches tall. Being essentially solid gold, the images are extremely heavy. It is believed that the Buddha images were brought to Inlay Lake by King Alaungsithu.

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Nga Phe Chaung Monastery is is an attractive wooden monastery built on stilts over the lake at the end of the 1850s. Aside from its collection of Buddhas the monastery may be of interest to visit because its monks have taught a few of the many cats living with them to jump through hoops. Happily we never saw any cats jumping through hoops. Nga Phe Chaug is the biggest and oldest monastery on the Inle Lake and is worth visiting for its historical purposes and architecture as well as its cats.

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The local market. The next day, after breakfast, we visited the lake’s morning market. The market rotates its location around the lake’s villages in a 5 day rhythm and is visited by lake inhabitants and surrounding hill tribes who come to sell and trade their wares.

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Then on to the Pa-oh village of In Dein, reached by chugging up a small canal for about an hour.The main attraction here is a field of a thousand Shan stupas, mostly untouched and crumbing in a vast desert landscape on the side of a rise, itself topped with a pagoda. When we visited, the majority of the few tourists we saw were backpackers, and the site is well off the beaten tourist path. We walked up the long, long covered walk way where there were the usual souvenir stalls selling the usual stuff and at the end entered another world. It is just the sheer number of pagodas and stupas here. Many were just crumbled heaps of bricks, many have being unlovingly restored by the Military Government but the overall impression is amazing. There are Banyan trees growing out of the stupas which makes one worry that they will one day disappear completely. Dogs seek shade in the niches containing Buddha statues, many without heads as our guide explained there is a huge black market for them in Thailand; also on the outside of the temples one can see there are lots of carvings where the head is missing.

Indein is a small village West of Inle Lake, known for its market and two groups of ancient pagodas. The village is reached by boat through the Inn Thein creek, a long narrow canal. The scenic 8 kilometer boat ride from Inle Lake can be made in the rainy season and winter only; in the summer season the water level is too low. Around Indein village are two groups of ancient pagodas, Nyaung Ohak and Shwe Inn Thein. The first site near the boat landing is Nyaung Ohak, which translates to “group of banyan trees”. Most of the pagodas here have not been restored and are in various states of repair; some are well preserved, while others have plants and trees growing out of them. Many pagodas are decorated with sculptings of celestial beings or mythological animals as Naga serpents and Chinthes. Some enshrine images of the Buddha.The site is believed to date back to the days of the Indian emperor Ashoka, who sent out monks in the 3rd century BC across Asia to spread Buddhism. Centuries later two Kings of the Bagan empire, Narapatisithu and Anawrahta, built pagodas at the site. The site contains hundreds of pagodas, collectively known as the Shwe Inn Thein pagodas. Most are from the 17th and 18th century; the earliest one with an inscription dates to the 14th century.

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Golden Moon Restaurant. Another restaurant on stilts, and another lunch washed down by a bottle of Myanmar

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Inn Thar Lay Restaurant. Inle cuisine is different from Shan cuisine, as it incorporates local natural produce. The most well-known Inle dish would be the Htamin jin - a rice, tomato and potato or fish salad kneaded into round balls dressed and garnished with crisp fried onion in oil, tamarind sauce, coriander and spring onions often with garlic, Chinese chives roots (ju myit), fried whole dried chili, grilled dried fermented beancakes (pè bouk) and fried dried tofu (topu jauk kyaw) on the side. This restaurant fills up for lunch as tourists pour in from morning excursions. So to get a waterfront table, your guide should phone ahead to reserve a table The restaurant is on stilts, and is reachable only by boat. The dining area is a platform 1 floor above water level. Your boat takes you up to the restaurant's dock , so it is only up one flight of stairs to eat. We just accepted our guides recommendation, which was a whole lake fish between the two of us, washed down by a bottle of Myanmar. You come here for the atmosphere as much as the food. You are never going to get gourmet food at these low prices, but I will carry away the memory of sitting there looking at the passing river traffic. There are a number of lunchtime stops available on the lake, and you do not have control over your guide's choice of restaurant, but we were very happy with his choice of this restaurant

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We left the hotel by boat and had a half hour water trip before decanting into the car and driving the rest of the way to Heho Airport, for another short flight of 30 minutes, this time to get to Mandalay

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On to Mandalay

Burma Holiday