Boat trip on Inle Lake

Who needs arms?

Who needs arms?

It seemed a shame to come to somewhere this nice and not see the lake, so I opted to join Mark and the Poles (and the other Polish couple who I’d shared the bus to Kalaw with – they were in the same guest house) on a day trip. They’d haggled a price of 15000K for a boat for the day, which is – from what I gather – the upper end of reasonable.

Of course, it meant a moderately early rise. I got up and had breakfast which was plentiful and delicious – possibly the best scrambled eggs I’ve had in a long time. As I was getting ready to head out, the guest house owner knocked on my door and offered to move me upstairs to a nicer room at no extra charge – en-suite and so forth. Sadly, I only had five minutes to make my way to my meeting point and my stuff was all over the room as I was doing a major re-pack, so I had to turn him down.

Boat gridlock

Boat gridlock

As it turned out, I may well have had time as the Poles were still eating breakfast (and continued to do so) for about ten minutes after I met them! Shortly, we all walked down to the riverside and tentatively stepped on board the narrow boat that we knew wouldn’t tip over… but didn’t trust nevertheless.

The first stage of the journey was a long one down towards the southern end of the lake. As we travelled, we saw quite a few fisherman with the unique leg-rowing action and conical fishing net/cage structures. We asked about these cones with nets inside and they’re dropped onto fish which the fisherman sees. As the water is quite shallow, this traps the fish and he can then spear it from above more easily.

No blood was shed

No blood was shed

There is a market which changes location from day to day and this was our first port of call. Boats were berthed three or four deep and traders were rowing speedily towards arriving tourists so they could get the first sale in before the foreigners even found land. On shore, the nearest stalls were all selling much the same tourist tat as we’d come to expect, but further in was a lot more interesting – and photogenic.

Silk from flowers

Silk from flowers

Small children ran round as their mothers shopped in the fresh fruit “department”, and a whole “aisle” was made up of shops selling nothing but 1-foot-diameter rice cakes of various types. Household goods were elsewhere, small restaurants dotted about and one lone hardware shop was located more or less in the centre. Fresh fish was, unsurprisingly, near the water’s edge and very crowded.

At the far end, the market ended and a small village began. At this edge, a row of barber shops was resident and I saw people with scissors eyeing up my beard. I moved swiftly on with Mark in tow and located a cock fight. Bizarrely, no money was changing hands, and – fortunately – the birds hadn’t been fitted with any weaponry as I believe is the case in some places. Instead, the birds were squared up to each other – much as they would do in a farmyard – until their feathers stood on end. I’ve never seen an angry cockerel (Mark would call them “roosters”) before. They’re every impressive.

Guns in a temple?

Guns in a temple?

The birds would then circle and flap at each other a lot for a couple of minutes until one had an obvious advantage over the other. At this point, before either animal was hurt, the fight was ended. And no money continued to not change hands. It all just seemed a matter of pride for the owners.

I did pick up a couple of souvenirs. Some old cash (an enormous 100 Kyat note and a Japanese Rupee note from WWII) and some trinkets for the family back home. I spread my spending over a few retailers, who needed the “lucky money” as their first sales of the day. I’m keeping my eye out for some 45- and 90-Kyat notes at a reasonable price. No reason other than they’d make nice keepsakes. Name me another country with currency issued in 45- and 90-unit denominations!

Melting silver

Melting silver

Stop number two was a silkworks, where imported silkworm silk and loaclly-gathered lotus flower silk is woven to make various products. The lotus variety is very expensive as the flowers aren’t exactly common. The end products are also more rough-looking than their worm-born equivalent, but that’s just my opinion. As well as a look at the gathering, weaving and dying procedures we ended up in a showroom for a while. Some pieces were around $200, others a very reasonable $5 or $7. Regardless, clothing isn’t something I’m after so – along with the rest of the group – I left without buying anything.

Next up, after a sail around some villages on stilts with gorgeous kids waving at us, was lunch. I think we spent most of the morning in the boat, but there’s still a lot to see without stepping ashore anywhere.

