|(Please note: The following is definitely not politically correct, and conceptually very difficult to communicate, especially in the
While the world is racing towards one homogenous global consumer-oriented culture, there remain very few places that are not
embracing this trend. We found an exception – Myanmar, or Burma. Myanmar is governed by a military dictatorship. The
people are not “free”. But their spirit remains uncontrolled. In fact, compared to the "successful" Southeast Asian capitalist
democracies that we have recently visited - Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, the lives the people here seem, while certainly
poorer in consumer goods, more peaceful, and certainly less stressful.
(admittedly this is a very subjective impression)
We found a magic spot in central Myanmar, Inle Lake. After four months of hot, humid Southeast Asian weather, the cool
highland atmosphere on the lake was true bliss.
I can only try to describe the beauty of Inle Lake. It is roughly eight miles wide, and twenty miles long. The lake, with its
numerous villages, cultivated areas, and many splendid pales - or temples, must look very much like Tenotichtlan, now Mexico
City, in the times before the conquest of Hernando Cortez. The many boats continually ply the maze of channels, with the ever
present stupas, and pagodas in the background. The thatched homes are supported by thick bamboo poles pushed and pounded
into the lake bottom. The rich soil is built up from the bottom of the lake by sandwiching hand dredged mud between layers of
aquatic plants harvested from the lake. This process is continued, as it has been for centuries, and constantly maintained, to
keep the top of the soil above the surface of the lake and to support the crops of tomatoes and sunflowers.
The traditional boats are often propelled by standing men, who uniquely wrap their right foot around their paddle and somehow
propel their boat, and keep their perilous balance at the same time. Their boats made of teak, are shallow draught, and have
small platforms at either end. These are either stood on, or more commonly knelt upon, sometimes in the lotus position. You
also see women and very young children, probably not old enough to walk, piloting boats through the marshes.
The fishermen use various methods to ply their trade. Ingenious small, bamboo traps dot the surface of the lake. They are
filled with bait to lure small fish into one-way passages. Some boatmen look for tell tale bubbles rising from the shallow
bottom. They then push large cone shaped, bamboo rimmed nets to the bottom, and then with stabbing motions with three
pronged spears through a hole in the top they either spear or scare the trapped fish into smaller nets on the side. It was a
beautiful sight, but not necessarily a successful one.
Inle Lake’s surface is home to some seventy thousand, mostly Intha people, with many Shan and Pa-O villages in the
surrounding hills. The Intha migrated from the Southern Coast in the twelfth century, and have developed a thriving culture on
We would cruise the ever changing waters, and often saw large lotus leaves floating on the surface. In the mornings they are
decorated with jewel like prisms of water trapped on their surface. Later the waxing sun frees the jewels to the atmosphere. As
we proceeded we were accompanied by dragonflies sporting golden (shwe) wings. The passing boats were often decorated
with colorful umbrellas, protecting the passengers from the mid-day sun. Some of them were filled with newly harvested crops,
some with fishermen, farmers, or filled with villagers on their way to or from the markets. All invariably waved to us with big,
genuine smiles. Also, everyone waved from the windows of their homes, especially the children, who seemed to go crazy,
waving and waving, even jumping up and down.e.
We are literally living in another time, one which if it does exist elsewhere, is rapidly disappearing. We taught our guide Mau
Aung Aung, the word "bucolic”. What little electricity there is usually available only from 6 pm to 9 pm, and that is sporadic at
best. It seems fitting, right now I am writing by candlelight as the electricity is out. Here is our hotel, situated in the middle of
We often took trips with Mau Aung Aung, our boatman. He always had a chaw of betel nut in his cheek, which made
understanding his English more of a challenge – they say “you can not speak Burmese properly without Betel nut in your
The Shan and the Pa-O live in the surrounding hills. The only remaining sign of the traditional Shan dress is their distinctive
trousers, but the Pa-O wear distinctive black costumes, the women always covering their heads with colorful turbans - the
belief is they will be eaten by a dragon if caught uncovered
One day we visited one of the most interesting markets on the lake, the "Bamboo Market". On display was the usual market
fare, everything from colorful vegetables, writhing fresh fish and eels (saved from drowning by the loving Buddhist fishermen –
they don’t kill them), to clothes and household goods.
Adjacent to it was a large area where bullock carts were filled with cut bamboo of all sizes. The bamboo had been cut in the
distant hills, and took several days to haul to the Market, where it was sold and loaded onto the waiting boats.
While the main transportation on the lake is by boat, on the land bullock carts, of a design that is thousands of years old, are
hauled by either huge Asian humpbacked oxen, or by water buffalo with long curving horns. In our usual day’s walk of six
hours or so, we would rarely see more than one or two ancient motor vehicles.
Afterwards an hour’s walk on a dirt path, deeply rutted by bullock carts, brought us to a Pa-O village. As we passed by, we
were hailed and invited into a friendly woman's home. The matriarch has five daughters, three married. All but one live in the
village. We visited an hour or so, while most of the neighbors and the family managed to stop by. The tea and traditional rice
crackers were served accompanied with the local sunflower oil.
It seemed as if we were the only foreigners any one had seen for a long time. The lower level of the home was filled with
drying garlic, ginger and pepper. The other main crop in the village is special leaves for wrapping the ever-present cheroots in.
These leaves find their way down to the hot, steamy river plains, where the matching tobacco is grown.
Most women and children, and some of the men apply perfumed Thanaka to their faces. This light colored powder, produced
from the bark of a tree, is used as a cosmetic as well as a sunscreen. Everyone seems to apply it in different patterns; squares,
triangles, circles and swirls cover their cheeks, foreheads, and sometimes even their arms! At first it looks strange to the
Western eye, but becomes progressively more beautiful as one becomes accustomed to it.
loaded bullock carts. Many of the Pa-O and local Shan villagers had stopped in a shady glade, where a colorful and loud
gambling game was in process.
Then we returned to our small deck to contemplate the incredible beauty of the waning day, and the passing boats on their
way home. The light changed on the hills that rise behind the lake from moment to moment, and we tried our best not to
miss any of the incredible beauty.