Sunday, 19 February 2012


4th - 6th Feb 2012

Fisherman on Inle Lake
Off we set at 0730hrs, Mr Myo driving with his son as co-pilot, for what was advertised as an 8 hour drive to the small town of Nyaungshwe, 2000ft up, at the north end of Inle Lake. I was told it was about 150 miles, so couldn't see how it was going to take 8 hours. The road south out of Mandalay was an excellent two lane highway and Mr Myo's Toyota fairly hummed along. I reckoned, at this rate, we would be there for an early lunch. After about 20 miles we turned left off the main road to the east. The road rapidly deteriorated, initially into a narrow potholed tarmac strip and then into a single lane dusty bumpy mountain track ( with the occasional bit of tarmac just to give the appearance of a road ).  And we climbed....and climbed... around zig-zagging sharp bends up into the Shan mountains. The average speed must have reduced to about 20 mph. I could now see at least eight hours of driving ahead of us. To further delay matters, it turned out that Mr Myo's son was very car sick and we had to keep stopping to let him out to throw up. After 3 hours we began to level out at about 5000ft ( according to the map ). Then the car ground to a halt with steam coming from the bonnet. It was discovered that the fan belt had snapped. We were in the middle of nowhere, not a car or building in sight and stuck. Mr Myo was beside himself with remorse and apologies. By sheer good fortune after about 20 minutes a minibus pulled up and, having a couple of spare seats, kindly offered to take myself and Mr Myo's son on to the nearest habitation. Not much room inside so I reluctantly disregarded the old army maxim of 'a soldier and his kit should never be separated', took my small valuables rucksack and left my big suitcase in Mr Myo's car. He promised to deliver it to me in Nyaungshwe, after somehow getting the car fixed. Another 2 hours of driving along the winding and bumpy 'track' brought us to a village with a small restaurant in it. Myself and Mr Myo's son got out. I think we were due to wait here until the car turned up. It didn't. After a good lunch a passing taxi with 3 pax in already ( a monk, a Burmese agricultural fertiliser salesman and a German tour operator ) offered to take me on, free of charge! It was a bit of a squeeze but welcome nevertheless.

We passed this strange looking hilltop monastery ( left ) on the way, and stopped for a 'comfort break' here. They love to build these things on the top of impossibly steep rocks which, I suppose, provided protection in the old days, and freedom from passing tourists. Lots of lugging bricks uphill though.
The roads actually became rather better as we descended the mountains on the southern side and finally reached Nyaungshwe at 1900hrs. An 11.5 hour journey as it turned out and I was not confident of ever seeing my suitcase again. Oh! me of little faith. I was called in my room at 0030hrs to be told that my suitcase had arrived. Mr Myo and his son personally carried it up to my room and again apologised profusely for the inconvenience! He had, apparently waited for a repair service from Mandalay, then driven on for a further 8 hours to Nyaungshwe with his son and my case. He said he was now going straight back to Mandalay! Unbelievable and, if he made it, extraordinary stamina and determination. I was very grateful.
I was met early the next morning by my guide for the day, Mr Min. We walked to the market cum quayside near the hotel and got into one of the many long-tail narrow motorboats with powerful engines. Just as well my suitcase had arrived as I had been warned that it was cold in the mornings and overnight here and my sweater and jacket were in it. It certainly was a bit parky, and misty. We are at 2000ft and it felt it temperature-wise. Right: Mr Min in our speedy water-taxi. Just the two of us plus the driver. Off we set south down the canal to join the lake which is 14 miles long and 7 miles wide. There were many other similar long boats containing tourists. This place is a tourist magnet and is, nowadays, brim full of tourists in the winter season ( Nov to March ). Being light our boat overtook several others along the canal. I waved happily, and rather arrogantly, to them as we sped by. After a mile or so, our engine conked out. No effort would restart it and we drifted to the shore.

Left: Many other boats then swept past giving us a cheerful, if sarcastic, wave. Even the 'finger' in one case. This part of my Burmese trip appears to be fraught with mechanical problems. After about 30 mins a replacement empty boat came alongside and we transferred ship.

