Up until 1989 Myanmar was known by a different name, but a ruling by the military government changed the title of ‘Burma’ to ‘the Republic of the Union of Myanmar’. Even so, the name Burma is still used today by many countries and political & ethnic opposition groups who refuse to recognise the military government as an authority to change the name of the country.
It has had, and continues to have, many problems including civil wars and religious conflicts. It is bordered by Thailand, China, Laos, India and Bangladesh.
Visa To Enter Myanmar
To enter the country of Myanmar you need a visa. I obtained a 28 day, single entry visa (visa valid for 3 months from the date of issue, and your 28 days in Myanmar start from the date you enter the country) from the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok, which is fairly hassle free and can even be done in one day if you are willing to spend a little extra. The visa fees are as follows:
Two working days: 810 Baht (approx $25)
Next day: 1035 Baht (approx $32)
Same day: 1260 Baht (approx $39)
At the Embassy, you will need to provide one passport photocopy, 2 x passport photos and the application form. If you turn up unprepared, there is a van outside the Embassy which provides photo and printing services. It costs 3 Baht to photocopy your passport and 150 Baht for 4 passport-sized photos.
Ok, so once you have your visa and land in this country full of wonderfully friendly people (honestly, the people of Myanmar are the friendliest of all of the Asian countries that I have visited), you are faced with the dilemma of what to see, where to go and what to do….well, fear not I am here to help!
I spent much of my time in a meditation retreat (read the story all about that one here) and so had a limited time to see the country. I did however see ‘The Big Four’ which are the four main cities for tourists to visit – Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay and Inle Lake. Most articles on Myanmar are written about Bagan due to….well….this:
Yep, pretty impressive huh?
I will do a couple of posts on Burma, but this one will be focused on Inle Lake. Specifically:
The Top 10 Things To See In Inle Lake
And make sure you get all the way down to number 10, as it may or may not involve jumping cats….I’m just saying. No promises though ok…
1. Sunrise on the Lake
So when you get to Inle, you’ll need to hire a boat to take you on a tour of the lake. This costs around $15 which is pretty cheap, especially if sharing the cost with friends. You can either choose to go BEFORE sunrise, or AFTER sunrise. This all depends on how motivated you are to get out of bed in the morning. When I was in China, I spoke to someone who had already done the boat tour of the lake and she told me to specifically go to watch sunrise. So I did. And it was pretty spectacular as the sun rose up over the mountains.
2. The Morning Fishermen
Now, there are fisherman probably dotted around the lake at all times of the day, but specifically in the mornings they do a little show for the tourists there, balancing on one leg with their nets in hand, perched on the end of their boats. It really does make for some amazing photography:
The fishermen on the lake have a unique way of paddling and use their feet to control the oars. I’m sure that it is a skill that takes a while to master…I even saw the kids on the lake paddling the same way.
Once this particular fisherman had finished his show for us, he inevitably made his way over to our boat and asked for money. “Money? Me? Ohhhh, I’m sorry Sir, I mistook you for a real fisherman who was just going about his daily duties on the lake, catching fish to sell and to feed his family. How foolish of me. It was all a show. Are you even a fisherman? Is that even a real fish that you are holding? I am now questioning everything that may or may not be real in life…”
Regardless of the fact that he had encountered some tight foreigners who weren’t willing to give him a lot of money (we’re all on the grind, mate!), he still got what we considered he had earned, and he even cracked a smile for the camera. Or not. He probably wasn’t even aware that I was taking his photo. Tourists, eh?
3. The Stilt Houses of Inle Lake
If you are on the lake, then you will see stilt houses. Because ALL of the houses are stilt houses. This one may as well not be in the list, but you know, I’ve gotta pad it out somehow to make it up to 10! Below you can see a photo of the stilt houses…let’s hope those stilts are strong enough to hold up those houses when the water levels drop even further (as I have heard is happening).
4. The Local (land) Market
Whilst on our tour, we were taken to one stop that was a local market, but this was on land. It was in the middle of the lake, but on a section of land there. We ate breakfast here and had a wander round. Pretty standard Asian market stuff really.
There were loads of fruits and vegetables for sale, and also a lot of fried tofu. So if you’re into fried tofu, this market really is the place for you!My friend modelling one of the lovely golden masks on sale in the market…suits her, don’t you think!?
5. The Floating Gardens
So the lake is approximately 22km long and 11km across at its widest point. About 25% of the lake is covered in floating gardens. Pretty amazing to think of if you’re used to vegetables being grown on dry land!
There are various issues with pesticides and chemicals which are being used on the plants there, which may in turn harm the lake and the fish within due to the fact that they have allowed non-native water hyacinth to grow. These hyacinth reduce the content of oxygen in the lake. They are oxygen suckers! The farmers here have attempted to combat this by introducing foreign snails to eat the hyacinth, but this also has consequences as they eat everything else too. Darn snails…can’t live with them, can’t live without them!
