Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Day 7 -- Not Like Lake Harmony

And we're off to Inle Lake. Joe picked us up at 6:30 for the hour or so ride to the airport. Along the way, he told us about a small Nat (spirit) festival that we had missed yesterday in lieu of the temples. I wish we had known, because I would have much preferred to see what he described, which is this. In the house of a medium, people from the neighborhood bring offerings to the spirits, and paint their faces to look like Burmese princesses. Then they eat, and drink beer, and dance to traditional Burmese music. This starts at 9 in the morning and goes most of the day and sometimes even into the night (Joe thought this one would go into the late afternoon, which is why we didn't hurry back; instead, however, it ended mid-day). These "in home" festivals occur only on certain lucky days (June 24 was a good day, for weddings and Nat festivals) and in this case is a "send off" to the Nats as they battle one another, culminating in a huge 7 days festival in August in an area just to the north of Mandalay. I asked Joe if there were these festivals all over Myanmar yesterday and he said no, just the one he had seen near his house. Ah well, with two weddings and a funeral, I can't complain that we didn't see enough of real Burmese culture yesterday.

At the airport in Mandalay, I feel as though I've stepped back 25 years to my backpacker days. Because it is the low season and because travel to Myanmar is still rare, we have begun to see the same few solo travelers in several places. Here in the airport are a couple from Italy and a couple from the US, both of whom we had seen at the puppetshow. As is an older woman, quite sophisticated, who i take to be someone teaching abroad and traveling for her vacation, who we saw in Bagan. And they are all (ok, not the teacher) carrying their well-worn Lonely Planet guidebooks, exchanging information, discussing hostels and places to see and the like. In some ways, I miss being one of those people, having to learn so much more about a country just in order to figure out what local bus to take and where to buy train tickets. But, on the other hand, the luxury of having everything arranged, having a local guide and car at every destination, knowing there's a hot shower at the end of the day, makes things so much easier and more comfortable. I could never do a pre-packaged group tour and as indulgent as a private tour seems, it is really the best of both worlds.

Arriving in Heho, we were met by our guide Sandar, a young woman with very good English (the one thing that made traveling with Joe a problem). On the way to Inle lake we made two stops. The first was to a family that made paper and bamboo umbrellas. Although I am quite jaded of such stops (and there were more to come), the delicacy and skill of this family was quite impressive, and thus we left with our own bamboo umbrella.

Next stop was, yes, a temple and monastery, but an interesting one. The temple was built in the 18th (?) century and displayed both English and Burmese influence. There were hundreds of niches with Buddhas in them, and above and below we're beautiful glass mosaics of everything from British soldiers to tigers to flowers. Next door was the monastery, Shwe Yan Pyay, which consisted of an old teak structure like the several we have seen before and a few newer buildings. The monastery housed about forty young monks and a few older teachers, all of whom were very friendly.

Finally we reached Inle and got on our motor boat and headed out to the lake. Our hotel was about 30 minutes away, a resort consisting of dozens of huts on stilts, like all of the villages around the lake. After a brief rest we headed to the far side of the lake, about 40 minutes away, for lunch, a boat tour of some of the villages, and tours of, sigh, craft factories - silk, silver, and cheroot (cigars). Agriculture is the main occupation, with a lot of rice and tomatoes ioak articulate. We opted out of more monasteries and pagodas, however, and eventually returned to our hotel for dinner (served to a bad cover version of Yellow River by Paper Lace) and sleep.

A few notes - everything here occurs, or seems to occur, on the water, and boats, some motorized and some not, are the mode of transportation for everything - crops, people, hard goods, and schoolchildren - the last being transported by a very long boat, the water equivalent of a school boat. As one might expect of a lake that rises several meters in the rainy season, every building is on stilts, and since the lake is low now, activity occurs both in the houses on top and on platforms lower down. Finally, this place has already figured out the tourist business quite well, with plenty of resorts and restaurants lining the lake. So being here in low season is a bit like being down the shore in November - the locals are curious about you not because you are tourists but because you've come at the wrong time, and most of the hotels and restaurants and closed for the season and being refurbished for next year.