Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Inle Lake, Myanmar

Posted on April 28th, 2005

Before I left Bangkok, I made Herculean efforts to buy tickets on two domestic Myanmar flights. This task was vital because I knew I would be pressed for time during my short stint in Myanmar and as much as I wanted to bond with the locals and subject myself to the notoriously excruciating, unreliable, long haul overland trips within Myanmar, the option simply wasn’t realistic. What’s more, considering my advancing dotage and escalating desire for comfort, I didn’t particularly want to put myself through that kind of guaranteed anguish, no matter the cost savings (yes, I’m starting to go soft, if you don’t like it screw you). I tried to make reservations on both Air Mandalay’s and Yangon Airways’ web sites, which it turns out are owned by the same people and have the same sub-standard, non-functioning coding on their web site reservations forms. For some reason buying domestic air tickets outside of Myanmar is much cheaper than buying them within the country, so it was a budgetary imperative to complete these purchases before blasting off from Bangkok.

Well, like many bureaucratic arrangements in Myanmar, there were a few snags. First of all, I discovered with great dismay that you can’t actually make a reservation on these web sites, you can simply fill out a form showing interest in taking a particular flight. After the form is submitted, a representative from the airline is supposed to contact you via email to confirm your seat and arrange payment. Both web sites ended up giving me the same inconspicuous, almost undetectable, error message at the very bottom of the screen when I submitted the forms, saying something had gone screwy with the submission process and giving an error code. On both occasions I sent emails to the addresses that I was referred to, stating the issue, providing the error code and listing the flight I had been trying to, um, show interest in. On both occasions these emails were ignored and thus I arrived in Myanmar with no flights booked.

Waiting for the bus

This is how I found myself at noon on my second full day in Myanmar being the only Pinkie sitting at a far-flung, half ruined bus station outside of Yangon, steeling myself for the 18 hour trip north to Inle Lake. The monetary price was certainly right (6,000 kyat or US$6.50), but I was going to pay dearly in physical discomfort, sleeplessness and an overall danger level that I have never previously submitted myself to voluntarily. I paid an extra 1,000 kyat to get on what was supposed to be an air conditioned bus, and it did indeed have air con, but the air flow was at such a pathetic trickle that you couldn’t actually feel cool air unless you put you hand directly on the vent above your head. More over, for some reason when the bus was moving the air flow all but ceased, as if the bus was outrunning the air oozing through the shafts before it could reach the vents. This fanciful, unlikely explanation was reinforced each time we got on or off the bus and passed the vent directly next to the driver which was powering out sweet, cool air at gale force. Our noontime departure compounded with the ebbing air con, meant that we were in for a full on beating from the overwhelming mid-afternoon heat. Additionally, the bus was packed. Every seat was taken, including the fold-down, instant-fatality seats in the isles that virtually guaranteed death-by-trampling if any kind of problem arose, including an urgent bathroom episode.

I later saw a sight that sobered my gripes about my broiling hot, half-a-seat. Not long after leaving Yangon, we passed a bus that had been altered into a double-decker without adding any ceiling space. It was just a standard bus, with a slap-dash infrastructure welded together, splitting it into two tiny, cramped levels. It was full to bursting and people were folded up and jammed in there like cookies with only enough space to sit in a permanent squat position. It was a torture chamber on wheels and if we hadn’t been passing it at 80 KPH, I would have taken a picture for evidence to send to human rights groups.

While I was the only non-Myanmar on the bus, thankfully I wasn’t the only oddity. A women sitting directly in front of me looked equally out of place on the otherwise peasant-filled bus. She was groomed to perfection, with beautiful, well-kept hair, adorned in western style makeup and jewelry, wearing pants and an expensive blouse. With Myanmar’s social hierarchy pretty cut a dried, it was probable that this woman was from a well-to-do military family, but how she came to be banished to the over-night, slow-roast, agony bus I couldn’t imagine. Perhaps Jeves fell ill.

Before getting on the bus, my curiosity compelled me to buy a weekly English language newspaper that a vendor was pushing on me at the bus station called “The Myanmar Times.” While we inched through traffic to get out of Yangon proper, I absorbed the entire thing, cover-to-cover while sweating extravagantly all over it to get a sense of what, if any, freedom of the press was being permitted these days. Surprisingly, while the brunt of the paper focused on innocuous stories about the country’s fuel consumption, efforts at a more robust Internet infrastructure and what Angelina Jolie has been up to, there were also a few, quietly topical stories that made noncommittal mention of the political situation. The strongest piece was about a recent visit that Myanmar’s Prime Minister made to the Philippines to shore up new trade agreements. During the visit the Philippine delegation respectfully commented on Myanmar’s current lowly standing worldwide and the resulting sanctions due to its well-publicized human rights issues, saying that they didn’t feel that sanctions were the best way to deal with the problems. They then went on to politely declared that they intended to advise and help Myanmar with these issues in order to improve its global standing. For his part, the Myanmar Prime Minister admitted that there was room for improvement within his country and welcomed the offer for assistance from the Philippines. Though there’s a good chance that this banter was just political bullshit for the media’s consumption and that no one will follow through on any of it, I was impressed that there was at least an acknowledgment of the issues by a Myanmar government representative and, even better, that a domestic Myanmar newspaper was permitted to print this information. Then I went on to read the latest update on the Michael Jackson case. (Jesus butt-paddling Christ, you can’t fricking buy a Michael Jackson CD in Myanmar, but the tedious details of his abuse case get as many column inches as a story on Yangon pollution control. Thus, I believe I can comfortably speak on behalf of all Myanmars when I say “Who the Disco Buddha is Michael Jackson?”)

