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Monday 4 Feb 2013
Lake Inle, Myanmar

Long boats and long necks on a long lake

We had a ten minute walk down to the river jetty where three long tail boats were waiting for us. Once again the boats were labelled as Journeys, rather than Intrepid, further increasing our suspicions that the trip had been outsourced. We climbed in 4 to a boat and set off up the river channel towards the open waters of Lake Inle. The boat engines were so noisy that conversation was almost impossible, but there was a lot of activity on the river and riverbanks to keep us occupied. When we reached the lake itself, we were suddenly lost in a throng of longboats as the locals targeted the tourist boats to sell souvenirs, jewellery and demonstrate their unique leg-rowing techniques. The fishermen here stand up on the back of their long flat boats and get around with long handled paddles. When they are ready to cast their nets or fishing cages, they wrap one leg around the paddle, hooking it behind their knee and in front of their ankle. They then use their elbow and shoulder blade to control the top of the shaft. With this, they can paddle in a J-stroke to move the boat around while leaving both hands free to cast out and reel in their nets.

It took us about 40 mins to reach the top of the lake where the busy Nau Pan market was already in full swing. This is not the 5-day rotating market that migrates around the lake, but it was still big and full of everything from groceries to silverware and silk scarves. Ailsa and I had green coconuts and local snacks while walking around. We had a look at the silk scarves and bags, finally buying a thin blue scarf shot through with yellows, reds and greens (which I have been wearing ever since). I also bought a shell fridge magnet, carved in the shape of the Myanmar Beer logo - technically it is the shape of the golden barge restaurant in Yangon, but it will remind me far more of the beer labels!

By the time we returned to our boats we were very glad of the Journeys logos on the front of them, as several hundred other identical looking longboats had arrived and moored up several boats deep along the banks near the market. We spent the rest of the day making our way around the craft villages that line the banks of the lake. Each village has its own craft tradition and we visited several of the workshops. It was a bit like going back to the time of the industrial revolution and seeing the cottage industries that supported each village.

Our first stop was the silk and lotus weaving workshops. The villages are built out on piles over the water, so it we drifted right up to the steps of the building. The workshop was made up of several rooms containing ten or twelve large hand operated looms, rattling away as the women made sheets of cloth in assorted colours and patterns. It was fascinating to watch - really felt like stepping back in time.

In the next room, we watched a lady making lotus thread. She took a length of fresh green lotus cane and cut it partway through every few inches. She then snapped the end off and pulled it away, leaving long white threads of lotus as thin as spiderweb. These threads were laid out over the previous threads and rolled together with wet hands. Every so often she would lift this new combined thread off the board and move it along into a waiting basket then continue adding new layers of lotus threads to the end. Each foot of combined thread was twisted out of the threads from at least 2' of lotus cane and took about 10 minutes to create. Most of the scarves and table runners we saw made from the lotus thread were still the natural beige colour, although some of it was woven into silk fabrics too. The silks were dyed into all sorts of colours and we was this dying in on of the other rooms. For the multicolour threads, long skeins of thread were tied tightly into sections and hand painted with dye. In a pattern that would repeat all day, we were shown through the workshops and then into the shop to buy what we had seen.

We had lunch overlooking the lake - excellent Shan noodle soup - before visiting the most sacred temple in the area, the Phaung Daw Oo Paya. This temple is home to five revered Buddha statues over which wars really have been fought. The last time they were stolen, the raid ended in disaster as the ship was sunk and the statues ended up at the bottom of the lake - a storm apparently of divine intervention had something to do with this. They were eventually recovered and reinstated. Every October they are paraded around the lake on an enormous gilded barge in the shape of a mythical Burmese swan as part of an 18-day festival. Women were once again not allowed to approach the statues directly but we were curious to see what all the fuss was about. Imagine our surprise when we saw, not intricately carved gleaming gold statues, but five giant gold marshmallows! Worshippers have been applying tiny squares of gold leaf to the statues for over a centuary so the shapes of the original statues have long since disappeared.

Our next stop was an iron foundry - a very noisy place where we watched a group of young guys pounding the hot metal with sledge hammers and had the option of buying bells and hand crafted knives or swords - none of which are particularly practical for getting back through customs.

The Mya Hintha silver workshop was more interesting. Our host demonstrated the smeting process to produce the silver they work with. We watched some incredibly fine silver links being made into a chain and the construction of the 'swimming fish' that this workshop is known for - small flat loops are pinned together at the sides to make a fully articulated fish.

A cigarette factory was next. The girls roll tobacco into green leaves by hand and glue the edges down with palm glue. They can make a cigarette every 7 or 8 seconds, about 1000 in their 8 hour day, for which they earn a mere 1300 kyat - around £1 by today's exchange rate. From here we motored slowly between rows and rows of floating gardens where all sorts of vegetables are grown on the water.

Our last stop of the day was another tourist shop, but this time we were taken there to see a coupe of ladies from the Padaung tribe. They are famous for the custom of wearing brass rings around their neck, which forces their shoulder blades down and elongates their necks. This was initially done to make their ladies unattractive to other tribes to prevent kidnapping - though Joseph also told us it was to preent them from being snatched by wild animals - but whatever the reason, they have now become local icons. The sad result is that they are often taken away from their home and used to earn money from gawping tourists with cameras, rather than by selling their traditional crafts. Even UNESCO likens their treatment to zoo animals and asks people not to take photos and make their situation worse. So we were quite shocked that a company like Intrepid, with its awards for responsibly tourism, should be taking us to a shop where a teenager and her grandmother were put on display. The teenager seemed happy to answer our questions - she just wears the rings for show, rather than having to wear them all the time. Her grandmother, however, has been adding rings since childhood so her elongated neck would no longer be able to support her head if she was to remove the rings. We were interested to hear their story, but felt very uncomfortable with the setting - I didn't get the sense that they could talk freely if they wanted to and the grandmother in particular looked unhappy to be there. This is definitely something we will be taking up with Intrepid after this trip. It made for an uncomfortable end to an otherwise fascinating day.


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