Day 74: Floating through stilt towns of Inle Lake
Burmese fisherman paddles his boat in the traditional style on Inle Lake. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
IT'S still pitch black as our bus pulls into the sleepy little town of Nyaungshwe, the jump off point for exploring Inle Lake and the surrounding countryside.
The VIP sleeper bus emptied at Kalaw, but filled back up with a handful of westerners switching buses at about 2:30am. Two minutes outside of town, we were roused from our sleep by a man selling tickets to the region for 12,500 Kyat. I'm out of Kyat, again. After some debate he agrees to take my ten dollars.
A few motorbike taxi drivers wrapped in blankets to ward off the chill of the night stand near a street light on the main drag of town. They linger, out of the way, but available.
“The guy we met said we don't need to get a taxi to anywhere,” one of the English girls on the bus says as she and two friends set out down the straight, wide main road.
In the distance a long, brightly lit sign runs down the side of a hotel. Without a reservation, like me, they are attracted to the light.
Aquarius Guesthouse was recommended to me, but it's not in sight. So, I tag along, though the Brits are clearly a well-defined group. The Brits get out ahead of me as I fall in step with two young French women: one pale and round faced, the other with the same face and hair as Laura, the French woman who played dice games with me in Bangkok.
A Burmese man rings the doorbell to Richland Motel for the Brits. A gate is opened and the group piles in, the French girls follow. I hesitate at the gate, waiting to hear what the price is. In front of the counter, in the half light of the lobby, the five of them stand, people attached to large colorful bags, rain sheets pulled over their backpacks.
“It's only 24 dollars for three people,” one of the French girls says.
One of the biggest expenses of solo traveling is accommodation, especially in a place like Myanmar, where the relative cost of rooms is so expensive. Having spent the last ten years or so usually traveling with Jackie or a buddy, I've become use to cutting room prices in half. Tonight, it looks like it's going to be divided into thirds as the French girls invite me to share the room with them.
It's a big room with a bench and two wooden chairs around a small coffee table. There is a large bed for the girls and a smaller one a few inches away, for me.
“Three is a strange number for a room, I think,” I say.
“No, two parents and a kid. You're the kid,” one of the girls says.
Once our bags are down and the motel owners have left, I introduce myself.
Melissa is the one with a narrow face and thick wavy hair, while Mariacamielle is the plump adventurous one with a delicate nose and stunning auburn hair. The girls both shower before bed.
Mariacamielle wanders out of the shower in her black under, setting the bar on how casual we are going to be around each other, which I'm grateful for. Up to this point, I figured I'd just sleep in my trousers, as I didn't want to make either of them uncomfortable. Now, however, it seems safe to strip down to my underwear before going to bed.
I slept on the bus here much better than the one to Bagan with Michelle. Michelle is a space Nazi. She immediately made it clear that there was a very real wall between our two seats, despite the lack of an arm rest. It's not that I was planning on hitting on her on the bus ride up to Bagan, but even before the bus got underway, she tucked my blanket into he crevasse between our seats. The entire night I was tense about accidentally sliding a centimeter or two over into her zone, or even having my blanket cross the line. Several times, on the brink of falling asleep, I could feel her tucking in my blanket, or perhaps hers. At these moments I simply ignored her.
Though this bus trip was far more relaxing, having a single chair to myself and neck pillow, I quickly fell asleep after crawling into my bed at Richland, as did the French girls – all of us sneaking in a few good hours of sleep before our free breakfast and boat tour.
The boat man, whose name continued to slip through my mind every time I heard it, carries the drone bag for me as we make our way down to the wide canal leading to Inle Lake.
The thin wooden boats in the canal are so narrow, they make a Thai long-tail boat look fat. Three chairs, nearly the width of the boat itself, are lined up single file for us, faded life jackets hanging from the back, velvety cushions on the seats.
Locals bathe in the canal leading from Nyaungshwe to the scattering of stilt towns on Inle Lake. Fisherman cast their nets at the mouth of the canal. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
The driver, a fat, tan man with milky eyes that have gone a bit yellow at the edges from bouts of Malaria, pumps the engine to life and we take off down the canal.
Tall homes and businesses are scattered along the banks. Small, three-step wooden docks lead to water, where women wrapped in sarongs wash themselves with the canal water in the morning sun. On one such dock a pair of women scrub laundry. Across from them, men take a bath in their underwear in the deep, red-brown water.