My seat was fairly far back in the bus, which made it possible for me to only see views to the side of the bus, without being privy to what was happening up front, or more importantly, how many near-fatal accidents we were eluding. Like in much of SE Asia, driving in Myanmar is lawless, white-knuckle excitement, not for the faint of heart or even the mildly sober. Lanes are painted on the road, but this is just a theoretical suggestion as to where to place one’s vehicle rather than a specific guideline. Vehicles drift around the road at whim, passing on both the right and left hand sides, often when there is questionable space to accommodate such a maneuver. The kicker is that even if everyone suddenly agreed to drive in an orderly fashion, Myanmar roads would still be a non-stop adrenalin rush due to the whims of Burma’s former military dictator, mass murderer, back stabbing, astrology dough-head Ne Win. Myanmar had been yet another colonial victim of the British driving conventions, steering wheels on the right hand side, driving on the left. This was all peaches until the late Comrade Win took the counsel of his seer to “move the country to the right” a little too literally and proclaimed that with immediate effect, everyone would be required to drive on the right hand side of the road. (Fun Fact: Another, thankfully temporary, nationwide mind-screw and economic catastrophe Win pulled off was when the numerology fixated kook had banknotes issued in 45 and 90 kyat denominations because both numbers were divisible by his lucky number, nine. Even by Myanmar standards, this guy was over the top and extremely dangerous both directly and passively, first to the people of the country and then later as a coup threat to the government after he resigned from office – the 45/90 banknote disaster wiped out many people’s savings, none of which, of course, was ever reimbursed. He spent his final days under house arrest for various treasonous accusations and his son-in-law and three grandsons barely dodged death sentences for the same and are instead jailed for life.)

Anyone who has driven a vehicle in this conflicting arrangement knows that it’s ripe for disaster, particularly while passing. When I drove a British Land Rover through Morocco and Spain, passing on the left on a two lane road was a two man job. The person on the passenger side was responsible for keeping tabs on oncoming traffic and when a suitable gap appeared, they would alert the driver and help guide them through the passing maneuver. Our bus had three guys up front. One to drive, one to coordinate passing and one to roll and distribute betel chews to the other two.

Once every few hours the bus would stop for a bathroom break or a meal at some backwater café. It was hard not to notice that the air temperature was arguably just a hair better outside the bus than inside, though this could have just been a result of getting a little fresh air circulating around one’s body. Ultimately, I sweated profusely for all but the last two hours of the journey. Even if I could have gotten some sleep in these conditions, I was being regularly jostled by the young boy sitting next to me. Like all Myanmars, this boy could sleep like a dead dog in the most dreadfully uncomfortable circumstances. Like everyone else on the bus except me, he was unconscious for nearly the entire journey and despite being only half my sized and in a deep coma, this boy managed to take up the equivalent space of two grown men. His preferred sleeping position was to be sprawled out, half on his father who was in the isle death seat and half on me. There was rarely a moment when this punk’s arm, knee, elbow, foot or head wasn’t invading my space and gouging at my ribs. Moreover he was filthy and I was not thrilled about him transferring his grime onto my freshly washed clothes, though with the sweat-wash I gave myself during that trip, I suppose it didn’t really matter in the end. Every once in a while I’d shift position, while subtly shrugging the boy off me and back onto his side of the seat, but within moments he’d perform a deep-sleep, full-body flail and end up half on top of me again. I can’t be certain, but I think I slept for a cumulative 13 minutes over the course of 18 hours.

Thankfully, the Myanmar countryside turned out to be the all-consuming, foreign distraction that I hoped it would be. Since it was too hot to sleep or read without raining sweat down and ruining the book, I spent much of the afternoon and early evening just watching new things go by. Rural Myanmar is little more than a dust bowl this time of year, but it has tons of character. Little settlements lined much of the road we were on and nearly every home had a shop of some sort in front, seemingly living off the traffic going by. The houses along the road were mostly constructed of woven bamboo with thatched roofs, though there were also several concrete structures that were under construction. The giant ditch between the road and the dwelling required each door to have a little bridge leading up to it, some comprised of a mere single plank of wood. During the few instances when the landscape wasn’t being obscured by these roadside settlements there was little more to look at than miles of open, dry plains that looked incapable of supporting life, but I’m told things get significantly greener outside of the hot season. When we hit the mountains the sealed, relatively smooth road (remember, I said “relatively”) ended and the precipitous, climbing and descending, narrow, dirt, unprotected winding glorified donkey cart trail began. Passing oncoming vehicles was delicate at the best of times and I was more grateful than ever to be far enough back in the bus that I couldn’t see how we were about to die until after we had narrowly avoided it.

When I wasn’t engrossed in the new and engaging scenery I was doing my best to tune out the music on the bus sound system being played at arena concert volume. Though some of the songs were native Myanmar music, the vast majority were covers of western songs, sung in Myanmar, with backing music courtesy of a 1982 Casio keyboard. I tried to out-blast this assault on the ears by cranking up my MP3 player, but it was no use. When the sun went down, one of the guys up front popped in a DVD. The “movie,” for lack of a better term, seemed to be made up of a long series of short, disjointed sketch comedy scenes, like Saturday Night Live. The scenes lasted from 30 seconds to two minutes and nearly always starred the same hapless married couple that seemed modeled directly from Ed and Peggy Bundy from “Married With Children.” The woman would inevitably smack, kick or beat her husband sometime during these scenes and this action was widely regarded by the people on the bus as being the funniest thing in the history of the universe. After what seemed like dozens of these scenes, the content switched without notice to what I presumed to be a romance story, though this one dragged on for an interval of a full-length feature film. As it was all in Myanmar, I couldn’t understand a thing, but it appeared to be about a budding relationship with lots of issues. The sound track only had one song, the Myanmar translation to “Kiss of the Rose” by Seal. The song was played as backing music whenever one of the lovers was having a pensive moment which was every two or three minutes. And of course, this too was played loud enough for Buddha himself to follow along from heaven or wherever forcing me to be an unwilling viewer for the entire “film.”

