Inle Lake and Shan State

The quintessential Inle Lake photograph.

“YOU SEE BIRD” is printed (in English) on a sign next to Inle Lake where there is a bird sanctuary. I laugh to myself but I don’t think anyone else on the boat notices. The five of us have rented a long tail boat for the day, after negotiating with a man who approached us on the streets of Nuangshwe, Myanmar. Hailing from France (2), Australia, Austria, and the USA, we represent three continents as we are driven past fisherman in the middle of the lake, accompanied by tourist snapping photos. Of course, I take a photo, too.

Our first stop is not one that we requested, but a silversmith shop where they sell jewelry and there is a sign inside that says “Free Wifi.” We linger for a moment and then get back in the boat for a long ride down to the south end of the Lake: Inthein Market. It takes more than an hour to get there, but everyone is in their own world so we are hardly able to be sure how long the trip actually is – maybe 2 hours. The market is not exceptional. There are knick-knacks, marionettes, scarves, fruits. We get pakoda, which is an assortment of fried snacks. The vegetable samosas are excellent, as are the bean paste pastries.

We venture farther south along canals and rivers that appear under the cover of wild grass. At a textile factory we see lotus flower being weaved into garments. The process is very time consuming and all done by hand. A single scarf takes a person a full day of work. It’s too expensive for any of us to buy anything. In a small village that looks deserted we are asked if we’d like to see pottery. We watch as she expertly shapes bowls and vases without the use of even a pedal, spinning the platform with her hand as she sits cross-legged. After a long ride we arrive at a quiet Pagoda with stairs leading up to the top. A few people linger about, along with some buffalos. It seems like we’re in the middle of nowhere. Later, we see cigars being rolled, and go to the biggest Pagoda in the area, where the Buddha in the center is so covered in gold paper that it is not really recognizable. We decide as a group to skip the monastery where they’ve supposedly trained cats to jump through hoops. We are hungry after eight hours on the river.

Houses on stilts on Inle Lake.

The next day I feel like doing something active, having sat on a boat all day prior. I rent a proper mountain bike from Active and Authentic Travels and Tours, which is in good condition and includes a patch kit and phone number in case something happens. I ride to the hot spring, which is about what I expected: a small hole in the ground. Nearby is a temple on a hill with an uninspiring view. When I return to my bike at the bottom I find three guys standing around. They ask my if I want to take my bike across the river (I don’t), and then they ask me about my tattoos – how long they took, how much they cost, etc.

I ride back into town and then ride around the other side of the lake. I ride past the winery , which is French owned. My Austrian acquaintance told me the wine is terrible, so I skip a tasting. I crave a good glass of wine, but doubt I will find it here. I continue along, past rolling fields, farms, a big monastery. It’s nice. It’s not beautiful, but it’s nice.

In order to go to Kengtung in the Shan State I have to take a domestic flight. The road isn’t accessible to foreigners or requires a permit (which would probably take 15 days that I don’t have) because of continuous skirmishes between the Myanmar Army and the local Shan Army. This conflict has been going on since independence from Britain and the assassination of Aung San. The bottom line is that the government doesn’t want you to see a region that they have no control over.

The flight is easy, security almost non-existent, and short. My passport is checked when I arrive in Kengtung, my visa number recorded on yet another piece of paper to be added to the pile of bureaucratic waste.

Kengtung is quiet. I go to the market to exchange money, walk by the normal fare: severed fish heads, oranges, jewelry, things imported from China. I walk around the lake, where there are nicer houses, tea shops, and a few restaurants. I stop and have a beer. Afterwards, I wander around in the direction of some pagodas and Chinese temples. I end up walking down a long alley that I hope will go through. I reach a certain point where things look unsure. A woman sitting down tells me all I need to know when I look to walk down that way. With her elbow down, she jiggles her hand and smiles (the same motion we might use when saying, “Ehhhh….Sort of…”). That’s the way you say “No” in Myanmar. I do the same, she nods, and I point back to where I came. She says, “Ah.” I walk back the way I came and find my way back to my hotel.

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