The canal is surprisingly clear of water hyacinths, which can rapidly clog a canal or even a lake, like bad saturated fats in the arteries. Instead, swaths of tall grass dominate the banks as the houses give way to a nature zone. On both sides, in the distance, are gentle mountain ranges, both painted a healthy green. Further up, there is an enormous digger. Though it's unclear how the piece of earthmoving equipment made it out to some stretch of solid ground, why it's there is easy enough to figure out: there is a reason there are only a few patches of water hyacinths.
The digger scoops up a bucket full of the aquatic plant, dumping them back on dry ground as a number of men wade through the water or assist from their narrow boats. This is, of course, basic “road maintenance” as the canal connects dozens of settlements around the lake to the main town of Nyaungshwe.
A backhoe helps remove Water Hyacinth from the canal. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
At the mouth of canal, two small fishing boats float in the placid lake. A fisherman stands on each of them, leg wrapped around an oar as they pose for pictures with a cone-shaped fish trap. It's a bizarre type of paddling unique to the shallow lake, which is filled with thick vegetation just below the surface. Again and again throughout the day we'll see the boats without motors being paddled by men using a single leg to guide the vessel forward as they cast their nets.
We pull up next to the fisherman dressed in simple, loose fitting shirt and pants and a conical hat. He shows us his catch, a handful of small Bluegill type lake fish, all too small for anything but deep frying and eating whole. By request, I tip the man a dollar for the photo opportunity he provided and we resume our trip across the lake.
It's very hard to know where the lake actually starts as it merges with swamp land, stilt towns and floating gardens. We pause next to fields of staked tomato plants, a couple conical hats bob in the sea of green, a few thatch stilt houses are scattered throughout the fields.
Moments later, we're at the Ngwe Sin Tun silver shop, a handsome, two-story building at the edge of on of the lake towns. The enormous structure has been built on stilts like the rest of the buildings in the lake area. It's hard to imagine how all the concrete and wood was carried out to build the shop.
“This is my family's shop. My father, uncle and brother all work here,” says a young Burmese woman who greets us at the landing.
Up stairs, the room is nearly barren. Three men work at different stations, using tweezers to work tiny pieces of silver.
The woman explains that they receive the silver ore from the Shane State. The ore is ground into a dust melted and then goes through a chemical bath to separate the silver from other metals. What is left is 100 percent silver, which is then diluted as necessary for price and strength.
The woman holds up a tiny fish pendent. The fish, jointed like plate armor, wiggles as she moves it. Its red eyes catch the light from the far window. There are two types of jointed fish at Inle Lake: jumping fish, for women, and swimming fish, for men, she explains.
The next room we are ushered into is the gallery. There is case after case of silver jewelry, many pieces studded with gems harvested from the mines around Mogok, where 90 per cent of the world's highest grade rubies are mined.
The gems used for most of the silver jewelry are from Mogok. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
I wiggle a few of the fish pendents, looking for a swimmer, among the low-grade silver fish, but there are only jumpers. On the far side of the wood paneled room, filled with natural light, are fish made from higher quality silver.
Genuinely wanting the articulated fish pendent as a memento from Myanmar, I hand it over to the dice. If it's a one, two or three I buy the big one (20 dollars). It it's a four or five I but the small one (13 dollars). If it's a six, I don't buy anything.
The dice hits the counter: it's a three.
“Is this glass or resin?” I ask pointing at the fish's tiny little red eyes.
“No, it's spinel,” she says. Even better, spinel is one of those wonderful semi-precious minerals that I adore, as it is often used as a reasonably-priced substitute for a ruby, my birth stone.
“What's the most expensive piece you have?” I ask, feeling more confident now that I've purchased something.
I'm led to a case of bedazzled necklaces, riddled with gems.
“This is all rubies,” the young woman says as she takes velvet clad manikin neck decorated with a silver necklace encrusted with rubies out of the case. It's a stunning piece of jewelry – I don't even ask how much it is.
“Okay, I'll buy you this one,” I tell Mariacamielle as she comes over to examine the piece with me.
She laughs. Fortunately, we both forget that I'm supposed to buy the piece for her before we leave; I'm sure I couldn't afford it even if I sold my motorcycle.
Next up are the weavers at Inn Joe Phyu. An old woman sits on the floor among a pile of cut lotus stems.
Here bony, suede hands slices of about five centimeters of lotus stem, slowly pulling the piece away, drawing out dozens of wet threads. She twists them and then presses them onto the table and into the bit of thread she's creating. It's rainy season, so there are more threads, making it a stronger. However, the final product won't be as white as those created in high season, which are worth more money.
Her toothless, puckered mouth doesn't smile as she works, though she seems content with her work.
Another young Burmese woman, like the one at the silver shop, gives us a tour of the processes. There is the clacking of the weavers on their giant looms going to work with cotton, silk and lotus – depending on the project.
