I thought I was done with my winter clothes at Heathrow. Sadly not. We were staying in a guest house right on the water’s edge at Nuang Shwe, 3 or so kilometres down river from Inle Lake, eastern Myanmar for 3 nights. Warm in the daytime, fecking cold at night, this place had me wearing my hoodie and socks on in bed, freezing. All was beautifully sunny in the day though so the night time chill was forgiven.
Predawn at 0600 hours we stepped into our long tail boat wearing as many layers as possible plus blankets to keep out the freezing mist shifting around on the water. Headed up river towards Inle Lake, reed lined channels led off either side to floating gardens, distant grey pagoda silhouettes and tiny villages before we eventually emerged onto the vast wide open glassy lake itself. I can’t tell you how welcome the thin warmth of the sunrise was to our faces especially for Antonia at the front of the boat who wearing my gloves on her feet!
It was really quite something visually processing all this alien watery space and total exposure to this incredible landscape. Passing the occasional floating clumps of water hyacinth, we approached the outskirts of the first village on stilts, very young children with colourful baskets paddled past us smiling and waving on their way to school, we’d yet to meet a Burmese person who didn’t smile and wave.
Most buildings were substantial well organised wooden houses, some with satellite dishes (and underground parking as Andy pointed out with their boats tied under the stilts). Others were small simple huts, just so unworldly.
Soon after, towering bamboo forests appeared on the far shore with some kind of logging operation, men wearing longyis driving oxen carts working together on the banks that could have been a scene from hundreds of years ago.
Our first stop was a local market at the far south end of the lake that our friendly guest house owner recommended apparently not a full on tourist destination like the ‘5 day market’ in the guides. It took us a couple of hours to cross the length of the lake to get there, ambling in we felt really conspicuous being the only foreigners, dressed like we’d been camping at a festival for a week with our layers on, tribes women in fluero coloured checked head scarves, men walking around with shocking pink shoulder bags and betel juice stained teeth, livestock, food, farming tools, just about everything. Andy and I ate some delicious caramalised onion and cauliflower crispy samosas and churros style doughnuts. Then came the Inda textiles, where Antonia dressed up in full garb trying everything on, we could have left her there, she’s a natural! Andy bought a natty yellow check scarf. I caved in and bought deep pink (surprise) Inda bag for my Thai beach odyssey in a weeks time. Feeling a bit bolder now that we’d grappled with some stall holders and their local produce Antonia surreptitiously got her camera out, we didn’t want to get brazen but it was too tempting not to get some shots in, I mean this was National Geographic GOLD.
Buuut….walking back up to our boat… Merde! .. there were 3 long tail tour boats of tourists pulling up with another 4 or so behind them! I mean what kind of pillocks were we? Thinking we were the only intrepid visitors out here on this side of the Lake?? Well… we had our little bubble of time to ourselves with the locals and it was grand while it lasted. Our market adventure was the first of many laughs to follow on our day out in Inle Lake.
After dropping a lacquer jar on the floor in front a battalion of girls hand rolling cheroots with betel leaves at a local craft centre (we got a taste for the star anise flavoured one’s, and I don’t even smoke) I thought I better do the right thing and buy it along with another small box which I don’t regret because they’re just lovely, and once you take on board the work that goes into each piece it’s (without sounding too clichéd) really quite humbling. Andy and Antonia are very interested in designing their own lacquer ware to get made up in Vietnam so hopefully if all goes according to plan that will be a new addition to the Myhibi.com home section… Next on the Inle itinerary was the silk weaving looms, something I’d been looking into from the UK, here they extract fibres by hand from the lotus plants and blend it with silk to weave it into all sorts of beautiful patterns… As much as I loved this idea it wasn’t what I was in search of, the pattern I was after was the woven ‘water wave’ chiet silk… I just knew I had to get hold of some I’d found one piece in Nuang Shwe which whetted my apetite to go on the hunt like a heat seeking missile.
I should go quietly now and leave on that note but the lunacy just kept on coming, I’m so glad we weren’t travelling alone, there were too many deranged moments that needed the group humour, knowing glances and ‘what the f…ing f…. is that??’ Starting with lunch time on the menu with no spaces between the words – ‘EGGSCATHOLICWITHMEAT’ and no, they hadn’t put anything funny in the cheroots we’d smoked, I’d like to explain it to you, something to do with a pile of vegetables with an egg on top and that’s as far as we got – no amount of Googling can bring up any answers so that one will disappear into the ether. Time for a beer, it was all getting a little surreal, especially as our next destination was the ‘jumping cat monastery’, yes that’s right.
We hung around the beautiful wooden monastery waiting for the show to begin, you could see everyone milling about with the same idea, it was clear after 45 minutes or so there were no jumping cats.. we asked our boat man why hadn’t they come up with the goods, ‘Oh the man, he die 1 month ago, no more jumping’. Well, that told us.