Saturday 28th January – Inle lake
For our first day in Inle Lake we took a full day boat tour of the lake and the famous floating villages. As scenery goes, it’s just stunning, a fresh water lake about 13 miles wide by 7 miles long, surrounded by mountains. Many of the houses are on stilts in the water and the lake is completely overgrown in parts by water hyacinth so it doesn’t have a clearly defined edge and the villages are known for their produce like tomatoes which they grow on raised beds dug into the marshes.
We jumped into our wooden long-boat and sped across the lake in the early morning sun, stopping to watch some of the local men fishing. They use tiny wooden canoes, standing on back balanced on one leg, using the other leg wrapped around the oar to move the boat while holding a large bamboo cage with their free hands ready to drop on an unsuspecting fish. It’s so elegant but I’ve no idea how they keep their balance – epic core strength!
Our first stop was to a small village famous in the area for their production of rice crackers and 2 of the ladies of the village demonstrated how they make the discs of rice cracker on fabric stretched over a steamer before putting the discs on bamboo frames out in the sun to dry. As usual the kids stole the show and posed like professionals to have their photos taken, then laughing their heads off when they were shown the picture.
Next stop was the weavers from a local tribe, where traditionally the ladies wore copper bands around their necks which gives them the appearance of long necks (they hate the term giraffe necks). It doesn’t lengthen the neck – rather it pushes down the collar bones but it does look very distorted and not at all comfortable. It’s a tricky one this one, the tradition has died out and the reasons for doing it originally aren’t very clear – to protect from tiger attacks was one fairly random one – so the ladies we saw are doing it only for the money it generates for their families from tourism.
Next stop was Phaung Daw Oo Paya, the holiest religious site in southern Shan State. In the pagoda are 5 small statues of Buddha which are now so covered with gold leaf applied by the local men that they look like blobs. There are also 2 ceremonial barges that during festivals the Buddha blobs are loaded onto and rowed around the lake. The front of these barges really do look like giant chickens…
After lunch we toured more of the craft centres around the lake – blacksmiths making knives, boat makers cutting wood, bamboo weaving, and a team of weavers producing cloth from lotus root which they weave, sometimes with silk to make fabrics.
The boat took us through one of the stilt villages so we could see how they live, most of the houses are only accessible by boat but they still have a fenced off ‘front garden’ where they grow veg or keep their fishing equipment. The produce was amazing with rows of squashes, tomatoes and peas all growing well in the fertile and unsurprisingly well watered soil.
Our final stop was the Jumping Cat Monastery which is a stilt based giant complex where the monks had taught the resident cats to jump through hoops for treats. They don’t do the tricks any more but there were enough cats to keep cat lady Zoe entertained for the whole visit.
We whizzed back over the lake on our long-boat getting completely soaked as the wind caught the top of the spray and blew it back onto us. Only those sat in the first seat at the front were safe (yup Wayne was in the front) – the rest of us were given umbrellas to hide behind except Steve who tried to man it out, then hid behind a life jacket before giving up and putting up his umbrella just as we pulled into port.