As my brightly painted long-tail boat sped back across the vast, tranquil waters of Inle Lake, I took a moment to count my blessings. The sun warmed my back as the moon beckoned me on to my hotel in Nyaungshwe and I felt, well, blessed.
According to Timehop exactly one year ago to the day I had spent ten successive days marking and moderating GCSE folders, crunching data, writing reports and filing progress checks, on top of my normal teaching timetable, while frantically searching for new accommodation and a new job! Fast forward 365 days and I was exploring an area of natural beauty by wooden boat, visiting watery villages built on stilts over the lake; watching local fishermen balance, one-legged, on the very tip of their long, low wooden boats, reeling in nets while steering with a pole entwined by their other leg. I was laughing as flocks of black cormorants dispersed before us, taking cartoon runs across the surface of the water before settling down a few yards further on.
I was realizing how lucky I was to experience this place. Popular, by Myanmar tourist standards, but vast enough not to feel crowded. I could see plenty of other long boats scudding along in the distance and hear the lawn-mower hum of their engines but I was also passing ordinary fishermen, plying their trade, mostly oblivious to us. I felt like I’d gone back in time and I stopped taking photos and just watched what they were doing, drinking in the scene. Having the time, and peace, to be able to do that was a world away from last year. I was in a different world, and I was happy to be there.
So happy, I ordered salad and a virgin mojito for dinner because heavier food would have spoilt the satisfaction I was feeling with the world! The place felt unsullied by modern living. (That is, if you look away from the perennial problem of plastic that litters the sides of the lake quite deeply in places). Simple, peaceful, almost unspoilt. I had to count my lucky stars.
I didn’t think I could like Inle Lake any more after that first day but I fell in love with it all over again the next morning. Scooting back down the canal to the now misty expanse of lake was a chilly experience, but to see fishing boats emerge out of the mist in all their pastoral glory is a sight not to be missed.
Continuing my exploration of the channels, villages and floating gardens didn’t get old on the second day and, while I was subjected to the tourist sell even Myanmar can’t escape from, I enjoyed learning about the process of weaving lotus silk, the way to test true silver and cheroot making, each illustrating a culture rich in colour, creativity and industry.
I also loved the day market I visited. Once I’d got past the tourist stalls (yes, I did purchase – I can’t even resist the soft sell!) and into the local’s section I lost all sense of time and orientation as I wandered happily, watching cheroot smoking grandmas and a plethora of brightly hatted locals wearing colourful headscarves made from local material, or more often than not, simply colourful towels. I’ve always loved markets but this riverbank rural delight comes close to the top of the list.
I also loved Shwe Indein Paya, a mad juxtaposition of old, crumbling, brickwork stupas reminiscent of Began, and recently restored white and gold stupas that seemed charmless in comparison. Many of the new stupas were restored with donations and had plaques of dedication on them but I preferred the older, ruinous sections more, with trees growing out of stupas and broken buddhas. Myanmar has many such sites which could be UNESCO Heritage sites but after a long period of isolation from the world the country has been slow to take on the offers of help from outside agencies, leaving beautiful sites to crumble or managing the renovations themselves, resulting in a strange juxtaposition of old and new like at Indein.
To reach Indein you have to follow a long canal. I say canal because it was vaguely reminiscent of the scrubbier parts of the Grand Union, and it even had locks. Not the locks we know it the UK but man made steps up and down the waterway. Here, they are simply bamboo poles driven into the riverbed leaving a gap wide enough for one boat to pass through at a time. Then sandbags and reeds and debris ‘walls’ stop the water from passing and raise the level of the river behind it a little way. When you ride them in a longboat it is like bumping over the little waves on a water-ride, although the prow of the long boat rises several feet into the air and it makes it look like you are cresting white water!
My third day was very lazy. Nyaungshwe is a typical tourist base these days with little to see or do so I went to the Red Mountain Winery to spend the morning gazing out across the Shan plateau with Inle Lake to my left and rolling vineyards to my right, tasting wine and eating pizza. In spite of everything, Western influence is galloping a pace across the country, but, as yet, it hasn’t spoilt it.
Again, I got to reflecting on how lucky I am. I was enjoying beautiful scenery less touched by tourism than many places in the world today. I’d met lovely people and seen amazing places that I’d never even heard of twelve months ago. I wasn’t working my arse off for little reward or stressed out beyond all reason. I was enjoying myself. I was content.