This country draws me in more deeply with each place we visit. It is the people and their stories, their connection to the earth and their beliefs, the rootedness in family, the geography and history of an ancient country. We travel south; flying to Heho from Bagan where we meet our new guide Soe, a sweet faced woman wearing a stunning black longyi with embroidered flowers. Our last guide, Mya Mo took me to a local stall where I bought a longyi for $3 and had it sewn Burmese style the night before our flight and brought it to the airport. He couldn’t quite instruct me on how to fold the fabric and was awkwardly trying to demonstrate but not touch my waist. It was a funny moment until he brought me to the female airport staff where they wrapped me up tight and tucked the end under the waistband. It worked and every hour or so, I’d readjust so it would not fall down. I admire Soe’s longyi and she shows me a secret: hers has been tailored with darts and hooks and can’t come undone. We laugh at the sudden connection and I know then that we will have a great time together.
The countryside is screaming for water, red brown, scrappy with tree lines in the distance planted by the British long ago and the only thing green in the wide landscape.
It is late March and fields are idle with manure piles waiting to be furrowed under in May. Avocado plants have woven bamboo hats to protect them from burning. There are cattle and Brahmin cows roaming and I don’t know how they survive in this waiting time before the rains. Humans have a Water Festival, “Thingyan” in mid April when people celebrate the Buddhist New Year and not a moment too soon. Villages, cities bring in a huge network of pipes, valves and hoses and spray a colossal amount of water on the revelers for days, accompanied by loud Asian music, of course.
On our way to Inle Lake we stop at Shwe U Min Temple built by King Ashoka, the Indian emperor who ruled in 300 B.C. and was well known for spreading Buddhism in Asia. Just beyond the temple is the opening into Pindaya Cave, where 8000 plus Buddha images dwell. Soe likes telling the story of the legendary spider that captured 7 princesses and was killed by a hunter-prince at this very spot.
Steve enters a meditation cave
It is cool in the upper regions of the cave as we do the “Maze”, climbing in among all sizes and shapes of images stuffed into nooks and crannies next to stalagmites and stalactites. Our guide is laughing as we hear people questioning the way out in the semi darkness. She is no stranger to this place. It is her local pagoda, her home is in the next village. We are now in Southern Shan state where several ethnicities like the Danu, Pa-O or Palaung live besides the Shan. There are 33 Shan ethnic groups and each identifies with their specific tribal nomenclature. Soe is of the Pa-O tribe and her husband is Shan. She is multilingual and cooks biculturally. At a market she showed us the 1/2 gallon of oil she goes through to feed 7 people in one week. We have a traditional Shan lunch in a local Danu home ending the meal with a tea salad: fermented tea leaves, crisp roasted peanuts, fried beans, sesame seeds, pickled ginger, chili, shredded cabbage, dried shrimp and lots of fried garlic. Unusual yet tasty. Steve has reservations.
They invite us to see their tea plantation. It is a peaceful and hot walk to the bushes where the women let us borrow their baskets to try picking. I am supposed to only pick the uppermost 3 leaves that have reached the right size. It is evident that tea harvesting requires an experienced eye. I give it a try and gratefully return the basket.
We finally reach Nyaung Shwe, the gateway village to Inle Lake, the destination that brings glazed eyes to those who know it. We leave our extraneous stuff and travel by long tail boat to our hotel. We see the tourist version of Inle Lake fishermen from long ago. Their balance is balletic.
Inle Lake is very large and takes an hour to boat to our hotel. We have never stayed in such a place. We are dropped off at the entrance dock, shown our room and like little kids, explore every space, shrieking with excitement; an outdoor shower, a porch on the lagoon at sunset, a couch, a table, a desk and flowers all over the bed and lots of birds and nature.
Soe and the boatman pick us up in the morning and we head out to see the unique way of life on the lake. The fishermen of the Intha tribe, are known for their leg rowing technique that allows them to see beyond the floating plants and to fish and move at the same time. It is amazing to watch.
There are several villages strung along the lake. There are the usual markets where folks gather for produce or the big “5 day” market of Indein which has a dentist, a barber, and all kinds of goods and food and rotates one day in each of 5 villages. The parking area is huge though as the waters recede in dry season the boats must park further away to avoid running aground. There are many Pa-O and Intha people at the big market including a friend of Soe’s. The Pa-O women wrap their hair in scarfs or towels and when in Temple adorn the hair cloths with a pointy ornament to represent a dragon horn. They believe they are descendants from a female dragon centuries ago. As our guide is Pa-O she has a set of horns too. She leaves them at home when she is working.
The 5 day market has the biggest draw
One side of the lake has extensive floating gardens tended by Intha families. From a distance it looks like tall pikes but these poles stake the “ground” and hold the composted seaweed and other fertile matter in place. The men dredge up the milfoil growing near the shoreline, load their boats and bring it back to their garden for tomatoes, peppers, beans and flowers. We watch them strain and struggle hauling this seaweed onto their boats. Shocking to see a much abhorred invasive at home being a necessity in another’s food chain.
We travel through a Venetian network of canals. Everything moves by boat. We go from a silversmithing village to a lotus and silk weaving village to the huge Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda via these waterways. From laundry, bathing, shopping and playing, to working, praying and socializing; it all happens on the water. No cars, no motorbikes, just boats.
We motor to the other side of the lake along the numerous waterways and slice through openings in the earth and timber dykes that control the flow of water in dry season. For us, it is an exciting ride with great views of daily life.
We have visited a lot of temples and pagodas which surprisingly remain fascinating. In Indein, there is a small temple at the end of a very long covered walkway that hosts a long line of stalls and tables filled with must have souvenirs: daggers, tooth headdresses, clothing, baskets and more friends of Soe’s. The walkway also divides the enormous amount of stupas built around the Temple; tourists generally exit left and view the new ones. We go right and into the ruins. The worship of Buddha is everywhere.