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Inle Lake: Home of the leg rowers

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Inle Lake has been made famous by the iconic image of the Intha fisherman who row their boats with an oar wrapped in the crook of their leg so their hands are free to set up their fishing nets. It’s an amazing thing to watch and the sheer balance and coordination that goes into it is simply astounding.

After our early morning arrival in Nyaung Shwe, (the town filled with hotels closest to the mouth of the river) and a nap into the early afternoon we set out to inquire about boat tours and bus tickets back to Yangon. We struck it lucky, finding a very friendly tour operator who offered a boat and a guide for up to four people if we “found more friends” for 16,000 Kyat for the entire day. 8AM to Sunset.

So the next day, with a friend from the hotel in tow, we drove the 4KM from Nyaung Shwe into the lake wrapped in sweaters and scarves, surrounded by wildlife and bird conservation sites. As we entered the actual lake itself our guide explained a little about the life of the fisherman and how many have given up the ways of fishing to collect weeds and seaweed to be used as fertilizer. A full boat can get them 5,000 Kyat, and they can usually do 3 boatfuls a day. Considering the average daily wage for most laborours is 2,000 Kyat, enough to buy a bottle of water, this is quite lucrative.

A seaweed collector in the foreground, a fisherman with a circular net in the background

A seaweed collector in the foreground, a fisherman with a circular net in the background

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Our posing fisherman with a circular net

For most fishermen, the act of fishing itself is too often uncertain and requires a lot of work for little reward. There are two methods that they use to catch fish, the most common is to drop a net into the water and use an oar to scare the fish into it. The most beautiful and skillful method is to use the round net and wait for a fish to come so they can drop the net over it.

Fishing with a net

Fishing with a net

Our day around the lake was very full and we were constantly moving from place to  place. We started at the Phaung Dow Oo Paya Pagoda market and wandered around snapping photos and smiling at all the locals with their rows of spices, fish, fruit and handicrafts.

Dried fish for sale

Dried fish for sale

Then we headed to a weaving factory where we watched ladies sitting in front of giant looms creating beautiful Longyi, shawls and scarves. Per day these women usually make 3,500 Kyat (if they make one Longyi or shawl). But the atmosphere of the factory was lighthearted and compared to what one assumes factories in third world countries would look like, the fresh air and view of the lake was a definite bonus to the workers.

Making a Longyi (skirt - like clothing worn by men and women)

Making a Longyi (skirt – like clothing worn by men and women)

DSC02974From there we went to a blacksmiths, where we watched 5 men pounding away at heated metal to create knives, swords and tools. The intensity of their pounding echoed across the lake and the accurate pounds of their hammers was enough to scare any tourist from standing too close. It also made one wonder how often they miss and collide with a blow from their colleague.

After lunch at “Nice Restaurant” we visited a cigar and cigarette rolling display where we learned about the Burmese cigarettes and had a chance to smoke a minty fresh clove cigar.

Hand-rolled cigars

Hand-rolled cigars

We then headed up a small alley-way river where women rode up beside us to try and sell some jewelry as we made our way to visit the Longneck women. This was the biggest tourist trap of the day, and I felt bad for the four women who spend their day posing for pictures, either sitting in chairs or weaving in the shop. These Kayan women are the only four of their kind in Inle Lake, as  most reside in the Shan State of Southern Myanmar bordering Thailand. Thailand has three villages of Longneck women, and a visit to Chiang Mai can include the exploitation of a visit to these three villages. I never did it, and don’t know anyone who did, but simply being witness to the women in Inle Lake was sad in its own way. With the brass coils around their necks, they are incredibly beautiful and I can only hope that having their picture taken day in and day out doesn’t make them feel exploited, but beautiful and interesting instead. The coils themselves are worn since the age of five, and only taken off to change to bigger ones as they age. The appearance of a stretched neck is actually caused by crushing the clavicle and compressing the rib cage.

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Along the same river we visited a silversmith where we watched them turn blocks of silver into intricate jewelry or elaborately etched bowls.