To my great surprise once the one song, romance flick drew to a close, the guys popped in another movie which turned out to be a possibly just released (and pirated) Denzel Washington movie (being as far out of touch as I am with popular culture, I can’t be sure), though I noted immediately that they set this one at a near inaudible volume. The film was about an alcoholic guy (Washington) who takes a job as a bodyguard for a little American girl in Mexico who is then kidnapped. Denzel gets capped five times during the kidnapping and just as he was coming out of his coma and the Mexican authorities (who were in on the kidnapping, mum’s the word) were framing him for everything one of the guys at the front of the bus unceremoniously ejected the movie. I thought that perhaps we were about to pull into a rest stop and they would resume the movie when we were moving again, but there was no rest stop. He just decided that he’d seen enough of the film. Asshole. I spent the rest of the night trying to sleep while intermittently bucking the little kid off me.

It wasn’t until our 3:00AM pee break that I took note that the same guy who had guided the bus out of the station in Yangon 13 hours earlier was still at the wheel. Either they don’t have or they don’t enforce mandatory driver breaks in Myanmar.

I was dropped off at Shwenyaung junction, about 11 kilometers outside of the city of Nyaungshwe, the staging point for Inle Lake. It was only 6:00AM, but there was an industrious tourist targeting go-getter waiting for me. He offered to give me a ride into Inle for 5,00 kyat (US$5.40). Now in any western country this fare would be a steal for an 11 kilometer ride over rough, suspension busting road, but in Myanmar it’s two and a half days wages for the average schmuck. Though I was half-delirious from dehydration and sleeplessness, I recalled that Lonely Planet had mentioned something about pickup trucks taking people into town, but I couldn’t remember the going price and I was too lazy to fish the book out of my bag, plus I was dying for a bed, so I just agreed to the price and hopped in the car. My delirium lifted slightly during the ride and I made the comment about how the price for the 30 minute ride into Inle was nearly the same price as the 18 hour ride from Yangon. My driver, a one Mr. China, or so he said, explained that private “taxis” had to charge more for their service because they didn’t get the government fuel discount. I was pretty sure that my bus company didn’t have any ties with the government, but I was too tired to press the issue.

Though I instructed Mr. China to take me to a roundly revered hostel called Remember Inn, he drove me directly to the Gold Star Hotel “just to look at the rooms.” This is a common weasel maneuver among touts, take the tourist to the more expensive hotel to get the bigger commission, but I was told that the rooms were only US$9 and they did in fact turn out to be very nice. They even had TVs, which I was surprised to see had BBC news. Longing for some pillow time, I relented and checked in. As I collapsed into my bed, I pushed my hand into my pocket to fish out my watch to set the alarm, only to come out with the key to my room at Motherland. I was crestfallen. Those people had been wonderful to me and here I had taken their room key on a tour of northern Myanmar. I resolved to call them, explain the situation, profusely apologize and swear to return in a week to with their key (putting it through the mail probably would have taken months). After a lavish four hour nap I was up and touring the town.

One of numerous restaurants popping up on the lake

Nondescript and mundane, Nyaungshwe is merely the access point and one of several supply stations for the real attraction, the stilt villages, wet farms and Intha people of Inle Lake. Take Venice, rebuild it in wood and bamboo, remove most of the dry footpaths, the double-wide butted tourists and the unpalatable, expensive food, then add waist-deep wet farms, mostly unspoiled villages and young girls that go bug-eyed and giggly at the site of my shiny, bald head and that’s Inle Lake. There are 17 villages scattered over the 22 kilometer long lake as well as all the components of a regular city; supply stores, markets, restaurants (though nearly all of these are tourist targeted), craftsmen and a steadily growing tourism infrastructure. Aside from a few villages located on dry land and the occasional earthen “field” barrier that doubles as a serviceable walking path, everything here is done on water. Trips to the market, ferrying goods and people, tending the fields, getting a cup of sugar from the neighbors and, sadly, lazily disposing of trash and human waste, though with the complete lack of advanced plumbing in most places, I suppose the latter is unavoidable. With Inle being a veritable Myanmar-caliber ground zero of tourism, people with the inclination and cash can stay at a few posh stilt resorts located directly on the lake, but the rest of us have to while away their off-lake time in perfectly nice, but amusement starved Nyaungshwe.

I noted immediately that stepping out into the mid-day sun wasn’t nearly the same instant butt-sweat, spirit wilting, torment as it was in Yangon. I hadn’t realized that Inle/Nyaungshwe were located at a higher, cooler altitude, but I was gratified to not be instantly soaked in my own sweat for the first time in months. Having slept half the day away I was advised to save my boat tour of the lake for the following day. This was fine with me because I needed the extra time to find a companion to share the boat and take the sting out of the rental fee. Unfortunately, it became immediately clear that this wasn’t going to happen, at least not at the Gold Star, because other than a Myanmar traveling businessman, I was the only person staying there. One of the selling points of the Gold Star had been that it was just a block from the river and boat jetties, whereas Remember Inn was on the other side of town (a difference of only 500 meters of walking, but still…). But now I was going to have to walk all the way across town to the Remember Inn anyway in order to find some boat mates. So much for that perk. Thanks a bunch Mr. China.

Monks collecting food alms.

By Myanmar standards, Inle Lake is a very well beaten tourist stop and if you didn’t know this from reading your Lonely Planet, you would figure it out on your own after just a few minutes of exploring Nyaungshwe. Tourist targeted hotels and restaurants are plentiful, even dominating at times, with every sign conveniently written in sometimes hilarious, but passable English. On my way to the Remember Inn, I stopped for lunch at an LP recommended Italian restaurant called Golden Kite, a place that boasted homemade pasta. I got the fettuccini with pesto and it was delicious and I realized while I sprinkled delightfully fresh cheese on my food that I had not eaten cheese in months. This gave me pause as I realized that other than the occasional egg, my dairy intake had all but ceased in SE Asia and I was probably well on my way to acute osteoporosis. As I ate I stared longingly at the wine racks. I hadn’t had decent wine since leaving New Zealand and the temptation to order a bottle was incapacitating, but it was only noon and I had lots of travel arrangements to square dance through, so I resisted the urge to get wild on an overdue wine bender. The restaurant was doing very well which was evident by the shocking number of knock off Italian restaurants that had sprung up around town. In an effort to cover all the bases even places that claimed to be “traditional Myanmar” restaurants had signs dubiously boasting lasagna, pasta and wood-fire pizza next to curries, fish and soup.