View from above

View from above

After lunch we were taken to a rather large and glitzy pagoda, and were beaten there by a bunch of very self-important oiks in uniforms who paraded ashore in their finery, likely paid for by drug money from China. I don’t think they noticed that when I was waving at them, I was only using one finger. Actually, this was quite good as half of the entourage were armed with machine guns and bandoliers of what looked like grenades. You’d almost think they were unpopular.

The pagoda was nice, but we spent most of our time trying to get photos of the men in uniform precisely because this was something we weren’t supposed to do.

No irrigation needed

No irrigation needed

Back on board, we went past the floating gardens (why irrigate when you can plant your tomato crop on the lake?) and pulled into a silversmith’s workshop. Again, we got a quick look at the manufacturing process from smelting (or the silver equivalent) to filing and carving. And then into a shop. I popped outside and stood on a lovely wooden bridge instead. Well, I don’t “do” jewellery and if I did they don’t take Visa here anyway.

Boat-bound again we drifted past a large collection of stupas and into the umbrella factory. I guess we’d call them parasols as they’re designed to keep the sun off rather than the rain. The construction process is pretty impresive – even the paper is hand-made from tree bark before being spread and dried, then fitted to the framework. The end result is hefty and not too expensive.

They're cute everywhere

They're cute everywhere

Oh, we visited a tobacco / cheroot manufacturer as well but I didn’t bother taking pictures and stayed outside while everyone else puffed on free samples. Traditional or not, smoking still stinks.

Our final stop was the Nga Phe Kyaung, more commonly called the “Jumping Cat Monastery” in the tour books. As a monastery, it’s pretty standard. But they have cats. That jump. Through hoops vertically placed above their heads. Which is pretty cool, really.

Cats. Hoops. Bounce.

Cats. Hoops. Bounce.

One of the monks got talking to Mark after the usual “where you come from?” questions. It then got al political as we met about the only person outside of the US Bible Belt who actually likes George Bush and McCain. And he’s a monk. Well, they do say that the news coverage in this country is skewed somewhat. I still find it bonkers that a person who lives a life of peace and non-violence with no luxury can side with a greedy war-monger.

On the way back, we made one final stop in the middle of the lake so that four numpties could jump out of the boat and swim around for a bit. I was not one of those numpties! To be honest, I was more bothered about getting back into the boat than jumping out and it was a little hairy as three Poles and an American heaved themselves back about. And I panicked about my passport being in my pocket.

Dry-weather umbrellas

Dry-weather umbrellas

Half an hour later and we heaved back to “port” without paying the $3 levy that we’re supposed to simply for being in the area. It’s not well checked around Inle Lake and I didn’t even see where you’re supposed to buy the things. Regardless, the locals won’t see a penny of it anyway so if you are in the area do your best to avoid it. You’re only buying caviar for a drug baron.

Dinner that evening was really enjoyable. We picked a restaurant – Miss Nyaung Shwe on Phaung Daw Seiq Road – and they agreed to make some dishes that weren’t on their actual menu, in particular a peanut curry. We ordered and then headed to our hotels to get ready.

Back at Gypsy, I met the smiling owner again at reception as I organised my bus ticket for the nexy day. He quoted me 12,500K which was lowest price I’d been given so far and I opted for it. Roughly 1000K an hour is what you get to expect for bus trips. However, he couldn’t help with a motorbike to the junction 10km away where the bus stops – only with a taxi which was 2-3 times the cost. However, he did tell me to use the shower in his house as it had hot water. Star.

Very cheap!

Very cheap!

After wandering the streets round the market trying to find someone with a motorbike who’d give me a lift in the morning (it was too late and most people had gone home), I used a travel shop near Mister Cook on Phaung Daw Pyan who charged me a hefty 4500K. I’d expected to pay no more than 3000K even given the 4:30am start, but I guess if you go through a third party then they’ll want their percentage.

Dinner was great. I had a very nice chicken curry and a banana/chocolate pancake. Including a beer it came to 7000K – on the upper side of reasonable, but there’s no denying the quality of both the food and service. It was a good night, and a parting of the ways for most of us as we’d be heading different directions over the coming days.

I headed “home” to pack and put my head down for a few hours with my alarm set for 4:15am. Argh.

[The following video can be viewed in hi-def by going here]

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