Then, my favourite part, as we floated through these tiny little roads between rows and rows of floating gardens anchored by bamboo sticks. This is where you see the weeds and seaweed that the fisherman now collect being put to good use, as it’s this mix of mud and much that creates the beds for all the vegetables produced in Inle.

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DSC03038Just near the densest jungle of gardens is the Nga Phe Kyaung monastery, also known as the jumping cat monastery. While monks used to teach the plethora of cats at this monastery to jump through hoops and do circus tricks, there appears to no longer be a show of this. Most of the cats lazily lounge through the day and tourists wander around to see the large number of antique Buddha images collected from around Burma.

As the sun was setting we started heading home, slowing to watch the sunset and try to get shots of the leg fisherman. One of which was posing for us in the hopes that we would give him some money for his performance.

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The whole day felt a little fabricated, a show put on for tourists to see how things are done in Inle, but it was beautiful and simply viewing all the gardens and neighbourhoods on stilts would have been enough for me. Thinking about how those people literally live their lives on the water, being unable to even visit friends without the help of a boat or a long plank of wood between houses is completely different to our Western neighbourhoods full of concrete.

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Mandalay Palace: “I paid $10 for that?!”

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Considering that I paid $10 for the entire town of Bagan filled with plains and plains of temple ruins, it seems absolutely ludicrous that I paid the same amount to visit some silly palace in the middle of some silly protected fortress, putting money right into the governments pocket. Firstly, we hadn’t properly done advance research and learned that it had been completely rebuilt in 1995, possibly with the use of forced labour.

Secondly I had crazily assumed, because of the detailed roads on our tourist map, that the entire area inside the moat would be one giant preserved palace camp ground. However, as we sadly learned, tourists can only enter from [ONE] entrance, and once you’ve been walking all day to FIND that entrance, interest and excitement starts to wane. Once across the moat and the entrance fee is paid, tourists then learn that they can only walk down the main path, and around the old palace grounds. Exploring is forbidden and based on the heavy army presence, I would guess strongly enforced. Also, once across the moat, photos are frowned upon until you reach the palace grounds and it is likely assumed that everything you’ve seen, every army family or naked baby playing with a mangy dog is erased from your memory. “Restricted Area” signs blocked many side roads and military guards kept us in check, so onwards we headed to our allowed destination.

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While the buildings and pathways were stunning, that’s really all there was. More than 2/3 of the buildings in the little lost city stood completely empty and without much ceremony about what was once inside. While the thrones where partially there, 3/7 where in their original places, the purpose of the surrounding rooms was only given away by their names.

DSC02735My favourite place on the whole compound was the watchtower, which just so happened to be one of the original buildings that wasn’t destroyed during WWII. After climbing the 50 steps up around the circular building the rooftop gave way to a perfect view of the whole compound and the back of the 7 tiered spire. It was while standing at the top, watching a couple monks meandering around the grounds with their families that I actually got a sense of history from the whole place. The buildings, despite being rebuilt, truly had a sense of history and ancient life that I could almost close my eyes and imagine scenes unfolding underneath me. I could see people lazily meandering down the paths, or taking their time washing in the bath house under the noon time sun.

It was upon discovering the Archaeological museum that we realized where all the replicas that should have been adorning rooms and buildings around the compound had gone. The museum was “easily” accessible at the very back of the “foreigner area” with the entrance facing what appear to be the gates at the back of the compound. If one were to pay the $10 to enter the palace grounds, they better not miss the two room museum filled with dressed palanquins of the royal families and their cabinet.

 

The Magic of Bagan

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Bagan is one of the places that neither words nor photos could ever accurately describe. I have definitely seen some amazing photos that do represent it well, but nothing prepares you for the breathtaking moment that the sun rises over a red landscape absolutely splattered with temples, stupas and pagodas.

Luckily for us, our very first encounter with the expanse of the Bagan plains happened just like that, in the wee hours of the morning. Our overnight bus from Yangon arrived shortly before 4 am and we had the option of paying half price for a room for the extra hours that morning, or paying the same amount to take our horse cart (horse cart!) and driver to see the sun rise. Out of sheer cheapness and the opportunity to both kill time before check in and view a Bagan sunrise, we chose the sunrise.

