The boat chugged to a stop as we reached Inle Lake and I started cursing myself: I should have known something was up when the guide I had hired told me she wasn’t going with us, leaving me in the boat with a Burmese boy as ‘captain’. Unlike the guide I thought I had hired, my young boat captain only spoke Burmese.
After checking into my hotel in Nyuang Shwe I slowly made my way through town to the boat jetty. The hotel had offered to arrange a sunrise boat tour for 28,000 kyats ($29 CAD), but I was determined I could find a better price elsewhere. A small travel shop near the jetty offered a sunrise cruise for 22,000 kyats, but I continued on my way.
The boat jetty was small, long wooden kabang boats lined along the Nyuang Shwe Canal. The ‘piers’ were rickety wood structures that wobbled and threatened to break at any moment. As I photographed the jetty an older Burmese woman approached me, her wrinkles expanding as she smiled at me.
“Would you like to take a boat ride to Inle Lake?”, she asked me. I explained that I was just taking pictures, and perhaps I would come see her before I headed back towards my hotel. She pointed to a street-side tea shop and told me to come find her on my way back. I agreed and continued walking.
A short time later the skies began to darken and I decided to turn back towards my hotel. When it became clear that I wasn’t going to make it there before the downpour started, I walked to the street-side tea shop, wandered inside, and sat down.
Along the back wall (the only wall in the shop) a middle-aged Burmese man was tending a large cauldron, the table in front of him laden with large orange plastic containers and several small round tea cups. The shop itself had a small collection of long chunky wooden tables and benches, local mean spread among them, chewing betel nut leaves and sipping tea. I sat down and immediately all eyes were on me, this was a local tea shop, not accustomed to foreigners; certainly not ones who look like me.
While the rain fell I drank locally grown green tea and spoke with a Burmese woman who owned a boat. We talked about Myanmar, and the various ways to see Inle Lake. I explained my desire to experience and photograph local life, rather than tourist hotspots. By the time the rain stopped, we had struck a deal: I would do a sunset boat trip for 15,000 kyats, and then a longer sunrise boat trip the following morning for 20,000 kyats.
Walking slowly along the wobbly pier, I had a small panic attack when it came time to step into the kabang boat. Boats have never been my transportation of choice, what if it flips while I try to get in? Slowly stepping in and settling into my chair, I grabbed onto the sides of the boat as it rocked back and forth in the water.
“Don’t worry, the boat is very sturdy, very safe”, said my guide as she sat down behind me, ‘Yeah, well, you’re clearly on crack lady’, was the retort in my head.
Pulling out of the jetty we headed down the Nyaung Shwe canal towards Inle Lake. When we reached the lake I spotted a fisherman sitting in a kabang; wearing a baggy linen shirt, loose pants and a pointy straw hat, his only equipment appeared to be a large cone-shaped net resting inside the boat. It was the classic Inle Lake shot, the one made famous by publications like Lonely Planet. We pulled alongside the boat.
“This is tourist fisherman, they sit here so tourist can take photos”, explained my guide, “We will find some traditional fishermen for you”, she continued.
Feeling slightly bummed, I snapped a quick photo and we continued our boat trip.
Over the next couple hours, my guide took me into some of the small floating villages that call Inle Lake home, and I eventually let go of the sides of the boat. We travelled down small waterways, slowing down to let local boats pass. As dusk approached, everything was washed with gold, and it was time for our boat to make its way back to the centre of Inle Lake for sunset.
When we returned to the jetty after sunset I gingerly stood up and prayed that the boat wouldn’t capsize as I climbed back onto the wobbly dock. “Be here in the morning at 5:30 am, okay?” my guide stated, “Okay, I’ll see you then”, I replied and started walking back to my hotel.
While the sunset tour was wonderful, I was looking forward to my sunrise tour as I was promised it would be longer and visit more villages.
Waking up at 4:30 am, I got ready, grabbed my things, and walked down to the jetty. Nyuang Shwe was quiet at this time of the morning, with a few local men and street dogs milling about. When I reached the tea shop I sat down and enjoyed a cup of tea as my guide prepared the boat.
Imagine my disappointment when our boat left the dock and I discovered that the guide was not inside the boat. I don’t expect locals to speak English when I travel, but when I find one that does and I hire them, I do expect them to show up and not stick me with someone who doesn’t speak English. I was bummed as we glided along the canal to Inle Lake, the fact that my young boat captain was having trouble with the boat motor was not helping my mood.