At the Remember Inn, I found that while the rooms weren’t quite as swank as at the Gold Star, they were nearly half the price. My retrospect annoyance with Mr. China ballooned. Being mid-day, the place was deserted of travelers. Everyone staying there had long since departed for their lake tours and new arrivals weren’t expected to roll in until later that evening. I was going to have to make a return visit if I wanted any chance of finding companions. Sigh.

Nyaungshwe’s market

To salvage the trip across town, I cut through the Nyaungshwe’s reserved market on the way back. After being a near-rock star in Yangon, I was disappointed to be met with almost complete indifference by the people in Nyaungshwe’s market. Since no one had any intention of fawning over me like I so richly deserved, I only lingered long enough to take a few pictures before moving on. During my stroll to the river, I impulsively stopped at an independent tour office that had an Air Mandalay sign prominently displayed out front. I was still shell shocked from my bus trip from Yangon and I had no intention of making a similarly arduous journey when it came time to head south again. I was going to spring for a plane ticket, no matter the cost. Despite the low-tech, pen and paper organization of this office – which, like most businesses in Myanmar, turned out to be run out of the front room of someone’s home – in just a few minutes, with a single phone call, I had a one-way ticket from Bagan to Yangon, that was only a tiny bit more expensive than the Internet price I was trying to get, meaning I could have probably sprung for a flight from Yangon to Inle and not put myself through 18 hours of butt-pounding cruelty, but that would have cut about 2,500 words of literary excellence from this travelogue and Buddha knows that we couldn’t have that. After all, I know most of you are reading this from work and I’d hate to have you being more productive than absolutely necessary.

After sealing that deal, just for kicks, I decided to check my email at the tour office’s single internet terminal. Though I had been assured that all web-based email was blocked by Myanmar’s firewalls, miraculously, I was able to access my email and even managed to send off a few messages with the snail paced connection speed. Later I noticed a sign outside the office boasting that Yahoo and Hotmail were also accessible. I never learned if this was due to the government lifting it’s web-based email restriction or if this place had somehow managed a clever workaround.

Nyaungshwe’s river boat jetty

At the river, I was immediately accosted by a modest, friendly woman for a lake tour. Having already gotten a brief taste of the aggressive hassling by the other boat operators, I found her approach to be sweet and beguiling, not to mention 2,000 kyat cheaper than what that little, wild-haired twerp Mr. China was offering to arrange for me (cue mushrooming of Mr. China loathing). I took her up on the offer and arranged to meet at 7:30 the next morning, hopefully with a friend or two in tow. While we talked she led me to one of the tool shed-sized convenience shops on a side road made of the ubiquitous woven bamboo and thatch, which was being run by her niece and nephew, who were equally charming. I ended up sitting and chatting with them as best as I could in broken English and my newly acquired Myanmar phrases, while I enjoyed a coconut juice beverage.

By this point I was more than ready to wash my hands of Mr. China. The railroading to the high-priced hotel, the expensive “taxi” ride, the attempt to soak me with an over-priced lake tour and, I eventually discovered, a bus ticket padded by 800 kyat that he enthusiastically arranged for me had exceeded my tolerance for the usual low-level, constant tourist grifting that is a regular part of travel in this region. While this is expected at some level, I was irked that the same guy was repeatedly hacking me, nickel and diming for every little thing, whereas most Myanmars were perfectly happy to get one commission or tip and then drop the act. The problem with cutting him off was that, as previously mentioned, I had charged him with the task of obtaining and delivering my bus ticket to Mandalay the next afternoon, at which point he was to give me a ride back to Shwenyaung Junction to catch said bus. I had to somehow get the ticket out of him, let my disapproval of his behavior be known (full-on displays of anger or conflict are decidedly uncool and avoided at all costs in most of Asia) and then either convince him to drive me to the junction for a drastic discount or ditch him altogether and take a pickup (a mere 500 kyat, versus the 5,000 kyat he was charging). It would be a touchy situation, but I was determined to stop the flurry of cash contusions I was taking from this guy.

No, I wasn't drunk when I took this picture, that house is about to fall over.

Myanmar 7-11

When I returned to the hotel, I asked the clerk to contact Mr. China and tell him to bring my bus ticket at 4:00PM the next afternoon, instead of 5:00PM, so I would have time to catch the last pickup to Shwenyaung Junction. This request seemed to put the clerk on edge. He nervously informed me that Mr. China was expecting to drive me there himself. I wryly replied that Mr. China was a shit-eating shyster and that I was about a likely to give him head as I was going to give him 5,000 kyat for a return ride to the Junction. Well, I didn’t say it in those words exactly… Take out the “shit-eating shyster” and giving head parts and you pretty much have it. The clerk changed tactics, gravely informing me that the pickup was a bad idea as it would be very slow and make many stops. I told him I had nearly three hours to make the 11 kilometer trip and that I wasn’t worried. Sensing that I had managed to crack the real price of things, the clerk, barely hiding his panic suggested that Mr. China might give me a discount. I showed manifest pessimism at this possibility, but agreed to see what the discount might be.

I swung through the Remember Inn later that evening only to learn that the lone new arrival of the day was a Canadian guy who was deathly ill and had no intention of getting out of bed for a lake tour on a rollicking boat until he could at least keep down bread and water. The staff suggested that I try again after 10:00PM when more people were likely to arrive, but I was too tired to make the journey yet again through the pitch black streets of Nyaungshwe. I was going to have to shell out the full 7,000 kyat for a boat on my own.

I had dinner at Hu Pin, a Chinese restaurant also recommended by LP, which reported that it was the cleanest place in Nyaungshwe, not an easy achievement in a town primarily composed of dirt and betel chew loogies. Sure enough it was spotless. The waiter invited himself to join me for dinner, asking me countless personal questions (“No! For the love of crap! I’m not married!! And I don’t intend to be for the rest of my existence unless it’s to Salma Hayak and an obscene amount of money is involved!!!”) and spending much of the time transfixed with the angry notes about Mr. China I was furiously tapping into my Palm Pilot.

