Every few years, when a severe case of wanderlust strikes, I find myself yearning to travel to places both exotic and far away. This year, I chose the most unlikely destination I could imagine. I have long been entranced by Burma, now called Myanmar, and the thought of this striking and far removed place served as my recent adventure.
Although war torn and repressed, Burma would be certain to yield its remaining untouched beauty and colorful stories, and I was not disappointed. The entire trip was exceptional. But what captivated me the most was the magic of Inle Lake, a peaceful oasis dotted with floating vegetable and flower gardens, islands, fisherman and canals lined with wooden houses, making it one of the most picturesque places in all of Southeast Asia.
I came to this beautiful region while traveling with a private tour. We traveled in comfort with two local guides who ushered us through endless whimsical pagodas, monasteries, peaceful teak forests and spicy, bustling restaurants. Although a single traveler among 15 strangers, I nonetheless felt at ease with these seasoned voyagers, who parenthetically tolerated my distinction as the only New Yorker.
Our approach to Inle Lake in Central Burma was directly preceded by a tour of Shan, the largest hill tribe state in Burma. The drive from Mandalay was a scenic privilege, revealing rough peaks and rugged river gorges. Along the way, we viewed women balancing heavy loads on their heads and men leading oxen to market. Many chewed betel, staining their mouths the color of plums. Tattoos were common, and many females used a white paste to protect their facial skin from the sun.
In Shan, we stayed in the small town of Pindaya, noted for caves in limestone ridges, where endless caverns containing over 8,000 marble, brick and lacquer statues of Buddha re-define the meaning of the word “awesome”. One such cave is preceded by a 200-foot staircase where, on our way down - not up - we passed locals wearing black layered tunics, colored turbans, and typical shoulder bags of the region.
Occasional trips to markets revealed the fiercely independent spirit of the tribal people. Their heads wrapped in bright bath towels, they shoved by us to inspect huddles of scrawny chickens, oddly shaped melons and heaps of aromatic spices. Jostled between hoards of noisy children and scurrying women, I noted a determination and seriousness that differed from shoppers I had seen elsewhere. As a foreigner, I was surprised that nobody noticed me, and suddenly felt uncomfortably anonymous among throngs of pushing buyers, elbowing each other for consumer rights.
I was relieved when we left aboard the bus. As we hunkered down for a three hour drive to Inle Lake, I was anxious for solitude, but nothing could have prepared me for the serenity which lay ahead. When we landed at a lakeside dock, we boarded, in groups of five, motorized dugouts, so low that as we chugged off, tiny waves scraped the boat rims and skipped onto our arms and legs. All evidences of today’s world had vanished no roads, no technology or telephone wires. Glassy waters, encircling hills and sapphire skies formed a perfect background for lazy day dreaming or meditation.
At first, we were surrounded only by the lake and the calm. But shortly, patterns formed as pools of water were interrupted by isles of gardens scattered like throw rugs. These isles are formed naturally by farmers who weave together hollow stemmed floating weeds or dried reeds and grasses matted into strips. It takes fifty years for silt and weed to produce a thick humus layer suitable for planting. Long bamboo poles anchor the gardens, filled with mud scooped from the lake bottom and fertilized free of charge from seaweed. These farms yield 60 percent of the country’s tomatoes, as well as cauliflower heads, cabbages, bananas and papaya. Such agriculture makes the 150,000 Intha people, who live on the lake, the wealthiest Burmese ethnic group..
As we ferried along snaky canals, we noticed the well-kept condition of the dark bamboo houses on stilts. Tall sprouts of sea grass fluttered amidst bright flowers to complete a picture of lush green fertility. Carefully tended flower pots on balconies, little boats tethered to railings, people bathing and swimming in clean water were all signs of material comfort which contrasted with the poverty so obvious throughout much of Burma. As children peering from windows smiled and waved, we followed suit. I remember wondering where they could play, with only water surrounding their floating homes. Water games seemed the answer, but due to the language barrier, I was never able to satisfy my curiosity.
As our boat trip continued, the beauty on the lake was remarkable. Graceful water lily pods and purple bell-shaped hyacinths sprinkled pools of water. There are over 100 monasteries and several hundred pagodas nestled in the hills around the lake. Pyramid-like towers crowned these surrounding pagodas whose gold leaf caught the sun and reflected back its luminosity.
Suddenly, we saw a procession of boats celebrating a rite of passage for a boy crowned by an impressive white turban, seated like a king amidst baskets of vibrant primroses and honeysuckles. Accompanying family members wore shocking pink or sequined robes with elaborate headdresses flanked by pompons, marking the event with unfamiliar nasal sounds of Eastern stringed instruments and with gifts wrapped in sparkling silver boxes.
Unexpectedly, our driver slowed down and pointed to the famous, unique leg rowers. Instead of using their arms to maneuver the boat among unusually thick weeds and algae, these fishermen navigate by acrobatically standing on one leg while twisting the other around a long oar. A nearby fisherman demonstrated for us his tall cone-shaped netted trap. When he suddenly thrust this to the shallow lake bottom and produced a rare flathead fish, we applauded his catch.