It can take more than a month to make a single scarf from start to finish, we're told.
Mariacamielle, in her desire to try everything, asks permission to try one of the looms. It takes several attempts for her to get the hang of where her feet go and how hard to pull the cord to shoot a peg of thread cross through split, vertical threads. Watching her learn, I suddenly realize how little of the process I understood, despite watching intently back in Myawaddy.
The fiber from the lotus stems is drawn out and turned into thread, which is then woven into scarfs and other pieces of clothing. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
It becomes clear that the boat tour is in fact a local handcraft tour as we go from one establishment to another. For a place that allegedly is just now opening up to tourism, the major destinations, such as Bagon and Inle Lake, seem to be well-established for catering to tourists. Each of the craft places we visit has a full shop house at the end of a tour, where the process for making this or that is explained and demonstrated, sometimes on a level that appears to be just for show.
Next up is the hand-rolled cigar shop, another stilted building in town.
I say town, and not village for a reason. This aren't a small collections of single-story buildings. These are large networks of canals woven into the lake and wetlands bordered by enormous two-story, wood paneled houses, restaurants, post offices and so on. These are well established towns.
These weren't tiny stilt huts, but proper multi-storey houses out on the lake. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Mariacamielle and Melissa have both quit smoking, so they don't try the cigars, though the one rolled with star anise, smelling like Christmas, and the banana flavored one are both strong temptations. I roll the die, but it chooses passes on the chance to smoke. On the way out, Melissa caves, she asks for the die and give herself a one in six chances of trying the banana cigar, which is allegedly unique to the area. The die shoots down the temptation, so we pile back into the boat and head out for lunch at one of the dozens of restaurants in town, all well marked by the type of beer or whiskey they sell.
Women sat on the floor rolling cigars at another stilt house. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
“Where do you want to go next,” our boat driver asks, his eyes becoming more and more glazed as the day goes on, as he continues to get pleasantly high on something. “Long Neck village?”
Mariacamielle seizes the opportunity with glee – it's a childhood dream. As a child, she saw a picture of the elegant, long necked woman and without even knowing where they were from was set on following in their footsteps. It was only after her mother lied to her, telling her that if the women removed the necklaces their heads would flop to one side because they lacked the muscles to keep them straight, that Mariacamielle abandoned the idea.
This was her chance to see them in real life, and she didn't even know it.
The Long Neck area was only a few houses away from our previous stop at the papermaker. There is a bit of a scramble inside as we disembark. It's a dimly light shop, cluttered with handcrafts from silver bracelets to wooden instruments and bamboo boxes. Around the corner, at the far end of the long shop, are two young girls.
They sit on a woven mat, their faces heavy with the traditional makeup of the Long Neck people, brass necklaces iconically wrapped around their throats, pressing their collarbones down. Their is a melancholy beauty to the girls, their eyes mostly avoiding ours, their lips brightly colored, but pressed together without pleasure.
Silently they weave.
Melissa can't even approach them. Mariacamielle does. She tries to talk to them and leaves a tip in a bowl for them after snapping a few photographs. However, both Mariacamielle and Melissa are disturbed.
“They don't smile. It's like they are trapped,” Mariacamielle says.
There was something very difficult to watch about the 'Long Neck' children put on display. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
I play a bit of the devils advocate with French woman. But at the heart of it, they are right, it's just a little souvenir shop playing off tourists' hopes of seeing something authentic. But instead, we're confronted with two human beings put on display, beautiful children unable to control their future.
A storm has gathered momentum in the distance over Nyaungshwe by the time we arrive at Hpaung Daw U Pagoda.
I've had my fill of pagoda, but here we are.
It's large golden phallic jutting into the sky. At the base, locals are packing up a souvenir market. As we walk by, a few attempt to make one last sale before calling it a day. On the far side of the flagstone plaza, a group of children kick a ball around on the white tiles.
Up the stairs, at the center of the pagoda, are five chunks of gold. A television shows live security footage of the chunks of gold as a handful of locals pray, legs folded beneath them.
“They [the lumps of gold] look like shits,” the French girls later point out, when it seems more appropriate to speak our minds. And in fact they do. The lumps of gold, a couple of them looking more like the bottom two balls of a melting snowman do very little to inspire. I find myself wonder if they are connected to Nats, spirits, and have been incorporated into Buddhist tradition in the area.
It turns out that they have nothing to do with Nats at all. Somewhere buried beneath the gold leaves are five small, gilded Buddha images. Signs near the slightly raised platform in the middle of the pagoda, where the images rest on a pedestal, state that only men are permitted to place gold leaf on the images.
