Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Nyaung Shwe, Gateway to Inle Lake

Inle Lake is one of my favorite places. It's a large lake located between low mountains to the northeast of Yangon. To get to the lake, you must first visit the town of Nyaung Shwe. While it's possible to find accommodations on the lake, it's usually expensive and you're then at the mercy of the hotel for dining and at the mercy of the overpriced boatmen serving the overpriced hotel. I spent a few days exploring the town between excursions to the lake.

Nyaung Shwe consists of one main road with several side streets. Along the road are several restaurants, numerous small shops, three large stupas and a market. At the end of the road, a bridge spans the channel leading to the lake. The principal means of transportation in the town is bicycle.

It's the largest town on the lake and many businesses cater to the tourists who visit. Rooms can be had for as little ten dollars a night. This is also the place to hire a boat for the day. These fast long boats are equally cheap, going for ten to fifteen dollars a day. The best time to get out on the water is well before sunrise. Those early hours are chilly and a heavy mist lays over the water until dawn, creating an unearthly feeling.

Walking through the back streets, I was not surprised by all the kites in the sky. I was surprised, however, at who was flying them. These gentlemen were intently coaxing their kite to a height that easily drew out 400m of chord from the reel. The paper kite is only two hand-spans across, so it was in impressive feat!

Meeting locals is easy. Many speak English (once essential to the country's education system). Conversation, on the other hand, is quite difficult. People seem to know only rudimentary English and could rarely venture beyond commercial transactions.

The further you wander from the tourist track, the greater the opportunity to catch the locals in action - literally. I wandered into an abandoned factory to find a troop of monks at play.

Although each of the largest villages around the lake has a market, there is a main market that is hosted by each town in turn. This scheduled roaming market caters to locals and attracts people from other parts of the lake. The market at Nyaung Shwe is the largest. Boats from around the lake arrive well before sunrise, the nearby villagers arrive by bicycle and foot.

The market has two main components: there is the typical market that caters to just about everyone, but there is a wholesale area beside the canal leading to the market that tourists rarely see. Here, local farmers bring in bushels of tomatoes and other produce destined for the distant towns and cities. Young men carry the goods from the boats and load them onto trucks.

The regular market takes place inside a square ring of shops and walls. Vendors take up the central space with stalls constructed from bamboo and tarpaulin sheeting overhead. From here they sell a variety of items, but produce and flowers are the most prominent.

I'm used to seeing monks in South East Asia, but nuns are an unusual sight. As I wandered around the market I noticed pink and orange-sherbet clad young women with shaved heads making their way between the stalls. They used a small plastic water bottle to collect a bit of oil from each vendor. A saw another small group collecting a bundle of white flowers from one of the sellers. Others were acquiring vegetables. While monks might have to rely on handouts, the nuns, apparently, cook for themselves.

By early afternoon the market has winded down, the shoppers heading back to their homes and villages. In the evening, there are few restaurants open, but the town gets very quiet. These folks are morning people.

You can see a lot more photos from Nyaung Shwe here.

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