Onwards into the tranquil waters of Inle Lake where there are many of these little skiffs ( right ) used for fishing. This is done in a truly unique style with the fisherman perched on one leg at the back and paddling his boat using the other leg twisted around the oar with a curious but most effective snake-like motion. All the while operating the curious double net 'basket' which he lowers into the water. It shows incredible balance and coordination and, indeed, stamina as some were fishing at least 3 miles from the nearest shore!

We even passed a small mini-pagoda in the middle of the lake ( left ) in which a monk sometimes sits to pray for good fishing or maybe just for a bit of aquatic meditation.
The lake was busy with long-boat traffic which was carrying goods and local passengers to and from the various shoreside markets plus, of course, the flotilla of speeding tourist boats. Some of the heavy-laden rice carrying craft were riding so low in the water it seemed they were on the point of sinking.

Right: After about an hour we arrived near the southern end of the lake where there is a village, I think called Thaung Tho ( there are many villages all round the perimeter ), which is mainly constructed on stilts well out into the lake. There are also several large floating islands around here made out of reeds and vegetation on which crops are grown. It reminded me a bit of Lake Titicaca in Peru.

There is a large market here which sold everything from fish to brass taps and timber. Lots of ethnic tribal people come down from the hills to shop. One such people are the Pau-O ( left ). They are noticeable by their black tunics and the bright coloured towels they wear on their heads. There were lots of them.

Mr Min knew many of the locals and we wandered happily around the stalls. At one point I was persuaded to try a drink of the locally produced rice wine which, Mr Min assured me, was of good quality and entirely safe. Indeed he bought a litre plastic bottle of the stuff ( 15 cents ) for his wife which, he said, when consumed made her look much more attractive. The ultimate beauty product. One sip rather took my breath away and made my eyes water. I suspect they use the stuff to power the boats and clean ovens with as well.
Right: Mr Min at the market. He is an avid Arsenal supporter.

We went off on a tour of local workshops and houses all set on stilts in the water. Little skiffs, family affairs and mostly being paddled, were the main means of transport and operated with extraordinary skill by children and old folk alike.
There were more examples of supremely skilful work being done with primitive machinery, all in shops hovering above the water with landing stages for our boats. Weaving fabric was one. I bought a shirt. There was a blacksmith's shop with furnace and hand pumped bellows and three chaps wielding sledge-hammers onto a single piece of red hot metal to make a blade of some description. They were well practiced and their timing was perfectly coordinated to make a non-stop anvil chorus without hitting each others' hammers. It was a good show for the tourists. We also visited a silversmith's workshop which produced minutely intricate silver chains, necklaces, bracelets etc. all done painstakingly by hand. It was fascinating to watch these people at work. They must have incredibly good eyesight and steady hands. There was, unlike India, absolutely no hard sell to buy anything in any of these places.
Lunch was had in another stilt building ( right ). Very good non-spicy food. The little boat passing by is typical of the family transport. They are hardly more than a thick plank with a groove cut down the centre to sit in.

Left: On next to watch the cheroot makers at work. Burmese cheroots are hand made and contain surprisingly little tobacco. The mix which goes into the cheroot consists to a large part of ground aromatic wood of some sort, rolled and sealed in a leaf. They are surprisingly mild and very different to a cigar, or cigarette for that matter. They are also very cheap.

On up the west side of the lake past the extensive floating island 'gardens' on which the Intha ( local tribe ) farmers grow tomatoes, squashes, fruit and other vegetables on wooden trellises . I think the islands are staked to the lake bed to stop them floating away.

Then off west up an incoming river for a few miles which involved shooting a series of small rapids. Skillful boat handling here, and the jungle was closing in on all sides before we popped out into the tranquil village of Indien ( right ). It was reminiscent of that sequence in the film Apocalypse Now, apart from the scores of tourist long-boats waiting there.

