Myanmar - Inle Lake - Fishermen

Inle Lake

After arriving in Nyaungshwe, I visited Win Nyunt Traditional Massage. I pre-paid 7000 kyat (~5.25 USD) for a one hour massage, then sat in the waiting area while drinking tea. I heard cries of pain from a few British women behind the curtains of the massage rooms, so I figured that I was in for a deep tissue massage. It wasn’t until my massage started that I discovered that I was in for an hour of torture. When my petite massage therapist in Yangon walked on my back, it was the perfect amount of pressure. This massage therapist was tall and probably weighed 180 pounds. While walking on my back, he reached above his head and pushed hard on the ceiling, nearly knocking the wind out of me. Later, he pulled on my big toe so hard that I was limping for three days afterwards. I broke into a cold sweat, gritted my teeth, and wished for it to be over. I vowed to myself afterwards that only my Yangon massage therapist would be giving me traditional Burmese massages.

In the evening I went to the Golden Kite Restaurant for pizza. The owner was a former tour guide that learned to make pizza in Bologna, Italy from one of his Italian clients. He proudly showed me his kitchen, which has a wood-fired oven. The pizza was a nice change from Burmese food. After dinner I went to Pub Asiatico, where I played Jenga with some fellow travelers. Jenga is an ideal game for traveler hangouts, because the rules are uncomplicated and language isn’t a barrier to gameplay.

The next morning I was riding a bicycle again, this time a short 6-mile ride to the Khaung Daing Hot Springs. Upon arriving, I was disappointed to learn that there are separate pools for locals and foreigners. It’s understandable, because the swimsuits worn by some foreigners are inappropriate for Myanmar’s conservative culture. The section for foreigners contains four pools, ranging in temperature from lukewarm to boiling hot. As I was soaking in one of the pools the trio of British women from the massage shop arrived. They were also beaten-up and had sworn off traditional Burmese massages.

After soaking in the hot springs for a couple of hours, we road our bikes to the Viewpoint, probably the most upmarket restaurant in Nyaungshwe. I was reluctant to eat there, until it occurred to me that the prices are still less than what I pay for meals at home. I ordered a set menu and sampled Shan dishes that I hadn’t tried yet, my favorite being a slow-cooked curry. We enjoyed the food so much that we decided to return in the evening.

In the afternoon I made my first visit to Inle Lake, a shallow, freshwater lake surrounded by green hills. I hired a boat ride at one of the villages, which provided a close-up look at life on the lake. My boatman propelled the boat using a one-legged paddling technique that you won’t see anywhere else in the world. We cruised through channels fringed by floating tomato gardens and stilt-houses, watching farmers and fishermen work and children play in the water. It was simply serene.

Near the end of the day we headed to the Red Mountain Estate Vineyards & Winery for wine tasting. We each paid 3000 kyat (~2.25 USD) to taste four wines. I didn’t care for any of the wines included in the tasting, but a bottle of pinot that we purchased afterwards was surprisingly good. We sipped the wine while watching the sun set over the hills behind Inle Lake, a pleasant end to the day.

Early the next morning I joined an Inle Lake tour departing at Teik Nan Bridge. Unlike my boat trip the prior day, this was a touristy trip on a long motorized boat, with an itinerary that included multiple stops at souvenir shops. While some of the trip wasn’t to my liking, there were some worthwhile destinations. My favorite destination was the Royal Barge Museum, where we saw the golden swan barge used to ferry five Buddha images around the lake during the yearly Phaung Daw Oo Festival. Upon seeing the golden swan barge, I instantly recognized it as the boat on the Myanmar Beer label. We continued to the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda on the other side of canal to see the five Buddha images. Interestingly, so much gold leaf has been applied to the five Buddha images that they now look like golden pieces of rock. According to our guide, it’s a great honor for an Inle Lake villager to be chosen to participate in the ceremony.

A good portion of the trip was spent touring the cottage industries on the lake, including silversmithing, lotus weaving, blacksmithing, and boat building. I enjoyed watching each craftsperson demonstrate their trade, but not the souvenir shopping that followed. I was relieved that after the boat building demonstration, no one on the tour was interested in boat shopping!

Near the end of the tour, the sky turned dark and it started to rain. However, before returning to Nyaungshwe, we had the opportunity to take some classic Inle Lake fishermen photos. A photo of an Inle Lake fisherman wearing the traditional trousers, shirt, and conical hat is featured on the cover of my Lonely Planet Myanmar guidebook, as the fishermen have become iconic of Inle Lake and Myanmar. Rather than catching fish, the job of the “fishermen” we photographed is to demonstrate the technique to tourists. While carefully balancing on one leg, Inle Lake fishermen wrap their second leg around the oar to propel their boat. This technique leaves their hands free to trap fish in large conical nets, and then spear the fish through a hole in the top of the net. It’s truly artistic and beautiful to watch. I didn’t mind that the “fishermen” on our tour were posing for us, as I wouldn’t want to see boatloads of tourists gawking at real fishermen as they’re working.

Inle Lake was one of the most anticipated destinations on my trip, and I wasn’t disappointed. The setting is beautiful, and travelers do not have to wander far off the tourist trail to see authentic villages. My only regret is missing out on trekking from Kalaw to Inle Lake.