Back in my room, as I monitored the Pope’s impending death on the BBC, I fired up the calendar on my Palm and planned the rest of my journey through Myanmar down to the hour. It wasn’t going to be pretty. What I thought would be plenty of time to see all of my destinations - by my crazed, rush-rush standards anyway - had somehow considerably dwindled, mostly owing to the full day I lost with that damn 18 hour bus ride. I was going to have to race through Mandalay in two days and absolutely scream through Bagan in about a day and a half in order to catch my plane back to Yangon for a one night layover, then fly out to Bangkok. I went to bed early to hoard sleep.

At 7:30AM the next morning I exited my room into the refreshingly the cool haze and walked through the gauntlet of jabbering lake guides and touts along the river to my arranged boat at the far end of town. I was mildly surprised upon arrival that my captain and guide wasn’t going to be the woman I met the day before, but her brother. Unlike the smiling, likeable woman, the brother was sour and serious, seemingly unhappy about the prospect of guiding a tourist around all day. He lightened up considerably when I engaged him in conversation, unleashing the full gamut of my Myanmar conversational phrases, and we were pals from there on out.

As we motored down the river out to the lake, I complimented myself on the resolution to forego the offer for the 6:00AM sunrise tour in favor of more sleep. The haze on the lake was thick enough to spoon into my coffee, meaning an appreciable sunrise would have been a bust. The 7:30AM first-light however was moody and wicked, allowing me to take countless, arty, silhouetted pictures of the fishermen laying out their nets from their tiny, dugout boats.


After thirty minutes of zooming down the river and then slashing across the lake, stilt houses amid a sea of lake vegetation and scattered bamboo pole markers materialized through the fog. As we got closer I could determine that these were actually, deteriorating dwellings in an abandoned “neighborhood” which had been mostly stripped of their useful components and the entire place was now just a skeletal ghost town of sorts. After skirting along the edge of the deteriorating settlement for several minutes, my captain executed a sudden sharp turn into a break in the vegetation and, after a minor delay to puree through a section of the canal that was being taken over by a thick, onion-like plant, we arrived at one of Inle Lake’s water villages.

Trapped in lake soup

The waterway “streets” were lined with surprisingly large, two and three story, longhouse-like dwellings. There were intermittent slivers of earthen walkways here and there and the odd rickety bridge traversing the waterway, but mostly it was just houses sitting over water. It was a Saturday morning, so things were pretty quiet. There were some kids hanging out windows shouting ‘hello’ at me and a few people were climbing into the family canoe to run errands. My motor boat was drawing plenty attention, as the locals mostly relied on thin dugouts which they either sat in and paddled or stood and propelled using circular strokes with long pole-oars like gondolas, but with a strange twist, where they wrapped one leg around the oar for leverage and power and then essentially rowed one handed, leaving one hand free to lay fishing net or smoke a cigarette.

One handed/legged rowing

Not pretty, but still functional!

After a perfunctory tour of the village, my captain jetted across more open water, down a narrow canal and finally stopped where the canal became choked with parked boats. He indicated that I was to get out and walk to the market, “25 minutes” away. There was about five minutes of confused back-and-forth between us following this development. Yes, I was to go tour the Saturday market. No, he would not be accompanying me. Yes, it was really a 25 minute walk in that (vaguely pointing) direction and - despite having a wide open view of the landscape and seeing nothing resembling a market all the way to the distant mountains - no I shouldn’t have any trouble finding it. So I tentatively set out.

Mere steps from where I was dropped off, a go-getting woman was waiting for me with a folding table of cheap souvenirs. I started to worry that she might be just the first of an army of vendors camped out and waiting for me along the way and that perhaps the Saturday market was only a “market” in the sense that it was a place for tourists to be hassled into buying crappy knickknacks. Minutes later it started raining significantly. Fortunately, I’d had the brains to bring the cheap, ¾ length raincoat that I had picked up on Borneo for US$3 which stemmed the possibility of getting the US$1,000 worth of fragile digital camera and Palm Pilot in my day bag unnecessarily wet.

The meandering dirt road that was hopefully leading to a market of some kind was lonely and nearly deserted of people. Once in a while I’d encounter a wobbly old man or a giant wooden cart being pulled by two water buffalo and piloted by a couple kids under the age of 10, but otherwise it was just me and my imagination which was typically running wild about the possibility of me blundering into one of Myanmar’s no-foreigners-allowed areas and being tossed into the hoosgow. The road was bordered by wet and dry fields with the intermittent, far-flung house dotting the landscape, some featuring screaming and waving children hanging out the windows. There were no people and no signs confirming that I was heading in the right direction, but as my captain had promised neither were there serious forks or turns to deliberate on, so I could only assume I was still on the right track.

After twenty minutes I came to a wooden canal bridge solid enough to support a car and on the other side the Saturday market was going full bore. My worries of it being a thinly veiled tourist trinket bazaar were completely squashed. The place was about as touristy as East St. Louis at 2:00AM on a Sunday morning. Even if I had wanted to buy something at this market, I had few choices as nearly everything on sale was some kind of basic staple; raw meat, vegetables, spices and produce, with only a few stalls selling manufactured goods like flip flops, clothes, basic home necessities and cigarettes. One ambitious guy actually had a glass case on wheels, displaying cheap wristwatches. There were some permanent stalls set up on raised wooden platforms, under open thatched-roofed shelters, but there was an equal number of people who just staked off a spot for themselves on the open ground and laid their goods out in baskets or spread out on cloths and woven bamboo mats with tarps tented up to protect everything from the elements.

