Mother of pearl and daughters

Myanmar’s Inle lake is a place which fascinated me because of the life lived on water. Houses float on water, you need to take a boat to get to a neighbour’s place, children seem to take boats to school, there are floating farms, and the staple food is a lot of fish and rice. A odd thing is that traditional handicrafts include silverwork; the silver was brought from nearby mines. The silversmiths have now expanded into other kinds of jewellery.

Unfortunately we were there in an extremely rainy week. As a result, I spent a lot of time indoors, and part of it was in a jeweller’s workshop. My eyes snagged on the pearls. I’d never paid attention to pearls before, but in this watery light I could understand why painters had spent effort on getting the light on pearls. It was truly fascinating to watch how they react to changes of light: glowing yellow in filtered sunlight, changing to blue in shadow.

I had no idea that the pearls had to be separated from the mother with a tiny knife: a caesarean section! I learnt that pearls are cysts formed in the inner surface of an oyster or mussel shell, formed in response to irritants. The material of the pearl and the inner surface of the shell, the mother of pearl, are very similar. They are layers of a mineral (largely calcite and aragonite) alternating with very thin organic layers, containing the cells and genes required to secrete the next layer outwards. The concentric shells of mineral, each between half and a third of a micrometer thick, refract and diffuse incident light to give that characteristic sheen that people love. Pearls and the mother of pearl are great reasons to shoot close ups.

Life on water

Lake Inle is one of the largest lakes in Myanmar, with a surface area of over 100 square kilometers. Most of our movement was in very shallow water, through watery villages, and canals cut into various islands.A stilt house made of wood and mats Only when we took the "highways" between them did we move into deeper waters. Houses on the lake are raised on stilts, as you can see here. A framework, the floor and the roof are made of wood, and often the walls are mats. The space below the floor is a convenient garage for boats. Some of the houses were simply constructed, like the one above. An elaborate floating houseOthers were entirely made of wood, and could be very nice looking, like the one in the photo here. We saw houses up to three storeys high.

Occasionally we saw gardens built of mud piles up and held in place by little dikes. There were flowers in such gardens, and also banana and papaya trees. There are large floating farms on the lake. These are made by clumping together water hyacinth and naturally growing reeds together into a living mass secured by bamboo poles. Then ash is poured on it; over this dredged mud from the bottom of the lake is piled on, and you have farm land. We saw tomatoes and gourds growing in these farms, and heard that cucumber and pulses are also grown.

Fences indicate highways between villages

There seemed to be a large population of villages. Shallow areas around villages are fenced off, as you can see in the photo above. This seems to indicate not only the boundary of the villages, but also clear paths of deeper water over which boats can travel at speed.The Inle rowing style Closer to a village I caught sight of a man trundling along in his boat using the traditional Inle rowing style: standing up on the boat and poling through the water using a hand and a foot. This wonderful style also leaves a hand available to hold up an umbrella against the continuous rain. But I’m told that the main advantage of the style is that one can stand up on the boat and look down at an angle steep enough to see and avoid snares of tangled weeds. The lake equivalent of a little stroll after lunchWithin villages the waterways are kept clear, and both men and women row sitting down as usual. I loved the sight of people rowing up and down these little channels, calling out to each other, and coming to a halt now and then when they see someone they want to talk to. It is the Inle village equivalent of walking around the neighbourhood.

I was a little put out by the fact that we were zipping about the lake in a long boat with an outboard motor. I’d expected to spend my days on the lake floating about on row boats. Slowly another fact about living in a lake seeped in. Our boats were the equivalent of what would be buses on the land. The row boats were the equivalent of walking on land. When you want to get from one village to another, walking can be slow, and you might want to hop into a bus. Once I realized this I found, sure enough, that there were other locals on similarly powered boats. As you can see from the photo below, there are two kinds of these "buses". The ones on the left are the luxury buses for tourists, with reclining chairs. The ones on the other side of the canal have no chairs, and are used by locals.

Boats moored at the canal through Insein island on Inle lake

During the first half of November we found overcast skies and drizzle almost continuously, with occasional heavy showers. It makes me quite envious about the photographs I see elsewhere of the lake in bright sunshine. On our "luxury buses" each of clutched an umbrella against the rain. A "local bus" went by with a bright yellow tarp pulled across it to cover a full load of schoolchildren. They grinned at us and waved; I just had enough time to wave back. I wished I had my camera out to catch this wonderful sight.

