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Getting Away: Inle Lake

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Note: This series of posts is not intended to be a how-to for traveling to Myanmar, but rather an account of visiting a few of its most popular destinations. Travel to Myanmar requires careful planning and is beset with logistical issues as well as questions about the impact of tourism on human rights.

If you're interested in going there yourself, Lonely Planet's Myanmar travel guide provides quality travel advice as well as an interesting section about whether one should even travel there at all.

The previous post, about Yangon, is available here.

Nyaung Shwe and Inle Lake
Inle Lake, a shallow, marshy freshwater lake in central Myanmar is a breathtaking showcase of both natural beauty and traditional Myanmar culture.

We arrive at the lake by flying from Yangon to Heho via Mandalay (1.5 hours) and taking a 45-minute cab ride. We will stay in the town of Nyaung Shwe, which is connected to the lake by a channel a few kilometers in length.

After checking into our hotel we set off on a boat cruise down the lake's length. Like most of the motorized boats on the Inle, ours is a long-tail style narrow wooden affair with the shallow draft necessary when operating in the lake's average water depth of around two meters.

It is the dry season and the hills surrounding Inle Lake are painted in the ocher hues familiar in Southeast Asia at this time of year. The air is hazy, perhaps from the many fields that farmers in the area are burning. Egrets dot the marshy areas along the shoreline and patches of lotus and water hyacinth float on the surface.

The local one-legged paddling style
The local one-legged paddling style

As we cruise from north to south on Inle, we witness one of the lake's most distinctive cultural features: the fishing technique of the locals, who pilot small canoes. When actively using a net to fish, the fishermen stand on one leg on a flat surface on the bow. Then, wrapping the other leg around a paddle and grasping the top of the paddle with one hand, they are able to pilot the canoe. They simultaneously use their free hand to manipulate a fishing net.

When the fishermen simply want to propel their craft, they stand on the bow facing forward and swing their paddle in a huge forward arc, crashing it through the lake's surface and drawing it through the water toward themselves in one powerful stroke. Repeated over and over again, the canoes glide forward at a decent clip.

Burmese cigars
Burmese cigars

During the first part of the day we see a fabric weaving workshop where women make a fiber out of the stems of lotus plants and weave fabric by hand on wooden looms. We also visit a cigar making workshop where we learn about Burmese cigars, which are wrapped in tree leaves instead of tobacco leaves and contain coarse chunks of tobacco seasoned with honey and tamarind among other flavors.

Floating rows of tomatoes
Floating rows of tomatoes

On the way back to Nyaung Shwe, we get an up-close look at perhaps Inle's most impressive sight: the floating gardens. Farmers plant a variety of vegetables and flowers on long floating beds of water hyacinth, which are pinned to the shallow lakebed with bamboo poles so that they don't float away. The farmers tend and harvest their crops by boat. The floating gardens are a testament to human beings' ingenuity in finding ways to feed themselves.

After dinner we sample some made-in-Myanmar Royal Club brand whiskey, which has the slogan "straight from the wood" printed on the bottle. It's a mere 700 kyat, or less than US$1, per bottle. While far from the best whiskey either of us has had, it's also far from the worst cheap booze ever.

A boat-jam occurs as vendors carrying goods to market crowd into the canal nearest to the market
A boat-jam occurs as vendors carrying goods to market crowd into the canal nearest to the market

The next morning is a Wednesday and locals stream on foot out of the hills and by boat across the lake to the once-weekly market day in Nyaung Shwe. We decide to check out the market and are rewarded with a pleasant assault on our eyes and noses. Sacks of bright yellow-orange ground turmeric are offset by deep green piles of avocados, and there is a stunning variety of fruits, vegetables, meat, dried goods, prepared food and other goods for sale.

We buy a sweet fried snack from a vendor. It is very tasty, as are almost all of the street food we sample while in Myanmar, ranging from dessert items to full curry meals.

On the way home, we try chewing some Kun ya, or areca palm nut pieces wrapped in betel vine leaves, often inaccurately called betel nut in the West. A vendor makes the little green pouch on the spot, slathering a coating of slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) on a betel leaf and adding some bits of areca nut. Tobacco is optional and we opt for pure areca nut.

A vendor prepares a 'betel nut' pouch
A vendor prepares a 'betel nut' pouch

The vendor instructs us to give the pouch a gentle chew and tuck it between our cheek and gums. Soon we're spitting red juice everywhere and enjoying the nuts' peppery flavor and slight stimulating effect, something like a shot of espresso.

We depart in early afternoon to catch a flight to Bagan, an ancient kingdom whose sprawling ruins remain standing today.

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Again with the avocados. Does anyone know why they are so abundant and cheap in Yunnan's bordering countries but so incredibly rare -and expensive- here? I miss them so,, :(

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