Ever been hustled after a 12 hour overnight bus journey? Vulnerable, tired, hungry, needing a bathroom – no problem. Hurry! Today is a special day.
I knew it was a special day. Our arrival had been timed to coincide with the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival at Inle Lake, Myanmar so we went along with the urgency. It meant a hatless day (who thinks of grabbing a hat in the cool grey dawn hours?), with an unfilled water bottle in a long canoe.
Just a few weeks shy of the 40th anniversary of my last visit to Burma, this was the trip that had itched my travel bone all those years. Back in the day, visas were strictly limited to one week. Visitors to Burma flew in and out of Rangoon from Calcutta and Bangkok. A lot has changed since then including the names of two of those cities and Burma itself is now called Myanmar.
Serious determination was necessary to see the highlights of Burma in seven days – the fabulous site of Bagan, the Irrawaddy River journey and everything else in between. Having caught an exceptionally nasty bug in India immediately prior to arriving on that first trip, it was all I could do to drag myself by train, third class, to Mandalay. Every day was spent in bed apart from the unforgettable vomiting in the gutter day. My longed for trip down the Irrawaddy was never going to happen.
The time to return finally arrived. Fit and well. Best of all it was with the total luxury of a 30 day visa.
Heading out onto Inle Lake, the early morning sky hung quite ominously, obliterating the mountain backdrop from view. How was this day in a very small craft going to pan out?
Our boat putted out urgently. After a largely sleepless night as the bus traversed mountain roads, mercifully dark apart from occasional lights dotting the ground far below, it all felt quite surreal. The quiet tiredness overwhelming us quickly faded away in the cool early morning air, chased further by the spray flaring up the sides of our narrow canoe.
Then we were immersed in the spectacle of the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda Festival procession. As far as the eye could see down the lake, there seemed to be a never ending string of colourful craft and plenty of small boats just like ours being skilfully manoeuvred to get a good view. The added glee of realising the plan had worked. We had made it.
Finally the royal barge holding the dazzling pagoda shimmers by.The annual festival is a wonderful opportunity to observe the agility of the leg rowers, a skill perfected from childhood. Around 100 men in colourful outfits on each boat were accompanied by assorted drummers, support acts including dancers, and the all important water bailers somehow squeezed in amongst the rowers.
Around 40 of these boats were linked together in a long line, pulling the barge holding the Golden Pagoda and Buddha images. In spite of many small onlooker boats like ours milling and jostling for viewing space, it was a grand, amazing spectacle and this was just the start of the day.
The solemnity of the procession over, it was time for the traditional races. The sky had begun to clear revealing a better view of the mountains. Competition was intense, the pace so much more frenzied as each boat vied for the honour. I couldn’t help thinking of those leg muscles, just hoping they swapped sides of the boat on alternate days
The fishermen at Inle literally do it standing on one leg. A technique unique to Inle, one leg to row, one to stand on and two hands free to fish and cast their nets. Extraordinary sight.
The day turned into a series of picture postcards as we putted for hours around floating villages scattered around this 22 km long, 10 km wide lake. Vast expanses of floating gardens are a feature along with a variety of crafts and cottage industries – cheroots, paper making, boat builders, jewellery, weaving, cane, not to mention great places to eat.
We chose to make Nyaung Shwe our base, staying right in the heart of the festivities. Visitors were in town from many regions of Myanmar and the enormous market was constantly abuzz with fun fair activities for the kids, food stalls and goods and products to meet your every need, even more around the next corner.
Not far out of town along a picturesque road is Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery. A number of fabulous teak wood monasteries survive in Myanmar, but this one is a little out of the box with its extraordinary oval windows.
Kittens lie tumbled together, snoozing in the shafts of sunlight that break up the cool, gently darker interior. Massive beams stretch up to and across the ceilings. There is a modest and quiet grandeur about this place. Solid timber buildings are rarely anything but a delight and this one is right up there.
Even when on cycling excursions, the lake becomes a thoroughfare. Just pop down to the shore and hail a boat to cut across to the other side.A bicycle chain catastrophe created a social opportunity to meet helpful locals. Chain restored and greasy fingers cleaned with the ever ready stash of wet wipes, we were soon on our way again. We had to make the winery for sunset drinks.
Our arrival at the bike parking station coincided with workers heading home for the day. There was quite a hike ahead for us trekking up the hill on shaky (for me) bicycle legs after roaming up hill and down dale all day, but the promise of a wine toasting the sunset was not to be forgone.
Inle would never have been an option on a seven day visa first time round to Burma. Now, it is a highlight for most Myanmar visitors . Festival time in October / November is pretty special and not at all as difficult to manage as you might imagine a popular event to be. Festival time or not, it is a beautiful, friendly, laid back kind of place.