Sitting at the mouth of Inle Lake, the sun rising over the mountains in the distance, I was wondering when my young boat captain would ask me for money. It’s a moment I am ashamed to admit happened. After several attempts, the boat motor sputtered and came back to life, and I chided myself for thinking I was being scammed.
As we moved through the lake my young boat captain would slow down to allow me to take photos of the traditional fisherman. I watched as they crouched on the edge of their kabangs and slowly fed their nets into the water (no large cone-shaped nets in sight). When they wanted to move the boat, they stood up, wrapped a leg around a long wooden pole, and moved their leg in a circular motion. This rowing manoeuvre was not limited to the fishermen, I soon discovered that all locals travelling in motorless kabang boats used this technique.
Leaving the fishermen behind, I was taken to the floating village of Ywa-ma, a village that hosts a floating market. My hopes high, I groaned inwardly as we docked at a silversmith.
“I don’t want to go shopping”, I told my Burmese boat captain. Naturally, he didn’t understand me. “Hello, you go to village, to see long-neck!”, said an older man on the dock, the silversmith. I reluctantly got out of the boat and walked to the path he had pointed out, and then wanted to turn around immediately and head back to the boat.
Before I was a path filled with stalls where locals were setting up their souvenir shops – my version of travel hell. I had no desire to walk through a gauntlet filled with souvenir hawkers. I turned back. Then I turned back toward the path with the stalls. Do I really want to do this? If they are still setting up it may not be too bad. In the distance I could see a temple; I convinced myself that visiting the temple would be worth constantly saying ‘No, thank you”, so I put a smile on my face and said hello in Burmese to every person I passed, along with a quick no thank you.
As I walked deeper into the fray my mood began to lighten, souvenir shops began to give way to a thriving local market. I watched as a Burmese man chopped meat, then used a scale with weights to determine the price. In fact, everyone used scales and weights – something I had not seen before. There were stalls for fresh fish and meat, men and women selling vegetables and flowers. As I neared the temple the stalls stopped, and the market was spread along the ground. Hilltribe women in colourful scarves sold spices and herbs: a heap of yellow turmeric powders, piles of locally grown and dried tea leaves, both being measured with old tin cans. A woman selling betel nut leaves using batteries as weights when placing them on the scale. An old woman cooking single pancakes over a coal-fuel fire
It was exactly what I wanted to see, this was a lesson in local economics and traditions. A glance into the culture of the Burmese people in Shan state.
As it was still quite early in the day, the market was in full swing, but soon the tourists would start arriving and the market would quickly disperse, leaving only the souvenir hawkers.
My mood was significantly lighter when I returned to the boat. The market had made up for everything else.
I settled back into the boat and we continued our boat tour, and I soon found myself groaning inwardly as we stopped at yet another shop. “I don’t want to shop, I didn’t bring money for shopping,” I told the man on the dock, my arse firmly planted inside the boat. “You come see longneck women!”, he said. That made me not want to go at all. I was horrified by the fact that these locals were objectifying longneck women from the Karen tribe as a way to get tourists to visit their shop.
Obviously, people visiting the lake were asking where to see longneck women, and therefore local businesses thought they found a new sales tactic. A case of supply and demand, and something that we need to stop now before it gets out of hand.
Feeling slightly shocked, and more than a little angry, I refused to get out of the boat. It probably looked like I was having a tourist temper tantrum, but I had no way of explaining myself properly, they didn’t speak enough English to have a conversation. This is where my guide would have been quite useful.
Leaving the shop my young captain continued to take me through villages and made several more attempts to stop at souvenir shops, and I continued to say no thank-you and stayed in the boat. This was not what I had asked for when I hired the guide and boat.
I loved visiting the villages, and the market. I loved exploring the floating garden where they grow tomatoes and other delightful vegetables and herbs. I loved the small encounters with locals and getting a glimpse of what life is like on the lake and the surrounding canals.
As we made our way back to Nyuang Shwe I wondered what it would have been like to hire the boat from the hotel. Would my trip have been different? Or would the guide still take me to the same touristy souvenir shops? My sunset boat trip had been everything I had hoped for, and despite a couple misunderstandings, the sunrise boat trip was fun as well.
When we docked at the jetty I walked over to the tea shop, where I was welcomed inside, given a stool to sit on, and a hot cup of tea. They chatted around me, and I smiled and nodded at them. After a couple cups of tea, I paid the guide for the boat trip, said thank-you, and started walking back towards my hotel, desperate for a nap.