According to Wikipedia, during the 11th and 13th centuries when the Kingdom of Bagan was at it’s height there were approximately 10,000 structures built on the plains, of which only 2200 remain due to attacks and earthquakes. It is the iconic images of the Bagan plains which many tourists think of when they dreamily plan a trip, and is often compared to the Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia. Having seen both, I would gladly say that the entire experience of exploring Bagan from the back of a horse cart, or the seat of a bicycle was much more interactive and personal than that of tourist filled Angkor Wat.

Walking around New Bagan is like taking a step back in time. Horse carts and their drivers carry tourists and locals back and forth between Old Bagan (site of the old Kingdom) and New Bagan (where locals were forced to relocate to after the government kicked them out in 1990). While the biggest form of economy in Bagan is tourism, lacquer-ware production comes close in second place. Shops and stalls selling lacquered bowls, plates, jewellery boxes, jewellery and a multitude of other miscellaneous objects can be found all around the major temples and even some of the smaller ones. My biggest fear for these Bagan plains is that, just like Angkor Wat, they will become overrun with touts who are absolutely lovely and helpful, but desperate to sell their product. More than once we were surrounded by children offering to sell us hand drawn postcards of temples, or women showing us around a temple in the hopes that we’ll buy something from her shop afterwards.

In true Burmese style, they were lovely and helpful in order to get the sale, but personally I’m worried that they’re going to get jaded and it’ll be people running after your horse cart just like in Cambodia where they surround your tuk tuk the instant it stops.

Future fears aside, I thoroughly enjoyed everything about Bagan; from the clip clopping of horses down the dusty streets, to the cutest old man selling us the coldest beer in all of Burma, to the multitude of temples that we visited throughout our three full days’ stay.

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Riding the Circle Train around Yangon

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While in Yangon, one of the best ways to see the area surrounding the city is to hop on the train that runs a loop around the city proper. I love public transit anyway because you’re exposed to what a city is like day to day, and you get to people watch.

I don’t know what I expected on the train ride, but I certainly got a feel for the people and the culture throughout the duration of the 3 hour ride.

As we approached platform 6 and 7, we were ushered into a ticket office and an official looking ticket was issued after we handed over our crisp clean $1 bill. While we waited for the train to arrive we were entertained by an adorable little girl and her even littler sister who high fived us and hopscotched and showed us their Gangnam Style abilities.

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Initially the train was packed, but as the train moved on away from the city, it began to empty out. As I effectively emptied my camera batteries by photographing the train, landscape and stations we passed, Eira set to filling her pocket sketchbook with quick drawings of people on the train. Initially I had hoped that we could hop on and off and visit the towns around the stations, and while you’re allowed to do just that and make an entire day of it, we had a bus to catch that evening and opted for a walk home and some dinner in a tea house. So we stayed put, sketching, watching, photographing the scenes and sharing cigarettes out the window with the old man sat next to us.

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I’m glad that the train was simple benches along each side instead of sections of seats because it was much more conducive to creeping everyone on our car.

As we reached one station in the country there was a giant commotion as the car emptied out and people started chucking parcels of produce through the window. Bags upon bags of Chinese kale, holy basil, chilli peppers, apples, cucumbers, tomatoes, and anything that grows in the countryside around Yangon were hoisted through windows and settled anywhere there was space. As the farmers themselves jumped on the now moving train and organized their packages the security guard, who had previously been oblivious to passengers and tickets, now went around collecting fees for all the extra parcels from the newly boarded.

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It was after this that the atmosphere on the train changed. It had started out as a packed commuter train, but was now a joke-filled little community. As the farmers and produce sellers organized their product they teased each other, shared leaf-rolled cigarettes and bettle nut and dozed off cross-legged facing the window.

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Feeling like part of a community, we disembarked back in Yangon proper and wandered around until we met a couple ladies who wished us a happy Easter and chatted with us for a bit before leading us to a tea shop employed entirely with boys under 17 years old for a delicious lunch of pasada’s.

Shwedagon Pagoda – Yangon’s glistening jewel

When people get ready to head to Yangon (or Rangoon, depending on who you ask) the first thing they add to their itenerary is Shwedagon Pagoda.

