A beautiful lake, a local winery, and our first fancy hotel of the trip; needless to say, we were thrilled when we finally arrived in Nyaungshwe after our 6 hour delay in Mandalay. Arriving much later than we had planned, we spent the evening briefly exploring the town and hotel. Located in the state of Shan, Nyaungshwe serves a a base town for those visiting Inle Lake. You can choose to stay on the lake if you want, but if you stay in the town there are multiple options for food and drink, not to mention a few decent spas. Don’t be fooled however, Nyaungshwe is still very much a developing town, with potholed roads, a plethora of motor bikes, street side open-aired cafes, and a night market. On the other end of the spectrum, was our hotel, the Viewpoint. The hotel itself is owned by a Frenchmen who works in partnership with a local burmese man who originally owned the land, which is optimally located on the edge of town, on a canal, that leads to the lake. It is one of the few fancy hotels that is not owned by the government cronies. In addition to being the nicest room we have had thus far, the hotel also houses the best restuarant in town, specializing in Shan tapas, with pretty decent views to boot. Oh, and their welcome drink is wine:) After sludging around in the mud and rain, we headed back to the hotel, enjoyed some wine on our balcony overlooking the mountains, and a delicous meal of local Shan food.
The next day we had planned to hire a boat to take us around Inle Lake for the day. We could not believe our luck when the clouds started to part in the morning and the sun actually came out for the first time on our entire trip, making this one of the best days yet.
The first thing we came across on the lake was a “traditonal” fisherman. I use the quote marks because, although we did see many fishmen using the famous foot-rowing technique later on, this particular fisherman waits at the junction of the canal and lake with boats, and seems to pose for pictures in exchange for money from tourists, as evidenced by the lady who paid to ride in the boat with him.
From here, we were dropped off in the town of Maing Thauk, where, after crossing a wooden pier, we walked about a mile along a dirt-path, until we came across a colorful and bustling market. Once we made it past the few souvenir peddlers towards the entry way, we were immersed in a plethora of busy stalls selling all sorts of yummy fried treats, as well as fresh produce, eggs, poultry, fish, and daily necessities like toothpaste and soap.
After the market, our boat driver took us to one of the many floating garden where the local people are able to grow tomatoes on the lake. Trying to be culturally sensitive to us, our sweet driver picked us a tomato to taste, but first decided to “rinse” it for us…in the lake! (Mind you this is where the water pipe from all the stilt houses and restuarants- read toilets- ultimately leads to. Our stomaches have not been the same since.
From here, we explored a few more villages before we finally reached the large village of Nampan. The village is filled with silk weaving workshops, silversmiths, and cheroot factories. After our first trip to a “traditional” silk-making factory, where scarfs were going for over $100 US dollars, we tried to communicate to our boat driver we did not really want to shop. He seemed to understand, or so we thought, until we pulled up to a cheroot making factory (cigars). We politely told him we were not interested, but as a concession, we agreed to go to the silversmith. Afterwards, we asked to be dropped off at the Phaung Daw Oo Paya, a canal-side pagoda, just outside of Nampan. We weren’t sure if it was because it was a Saturday or because it was its turn in the 5 day cycle of Shan markets, but the Pagoda was like a giant festival when we arrived. With music playing, food stalls and balloons, it seemed as if everyone from the surrounding villages had descended on the pagoda that day.
After visiting the Pagoda, we stopped off for a quick lunch on the water, then were taken to see the Padaung ladies, also known as the “long-neck” ladies. It is said that the heavy weights push their collar bones down, so as to elongate the neck, and that this was orginally done to deter attacking village men from “wanting” these women. We have also heard that today, some young girls are forced to leave their villages to come to Inle Lake to be treated almost like a carnival act. Stuck between a celebration of culture, and a spectacle for tourists, we had, unsuprisingly, mixed feelings about our encounter.
Our trip then continued to the Ngaphe Kyaung (Jumping Cat Monastery). Apparently, the resident monks used to train the local felines to jump on command for a treat. Though this no longer takes place, the monastery is still filled with cute little cats who are more than welcoming to their human visitors.
As we headed back to our hotel, with the sun still shining brightly, we quickly hatched a plan to make our way up to the Red Mountain Winery, that, we were told, on a clear day, gives you a beautiful sunset overlooking the lake. We could not believe our luck when the weather held out for us the entire evening.
Our last day in Inle Lake, we met a kind soul, who I would like to keep anonymous for his own safety. After we had visted the Shwe Oo Min Cave in Pinday, he offered to take us to Taunggyi, the capital of Shan state where he said we could visit an orphanage and a local “colorful” market. We took him up on the offer and he secured us a driver to Pindaya.
About 2 hours outside of where we were staying, the small, hillside town of Pindaya is home to the Shwe Oo Cave, which is filled with over 9,000 buddha statues. We learned, from our new friend however, that many of the statues have been donated by the government and their cronies, which somewhat took away from the magic for us.
From here, we drove back towards the east of Shan state, to reach the capital around midday. The “colorful” market was really nothing to exciting, but we were grateful to have the opportunity to visit the orphanage and meet the incredible 84 year old woman whose family has been running it since the turn of the century. We offered her a donationg and took her contact information with the hopes of connecting our students with them.
On our way back into town, we stopped at a monastery that is over a thousand years old.
Today (Monday) was our last full day in Myanmar (Burma). Even here, I am torn as to what to really call it. The name Burma, although imposed by the colonial British, seems to be the name most Burmese use when referring to their own country. It was’t until after the 1988 revolution when the government decided to change it to Myanmar, which some suggest, was an attempt to erase history. With the impending elections of 2015 set to take place in November, many Burmese are hopeful that real change will come, but many also warn that although many reforms have taken place, things are not really too different than they were a few years back. In referring to the recent “change” in government, one man referred to it as “same wine, different bottle.”
Additionally, it was not until we arrived in Yangon early this morning when we were back in touch with the happenings of the world and saw the devastating floods that have slammed Myanmar/Burma while we have been traveling around. Over the last few days, at pagoda and airports, we have been approached (along with everyone else) to donate for the victims of the floods. The donations all seem to be solicited by young buddhists (judging from the silver bowls they pass around). When natural disasters like this hit at home, we expect the government to intervene, but unfortunately that does not happen here, particularly for the Muslims in the north who are dying in droves in refugee camps. In fact, many people, including the Dalai Lama, have lamented Aung San Suu Kyi for not speaking out against the treatment of these Muslims, which many people say is so as to not disrupt the chances of her party (the National Democratic League) to win the upcoming election. We made a pilgrimage to Aung San Suu Kyi’s house today to show our support for her, democracy, and human rights in general; we can only hope that come November, she will rise to the occassion of being the world leader for peace we all truly hope she is.
Myanmar/Burma is a complicated country with a complicated past. Visiting here has been like no other country I have been to, yet the people have been so welcoming and genuinely seem to enjoy visitors like so many other nations around the world. During our travels, we came across a number of Europeans, but only a handful of Americans. As one of the poorest nations in the world, with a terrible record on human rights, I hope that as more people begin to visit, the plight of many of the Burmese people will become a more pressing issue for the international community, and maybe, eventually, there will be different wine in a different bottle.