02.03.2010 - 07.03.2010
Nyaungshwe is a tourist town on the end of a canal leading to Inle Lake. Strolling or biking along the bustling canal is quite enjoyable. It is a laid back place full of international backpacking types, but this is Burma after all, so their presence is not overpowering. There are good restaurants, including an Italian place that serves homemade pasta. When we first went there, the owner, perhaps sensing our skepticism about the "homemade" part, showed us the kitchen and the piece de resistance, the pasta machine.
"How did you learn how to make Italian food?" we asked.
As it turns out, several years earlier an Italian visitor came to their restaurant and showed them how to make it. She later sent them a pasta machine directly from Italy. It has changed their lives. Now there are three different restaurants all run by the same Burmese family, and they appear, understandably, to be doing well. Needless to say, there are not many places in this country where you can get real gnocci, ravioli and thin crust pizza.
It takes work to keep it free of weeds.
The water buffalo, however, don't seem to mind.
Day two was spent touring around the lake by motorboat, like many tourists. Hiring our own was cheap enough, and that gave us the freedom to stop where and when we liked. The fishermen often paddle their boats in a unique way, with their feet. Or rather with one foot.
But not always.
Unfortunately several of the villages and small factories seem to cater primarily to the tourist trade, and there were tacky souvenir shops and pushy sales people in a few of them. We escaped by climbing up to a pagoda on a hilltop overlooking the lake and valley beyond. However after we gave a small donation to an old monk, a few of the younger ones harassed us for money. Very un-monk like behavior.
We went on to another village, and told our boatman that we wanted to walk around places without tourists.
He arranged for a local man to take us further into his village. While we walked, we talked to him as he had a bit of English. He said he used to be a silversmith, but was too sick now to do it. All he could do now was run a betel nut stand.
"What made you sick?" I asked.
"I went swimming too many times in the lake, and it was cold."
"So what kind of problems are you having?"
"I have nightmares every night."
"Oh really," I said. "What kind of nightmares?"
"I dream that my girlfriend doesn't love me. That she is going off with another man."
Hmmm. This man needs a therapist, I thought. "Have you been to see a fortune teller?"
"No. Not yet, but I don't seem to be getting better.Perhaps it was a nat (spirit)."
Believing in nats is not at all unusual here, but I didn't quite know what to say after this. We continued on our walk as he pointed out other shops and the headman's house.
From there, we headed off to yet a different village for lunch,
Our favorite place was the floating village of Nampan, where everyone lives on stilt houses in the lake. Quite charming, it felt like the Venice of Burma. We slowly motored up and down the narrow channels and waved to friendly and not so tourist jaded locals.
We got out at one spot to witness the boat building and carpentry.
On the way back we stopped at a weaving workshop where thread is made from lotus root as well as cotton and silk. The scarves were beautiful, and Nanette could not resist. We spoke to the owner, who told us the business was started almost 100 years ago by his great grandfather, who traveled to Cambodia and Laos to learn about their complex weaving patterns. The teak house where we stood was also the same age. A total of ten villagers are employed in the factory. In the past they sold their goods to other villagers, but now it is mostly tourists.
Part of the weaving village was also built on stilts, though incongruously, a few houses had satellite dishes despite the fact that there is electricity only two hours a day.
The finale was the Jumping Cat Monastery, where the monks have trained cats to jump through hoops, though it was really the ride home that was spectacular, sun setting on one side, moon rising on the other.
We spent other relaxing days hanging out with travelers we met at The Aquarius Inn, where we stayed. It lives up to its top billing in The Lonely Planet. Owners and staff are wonderful, bringing tea and fruit whenever you come and go. Book ahead if you want to stay here.
There was Jazz, a thirty something, cosmopolitan Indian man from London, traveling more than 2 and 1/2 years, and Simona, also thirty something, effusively Italian, sometime tour guide, who spent three years in New York. There were two young Chinese women traveling alone, very unusual for people from their country, and also a French couple with two young children, who we happened to meet on the bus to Mandalay, two weeks earlier.
On one of the days Simona and I biked to a village on the other side of the lake, while Nanette returned to a nearby winery to paint.
To get there we first had to walk across the bridge.
Waiting on the other side, somehow knowing we would show up, was a woman with a sampan who, for 1000 Kyat a piece ($1) , was eager to take us on a tour through her floating village. It was similar to the others, also charming, but far less touristy. She pointed out her house and the tiny restaurant her family owned. We noticed a bigger boat with a motor tied to one of the nearby posts in the water and asked if she knew anyone who might be able to take us back to Nyauangshwe with our bikes. Most of this conversation was accomplished with pantomime. Yes, she indicated, and it turned out that it was her husband, who said he could take us back for 8000 Kyat. First he wanted to show us his restaurant, aka his house. We had a beer, feeling somewhat sorry for him since there were obviously no other customers.
"Have any fresh fish? I asked.
"Yes. We catch everyday."
He looked like he was going to make it right away.
"No, no. Not now. Another time."
Simona and I got to talking. How would it be if we came back here in the evening to have dinner. It seemed like a great idea to both of us
"Can you come to town at 6 and bring us back to the restaurant?"
"12,000," we said in unison.
"14," he said. "You eat my restaurant and I take you back."
"Hokay, hokay. 14,000.
We agreed and asked what his name was.
"Nice to meet you."
In the end, it seemed silly to have him take us back and then have to return a few hours later, so we decided to bike home. When we returned, the Chinese girls and the French couple were nowhere to be found, but everyone else, including some people I didn't mention, seemed excited by the idea. As Nanette's birthday was only two days away, we decided to make it an early b-day celebration.
The Crew with Simona in a Party Mood and Tun Naing in Back
The ride over was an event unto itself. We sat on the floor of the narrow boat as there were no seats, and managed to polish off that bottle of rum en route. With representatives from five different countries, we arrived as the sun was setting just below the mountains on the western side of the lake.
It went down quickly as it always does in the tropics, and dinner was eaten by candlelight.
The fish was delicious, and the beer relatively cold, thanks to the lake water and the nats. Our hosts were overjoyed that we were there, and introduced us to their entire family, from the grandparents to the grand kids. We sang songs in several different languages, gazed at the moon, and even discussed how they might try and get other guests out to the restaurant for dinner, as we appeared to be the first. In one somewhat inebriated moment, we all stood up and joined hands with Tun and his relatives to chant OM together. They are Intha people, or lake dwellers, as opposed to ethnic Burmese. What they thought of this I cannot say, but with smiles all around, they appeared to get a kick out of it. Eating, drinking, and chanting with our new friends was magic. Where else could you be with such welcoming people, in a house on stilts, in the middle of a dark, silent lake, in a country that was so completely screwed up?
As a postscript, I later got an email from Tun asking if I wanted to be an investor in his restaurant as he tried to expand. Perhaps, I thought, some of the other travelers I told about his restaurant actually did show up. He offered to split the profits 50-50. I declined, but made some other suggestions and offered to make a small donation. I wasn't sure a 50 seat expansion was in order I wrote to him, and suggested he not do anything until after the "election," given the possibility of more political instability.