Day 6: Inle Lake

by - May 04, 2014

View from Inthein towards Inle Lake
A perhaps not so genuine fisherman 
Supposedly the highlight of any trip to Myanmar, and our last stop before returning to Yangon, is a visit to Inle Lake in the east of the country in Shan state.  Despite what the recent Top Gear may have told you, parts of Shan state are accessible to westerners and Inle is one of the main Burmese tourist sites and home to its biggest backpacking community (it is the eastern part of Shan state, along the border with Thailand, where fighting has occurred).  The lake is the second largest in the country and has achieved its fame due to its scenic setting, nestled in the Shan Hills, as well as the village communities that have developed around (and on) the water itself.  We were staying at the north end of the lake at Nyuang Shwe, where the majority of accommodation is and which is connected to the main body of water by a canal.  All of the hotels in the town are able to organize boat tours of the lake and that is how we decided to spend our full day at Inle.  Given a bit longer we would have loved to have spent some time hiking in the Shan Hills, but that may have to wait until another time…

Communities on Inle Lake

Kayan ‘giraffe’ women - an uncomfortable photo
Upon arrival at the lake we were met by the above photographed fisherman, who wanted us to pay to take his photo.  The actual fishermen of the lake are very iconic, coming out in the morning and navigating while balancing their baskets on one leg - but as the area has become something of a tourist trap, lots of fakes are beginning to cash in.  The boats (which are essentially long, four-seater canoes with a horrendously noisy lawn-mower engine on the end) have a monopoly on lake travel for tourists and as a result we had very little choice but to be ferried around via tourist shops.  While I was not to read the full story until the end of the day, we also came across some of the other victims of the new tourist trade - the long-necked 'giraffe’ women of the Kayan tribe.  Traditionally, women from the tribe would add a metal band to their neck every year to ceremonially stretch it.  Tourists are obviously fascinated by this, even though it actually looks repulsively painful, and many shops will now get the women to sit outside their shops to draw people in.  Over the years the rings essentially become an exo-skeleton, the removal of which would result in death - and many women are forced into wearing the rings for money-making rather than traditional reasons.  The United Nations recently described the women as being treated like circus animals and I will admit that looking at the photo that I took now makes me distinctly uncomfortable.

After telling out boat pilots that we didn’t want to see any more shops, and then grabbing some lunch, we tried our best to get a little bit off the standard tourist route by heading up an irrigation canal on the western side to the village of Inthein.  This quiet village contained a few touristy shops and restaurants, but was fare more laid-back than the rest of the lake that we had seen and also contained two large stupa-capped hills with views back towards the lake and the surrounding rice paddies.  The crumbling ruins at the hills were worth a visit, even without the views, and I would thoroughly recommend any visitors to Inle to try to get to Inthein.  Our last stop, now on our way back to Nyuang Shwe, was the so-called 'jumping cat’ temple, where bored monks supposedly have taught their feline co-residents to jump through hoops.  Astonishingly, as we arrived at the temple we found ourselves in a massive hail storm which had arrived totally out of the blue, and we found ourselves running inside to take shelter.  We were incredibly lucky with our timing - had we spent an extra 10 minutes in Inthein we would have been left totally vulnerable to the massive hail stones in the middle of the lake.  Unfortunately, the monks weren’t in the mood to make the cats jump, but we were still thankful to spend some time in the temple out of the storm.  The storm left as quickly as the it had arrived and we were able to get back to the town without any further incident.  That night we decided to splash out on food a little and went to the Shan Restaurant at the ViewPoint Lodge, where a wonderful set menu gave us a great introduction to the local cuisine in a great setting.
A stupa capped hill at Inthein
The hailstorm
Dinner at the ViewPoint Restaurant

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