The market's parking lot

I was the only tourist there, which baffled me because back at the canal there were at least three other motor boats with tour company logos decorating the sides. Where the heck were those people? Hopefully they hadn’t bumbled into a forced labor camp and found themselves in spontaneous new careers. In any case, I relished the surreal feeling of being the only Pinkie in a mostly primitive market full of people who were going about the dutiful business of supplying their homes for the week. Of course, I stuck out like a 200 foot Reclining Buddha in the Christian Science World Headquarters parking lot. I tried my best to remain inconspicuous, quickly whipping my camera out for pictures of the action and then stowing it away again, but my gleaming, freshly shaved head, my clothes, not to mention my height – not even average by western standards - had me towering over everyone else, forcing me to walk under the temporary tarps stooped over like Yao Ming at a 7-11. As usual, adults were split between openly gawking at me or ignoring me, while kids and girls went ape-shit, yelling, giggling and trying to stealthily spy on me, until I would swing around and catch them in the act and they’d scream and scatter. At one point I had an entourage of about eight teenaged boys following me around, asking me basic questions, pondering my camera and transforming me from tourist to the main attraction.

At one end of the market there were a few lively games of chance going on, involving dice the size of a soccer ball and a tic-tac-toe board with colored chips and different animals in each square. Fistfuls of deeply worn, dirty money were being passed around. I was still in the company of the gaggle of teenaged boys and I asked one of them if it would be OK to take a picture and I was flatly told that this would not be a good idea. I would learn later that gambling is among the long list of things that will get you thrown in the slammer forever in Myanmar and despite this happening in a very public place, no one wanted to risk being caught on film.

The market atmosphere was endlessly fascinating for me and I dearly wanted to hang out, but if I wanted to get in my full Inle Lake itinerary I needed to get back to my boat. The walk back to the boat was enriched by the stream of people heading home in the same direction. I talked and laughed with many people, taking a few pictures and playing the oddity for small children which I embellished, making faces and ape noises as they squealed and ran for their mothers. I briefly stopped at a sorry looking, neglected pagoda on the way back to investigate it’s humble offerings and dazzle a few loitering kids with my digital camera.

My boat captain had done a little shopping in my absence. The boat was now half full of some exotic bundled wood. We motored off and started a comprehensive tour of Inle’s craft shops. First stop was the paper making shop. I was given a quick course on the paper making process before being led into the shop and presented with a complimentary thimble of tea which I sipped while watching a collection of women using the shops paper products to assemble hand fans, parasols, and umbrellas. I was then invited to peruse the well stocked souvenir shop, which I respectfully passed through, but purchased nothing.

Hammering the pulp

Setting the pulp

Making parasols

Back at the boat, a few members of Inle’s “floating market” – women in canoes with souvenirs on display - had homed in on me and were laying in wait. I flirted with them for a few moments and then hopped in my boat and zoomed off.

Floating market

Next stop was the silversmith. When I arrived, the six guys working in the shop leapt up from their food, drink and naps to return to their work benches where I observed and photographed them crafting miniscule components for silver jewelry and trinkets using rudimentary tools. I was presented with more tea and then steered yet again into the shop for a hard sell on their products. As always I had no intention of buying anything, particularly a soft, precious metal, that was going to take up space in my bags for another four months and probably get smooshed in the interim. I gulp down my tea and left quickly. The floating market had caught up with me while I was inside and tried to sell me the same things all over again, like I hadn’t just seen them 15 minutes earlier. Fortunately, as I was trying to brush them off another tour boat carrying four German’s arrived and I tiptoed off during the confusion.

My boat guy asked me if I was hungry and indeed I was. He took me to a stilt restaurant that had the looks of being an over-priced, tourist trap, slinging crap food, but I was heartened to see that the prices were virtually the same as the restaurants in Nyaungshwe. Even better the food was fantastic. I love theses little surprises about traveling in Asia. If I had been in a similarly remote, yet popular locale in Europe, you could bet your milk money that the food would have been barely edible and unabashedly three times the normal price, but this kind of blatant tourist buggering simply wasn’t happening in SE Asia. Even in a restaurant in the middle of a lake, high up in remote mountains that had to have what I assumed to be oodles of logistical problems in presenting clean, savory meals, the proprietors actually made a point of providing acceptable levels of service and quality, while not taking advantage of their near-captive audience and charging ludicrous prices.

As I ate my delicious plate of chicken and vegetables with cashews over rice and smiled and winked at the waitresses that slowed and gave me goofy smiles as they passed my table, I became aware of a single, particularly captivated admirer. A stunning young waitress had taken up position a few tables away from me, sitting sideways on a chair, with her arm and head resting on the back, shamelessly staring at me with longing eyes. Though I was finally becoming accustomed to the constant attention from women and girls and even finding ways to innocently and nonverbally flirt and delight them, this girl was giving me the most intense, laser-guided, conspicuous lust vibes I had yet experienced, including Bangkok (not counting lady-boy prostitutes). Whenever I caught her staring, she wouldn’t look away or break into an embarrassed giggle like most girls, she would simply brighten her smile and keep her eyes locked on me. She looked to be about 15 years old, but what with most people in this part of the world looking wonderfully youthful, I had to assume that she was probably in her early to mid twenties. She had beautiful brown eyes and the darker completion of someone who has done her share of outdoor work. Her medium length, dark hair was pulled back in a single braid and her only attempt at makeup was a layer of understated red lipstick on her full lips and the requisite smudge of sand wood powder on her cheeks. Though she was clearly a plain village girl doing the only work available to her, this girl’s natural beauty would have vaulted her to the height of social popularity and success that can be gleaned by simply being beautiful and good natured in most western societies. With my mouth full of food and the distance between us I couldn’t speak to her and it didn’t matter as she was soon yanked out of her trace by a managerial type person to wait on a table of recently arrived Pinkies.

"Nice Restaurant"

Out for a cruise

Though she was now in action and being forced to function, I noted that her eyes were always back on me whenever possible. I finished my food, paid and left while she was still on task. When I walked around the front of the restaurant to get down to my boat, I took a quick peak in the window only to see her staring back, ignoring someone’s order.