By this stage, early afternoon, it was getting very hot! I told Mr Min that I was not so keen to see more temples, so we bypassed the Shwe Inn Thein Paya on the hill above the village. Left: This is it on being bypassed. Much of the complex, built in the 17th century, has become overgrown but many new stupas have been rebuilt. Keeping our shoes firmly on, we headed towards what Mr Min described as a very pleasant little place that sold Burmese wine. I had discovered previously that a German wine expert had established a vineyard on the hillside to the east of the lake and was now producing decent, export quality, red and white wines. The bar/restaurant was back down near the river and was indeed a most picturesque and comfortable place called the Bamboo Bar. The wine was perfectly good too and most welcome. Then back on board and fast downstream to the lake where, on turning north, we called in at a house which produces handicrafts and is staffed by the 'long-necked' women from the Paidaung clan.

Right: These surprisingly adorned ladies have stretched their necks beneath shiny brass rings. This tradition started centuries ago when tigers were a constant danger. It was considered prudent to cover the vulnerable parts of the womenfolk with brass to protect them in the event of being mauled by a tiger. I suppose this then became a fashion. They cannot take the brass rings off, even when sleeping, because otherwise their necks would collapse and they would suffocate. The neck pieces, made of solid brass, weigh a ton! They gave us an example to hold. I suppose one set of rings weighs, at a guess, about 4lb, or 2kg. They said the 'fashion' for this was dying out. How surprising.
Regardless, they seemed very cheerful ladies. I wonder how long they spend polishing each others' necks every morning. I don't suppose they do much swimming either. Diving yes, but not swimming .
I thought, for almost my very first full day so far in Burma, that I had got away without removing my shoes before bedtime. No such luck. Mr Min said I should not miss a visit to the Nga Hpe Kyaung, the Jumping Cat Monastery. We, along with about 50 other boats, pulled in at this fairly nondescript monastery on stilts to view the spectacle, without shoes and socks of course. Apparently, in between meditating, sleeping and eating the monks here got bored and having a profusion of cats about the place decided to teach them to jump through hoops. Well, I suppose with limited outside activities, no alcohol, no women and no TV that is exactly the sort of thing you might expect bored monks to do.

In fact it was a lady who appeared ( the monks were meditating or sleeping I suppose) and put the pussies through their paces before a phalanx of camera toting tourists. I mean, it is not exactly an earth shattering experience to watch a cat leap through a hoop ( not even a flaming one ), but they did and we duly watched. They were encouraged to do this by the lady holding a bit of cat food the other side of the hoop. I suspect their training also included a monk standing behind them with a poised size eleven boot.
It is surprisingly difficult to get a good photo of a leaping cat. They blur easily. I took several before giving up.

So back on board again and we set course for the one hour return trip to Nyaungshwe. It had been a long and interesting day. Mr Min had been an excellent guide with a great sense of humour. Shoes off and on once only!
Right: Back at 'base' the place was fairly full up with the returned long-boats.

Left: We grabbed a conveniently passing taxi back to the hotel. Mr Min went back home to watch Arsenal on TV, and me to wander the town for the rest of the evening. Its a very busy place with lots of watering holes to cater for all types of tourist who almost seem to outnumber the locals.

Right: So its goodnight from me, and goodnight from her. I never asked these girls if it ever gets a bit itchy down their necks and if so what they did to alleviate it. One of them was called Slinky.

Lazy morning tomorrow then, per force, a shortish flight from the local airport, Heho, to the beach on the west coast, the Arakan peninsular.


  1. Returning to Mr Kipling for a moment, I doubt that he was suffering from the affliction you refer to, I have frequently been a victim of that myself and have never seen flying fish playing in the road. I suspect he was 'chasing the dragon' which was a popular Victorian pursuit in those parts. Maybe there is something a bit special about his cakes after all.


  2. Chasing a dragon? I have met a few in my time and had the unfortunate experience of being chased by them! I meant to bring you some Burmese wine but I've gone and drunk it. Sorry.