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Shwdegon Pagoda is the first pagoda in the known history of Buddhism. After two merchants from Okkalapa (current day Yangon) became the first followers of Guatama Buddha shortly after his enlightenment, they returned home and built this shining golden pagoda which quickly became one of the most important centres for Buddhism.

DSC02336With the sun setting on it, the main spire looked absolutely stunning. To add to my enjoyment of basking in the golden glow, I made friends with yet another monk who showed me pictures of his travels through Thailand and Angkor Wat in Cambodia and tried to continue my Thai lessons by attempting to teach me the alphabet. (Ugggh 32 vowels… NEVER going to happen!)

Throughout the most visited middle level there is an abundance of pagodas, stupas, shrines, pavilions, Buddha’s and bells all the way around the towering middle stupa.

The importance of this pagoda quickly became apparent during my visit as many families were initiating their sons into Buddhism, with Community Shinpyu Ceremonies, which requires an elaborate procession around the central pagoda, complete with prayers and offerings to Buddha. Because of the expense required in the preparation of this initiation the family often will initiate all their sons at once. The boys were carried on shoulders by family members and done up in the most ornate gowns, make-up and jewellery, with the entire family done up in their most special finery and carrying donations for monks at the temple.

While we were in Burma, we saw this happening in most cities. In Mandalay we watched and listened as families crammed into songthaews and pick-up trucks blaring music with their children sitting on chairs in the back under golden umbrellas, prince for a day. In Nyaung U, we watched as young boys were paraded down the road on a horse and friends and family danced down the street in front and behind them.

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Smiley older brothers carry new initiates on their shoulders at Shwedagon

A young boy during a parade to the temple at Inle

A young boy during a parade to the temple at Inle Lake

Getting lost in Yangon

Despite the common belief that Burma had little to no internet connection, we were able to find guest houses that supplied us with our regular doses of Facebook and email. However, I decided to keep a notebook that I regularly updated as I was experiencing the country. Despite having been in Burma at the beginning of April, most of my Burmese blogs will be written in present tense, copied directly from my notebook.

Just a few years ago Myanmar wasn’t even on my radar of places I dreamed of going to. I had heard of its beauty, but after all the protests and unrest it just never seemed like a place I’d even be able to go to. But here I am, sitting in Bogyoke park resting my aching legs and trying to dry out my sweat soaked clothing. To my left is Kandawgi  lake, to my right are some young lovebirds hiding from the sun and kissing behind umbrellas. Strangely enough, Michael Jackson is blasting from the garden centre we just walked through.

Despite it only being 2 in the afternoon, I feel like we’ve done enough in a day to give us a really good feel about what Myanmar is really about.
On the way to the Aung Sun museum, a woman in the street stopped us and gave us each a beautiful lotus flower for donating at Shwedegon Pagoda. “No money, gift for you,” she said asking only for chocolate (In this heat? Are you kidding me??!!) or pens. Pens we could part with and gladly handed them over.

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Recently I’ve been staring at the sky…

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More often than not a camera simply cannot capture the beauty of a moment. Half the time I don’t even bother reaching for my camera, but this time I was lucky. Floating down the Irrawaddy river as we approached Mandalay, the setting sun peaked through the clouds. After a day of reading and writing on the bow of a boat, the perfect breathtaking finale to a peaceful day.

I almost kept this for myself, for a private memory of a lovely reminder how magical the sky can be.

Random Myanmar (Burma), from the road

Despite keeping a constant paperback journal, keeping the world up to date has been just as hard as I imagined it would be.

Internet is spotty in places, electricity randomly cuts out and rooms are double what I budgeted for. Money panic attacks are starting to set in. What that really means is less beer and souveniers.

The people are the smiliest i’ve met and simply walking around on Mandalay Hill this afternoon, I had my picture taken with 3 monks and 4 seperate random people. Also, at least half a dozen women giggled and told me I’m beautiful. This country is good for my ego. I think Myanmar is going to give Thailand a run for its money on who actually deserves the title, “land of smiles.”