Time spent wasted at the lake is time well spent.
There are many boats that leave the jetty in Nyaungshwe early in the morning and phut phut down the long canal that leads to the lake. The morning mist envelopes each one and they are soon lost to sight. Tall grasses and reeds grow in profusion at the water’s edge and almost obscure the farmers’ fields that lie beyond. By the time the end of the canal comes into view, the sun has evaporated most of the mist. All the boats reappear, as if on schedule, ready to watch the display of the leg fishermen for which Inle Lake is famous.
On my first visit to Inle Lake in 1999, we came across a few boats, each with a single fisherman, leg wrapped round an oar, as they skillfully manoevered their boat round their patch of the lake for fish. They row with their leg so their hands are free to deal with their fishing lines or their nets. I don’t think they studiously ignored the tourists; they were just engrossed in their work. Occasionally, one of them would slip a large conical net into the water and the fisherman would row on.
On my last visit in 2014, egress to the lake was like running the gauntlet of fishermen engaged in ballectic acts of terrifying athleticism. Conical nets were lofted high, twirled, tossed nonchalently and caught before hitting the water. Legs moved vigoroulsy and each oar propelled each boat with abrupt changes in direction. The choreography was dramatic. I was not totally surprised as I had been forewarned by a photographer friend I met in Bangkok who was just back from a trip to Myanmar.
“They’ve given up fishing”, said Gary, “Make more money entertaining the tourists”.
The show was quickly over and all the tourist boats moved off and were soon dispersed around the lake. Very quickly, we were back to being the only boat for miles. Off in the distance, I could spot lone fishermen plying their trade in the time-honoured way – and not surrounded by boats with tourists wielding cameras.
It seems that each tourist boat takes its own route round this huge lake. There are several common destinations – a village market, floating gardens and several pagodas and monasteries – but the lake is large and the waterways many. Villages have their markets on different days of the week. I remembered one village that had some old temples. I’d forgotten the name so was very pleased when that was where we ended up. In Sein is at the southern end of the lake. (Because English does not represent the Burmese sounds accurately, there is a variety of spellings – In Thein, In Dein and Inn Dain are several other spellings I have come across. I’ll stick with In Sein as it reminds me of the slightly ‘insane’ market spread out nearly all over the village).
I love markets and there is plenty at In Sein to keep your camera clicking. Mainly produce is on sale and it is spread out on cloths in the dust. The vendors, usually women, squat down amonst their wares. It is not unusual to see them smoking huge cheroots. Most of the people who live at In Sein are of the Pa-O ethnic group. Their clothes are often black and they wear brightly coloured scarves on their heads. Both men and women frequently wear a brightly coloured woven Shan bag over one shoulder. It’s useful for carrying a variety of things just like a handbag in the west.
The big draw for me at In Sein is the monastery and I head to the crumbling buildings that rise above the village. On the way, I see scenes of village life that have probably remained the same since the middle ages. The monastery and the main stupas are located on the rise above the village. I like to poke around the ruins at the bottom of the small hill. There is enough of interest here to keep me happy. Most of these temples and stupas are ancient and in ruins. Many of the bricks of the buildings are held together by wandering vines and other vegetation. I like the little statues hidden in recesses and the reliefs. Most of all, I like the idea that life has gone on here since time immemorial and that the spiritual life of the people is intertwinned with their everyday life.
More about Inle Lake in the next post.