As I jumped into my boat, a group of Myanmar women and girls arrived in a tour boat and started yelling to me in English. I slyly pulled out my camera and executed my now well practiced maneuver, telling them “min ayan le deh” (you are very beautiful) and when they shrieked and laughed, I took their picture. As my boat pulled away, I blew them a kiss and with the resulting crazed screams you’d have thought a naked Brad Pitt had just dropped out of the sky.

Sensing that I’d had my fill of being led through souvenir shops, my boat guy took me to the Lake’s only pagoda, Phaung Daw Oo Paya. For a pagoda in the middle of a mountain lake, it was indeed impressive, but unassuming and small by regular standards. In a grand departure from other pagodas, there was an unfriendly man sitting at a desk near the entrance demanding a photo fee. Though it was only about 300 kyat (about 33 cents), I passed on principle and was not sorry about my decision once I was inside. It was quite nice, but not photo-fee worthy.

Phaung Daw Oo Paya

Some kind of cerimonial barge

The very delicate and expensive lotus thread is painstakingly eased out of the plant like this

From there it was back on the crafts circuit. We stopped at a weaving shop that I actually really dug. Not only because they were doing it old school, with the giant, manual, foot-powered looms, which looked mind-bendingly difficult, but also because the clothes they were making were beautifully bright and sharp. I wasn’t sorry to be led into the shop this time as the stylish shirts and shocking affordable prices had me immediately abandoning my firm anti-souvenir attitude. I had my heart set on one of the traditional, Shan-style shirts, but the problem was they were all too big for me. It was confounding. Here I was the tallest and broadest person in the room, but due what I assumed to be the owners targeting big, fat tourists, even their smallest shirts were draped on me, shoulder seams half way down my bicep, gapping sleeves big enough for a truck to drive through and a bottom hem long enough for me to go pantless without anyone being the wiser. I had put so much effort into browsing and admiring the colors that this size issue made the clerks and owners a little frantic to sell me something, anything. First they tried to convince me that the over-sized smalls didn’t look that big me and besides the half silk, half cotton blend would shrink a little in the wash, but I was firm. I wasn’t going to leave the shop with a shirt that made me look like I was at a Talking Heads “Stop Making Sense” theme night. Then they offered to custom make a shirt for me and have it sent to my hotel the next morning, but I was leaving on a bus for Mandalay that night, so that was out. Finally, someone emerged from a back room with a fiery blue, flamboyant shirt that had ‘party shirt’ written all over it. It fit well and while the intense blue was a little much for the eyes in daylight, I was sure it would make the ladies swoon at night. With my quirky taste in unusual colors and styles thoroughly tweaked, I bought the shirt for a mere US$7.

With everyone satisfied, I was escorted to my boat and jubilantly seen off by nearly every employee in the shop.

My soaring mood crash-landed at the next stop, the Lake’s hand-rolled cigar shop. The rollers were entirely made up of adolescent girls. I was served tea and had to admit seconds later that I didn’t smoke, so the sales pitch was thankfully dropped, which left me to talk to the girls and take pictures. All but one of the girls was between 14 and 16 years old, with one women being in her early 20’s. They rolled the cigars with basic tools, all of them with a deftness that allowed them to virtually never look down at their work, leaving them free to chat and eyeball the Pinkies. Using a fresh leaf as the vessel to hold the ingredients together, they threw a dash of tobacco in, rolled it, inserted a filter made of bamboo and glued the leaf closed with sticky rice goo. I was told that the girls could roll 100 cigars an hour, producing an average of 1,000 cigars a day. It took a second lock onto these numbers and then math backwards, but I suddenly realized that they were working 10 hour days, meaning they clearly were not in school. I decided to save the pompous “why aren’t they in school?” line of questioning for when I was with someone with a better command of English and not directly profiting from the work of out-of-school youth. The girls’ pay is 20% of what they produce, so if they crank out 1,000 cigars, they take home 200, which they in turn have to go sell at the market during their fleeting free time in order to make actual cash. Apparently these cigars are only smoked by people in rural regions. City folk prefer manufactured cigarettes, considering the leaf cigars as unrefined and strictly for country folk. As far as child labor goes, I suppose this was pretty benign, but it was still crushing to see firsthand. Rather than causing a scene and handing out enough 1,000 kyat notes to the girls so they could buy the shop and put the owners to work, I downed my tea and left.

My last artisan stop was at the blacksmith. I was in a sour mood and I had long since filled my daily quota of overbearing hard sells, so I didn’t spend long here. I took pictures of the impressive coordination of four men sledgehammering a single, red hot piece of metal with machine gun rhythm, which was being formed into a short, machete-like blade. The shop mostly had weapons, shields and gongs on display, with a few shelves devoted to statuettes of various Buddhist images. After cautiously playing with a few of the more threatening blades, I thanked them and left.

From here, I was taken on a wandering but fascinating tour of the wet tomato fields. Some people were tending the plants from the edge of their dugouts while others were standing in waist deep water. There were yet more people trolling back and forth in larger dugouts, dragging the water and pull out some kind of nasty looking, snarled weeds. I got the feeling from watching this that these people probably had to deal with more mud, gunk and moisture invading their lives and homes than probably anyone else in the world. I fell into a daydream where I imagined that each home had a decontamination zone just inside the front door where everyone had to strip down, deposit their cloths into an air tight, contaminant safe-box, then get sprayed down from head to toe by a fire hose and blow dried before finally being allowed to enter the house. At least that’s how it would work if it were my house.

Dragging the "field" for sludge.


The last stop of the day was thankfully a little more of a cultural oh-wowing, the Nga Phe Kyaung (A.K.A. Jumping Cat Monastery). This ancient monastery doesn’t look like much from the outside – indeed it looks like a bunch of interconnected, abandoned shacks – but the interior reeks of primeval holiness. It also reeks of cat piss. It ain’t called the "Jumping Cat Monastery" for nothin’. There are cats everywhere and I took note that not a single one of them was jumping or even walking around in a spirited way for that matter. In fact they all seemed to be stoned on incense, as they were all bizarrely curled up on the floor in the exact same catatonic - could lazy cats be the origin of this word? Anyone? - position on the floor, unmoving even when people tried to pet or prod them. The only other tourists in the monastery was an English family, though their precocious daughter took time out from entertaining a monk to inform me that they were in fact from Hong Kong.

