This morning we’re going to Inthay village which, Richard C promises, is an Indiana Jones style ride upstream. Our regular boatmen collect us and we journey though the lake village to a muddy river. Bamboo weirs have been constructed at intervals and there is just enough of a gap for one boat to accelerate up the mini rapid to the next level.
It’s not quite as narrow or as fast-flowing as Indiana Jones would prefer, but it’s still a good ride, especially as the boatman has to allow for downstream traffic and give way or steam ahead accordingly.
Canal boats in England have a speed limit to preserve the canal sides. No such speed limit here, and the result of erosion can be seen, not only in the colour of the water, but the banks, in many places have been sand-bagged up to prevent further collapse. The river is busy with trading boats carrying all kinds of goods, from cement to woven baskets. There’s lots of demand for cement here: the river banks need constant shoring up and there is a boom in building everywhere. The English
Language news-paper boasts of economic progress and the determination of the country to join the globalised world, beginning with trade talks amongst their immediate South East Asian neighbours. I wonder if they know quite what they are letting themselves in for. It’s a difficult thing to deny a decent standard of living, though I don’t see anyone starving, just lean and healthy.
We are heading to the Shwe Inn Tain, yet another temple up a hill and there’s a 500Tk (50c) charge to take photographs. This must be the longest shopping mall yet, though as it’s the low season, most of the stalls are empty. There’s some pretty amazing stuff for sale and it attracts our attention. You have to be wary of saying ‘on the way back’ as the stall holders will remember you and if you’ve already bought from someone else, they will be upset. There’s also dozens of abandoned stupas, overgrown and ripe for exploring.
The actual temple at the top, houses the usual statue of Bhuddha, but the stupas out the back are fantastic – so photogenic as they line up in rows for eager photographers. Then there are the forgotten stupas with trees growing out of their tops. I manage to avoid engagement with the stall-holders on the way down and find a group of overgrown stupas to shoot. Back at the river there is a group of white tourists discussing if it’s worth paying the 50c to take photographs, ‘Yes’ I say in passing. They look surprised and I don’t wait to see what they decide.
I pause to watch boatmen unloading cement. They’ve removed their longyis so they won’t get dirty, revealing tight black briefs which are now grey with cement dust. Now we know what the Burmese working man wears under his longyi. I’ve got my eye on a small hill on the other side of the village. It has a cluster of ruined stupas (I like a ruin or two) on top and promises a good view. It’s long abandoned and I can overlook the village and temples further up the hill. Just at the bottom of this hill a brand new monastery has been built right next to a group of abandoned stupas.
I find the other guys and order lunch even though I’m not hungry and think that my stomach could do with a rest. When they forget my order, it’s no big deal. John has made a purchase and is very excited. He lays out a beautiful quilted picture on the next table – a good buy. Garry and Mark have to go back up the hill to complete their purchase by VISA. We wait for them in one of the boats while the other one goes ahead. Suddenly they arrive with a stall holder in tow, clutching a large plastic shopping bag containing the purchase. Unfortunately there was a misunderstanding as the other stall did VISA so they need to borrow cash from us. Between us we almost have enough, so the woman has to decide. She accepts what’s offered and the guys have a bargain. I’m almost cleaned out of cash but figure that I’ll get paid back soon enough.
Going downstream on the way back is almost like shooting the rapids if you close your eyes and imagine. We collect our luggage from the hotel and set off up the lake to Nyuangshwe.
We pass fishermen as featured on postcards, casting their nets and using a leg to drive the paddle.
There are also boatmen employed to weed the lake. Using a long bamboo pole, they hook up the weed onto the boat, creating improbable mountains for the size of the boat.
Clearly this is and always has been a highly managed environment – not exactly an ecosystem. It’s comparable to the so-called ‘natural’ beauty of the English countryside, which has been farmed/gardened/managed for over five hundred years. There is little doubt that left to itself Inle Lake would just silt up. The English countryside might take longer to revert to forest.
Back in Nyuangshwe we are re-united with Priscilla and Richard is trying out a new hotel with the significant name of Cherry Queen. Now, if you are a Japanese tourist, this will resonate with your Cherry Blossom festival. If you are a gay man, the association will be entirely different … we like the name.