Vail Daily travel feature: Exploring the labyrinth of Inle Lake
Special to the Daily
Editor’s note: This is the seventh and final article in a series of seven. To read the other installments, visit http://www.vaildaily.com.
Completing the triangle of Myanmar tourism is the watery jewel of Inle Lake. Stretching between north/south mountain ranges within a rift valley, the seven-mile-wide, 13.5-mile-long shallow lake is an environmental and cultural heritage unique in the world. Magical is a word used frequently by visitors to this aqueous world.
Yolanda and I arrive at dawn tired after an all-night bus ride from Hsipaw. We have little hope getting into a room this early at our previously booked Hotel Brilliant. As everywhere, the exceptional staff goes above and beyond, giving us a full breakfast while a just vacated room is cleaned.
The town of Nyuangshwe at the northern end of the lake is traveler central. Guesthouses and restaurants abound. Most importantly, the boats necessary for accessing the lake embark from here. Exploring the lake is imperative.
A couple months before, I made reservations at a “floating” resort on the lake. This proved to be the most rewarding experience of our month in Myanmar.
While exploring the town and being hustled by eager boatman, with synchronicity at work, I happen upon the Shwe Inn Thar (People of the Lake) Boat Cooperative. A boat to and from the hotel is $35 but a boat and driver/guide for two entire days is only $60.
Our boat driver, Nee Paw, Big Red in Burmese, is burly, soft-spoken and exceedingly humble. After checking into the hotel — a series of thatch huts, buildings and walkways on pilings — Nee Paw drives us through floating gardens and charming stilt-house villages to a restaurant for lunch.
Sitting on the shaded veranda, we are enchanted by the boat traffic, motorized and paddled, by the ancient monastery across the lagoon and by the houses and shops rising out of the lake. We spend the afternoon exploring the maze of waterways connecting the network of floating gardens, villages and temples. We would’ve been hopelessly lost without Nee Paw’s intimate knowledge of the labyrinth.
A bustling, colorful market
At sunset, we find fishermen balancing nimbly on the tails of their sampans rowing about in their odd way; one leg wrapped around the oar freeing both hands to manage nets and poles.
We rise well before dawn to find Nee Paw waiting at the hotel’s landing to take us to a morning market 45 minutes down the lake. It is cold speeding through the pre-dawn gloom.
With the sun rising over the eastern mountains, we turn west into channels that take me to one of my most rewarding mornings of photography ever.
Slowing with the congestion, we come upon a chaotic scene of boats and bullock carts upon a shore seething with color. Ethnic tribespeople have descended from the mountains for their weekly market.
Ruddy-faced women in black flaunt multi-colored head scarves. Beautiful children bundled on their mother’s backs stare curiously at us few foreigners. All manner of produce is displayed on tarps. It is a bustling, impromptu market of color, smells and sounds.
Nee Paw is buying food, asking us what we like. Apparently, he’s taking us home for lunch with his family.
After several hours, people begin to dissipate. Oxen are hitched to carts and driven slowly into the hills with the morning’s purchases.
Hospitality overcomes all barriers
Returning to our boat, Nee Paw guides us through more villages, stopping at a colossal ancient monastery with numerous tall, extravagantly ornamented Buddhas, then takes us to his village.
His smiling sisters wave and descend the uneven steps and narrow planking serving as a floating dock. They help Yolanda out of the boat and into the house. The house is a two-story teak building; one large room with multiple windows set beneath another cordoned into sleeping areas for the different families.
Little English is spoken but hospitality and smiles overcome all language barriers. His mother, a widow, smiling and laughing invites us to the only chairs. She serves us tea while her daughters retreated to the kitchen to cook the meal over a tiny wood stove. Several rambunctious children have the run of the place.
A low table is set and eight dishes appear. Sitting on mats is awkward but eating while the family sits to the side and watches is more so. The food is delicious, way too much to finish.
After the table is cleared I share photos of our life in Colorado. They’re entranced and enjoy most my pictures of animals they’ve never seen.
After warm hugs, we shove off with the women and children waving enthusiastic goodbyes.
Coming at the end of our trip, this experience typifies the warmth and hospitality of the people of Myanmar. Though perhaps poor and humble, they can be boundless in their generosity. Though tyrannized politically, their spirits soar free. Though severed from the world for decades, they are curious and welcoming.
The recent democratic opening has inspired hope and a vision for the future that will be difficult to quash. If Aung Sang Suu Kyi is allowed a leadership role, then a blossoming will unfold, empowering the people, utilizing the country’s rich resources for the benefit of the diverse ethnic groups and thrusting Myanmar into its deserving role on the world stage.
Dennis Jones is a professional photographer and writer. He leads private photography workshops in the Vail and Beaver Creek area. To contact him, visit his website at http://www.dreamcatcherimaging.com.