Our little motor boat shattered the tranquility of the sleepy overcast morning as we zoomed out of the cluster of overhanging buildings and bush and onto the open lake, the early morning fisherman poised themselves masterfully on the end of their boats in perfected agility, a pose they’d clearly become more frequented with since the influx of tourists. Gracefully obliging to pose for photos with a little shy wave thrown in.
These are the fishermen Inle Lake is infamous for, just one commodity in this endearing lake side town.
Away from Nyuang Shwe the houses leer triumphantly over the water in neat stilted rows bordered by floating villages and souvenir shops. In the grey morning light the bright clothes of the occupants provides welcome contrast against the greys and browns, off to the morning market or tending screaming children on exposed platforms.
Today we’d hired a boat from one of many boatmen and he sat at the back as we perched single file on rickety chairs with worn cushions and children’s blankets for warmth. The heavens first decided to open just as we’d disembarked onto the muddy shores of the biggest market on the south-east side of the lake and the opportunity for sweet condensed tea was too powerful (but then when is it not) to resist.
The brilliance I find in travelling is finding beauty in every unexpected rainstorm, as we huddled in to the smoky teahouse, open to the elements if it weren’t for the plastic sheeting. We, apparently, were not the only ones with this idea and we were soon packed in on all sides, with a few strays in there to boot, while a dishevelled looking husband dressed in a greying white top and what I presume were once colourful crops squeezed through non-existent gaps tending and taking orders, his wife played front of house and giver of pastries to hungry mouths.
Now, for me it has become to me a game of find the real market in Asia, because many of them now have turned it, quite rightfully, into a souvenir zoo, playing twisted games of who can guilt the foreigner into badly made fake products first. Funnily enough no don’t worry my life will go on without that carved wooden fork and the ironically offensive Buddha head.
Instead when you weave further into the the depths of the market past the manicured stalls you find something else, something real. And no, I am going to be even less in need of roses, fish heads and fresh tofu but there’s something about a market and just the unapologetic living that happens behind the welcoming facade that feels like you’ve just stepped into something private like you’ve gone behind the scenes in a wonderful play to realise the inner workings are even more wonderful.
Like a young boy getting a haircut while his mum haggles for fresh flowers, dogs lurching from hidden corners onto untended food stalls and retreating with even fiercer haste as they snatch away their coveted prize. The calls of the hawkers, the laughs between hagglers, the children clinging to their mums limbs as they hand over goods and the judging stares as you smile at strangers. I love it all, it’s community, it’s rawness still untouched or fazed by chain brands and supermarkets.
The day continued much as any tour thorough silver stores and weaving factories, herding grounds tourists and their purses, it’s an interesting lesson in culture and ways of life if you’re willing to ask the right questions and put in the time listening to the sales pitch but then came Karen or Kayan.
This tribe is indigenous to the area just south of the thai border near Inle Lake and probably doesn’t sound much different to any other tribe until you discover the other names they go by, the ‘long necked women’ and ‘giraffe ladies’ being a few…
It is unfortunate that with the rise in tourist interest tribes such as this Karen tribe have faced exploitation both in Burma and across the border in Thailand.
My heart raced as we entered the weaving shed perched ominously along one the side streams of the great lake, my curiousity had gotten the better of me and guiltily I felt intrigued to learn about these ladies. It’s an ethical dilemma at best, the opportunity to learn about a culture, but what exploitation were they facing behind closed doors?
The girls and ladies adorned themselves in beautifully vibrant clothing and headdresses and I couldn’t help but let out a half smile half ‘oh my gosh Rebecca close our mouth it’s rude to stare’ face (you know the one). They weave intricately designed scarves and shawls and a younger girl talked to me a little about how she had first adorned the heavy brass rings at 8, 13 rings around 4kg! She proudly stated she had already reached 17 rings by the age of 14 and I couldn’t help but think grimly of her poor deformed collar bones and ribs, it made me feel a little wheezy at the thought, eventually these could weigh 10kg… I grimaced a little at the thought.
I couldn’t help but feel there were invisible strings orchestrating every answer, every move and although I looked at kind smiles and gentle, loving women I couldn’t help feeling tainted with sadness knowing the creepy guy running the joint was going home with a bigger cut than the girls.
Inle Lake has more on it’s shores and floating on it’s waters than just tourist traps though and travelling inland there are cooking classes (blog coming soon), bike tours and even a vineyard with wine tasting. Ok I’m not saying your palette is going to be going into orgasmic overdrive at the wine but the bike ride,
the steep hill the view and (hopefully) the weather all but make it a must. Bikes are available up and down the main road same as boats (and their drivers) it’s always good to shop around though guys.
In all the journey to Inle and the time spent there was perfect from the weather to the people, the places and even the stinky fish in the market, I’d even drink that god awful wine again!