The palm leaf hat which protects you from rain

In the drizzle the conical hats which locals wear seem to be the correct gear to take along. My arms were tired of holding up the umbrella all morning as we looked at the floating garden and reached the workshop of the lotus-silk weavers. What else do people work at on the lake? I discovered that making jewellery is a major trade here. Oyster shells with pearls yet to be removedI groaned a bit to myself when we approached a jeweller’s workshop: an unavoidable stop for tourists. But it turned out to be very interesting. Gold and silver workers were beating out very intricate work. In one corner a girl was threading pearls into a necklace. In front of her was an oyster shell with pearls still embedded into it.Wood carving of Inle lake Elsewhere on the lake we saw woodcarvers at work. This seems to be as common here as in the rest of Myanmar. We saw many attractive pieces, some painted, some polished and a few gilded. Among works which looked like traditional depictions of the Buddha or everyday life on the lake were things which were designed for tourists. We saw a pile of beautifully carved boxes in the shape of fish. Inside them were crude figures of cows and sheep, and a mother and a baby. The person showing this to me said "Christmas". One last bit of produce from Inle is famous; that’s the Burma cheroot you see in the hand of the man in the featured photo.

We’d read much about the ill-health of the lake. It was visible around us. Water hyacinth grows in large mats. The floating farms are large, and growing to keep up with the growing population. This is supposed to be the biggest area of concern today. The increasing number of tourists take up many resources, from space for the floating hotels of the kind we stayed in to dirty outboard motors spewing black fumes. Less visible is the slow eutrophication and siltage in the lake, leading to the growth of bacteria and algae. One sign of this was the price of water.

The lake is beautiful and relaxing, and I hope that things turn around.

Lotus farming

Life on lake Inle in the Shan state of Myanmar is different. As you can imagine, living in houses suspended above the water can change the way you live. This lady extracts lotus silk from its stemsOne of the most interesting developments is that silk is extracted from lotus. The lady whose photo you see alongside showed us how. You break the stem and slowly pull apart the broken edges. You see strings of sap joining the ends. These are rolled together to produce the fiber. You can see a tray at her feet which contains these fibers. It is a long and laborious process. She knew little English, so I could not ask her the questions which came to my mind. How long does she work every day? How much fiber does she get each day? In the same workshop I saw an old man at a spinning wheel, spinning the fiber into yarn. There was an amazing look of concentration on his face which you can see in the photo. Another few steps down the corridor the yarn was being woven into cloth. The dyeing of the yarn seemed to take place in an upper floor. The colours were lovely muted browns and greens, a touch of earthy red, and the colour of raw yarn.

Farms of lotus on lake Inle

As our boat made its way through the village to the workshop, we’d passed a lotus farm. I went back there to look at it. A walkway surrounded a fair acreage given over to growing lotus. As I looked at it I wondered about the economics of this process. In other places I’ve seen bees fertilize the flowers. Where would bees hive here? is the ferilization done by hand? Is there enough money in the trade to keep villages occupied in growing lotus, extracting fibre, spinning yarn, dyeing and weaving it?

Some of the answers came indirectly. I learnt that the fabric woven from lotus silk was once reserved for the use of kings. Now you can buy it in a shop adjoining the workshop. The Family looked at a little stole. They were beautiful, but a single stole cost about USD 100. The turnover is small, but the costs are large. There is clearly enough income from it to support families at the same level of income as their neighbours who work at other things. But this way of life could disappear soon as surrounding areas grow more prosperous.

Two and a half thousand years?

I was told that if I happened to be in Lake Inle or its neighbourhood, I should not miss the group of pagodas called Shwe Inn Thein in the village of Indein. We ran into a traffic jam on the canal as our boat approached the village. Many boats were trying to dock. We got off and took a walk through a bamboo forest to reach a covered walk. Our local guide, Ni Ni Leung, had told us about the many shops that line this walk, and warned us not to be distracted. This was good advice. When we reached the site with its hundreds of old brick stupas, we were stunned by the beauty that needs to be reclaimed from decay. Many stupas are in the condition that you see in the featured image.

