Every third day it is the same, 5 am wake up calls, and just like clock work there is my driver ready and waiting to make sure I made my next flight. Duly checked in at Mandalay International Airport, I was to experience for the first time the backside of the Myanmarian flight industry. As the planes travel in a circuit of the so called tourist triangle, if a single plane is delayed it has the subsequent flow on effect that all flights on the circuit will be delayed. Anyway, after only a couple of hours delay we left the alluvial plains av the Irrawaddy River and headed into the Shan province and the mountains of central Myanmar bordering China, Laos and Thailand. The Shan people are still in weaponed conflict with the Myanmarian government however the violence has abated after signed ceasefire agreements. Political imprisonments and disappearances are still common. To this innocent wide-eyed traveller, you couldn’t tell.
Shan province is agriculturally and mineral rich. Most of the rubies found today in the world are found in this area. It has an abundance of gold and silver and provides most of the Teak we use. It also provides an abundance of crops & vegetables. On the down side the southern part of the Shan province is deep inside the “golden triangle” providing most of the world’s heroin & opium.
Travelling around Myanmar I have meet several different ethnic groups and now realise why they changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar. The Burmese represent only about a third of the population and occupy the central and north-western provinces bordering India & Bangladesh. Their culture and food contains heavy Indian influences. The Mon people occupy the central & southern provinces and are more like the Thai. The Shan occupying the eastern provinces and are heavily influenced by the fact that they border China in their food & culture. China also commits to a lot of local investment and I suspect wants to get a foot into the province’s mineral wealth. A lot of the weapons used in the arm conflicts in this area come from China.
After arrival at Heho airport, I was whisked away by car, over the mountains toward Lake Inle. Here we followed the old colonial railway as it constantly switched backwards and forwards across the road in and out of tunnels and climbed and descended mountain spirals. The train travelled twice the distance we did to get to the same place. Once out of the mountains it was down on to the rice paddy covered plains along the shores of the lake.
First stop was at the Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery, made of teak and incorporating a temple that was built by a Shan sawbwa (local chief) and the first president of the Union of Myanmar – Sao Shwe Thaik. A popular stop for tourists due to its large round windows filled with young children studying to be monks. From there, it was on down to the canal on the northern end of the lake to exchange my chauffeured car for a chauffeured long-boat for the next few days. At the heart of the Shan province is the famous Lake Inle (900 meters above sea level) where the leg-rowing Intha people live in floating villages upon the lake – Myanmar’s Venice. Hugh, his luggage and his guide on board, it was time to say bye to dry land for the next few days and head down the canal and out on the the lake for the 50 minute trip to the floating villages.
After the wind and the water on the lake and the fact that it was now at least 7 hours since I last ingested anything, first order of business upon arriving in the village was some lunch and a nice cold beer. 😛 I was treated to a fantastic view from my table over the canals and the daily hum-drum of the traffic as the locals went about there business in the little dug-outs. Suitably refreshed and refilled it was back to the boat and off down the canals to the lake again and then all the way to the southern end of the lake to take in some of the local businesses.
The Inle lake area is renowned for its weaving industry. Silk-weaving is a very important industry, producing high-quality hand-woven silk fabrics of distinctive design called Inle longyi. Here they also make a unique fabric from plant fibers of the lotus plan. You crack the stems of the lotus plant, draw it out and you obtain tiny treads which can be spun into a very durable type of thread (by rolling between the palm of the hand and a flat stone) and then woven into fabric. The work environment is not the greatest – rickety buildings on poles above the lake, hand looms and spinning wheels, hand dying over wood fires with an abundance of brightly coloured chemicals and only the wind for ventilation – however, you are always met with a friendly smile and a happy hello.
After the weaving shops we made a short stop at a blacksmiths where it took 5 men to work the molten steel – one on the bellows, one holding the molten iron and 3 hammering in the rhythm of peeling church bells. We also looked in on the local cheroot factory – dark green mini cigars with a blend of tobacco and fragrant beetle wood chips, rolled up in dried and flattened “tha nat phet” leaf. Short and sweet little cigarillos that really pack in the flavor. What they lack in size, they make up for in taste. Inle Lake is particularly known for its flavored cheroots; cigars rolled with dried banana, pineapple, tamarind, honey and rice wine. A packet of 10 small cheroots sells for a 1,000 Kyat, which is about NZ $2.o0.
After the industrial visits we toured the canals of the village and visited the floating gardens. We passed through the village just as school was getting out and all the dug-out canoes were filled with mums and giggling children. A change of perspective from mums in Volvos at the local schools in Sweden. The locals grow fruit and vegetables on the floating islands which are collection of floating weed and water hyacinth. These floating islands can be cut, dragged by boats and even sold like a piece of land. The floating garden beds are formed by farmers gathering up lake-bottom weeds from the deeper parts of the lake, bringing them back in boats and and binding them together in their garden areas and anchoring them with bamboo poles. These gardens rise and fall with changes in the water level so are resistant to flooding. The constant availability of nutrient-laden water results in these gardens being incredibly fertile. Hydroponics on a grand scale. Local fishermen are known for practicing a distinctive rowing style which involves standing at the stern of the boat on one leg and wrapping the other leg around the oar and paddling. This unique style evolved for the reason that the lake is covered by reeds and floating plants making it difficult to see above them while sitting in the boat.
The days activities over and time to see what my hotel is like. I think this is the first time I have ever arrived by boat to my hotel. All checked in I found I could see water through the floor boards of my room. and the result of living over water there is the chance of mosquitoes at night so misquote nets are essential. It also provided the chance to sit down and enjoy a cold beer, a cheerot 🙂 and watch the sunset settle over the lake. While sitting on the terrace I noticed the local police station was situated close to the hotel. Hopefully, not a comment on the neighbourhood 🙂
Dinner later that night I decided to try the well-known local cuisine of Inle, Hatmin jin – a rice, tomato, potato, fish kneaded into round balls dressed and garnished with crisp fried onion, tamarind sauce, coriander, spring onions and garlic, served with hnapyan jaw (twice-fried Shan tofu). Yum! 😛