But his quiet repose appeared to reveal the inherent consideration and modesty which prevails throughout this country, so thoroughly immersed in the Buddhist belief system. Our guide told us that many Intha people donate half their income to public welfare. Since nothing is permanent, material wealth is not important. These gentle people further adhere to the ethic that good karma is what one gains by merit, attained by doing good acts through charity or meditation. This is something that one cannot miss in Burma. Be it their actual good deeds, gracious treatment of guests, soft voices or patient manners, their demeanor simply captivated us over and over again.
One hour through our idyllic boat trip, a massive triangular dark wooden building loomed in the distance. The Inle Princess Resort was straight ahead, where we were to stay for three nights. Approaching, I distinguished wide verandas and rows of small cabins framed by tiny red, pink and white flowers lining the shore. Typical Shan style, upward curving roofs displayed at both ends delicate statues of dancing goddesses, Shan princesses, and mythical animals.
When we disembarked, I couldn’t wait to see my cottage, which I approached via a bougainvillea-lined wooden platform topped by leafy trellises. Our luggage was delivered immediately by cheerful porters in white karate style suits, trained to cater to our every need. Resembling a luxurious sauna, my accommodation was a place I simply didn’t want to leave. It was one of twenty-eight chalets, with spacious multi-level rooms of natural teak wood, sensual Burmese silken fabrics, smooth lines and an outside terrace. While hiking, boating and bird watching were available at reasonable prices - everything in Burma is MOST reasonable - I must admit to choosing an aromatherapy and back massage at the hotel’s “La Source” Spa.
After a typical Burmese dinner of fish, salads of minced chicken and mint, bowls of noodles, as well as green beans and rice, we retired. In such hospitable surroundings, I was not altogether surprised to discover a hot water bottle at the foot of my bed. After tying the mosquito netting, which had covered the bed, to a pole, I surrendered to the coziest sleep in many a night.
That comfy feeling dissipated the next morning in 40 degree Fahrenheit temperature. Thankful that I had packed a sweatshirt from Antarctica, I relished a European buffet breakfast on the outside verandah. Scrambled eggs, bagels and croissants were refreshing the Oriental food that had been our continual diet.
Later, back in the boats, the wind whipped our faces as we huddled to avoid the slightest hint of cold waves. Our first stop was “the wooden tin-roofed monastery” called Nga Phe Kyaung, which displays massive Buddha statues on elaborate wood and mosaic pedestals. The main attraction was a show of trained cats that leap through hoops held by young seated monks. Next, we visited a blacksmith shop where teams of hammering smiths, naked to the waist, managed to withstand enormous heat while forging swords and agricultural implements. Knowing their reputations as skilled blacksmiths, we saw the sharp contrast they afforded to our machine driven world of today.
We next visited a cheroot workplace where cross-legged women rolled cigars by first boiling the tobacco in palm sugar, lining it with cinnamon and vanilla, then drying it in the sun. One of our group lit a cheroot, took several puffs, creating a pungent smell of incense. We then toured silk weaving workshops, where young women foo- pedaled looms and hand-wove threads made of silk and lotus flowers into intricate patterns. At the adjacent gift shop, we saw silk scarves of every conceivable hue, petite Mandarin blouses, and longys (typical straight Burmese skirts which wrap around the waist and miraculously stay tied). The most expensive item was approximately $30. There are almost no fixed prices in Burma - in fact, you can just about name your price in roadside stalls and bazaars, and frequently even in higher end stores.
One of the most fun stops of this day was the Shwein Tain Pagoda, where over 1,000 stupas (pyramidal monuments to Buddha) are perched at every angle outside the building. The approach to the pagoda is known as “the largest shopping mall in the world”. Over a mile of stalls line both sides of a pathway, with no end to inexpensive artifacts and wall hangings, including knife sharpeners, parasols, sandals, wooden elephants, colorful gems set in necklaces and bracelets, and brocade cotton jackets. So many things to look at so little time in truth, I never even made it to the pagoda!
On the third day, our final excursion was to the Phaung Daw U Pagoda, which had been brought to Burma from Siam 700 years ago. The ornate character of Siam manifested itself in five Buddha images, so plastered with excessive gold leaf that they had lost their original shape. The visitor is awed by a five-story gold and red ceiling, supported by impressive gold leaf columns. Seated monks pray, their heads bowed and hands tucked under their chins. No distraction seemed to affect their concentration.
After heading back to the hotel for lunch, we departed for our flight to Rangoon (there are daily flights from Inle Lake to both Mandalay and Rangoon). But on that final boat trip prior to our flight, we weren’t quite finished with the wonders of Inle Lake. While we spotted unusual coconut and areca palm trees, as well as red-flowered African tulip trees of whitish bark, farmers were bathing bulky water buffaloes against a background of assorted bamboo lining the shores.
I took it all in with a fear that I might ultimately remember nothing. But how glad I am now that I photographed this peaceful haven on film and in my heart - for I have stored a precious memory that is not likely to vanish even with the passing of time.
Travel writer, 12-year American Museum of Natural History tour guide, and internationally touring amateur pianist Marjorie Gilbert holds degrees from Smith College and Columbia University. She writes from New York.
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