Details on a pagoda in Shwe In Thein, at lake InleMost of the stupas date from the 16th and 17th centuries CE, I am told. However, the oldest which can be dated comes from the 14th century. The Shan kings founded a state which was roughly contemporary with the Bagan kingdom. It is said that Anawratha, the founding king of Bagan, erected a stupa in Shwe Inn Thein. Later I read that it is believed, by some, that the site hosted stupas from the time messenger monks from the Magadha empire, dispatched by the Indian emperor Ashoka, brought Buddhism to this area. Apocryphal stories of miracles and great antiquity often adhere to places which are old. So I don’t know whether this is true. However, in the spirit of that most wonderful of guide books, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I choose to repeat the most colourful story about this site.

I saw much renovation going on: ancient stupas are being covered in undecorated plaster and painted gold. Ni Ni Leung told us more than once of the difference between renovation and restoration. When one sees the renovated golden stupas, one longs for thoughtful reconstruction. The decorations on the old stupas are exquisite, as you can see in the example above, and in the featured image. We saw only one which has been restored with any care. The present government of Myanmar is very culturally conscious. It is possible that it will invest in the education needed to make sure that this site receives the care that Bagan now gets. In any case, this is a sight that should not be missed if you are in the neighbourhood.

Blue hour at Lake Inle

I arrived at Lake Inle in the Shan state of Myanmar expecting that the boats would be traditional. I’d heard stories of how the boatmen on this lake can row with oars held in hands as well as feet. I was surprised at my first view of the boats. They looked completely traditional: flat bottomed teak boats with elegant long prows. But each was kitted out with an outboard motor. They were fast and rode high, slapping the surface when the wind picked up a bit.

Hotel on stilts at Lake Inle in Myanmar The half hour ride to the hotel was great fun. We cut through the lake at a very rapid clip. The sun had set just before we arrived at the jetty in Nyaung Shwe town. As we started out the light was fading from the sky. The golden hour was shading into the blue hour as we raced through the water. Soon the lights of the hotel rose out of the water ahead of us. We rushed through channels bordered by reeds. Then the motor cut out and we coasted in to the jetty. This was the coolest ride to a hotel that I’ve ever had.

Burmese Days

Its not hard to whip up a recipe for a quick trip through Myanmar. Take a couple of days in Bagan to see some of the 2000 temples. Add a little cruise down the Irrawady if that’s to your taste. Fold in a dose of Mandalay in order to visit the Mahagandayon monastery, and the few remaining teak houses and bridges in this last imperial town. Perhaps a pinch of Maymyo, once a colonial British hill station, now renamed Pyin Oo Lwin; somewhat like Myanmar’s Abbotabad. Cross over the central highlands, perhaps stopping for a quick look at the numerous statues of Buddhas left by visitors at the Pindaya caves, and then on to a day or two of relaxed boating around Lake Inle, looking at the floating gardens, visiting the Nga Phe Kyaung monastery, famous for its jumping cats, and the Indein pagoda complex. Before flying out of a Yangon in slow decline from its colonial glory days, like a lesser Kolkata, visit the Shwedagon pagoda and the sleeping Buddha at Chauk Htat Gyi. Allow plenty of time for the mixture to settle into your soul. Add a dash of other sights which are accessible, and its food.

That is the easy part. The flavour of the whole is hard to anticipate before you travel. The hard part is to get a feel of what the country is like before leaving home. The military dictatorship which lasted from 1962 has slowly ceded space to an elected government. I looked for books on Burma. There are many books with deal with the events before the recent elections. A graphic travelogue called "Burma Chronicles" by Guy DeLisle was published in 2009. It is about his experiences in Myanmar as an expatriate. "Burma’s Spring" by Rosalyn Russell is almost a companion volume, talking of her time in Myanmar as an expat a little later. Both authors were journalists living in Myanmar with their spouse who worked with an NGO.

Now, in the last year, and half a decade after these books were written, the situation seems to have changed. Myanmar has had high-profile government-to-government meetings with its neighbours. It is looking for ways to defuse the ethnic violence of the last decades [Note added: Alas, hopes]. There is a little a lot more news about Myanmar on TV now, and Burmese newspapers are available on the web (at least Myanmar Times and Mizzima are.

I wanted to know a bit more about Burmese history than the oral history told and retold in the family, histories of the Japanese advance and retreat during the war, and oblique references from the history of the Indian freedom struggle. The book "The River of Lost Footsteps" by Thant Myint-U fills this niche. It is a very readable popular history which takes you from the early years of the Burmese state to modern times.

What remain are the practical things: hotel bookings, choosing travel options, and obtaining visas. Also, one has to take time off to learn more than the simple, all purpose greeting, "Mingalabar".

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