Inle Lake by Boat, and the Time I Got Sick in Burma

Waiting for Keala to get her sunnies from the hotel I talked to a guy who offered me a boat. “Where you from?” “USA.” “USA very nice country! Obama!” “Obama visit?” “Obama visit a few time, go Yangon visit Aung San Suu Kyi.”

We had a boat arranged already, however. We settled down in one of the typical long, skinny wooden motorboats, armed with blankets to protect against the cold morning air. After a trip down a canal, we were gliding over massive Inle. Fishermen were out in their smaller wooden boats, rowing in their distinctive style: standing up and rowing with one leg. This is to improve visibility, so they can see more and avoid reeds. Strangely, the boat driver would slow down for fishermen photo ops, leaving me amused but slightly uncomfortable. One guy actually posed for our cameras! And didn’t even ask for money!

One-legged boat rowing, Inle Lake

The long journey across the open lake brought us to a large, wild canal, which eventually led to the inland village of Inthein, which was hosting the rotating market that day. After clearing our way through initial rounds of tourist stalls, we found a large gathering in a dusty field. The women and men wore some kind of head wrap in addition to their longyi. Some ladies sat in rows with fresh fruit for sale out in the sun. Past them was a collection of covered stalls selling everything from jeans to toiletries to traditional woven scarves and bags and jewelry to jade and souvenirs. A proper bazaar, I think.

Inthein market

Noodle soup, Shan tofu with chili sauce and rice crackers. May have gotten me horribly ill but totally worth it.

Eventually under a bunch of tents we found all kinds of food hawkers. First we had two sweet doughnuts, one pale and ricey, the inside lined with shredded coconut, the other like an undercooked malasada, very soft on the inside. Then we caught our first glimpses of Shan tofu dishes, a mix of soft tofu, shredded tofu and fried tofu topped with cabbage, puréed cauliflower and all kinds of chili sauces, which men were scooping with large crispy rice crackers – like tofu nachos!. The tofu, unique to Inle Lake, is made out of yellow split peas and has a strange consistency. A smiling old lady directed us to sit down and helped us order. Another girl gave us noodle soup, very thick and mauve in color (more mohinga?), which was wonderfully comforting and delicious. The tofu nachos were creamy and a nice mix of textures, great with a bit of chili.

The lady talked to us, asking if we were sisters and where we came from. She spoke bits and pieces of English, more than most of her brethren; she had devoted herself to learning the language throughout school. I was surprised to meet an elderly person with any English skills and she told me she was 67! “Birthday? 1946, same year as Aung San Suu Kyi.” They all work Aung San Suu Kyi into the conversation here, and her image is everywhere, as if some Uncle Ho figure but the idolatry is totally voluntary. Then, of course, she wanted us to look at her jewelry shop, but she didn’t have anything that appealing. “OK maybe come back later,” she said. Sellers of goods and services in Burma are never pushy, ending their sales attempts with “maybe later.”

We walked into residential Inthein a bit, past some ruined, crooked stupas. The town also has a hilltop monastery. The houses here were all brick and mortar; this place must have been comparatively prosperous.

Next stop: a pagoda housing a few Buddhas which transformed into amorphous blobs over years of Buddhists covering them in more and more gold. Women were barred from the central amorphous blob Buddha circle.

Amorphous blob Buddhas

Then, a series of handicraft stops. This annoyed me slightly as I dislike a forced shopping tour, but the workshops were generally interesting: For example, we saw a teak workshop where they made the long Inle boats, both motorboats for toting tourists and smaller fishing boats. After the fitting and sanding is done, the boats are slathered in tar. Inside ladies were rolling cheroot, the local cigars. Also, at a large weaving factory, women were spinning silk and lotus thread and weaving at looms which made loud smacking sounds. Apparently lotus thread is six times as expensive as silk and unique to the region.

Spinning lotus thread

We made our way through the floating gardens, where the Intha have painstakingly built up beds on which to grow tomatoes and all kinds of crops. This practice will have deleterious long-term effects on the lake, as the beds will become solid ground, but it was peaceful to float by with the farmers through this other-worldly place.

Our final stop was the famous “jumping cat monastery”, a wooden monastery on stilts where the monks have trained cats to jump through hoops. Unfortunately the cats were relatively dormant when we arrived, but I liked sitting in the comfy teak recliners in sunbeams next to tiny kittens! The place was full of foreigners trying to photograph cats on their SLRs, though a monk was speaking wisdom to a couple Burmese. This monastery also boasted a large collection of golden Buddhas from several different styles (Bamar, Shan, Intha etc.). Our driver came in to pray at one of them.

We were dropped off in the late afternoon, and that night I dined on a curry fish. As I was trying to sleep I heard a procession of children singing in harmony outside at about 10 PM. What a sweet place, I thought. Later, however, I felt the peculiar need to vomit, and ended up throwing up and having diarrhea in countless episodes throughout the night. My stomach hurt terribly, and I felt various lower abdominal cramps as well. Worse, I became increasingly dehydrated but could not hold down water! Only with some electrolyte drink and Advil at about mid-day the next day was I able to gain the strength to even rise from bed.

So we had to abandon our plans for a long trek that day. Food poisoning in one of the world’s least developed countries after subsisting for six days on primarily street and market food?? Crazy! But I wanted to walk it off. So that afternoon we hiked down the road going east from Nyaungshwe which led into the hills and into a tiny village where kids were playing soccer and bathing at a concrete public shower. Up some stairs young monks (here in burgundy) were wandering around at a small monastery. We walked into a small cave, where a smiling monk gave us a flashlight and another one led us around in the dark up and down stairs, pointing out Buddhas and cave paintings. “No oxygen,” he’d say when we motioned to go in certain directions. At one point he had us meditate in a hot cavern in the dark. A little sketchy, a little awkward but definitely an amusing exchange.

Took a walk to this monastery, cave and village

The next morning we drove through white mist so thick you could see no distinction between the lake and the sky, noting a peculiarly orange and circular sun before it rose higher and the mist cleared. On the exact same Air Bagan flight, which seems to just go in a circle around Burma, we flew over dry mountains to Thandwe, where we landed right next to the rippling ocean, and finally to Yangon, where gilded stupas glinted in the sun.

I had low expectations for Burma. After the irritating visa process, suspicious Air Bagan reservation system and crappy hotel selection, I was expecting a real shithole. Moreover, I was expecting the poverty level to be stressful. But, maybe because I flew instead of taking slow buses and trains, I found traveling in Burma totally manageable, less stressful than in Cambodia. The food was delicious and cheap; I want to go eat some Burmese food right now, or perhaps learn to make mohinga! The sights were unique and off-the-beaten path. Yet, I’d agree with Lonely Planet: the best thing about Myanmar is the people! The Burmese are friendly, happy, curious about you, honest, full of optimism. I’m so glad I went there, as their optimism and spirit gives me hope for the whole world. 🙂

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