It turns out that their are ancient Buddha images buried beneath all the gold. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
I tired. It's been a long day. But it turns out that it isn't over yet. The storm in the distance is heading our direction, our boatman dodges down a thin canal to the Nga Phe Kyaung Monastery.
After ten days in the monastery in the south, I have no interest in lingering at this one. However, we disembark and wander up a couple steps to the well worn floors of the main hall. The wood is soft from the oils of a million foot falls. A dozen or so mismatched Buddha images at the center of the room rise out of the gloom. A mama cat and her kittens nap in the middle of the empty space. A handful of tourists and locals mill about the place of worthip.
By the time we get back to the boat, the rain has just started to reach us.
“Do yo want to go or stay and wait?” our boatman asks.
There is a few moments of indecision. I pull out the dice: evens we stay, odds we go.
I roll. We stay.
Sitting on the porch outside the monastery we watch the storm drive over the nearby floating tomato gardens before it reaches us. It's not a hard rain, but it's rain.
“Here,” the boatman says, signaling that I should swing my legs over toward him. Mariacamielle is attempting to give Melissa a foot massage, which is what prompted his offer to give me a massage.
I sit back as his big, rough hands dig into my legs. He knows exactly what he's doing; he's been trained. The massage waivers on painful, as his fingers dig deep into my legs and feet. It's perfect.
Soon, the storm passes and we climb back into the boat. As promised, the boatman allows Mariacamielle to drive us to an area that we can swim.
The boat cuts through a thick underwater forest. Floating on top are icebergs of Water Hycnthia, inches below the surface is a dense field of long, brown-green Hydrilla.
Our driver cuts the engine, we float to a stop.
The girls refuse to jump in.
“I'm going,” I say.
Pulling off my shirt, I dive into the thicket of marine plants. They swarm me, wrapping me up as the momentum from the dive dissipates. The water is a murky brown now that the sun has begun setting behind the western mountain range. Slowly I surface, kicking a little as I rise.
I miss the water.
I call out to the girls.
I splash around for a few minutes. Diving beneath the boat, I'm wrapped in the long tentacles of Hydrilla; they are like the long arms of water nymphs wanting to hold me beneath the surface forever. Eyes open, I watch the dark shadow of the boat pass above me then swim through an especially thick patch of marine vines. They catch on the hook of my heel as I rise back to the surface. I feel at home, a merman back in the water after spending too much time walking in the sun.
The long strands of the marine weed hang from my shoulders and head when I come back to the surface. Mariacamielle is already jumping in, with Melissa hot on her heels.
There is an initial freakout when they hit the water, melissa swimming in a tight circle like an anxious dog. However, it's all laughs in few moments. Our driver sticks a long bamboo pole down into the water, driving it into the mud about two meters below the surface. The girls cling onto the rode, taking a break from the efforts of staying afloat.
Clambering over each other the girls play on the big piece of bamboo, laughing as they go. For a moment, there is a pause as they stop very close, faces to face. It's the moment that two people kiss. You can see something flash across their faces before it's gone and they are back to playing.
I found myself pondering the nature of the girls' clearly deep and beautiful friendship later that day. Photo: Isaac Stone Simonelli
With a great deal of effort the boat man is able to help drag the girls back onto the boat. Diving to the bottom of the lake, my legs sink into the mud as I haul up the piece of bamboo. Momentarily, I'm curious about whether or not I'll get myself stuck in the process.
Back on the boat, the setting sun allows the evenings chill to seep in. I give Mariacamielle my hoodie. In the cold my arms develop chickens skin, my protruding veins sinking deep into my forearms, conserving heat.
It was a long, but wonderful day on the lake. Photos: Isaac Stone Simonelli
Back in our room, we shower and then head up stairs for dinner before bed.
There is a great amount of confusion about what to do tomorrow. We want to to the hike to Kalaw, but the girls think it's possible to do it without a guide. I'm not a fan of the idea, but look into it online.
It can be done, but not easily. And, given that we are all on a serious time crunch, it's probably not the best idea. However, when we asked local tour shops about the costs of doing a two-day, one night hike, they all quoted a price that was a bit too much.
After a great deal of back and forth, we conclude that it's best to just figure it out when we have more information in the morning.
The girls cuddle up together, while I sprawl out in my bed, causally wandering if there is something beyond friendship between the two. Sleep is fast on the heels of the silence that follows.
In the early hours of the morning, I open my eyes. Mariacamielle's shirt has slipped down. A single soft breast is visible in the light through the window. I consider staying awake a few more minutes to enjoy the view. However, I simply smile to myself and gently close my eyes falling back to sleep. We have a big day of hiking a few hours from now.