Don’t fall Inlé Lake

Inlé Lake is one of Myanmar’s top tourist destinations and, according to the guidebooks at least, the main town Nyaung Shwe has the closest thing to a backpacker scene of anywhere in the country. Well, that might be true, but you’d be disappointed if you were expecting busy hostels and cheap bars – Nyaung Shwe is just as quiet and relaxed as the rest of Myanmar, but it does have a higher density of gift shops, restaurants and massage shops. There are plenty of places advertising cocktails, but everywhere shuts up shop by about 10pm.

The real attraction though is Inlé Lake, a 45 square mile marshland lake which dozens of villages, built mostly on stilts, around its edges. The most popular way to see it is to hire a longtail boat to take you through the village waterways and across the flat expansive waters. It’s a relaxed way to travel, and although there are lots of visitors, there never seem to be too many boats in one place. There’s plenty to see from the boat and on land; we stopped at the ‘five day market’, which moves to a different lakeside village every day, and Phaung Daw Oo pagoda in the village of Tha Ley, which houses five gold Buddha statues that have had so much gold leaf added to them by worshippers that they are now five blobby nuggets.

The whole lake and surrounding marshes are a protected wildlife area, and the villages are quiet and rural with very few restaurants or hotels. A few years ago, as Myanmar’s tourism industry began to grow, the government banned any new hotels (besides the thirty or so already in existence) from opening on or around the lake. Instead, a section of the lower part of the mountains, about half an hour’s drive from the lake, have been designated as a new ‘hotel zone’. Building work there is in its early stages, and the vast yellow shapes of deforested land are visible from the northern half of the lake. I think it’s admirable that the powers that be have been so forward thinking in managing this site of real cultural and natural importance, although it’ll be interesting to see how well the hotel zone attempts to blend into the horizon.

In the absence of restaurants and gift shops, many of the lakeside stilt villages attract visitors with craft workshops. We had seen several of these already, that I haven’t mentioned yet because I’m intending to do a separate post about them, but I have really enjoyed seeing master craftspeople working in a whole range of mediums. At Inlé Lake we saw silversmiths producing silver from silver ore and making intricate patterns with it by hand, a cigar workshop where ladies rolled cheroots in a matter of seconds with an rather hypnotic repetitious method, a boat-builder and wood carver who makes longtail boats from scratch and by hand from teak logs, and finally a weaving workshop. The first room was used for spinning and dying and the second was full of ladies sitting at huge hand looms weaving beautiful patterned cloth from cotton, silk and lotus. Lotus thread is made by splitting sections of lotus stem and rolling together the fine, transluscent fibres to make a strong linen-like thread. It’s agonisingly slow work.

Our lunch at the Golden Kite, a freestanding stilt restaurant, was a rather different example of how people here are getting involved in the growing tourism industry. The Golden Kite is a chain of two restaurants, one on the lake and one in Nyaung Shwe, specialising in pizza and pasta. The owner, Nyo, was on site and proudly gave us a tour of the kitchen, explaining how they make their bread and pasta from scratch. He said an Italian woman from Rome gave him the seeds for the basil and oregano plants that supply the kitchen, and he proudly explained that many of the ingredients are imported from Europe; bacon from Denmark, cheese and salami from Italy and olive oil from Spain. Admittedly it would be difficult to source some of those products more locally, but the thought of the food miles made me wince. He also served fresh strawberry juice made from local wild strawberries, which was delicious.

On our way back to Nyaung Shwe we visited one of many floating vegetable gardens on the lake, where local farmers grow tomatoes, gourd, chilli and watercress in the water, supported by bamboo. We also got a good look at the fisherman on the lake.

That evening we went to a Shan restaurant serving local speciality dishes like deep fried tofu and Shan noodle soup, to get me in the mood for the cooking class I had booked for the next morning.

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