We, errrrm, floated through the floating gardens in our long boat.
A local woman rowing past the gardens. Maybe she has snails in that box. I wonder where these snails are hiding themselves…elusive little fellas!
The floating gardens are a very tranquil place to float through. They grow tomatoes, cucumbers, gourds and pulses mainly and the root vegetables are grown on dry land spots surrounding the lake. The tomatoes of Inle Lake are apparently the finest in Myanmar and are transported all over the country during the 8 month period when they are in season.
6. The Long Neck Women of Inle Lake
Or as they are known ‘The Paduang’. ‘Long Neck Women’ is not the nicest description really is it? I saw women with rings on their necks (and arms and legs) twice whilst in Burma. Once when I was in a small town called Mingun down the river from Mandalay. And once, here, in Inle Lake.
The coils (made of brass) are first applied when the girls are around 5 years old and longer coils are added as the girls age. The weight of the metal pushes down the collar bone and compresses the rib cage, giving the appearance of a long neck.
At first, it all seemed a little surreal if I’m honest. These three women are sat here so that tourists can come and ‘view’ them like an exhibit. The Paduang here create handcrafts and sell them in Inle (they actually originate from the mountains of Myanmar’s Kayah State which lies close to the Thai border of Mae Hong Song Province). So even though they have to pose with tourists, I guess it benefits them in the end as the tourists then buy their goods. Well, that’s the idea.
Anyway, my friend and I spoke with the women and asked them a variety of questions.
My first question was “are you able to take the rings off?”. And the answer was, contrary to popular belief – “yes”. It is complete myth that their necks will break if they remove the rings. The government of Myanmar actually frowns upon the wearing of the rings, and this is why many women remove them.
The woman in the middle (she spoke the best English) went on to tell me the reason for the rings. She said that it was due to a couple of things. Firstly, (and what I was expecting her to say) she said that it was down to tradition and a belief that the rings make the woman more beautiful. But then more surprisingly, she told us that it was to protect the women from tiger attacks. Errrrm. Tiger attacks….? Surely there’s an easier method to protect a woman from an attack by a wild animal that may or may not happen?
I have also read many other beliefs for the reason behind the rings. One is down to a wandering Burmese king falling in love with a Paduang woman and then making her wear the rings after he left to make her less attractive to men. Charming! The local men then continued this practice with their wives.
There are also stories about how it protected the women from the slave trade.
The true origin of the tradition is still unknown.
7. The Metal Forge on the Lake
We visited a metal forge whilst on the lake selling a variety of crafted metals. Many of which were knives, as you can see in the following picture:
8. The Lotus Weavers of Inle Lake
Another very interesting experience was visiting the lotus weavers of Inle Lake.
A woman weaving lotus thread on a spinning wheel.
Weaving with lotus thread is extremely time consuming and it takes approximately 4,000 lotus stems to make a small scarf and 40,000 to make a large one! That’s a lot of lotus flowers! Luckily they grow on the lake. But as we were told, this tradition is mainly kept going for the tourists that visit the lake as it is very time consuming. Lotus garments are therefore not cheap to buy.
Another woman working on a garment.
We were taken, step by step, through the whole process. Apparently each garment is made from 100% natural products. Even the dyes are natural and made without chemicals.
9. Temples and stupas
As this is Myanmar, a Buddhist country, this list wouldn’t be complete without a visit to some temples now would it…
A bridge passing over the lake giving access to the stupas with some rather lovely shadows.
10. The Jumping Cat Monastery
Last, but definitely not least, is the Jumping Cat Monastery! The one attraction we had all been waiting for! And by ‘all’ I mean, me, myself and I!
I mean who wouldn’t want to go to a place that has ‘jumping’, ‘cat’ and ‘monastery’ all in one title!? It sounded too good to pass up. So we, and by ‘we’ I mean ‘I’, made sure that the guide definitely took us to see this monastery.
Many years ago, a monastery was built on stilts on the lake and the monks there had apparently taught the cats to jump through hoops. Sounds cruel possibly? I have read online that you shouldn’t go there, but this is nonsense. Maybe it was different years ago, but now all of the cats there appear well fed, well looked after and pretty damn content. And they don’t even jump. We were told that the original jumping cat had died years ago and now the cats are just there as fellow (non-jumping) inhabitants, free to just lounge around and chill out. And even though they are confined to the structure of this floating monastery, the place is pretty big so they are free to run around and exercise all they want.
So we went in, sat with the cats and stroked them as we ate the free nuts on offer and drank the free tea. It had an extremely calming effect on me, and if I’m honest, this was probably one of my favourite experiences in Myanmar! Haha. Here are some photos of the cute little animals!:
I’m ready for my close up now, just please do your best to capture the good side of my boss-eyes will you!?
Cute little things aren’t they!?
And that concludes my countdown of my top 10 things to see in Inle Lake.
I’m going to float off down the metaphorical river now in my imaginary boat…whatever that means…!?