"Sitting on Their Asses and Arbitrarily Pissing on the Floor Cat Monastery"

The souvenir girls outside the monastery had a field day flirting with me and joking about my bald head. One girl playful tried to sell me a hair pin. It was at this point that I realize that I might be the only shaved headed, non-monk in Myanmar. I briefly flashed on the entertainment value of switching clothes with a monk for one day, filming me walking around town and then sending the tape to “Myanmar’s Funniest, Decidedly Non-Democratic and Non-Government Criticizing Home Videos.” I sealed my legendary status with the girls by assaulting them with my artillery of basic Myanmar phrases before jumping back into my boat.

The monastery isn't much to look at from the outside

Inle Lake, indeed Myanmar in general, was turning out to be much more intense than I had imagined. I was being battered at high speed by strong emotions and strange urges all day long. Among other things, in just the past seven hours I’d wanted to live in the market town, apprentice in the silver shop, rescue one of the 14 year old girls at the cigar shop, marry the gorgeous waitress and study at the monastery (being a devout non-believer of all forms of religion, this impulse was more to experience the monk way of life than attain any level of spirituality). I have an unpleasant history of swinging through acute mood oscillations, particularly when I’m mentally fatigued and Myanmar was definitely pushing my buttons in this regard. And I was only half way through it.

I hadn’t bothered to look at my watch since lunch, so I was devastated to see now that it was already after 4:00PM. I grunted, flapping my arms like a startled pigeon and in full blown tizzy mode I reminded my boat guy that I should have been back in Nuangshwe already and why hadn’t he taken me back sooner? Apparently there had been a bit of a miscommunication, he’d screwed up what time I wanted to be back (4:00) with the time that I had offhandedly mention that I needed to be at the pickup truck departure point (4:45). My bad for offering too much information and now I was screwed. Nuangshwe was a good 30 minute ride away and even if we went full bore, there was no way I would have enough time to retrieve my bags, settle with the hotel, pry my ticket out of Mr. China and make it to the last pickup truck leaving for Shwenyaung Junction. I had no choice but to get a ride with Mr. China.

We motored back to Nuangshwe. Since I was hosed anyway, I had the boat guy slow down repeatedly to take some of the same pictures of fishermen that I had taken on the way out that morning, but with the benefit of better lighting. I got one last mind-f*ck out of the day while we were heading up river to the jetty. I was preoccupied with something on the right hand side of the boat (probably girls) when my captain suddenly slowed down. Knowing that he only did this when there was something cool to look at I whipped my head around only to see a little boy that appeared to be standing on water. Did a double take and discovered upon closer examination that he was in fact standing on an almost fully immerse water buffalo that was either walking or swimming up the river. It was one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen. He was standing on it’s back, holding onto the buffalos nose ring rope, surfing along like a horseback circus performer. I took many pictures before returning my gaze forward only to see another boy sitting in a dugout and driving along a small, single file herd of water buffalo up the river in a surprisingly orderly fashion. Just as I was marveling at how docile these things were, the head buffalo decided he was going to head out on shore and have a snack in the tall grass. The buffalo behind him, followed suit and so on. The boy in the boat started yelling helplessly and another boy on shore came racing out of a house to shoo the beasts back into the water before they ate all his family’s grass. It was a well-timed laugh.

Talk about guts.

When I got to the hotel Mr. China and one of his cronies was waiting for me. Since a throw down right there in the lobby would have been socially uncool and possibly resulted in me losing my only ride to the Junction, I held my tongue until we were practically at the Junction. I started out by asking him about the discrepancy in the price of the bus ticket. He countered saying that the price I had gotten was for a different company and that my more expensive ticket was on a better bus. Then I unloaded on him in quick succession over his inflated boat tour price, his bum-rushing me into the more expensive hotel and the seemingly over-priced taxi ride into town when I first arrived. By now we were at the Junction, so I closed the show on his non-stop theater of lies with a flourish by going after him about his supposed name. I had him on his heels, he was stuttering and making lame excuses. Finally, sensing all else was lost, he locked onto the bus ticket issue, swearing that he had not padded it. Having caught him at a half dozen lies already I wasn’t in the mood for this. I told him that in lieu of his actions that I was only going to give him 2,000 kyat for the ride to the junction, take it or leave. He whined that 2,00 wouldn’t pay for the gas, but again I was convinced that he was sorry liar and I had no sympathy. He finally accepted when I mentioned that I would talk to the MTT (Myanmar Travel and Tours, the gummet’s tourist arm) office about him. He relented took the money, and asserted one last time in his defense that I go to the bus office and check the price of the ticket.

With him out of my hair, I sat down at the café in front of the bus stop, ordered a meal and took out my book to pass the 90 minutes I had to wait for my bus. After an interval of calming down I decided to wander over to the phone booth-sized shack that functioned as the bus ticketing office to check the price of the ticket. When I asked the woman she hesitated for a second, narrowed her eyes and said “6,000 kyat,” the price Mr. China had charged me. So, I was left with three possibilities; either Mr. China had gotten her in on the plot while I wasn’t looking, she herself was padding the price for a little payday at my expense or Mr. China wasn’t lying for once. My terminal and often ass-biting desire to want to believe people are being honest whenever possible ate at me and I finally resolved that perhaps Mr. China had not lied about this one detail. As if on cue, the man himself strolled past the restaurant and I ran out to tell him I had confirmed the bus ticket price. I apologized about chastising him in that regard, while reiterating that I still wasn’t too happy about the rest of his scams and it would behoove him to take a slightly less predatory approach to his future clients to avoid similar confrontations. Finally feeling at peace I ate my dinner and eventually boarded my over-night bus to Mandalay.

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©Leif Pettersen 2012