We had been waiting to take our turn in one of the small boats motoring up and down the river that led into Inle Lake. Armed with a Myanmar beer we had watched both the local populace and the incomers from around the world go about their business from our vantage point outside the Queen Inn.
The Shan and Burmese use the boats to trade, fish, buy supplies and get home. They crouched in numbers within the vessel, protected from the sun by their head scarfs or wide brimmed flowery hats.
The tourists protected themselves from the elements too. They sat under umbrellas, spaced out on painted wooden seats mostly in twos, threes and fours. We were here to watch the local populace get around in their boats, examine their fishing and to see their homes.
An Inle Lake boat tour is both a massive (but fairly priced) tourist trap and genuine must do. If you are in Burma and take a boat trip here are some of the things you might see:-
Inle Lake’s fishermen traverse the shallow reedy waters of the lake in a unique one legged standing style, leaving their hands free to throw their nets. Witnessing this and just being in a boat while sunlight plunges into this magical lake and splits into ten thousand light sparkles is the highlight of the whole tour. This highlight comes early, straight after clearing the confines of the river, but there is an encore in the late afternoon on the way home.
There are plenty of other tourist filled boats on the lake but you rarely have to share your immediate vicinity with more than one or two at a time and there is little sense that we tourists have yet to overwhelm the fishing business.
Maing Thauk Village Market
When the boat touts around town made their infrequent and polite pitch to book a boat tour with them, the market was often used as a reason to take a tour today rather than tomorrow, but we didn’t meet anyone who hadn’t got to visit the market – no matter what day they went. (Though the touts might have been talking about Ywama Floating Market, which we did not see).
The market also seemed set up for local commerce though as this is a place where boats tend to converge there were plenty of tall white people traipsing about the place. But aside from a few stalls of tat – mostly near the entrance rather than in the market itself – no one paid us much attention. Most activity seemed to be centred around the local old dears sitting on the floor buying and selling things to each other and we rather liked that.
After the market our boatman took us back across the lake and down a small river. This is where the shopping tour begins. Riverside workshops demonstrate a particular craft – weaving or jewellery making – and there is a bit of an effort to make you buy something. The Burmese are not a pushy people so the sell is not too hard, even in these tourist traps, though I can imagine as the tourism industry in the country develops this will start to change a little and it will change in this part of Burma first.
For the most part the workshops were an interesting diversion and a chance to step out of the boat for a while. Whether it was the case or not most seemed to be genuine workshops where work would be going on regardless of the presence of us tourists. The jewellery makers would keep hammering their precious metals, the weavers would keep spinning and weaving their cloth.
The one exception featured two thoroughly miserable looking long necked Karen who started up whatever they were doing once we walked in and I assume stopped once we left. Otherwise this place was nothing but a store and the whole thing seemed exploitative and distasteful. All three of our party of four would, I’m sure, have loved a photo of the Karen but none of us took any. We just left.
The one demonstration our boat didn’t visit, but I would have liked to have seen, was the making of Burmese Cheroots. I might even have bought some too even though they are considered to be overpriced compared with elsewhere, with the markup for the boxed packaging. But, then, I’m a I’m a sucker for cigar boxes anyway.
Despite quitting smoking three years ago I still like to give my lungs a run out from time to time and developed a taste for Burmese cheroots a few weeks later in Mandalay. I felt safe knowing no matter how much I like them any habit will be quashed once we left Burma (though I know they sell them in the Burmese owned El Diablo’s Mexican restaurant in Chiang Mai and will be smoking a handful tonight).
Schwe Inndein Pagoda
After getting out the boat at a very touristy mooring we started along the road to the pagoda. Then we turned back down the road and went the correct way, along a dirt track up the hill towards the pagoda.
By this time our group of four had grown with the acquisition of some of the local children. Two boys quickly dropped off but the four girls stuck with us until the crest of the hill. They were nice at first, and we shared our drinks and food with each other, but started to demand payment for the unsolicited service of walking with us up the hill. Later, they followed us back down shouting ‘money, money’ in an annoying if impressively rhythmic chant.
In between I’d been enticed in to look at an idol by an elderly monk. Wearing boots and at an age where it takes ten minutes to take them off and put them back on again I hadn’t been particularly bothered with seeing yet another image of the Buddha but he was politely insistent so off went the footwear. He poured some tea, I shared some Fanta and made the right noises when shown the idol. We sat in awkward silence for a bit – him in serene contemplation, me feeling a bit of a prat – and then he pointed the sucker to the donation box.
Nga Hpe Chaung (Jumping Cat Monastery)
One day one bored, crazy monk rounded up all the local cats and started making them jump through hoops. Word spread and boat loads of tourists started to arrive to witness the spectacle.
I was looking forward to this. My imagination had got way ahead of itself long before we reached the monastery. I pictured cats jumping through fiery hoops while juggling smaller cats. There would be small specially designed motorbikes, latex costumes, crocodile pits, applause and extravaganza.
Back on Earth, the cats have given up with the jumping thing and this place should be named Cats Just Laying About the Place Being Poked and Prodded by Asian Tourists Monastery.
They are gardens. They float. It’s cool for about twenty seconds then it is time to move on.
The full day trip costs around 15-18,000kt ($16 to $19) per boat (depending on length of the tour). Many hotels will have a board on which to place your name and share the cost of the trip.